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Long Story Short: Two kinds of gates, film geeks, and AK Northland


Bruce Jackson



Where there’s money, there’s a way. Isn’t that how the saying goes?


Ask the residents surrounding Elmwood Crossing—the development project at the old Children’s Hospital site—if they were able to get Buffalo’s Zoning Board to rescind unpopular Green Code variances once they were granted. Ask the Copper Town Block Club if the city reversed the variance it granted to Tim Hortons to have a drive through in the Michigan Avenue African American Corridor, even though granting it was a misapplication of the zoning law. Ask neighborhood protestors anywhere deep-pocket developers have been allowed to run roughshod over the city’s Green Code if they had any luck reversing variances. Neighbor complaints and petitions usually make little difference—once the gavel has dropped. But when 150 of the wealthiest neighbors in the city sign a petition, well, things tend to happen.


The details:

Sometime before 2016, the owners of the historic Miller Mansion at 175 Nottingham Terrace were granted a variance to erect a wrought iron fence two feet taller than city codes allow. That’s one of the benefits of being wealthy, because few, if any, average joe residents are granted such variances. But this was no ordinary fence. This was a Citizen Kane-worthy, stay-the-hell-out, imposing gothic wrought iron enclosure, the kind that says highly prominent people live behind these imposing walls. Every city needs at least one such pretentious symbol of social dominance, so people know who’s important.


The thing is also a major work of art. The more commanding of the two gates—both of which had already been installed—is seventeen feet tall (shown above), with spectacularly sumptuous wrought iron work that’s—to say the least—ostentatious. The artist, Oleg Shyshkin, uses a picture of the gate on the masthead of his website, so it must be one of his greatest creations, and most likely one of the most gloriously elaborate gate designs ever created. And it was even installed on a slight elevation above the sidewalk as an added screw-you to the plebs. At an original cost of between $500,000 and $800,000, the whole thing was a third of the price of the mansion itself. You can see why the neighbors had fence envy. “Hey,” they must have thought, “Who said you could appear more important than me?”   


Collective wealth trumps individual wealth

In 2016, disgruntled community members hired a high-power lawyer (a neighborhood resident) and pressured the zoning board with legal threats into withdrawing its approval. Eventually the gates were removed, and what would have been a tourist destination, had it been completed, was now so much scrap metal stacked unceremoniously on the lawn.


Wealth finds a way

Now, the fence is once again being installed. Rather than go to court, a costly compromise between the parties was reached. The owners dug a two-feet deep moat around the property, and the fence is being installed at the bottom, so it only looks six feet tall from the street. How perfect though, right? A moat.


Of course, this moat isn’t meant to be filled with water, much less crocodiles, so there needed to be a drainage plan. Manmade trenches don’t have to be water-filled to be called moats, but no one actually wants to use that word, and “ditch” is just too pedestrian, so it’s being called a swale (essentially a sloping ditch). It’s unknown what the gate will look like under the negotiated compromise, but presumably it won’t be quite as majestic an entryway.


The takeaway

So, win-win. The rich folks sort-of get their way, and Buffalo gets a (slightly less) traffic-stopping attraction. Maybe next time, the owners will add a formal concrete garden pond, lined with Greek statues, stretching forty or fifty feet down the lawn, with a multi-tiered fountain in the center. One can hope.



Countdown to justice

It's four days until disgraced former Congressman Chris Collins is sentenced for insider trading and other crimes. Mail has been pouring into Judge Vernon Broderick’s chambers, pleading for, or arguing against, mercy for the convicted felon. Collins is seeking a no-jail sentence, claiming the whole ordeal has left him “humbled, penitent, and remorseful.”  And to that, I would add, scared shitless at the prospect of leaving his cushy life and heading to prison. His lawyer, Jonathan New, really laid it on thick when he wrote, “Chris’ shame and remorse are so great that it defies a ready description — words simply cannot capture its breadth and completeness.” Oh, I don’t know, Jonathan; you seem pretty good with words.


Letters pile up

Over a hundred letters on Collin’s behalf were filed by his lawyers, from family members, friends, business associates, and political colleagues. His immediate family’s pleas are particularly heartfelt. “As I am sure you can imagine,” writes his wife, Mary, “our family has been devastated by the consequences of Chris' completely out of character decisions." His daughter Caitlin, who recently faced serious health problems, says, "After my diagnosis, my father was there for me in ways I never could have expected from him.”


But there have also been sixty-six unsolicited letters to the judge urging him to throw the book at Collins. Many constituents feel deceived, especially those who voted for his reelection, when he claimed to be innocent. The letters stress Collins’ decision to put his needs above those of the people he serves. 


Adding insult to injury

To make matters worse for those feeling betrayed, the multimillionaire closed the financial books on his political career by paying himself back $146,393.71 from leftover campaign funds, rather than reimbursing the donors who contributed to his final campaign. Those donors should have known better. Collins had been the subject of multiple ethics investigations by the Office of Congressional Ethics and others for many years, long before he was indicted for insider trading, along with his son and his son’s future father-in-law.  


Sympathy for the devil

I’ll be honest—and I have friends who will be shocked at this—I feel some compassion for Collins and his family. As a wealthy white man with access to high-power attorneys, Collins came to expect special treatment under the law. He had to assume he could commit relatively “harmless” white collar crimes with impunity. Growing up privileged, he was shielded from the realities of the criminal justice system that regularly puts the poor and people of color behind bars for lesser offences. He was a Congressman and second amendment advocate, for heaven’s sake, not some street thug!


