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Long Story Short: You always hurt the one you love

3/2/20



 

A tear in the fabric

Since the following narrative revolves around moviemaking, let me set the stage: this is one story in the same way that Robert Altman’s Nashville is one movie.

 

Scene one

When two-time Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro arrived in Buffalo last week to shoot scenes for his upcoming movie, Nightmare Alley, his first stop was Gutter Pop Comics in the Elmwood Village. “He came straight from the airplane here,” says owner Stephen Floyd in his familiar deadpan intonation. "He had little time to spend in Buffalo, and this was very high on his list to do while he was here.”  

 

Why, you may wonder, would a world-famous filmmaker arriving in Buffalo make a beeline for a small independent comic bookstore? Because del Toro is a fanboy. He’s made movies based on comics, and even the ones not directly adapted from comics are often fantasies with graphic novel flair. Gutter Pop has built an international reputation for stocking a wide breadth of material, including diverse genres from around the world. It’s not surprising that del Toro had heard of the store.

 

There’s an irony to del Toro’s visit to Gutter Pop, foreshadowed in the store’s Facebook posting of the event: “Thanks to Guillermo del Toro for stopping in and blessing our little shop,” it reads. “A great hang out for our final week at this location!” Final week? Yes, because Gutter Pop is moving down the street. Its last day at the original location was Friday. The storefront it occupied, and two adjacent houses, are slated to be demolished to make way for a mixed-use building with twenty-six market-rate apartments and three first-floor commercial storefronts.

 

Though the new structure will exceed the city’s three-story Green Code zoning limit (don’t they all?), the design won approval from Buffalo’s Planning Board without dissent from the community. Why is that, you may wonder again. “The big development on Forest and Elmwood just down the street took a lot of the attention away from this,” explains Floyd. “There’s so much happening.” 

 

To be fair, part of the reason Whitesand Family LP didn’t generate a lot of neighborhood heat is that it made a big effort to communicate with, and listen to, the community. Still, as Floyd matter-of-factly states, “We’re going to be losing more of the character of the neighborhood.”

 

Scene Two (flashback)

The day after we were married forty-three years ago, my wife and I moved into our new house in what was then known as the Elmwood Strip area. It wasn’t the trendy neighborhood it is today. We bought our large Victorian home for just $22,500. That’s $95,781.31 in today’s dollars, less than one third its current value. The Elmwood Strip wasn’t considered a particularly safe neighborhood at the time for two kids raised in the suburbs, and it sure wasn’t thought of as the “Elmwood Village National Historic District" as it’s called today. What attracted us was the character of the community, the beautiful architecture, and the burgeoning business “strip” with its quaint storefronts built onto houses, interspersed with slightly larger vintage buildings. It had the historic charm we craved, so we settled into our roles as architecture caretakers.

 

Voiceover

No one really owns a building or the property it sits on. You pay for the right to stay there for a time, and eventually, someone reimburses you or your inheritors for their right to follow you. One day you end, but the property goes on as part of the fabric of the larger neighborhood. As the property passes through the generations, each new owner becomes its temporary steward. Sometimes people are poor stewards, and a building is lost. Lose too many that way and the neighborhood fabric will be in tatters. You have an obligation not to let a building decline on your watch. In the end, it really doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to the neighborhood and to history.

 

Scene three

At a City Hall press conference last Tuesday, Mayor Byron Brown and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz welcomed director Guillermo del Toro to Buffalo. His new film, Nightmare Alley, is set in the late thirties, and what attracted del Toro to our city is its historic buildings. “I was very impressed always with the architecture,” said del Toro at the conference, and “the historical significance of Buffalo; we really wanted to utilize the city.” He called Buffalo “absolutely amazing from an architectural point of view.” He went on to say, “Most cities in America—and I speak out of experience—you cannot turn your camera forty-five degrees, because you have something spoiling the illusion we need to create, and the integrity of the architectural preservation of a city.”

 

Spoiling “the integrity of the architectural preservation.” Hearing del Toro, I couldn’t help feeling kind of proud that for forty-three years we’ve preserved part of that integrity. It’s true that the director is filming downtown, but he was also in my neighborhood. As his team circulated around the city, he said at the press conference, it knew Buffalo was what it was looking for. It was a feeling they got from the whole town. At one point, he referred to the city’s large chunks of “architectural integrity” as the “silver bullet” his movie needed. All told, del Toro glowingly referenced Buffalo’s historic architecture at least five times.

 

His movie crew also expected snow when it came to town. This is Buffalo, after all. But on the day of the press conference, with none in sight, they laid down rolls of white furniture padding to simulate the white stuff. These people are, after all, from Hollywood. If snow, rain, or wind is needed, they can fake it. But if the character of the city is missing, that can’t be faked. It will always snow again, as it did in time for filming on Thursday. But once lost, a city’s historic architecture won’t return.

 

Scene four

Del Toro’s visit to Gutter Pop in the last week of its existence at its original location marks the loss of another part of the architectural fabric that drew the director (and so many others) to Buffalo. It will be replaced with something more profitable, that, while maybe not terrible, will be less true to the neighborhood’s historic character.

 

Moviemakers love irony, so it’s fitting that the paradox of del Toro’s visit to Buffalo doesn’t end here. Within a day of the press conference at which the director sang the praises of Buffalo’s architectural integrity in the presence of a beaming Mayor Brown, the city issued a demolition permit for developer Nick Sinatra to tear down a one-of-a-kind historical structure at 184 Utica Street, in the Elmwood Village National Historic District. Earlier, the Buffalo Preservation Board, with the support of the district’s Council Member David Rivera, voted unanimously to recommend granting the structure historic landmark status, which would have protected it.

 

Built in 1907, the Ernest Franks House is a rare example of Flemish Revival style, but the developers argued that they needed to knock it down along with another old house to build the twenty townhouses needed to make their Parkhurst Square project financially viable. This familiar song and dance accompanies most big proposals after developers overpay to get hold of prime real estate. And the Zoning and Planning Boards are suckers for a sad story. Sinatra's attorney threatened to sue the city if the permit wasn't issued Wednesday, as required by law.

 

Scene five

As protestors made their last-ditch efforts to save the house, an online torch-and-pitchfork wielding mob gathered on the internet to bid the house good riddance. “Viva la renaissance,” writes one commenter. “How cute, the dilapidated house has a name,” mocks another. “Tear it down.” One Buffalo News reader wonders “why the ‘preservationists' always wait until a property has fallen into total disrepair and is then sold to a developer before protesting?”

 

This last impression is addressed in great detail in a Facebook flashback told by Kevin Hayes of ReUse Action. It’s a protracted story within a story, but the long and the short of it is, the two houses were among five purchased by Kaleida Health in 2007/08. In 2011, Kaleida sold the properties cheaply to Dan Saunders of Buffalo Land Holding with the understanding that they would be rehabbed. Three were, but not 180 and 184, which were then vandalized, despite prevention efforts.  

 

In 2014, Saunders sold four properties, including the two on Utica, to developers Nick Sinatra and Philip Nanula for about $500,000. Preservationists had an agreement with the developers to save the two Utica houses, but eventually, they were put on the market for the ridiculously high price of $189,900 each, and lower offers were not considered. Later, the Women & Children's Hospital development project was handed to Sinatra/Ellicott, and the houses went off sale. From there, the developers engaged in classic "demolition by neglect," in which buildings are allowed to deteriorate until raising them is justified.

 

“To now hear the developers tell the Boards that the properties are in bad shape,” writes Hayes, “is to recall the old chestnut about the kid who kills his parents and then begs mercy from the court as an orphan.” Preservationist efforts to persuade Sinatra/Ellicott to adapt the structures into the townhouse project failed.

 

The point is, there was a long history of active opposition to the demolition of 184 Utica. “I sit on the Project Advisory Committee,” says Hayes. “I meet with and e-mail my fellow block club leaders and the developers and their staffs regularly. Opposition was no secret and widely supported by our membership.” Hayes suggests that preservation efforts were hampered along the way, as concerned activists lost track of the fast-moving action, amid many other concerns.

 

Last Thursday—as del Toro filmed his movie against Buffalo’s historic architecture—the house at 184 Utica and one next to it were reduced to rubble.

 

Scene six: epilogue

On February 20, during his 14th State of the City address, Mayor Brown outlined his plan to make Buffalo a “smart city.”  He was talking about technology: infrastructure improvements, car-sharing, free 5G technology, and the like. But there are other ways to define smart. Guillermo del Toro is enamored with Buffalo. He has high praise for our city’s "incredible hospitality" and the youth who are renovating the culture with “small cinema book clubs, bookstores, independent movement in music, comics, and film.” And architecture of course. He loves our historic architecture. Seems like it would be “smart” to preserve those things we already have.

 

 

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

 

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