Collins saw his son about to become one of many victims of his hubris. He had confidently urged Cameron Collins and others to invest in a risky stock that he believed was a sure thing. It would not have occurred to him to reimburse his future heir for his $570,900 loss, out of the $43.5 million personal fortune he holds. That would be the ethical thing to do of course, but though his letter-writing friends often use that word to describe Collins, how could he know ethics involves placing integrity over personal gain? In his social circles, status and personal gain are paramount. It’s been a hard lesson for Collins, learning that rich white people are sometimes held accountable. Poor people are accustomed to living in terrible conditions, but how will the millionaire survive a concrete cell without maid service? Can you blame him for not wanting to go to prison? “Society, as a whole, will gain no benefit from incarcerating a sixty-nine-year-old husband, father, and grandfather,” say Collins’ lawyers in their plea to Judge Broderick.


Yes, it will

By sentencing Collins to a long term, others like him may be shaken out of the fog of social elitism. Equally important, the poor and people of color, whose experience of the justice system is disproportionately more severe than wealthy white folks, may gain a little faith in the system. I feel bad for Collins and his family, but you have to draw the line on the benefits of privilege somewhere.    



Critical couple

Bill Graebner and Dianne Bennett love movies. And, so far, the long-married couple have managed to stay that way, even while writing a movie review blog together, and, at times, vociferously differing in their opinions. "Get Out! produced the most conflict,” says Bennett, “We still can't talk about it without the irritation surfacing.”


Filling a void

Longtime Buffalo News critic, Jeff Simon, has retired, though he still does occasional reviews, as do a variety of News stringers. Christopher Schobert does great work for Buffalo Spree and the Buffalo News, but with Artvoice and The Public now gone, it’s slim pickings for locally generated film criticism.


Film aficionados

Graebner is a retired SUNY Fredonia history professor, who taught courses on film and American culture. He’s the author or co-author of eleven books and more than fifty scholarly articles, including essays on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Poseidon Adventure, and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust (he had me at zombie films). Bennett is the first woman to head a large US law firm (right here in Buffalo), and both have long held interests in movies.


The couple were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto International Film Festival, and enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo (where they primarily reside). They began reviewing films for the Rome-based online magazine “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016 and have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, having also published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City.


Where and why to read them

Together, Bennett and Graebner pen a blog called Two Film Critics. Click on “Follow Us,” and you can sign up for free weekly emails with topical reviews. Here’s the thing; they review way more movies than the Buffalo News, bringing thoughtful, original analysis without spoilers to readers.


With the couple so immersed in academia and law, you might expect they would focus on art and foreign films, and they do cover such movies as The Goldfinch,   Monos, Never Look Away, and Bob Wilson's Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. But you’ll also find Joker, Queen & Slim, Toy Story 4, Good Boys, and Black Panther (sorry Scorsese; they seem to think that last one’s cinema).


Alcohol-fueled debate

Their secret for success? Wine. After a movie, the couple often heads to a bar, where they discuss—and yes, argue—over a bottle of wine. “For one or two hours we discuss the film,” explains Bennett, “as one of us takes notes.” These are transcribed into two copies, and then the spouse with the most “compelling understanding” writes a first draft (theoretically incorporating both views). A series of rewrites follow, and finally an agreement that the review is ready. Remarkably, the film is still in theaters when they’re done!\


The takeaway

Siskel and Ebert each had their own individual thumbs, which could point up or down independently. Bennett and Graebner must agree on the number of stars, not to mention what the movie is about. How about that: intelligent male and female perspectives merged into a single view.



AK Northland opens

As most everyone knows by now, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is closed for a major expansion until 2022. Thankfully, the museum curators will still be bringing new excitement to the Western New York art scene with AK Northland. This 8,000-square-feet open industrial space on Buffalo’s East Side provides ample room for large-scale installations and interactive art of the sort more typically experienced in international exhibitions like the Florence Biennale, Art Basel, or MASS MoCA.


The inaugural Northland exhibition opens this week with featured artists Heather Hart, Edra Soto, and Rodney Taylor. Each explores how connections are built to others both inside and outside the walls of those structures we call home. A life-size rooftop construction by Heather Hart, which visitors are encouraged to climb on and through, forms the centerpiece of the first show. Its mountainous presence in the voluminous space spotlights the wide-ranging possibilities for future exhibitions. This is also the public’s chance to see the final paintings of Rodney Taylor, after the artist’s recent passing. His family will be in attendance.  


Two openings this week

Wednesday, at 5  to 7 p.m., Albright-Knox Members and Albright-Knox Northland neighbors (not sure what that means exactly) are invited to attend a Members’ and Neighbors’ Opening for Open House: Domestic Thresholds by Heather Hart, Edra Soto, and Rodney Taylor. During the opening, Curtis Lovell and DJ Starseed will perform music inspired by Heather Hart’s work, which the museum says will provoke love, healing, and revolutionary thought. This event has already sold out!


Friday at 5 to 7 pm. The general public is invited to see dancer Naila Ansari, media artists Mani Mehrvarz and Maryam Muliaee, and musician Curtis Lovell present a collaborative, multimedia art project that will use new media, performance, and live dance to transform the static physical space of the exhibition into a dynamic interactive environment. The audience is invited to experience the work by watching the filmed performance on their mobile phones in the exhibition space.


Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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