Buffalo Days; Old is the new black



I’ve never been as concerned with keeping up with what’s new in WNY as I have been since I started working at Spree roughly eight years ago. It’s part of the job—not just in this issue but in everything we do—to spread the word about innovations and the visionaries behind them.

To be honest, though, as much as I love checking out the latest Persian restaurant and being the first person on my block to use rain barrels, I get even more excited when we take on one of our occasional history-minded special issues. Whether the subject is music, architecture, or scandals, it’s fascinating to discover what Buffalo was like in the days when Grover Cleveland and Michael Shea walked its streets. As our March issue demonstrated, when it comes to brewing, this place was Milwaukee before Milwaukee was; a few months before that we looked at the bygone era of vaudeville, when Buffalo was a crucial part of the national theater circuit.

I realize it’s a standard complaint of young people in any city that everything around them is faded and ancient and has seen better days. But all that has ceased to glitter truly can be gold, if seen from the right perspective. If you want to experience what life is like in the land of the Eternal New, spend a few days in Houston, where it’s hard to find anything built before 1960 (the strip shopping malls of the 1970s were all demolished in the 1990s, and their replacements are surely due for another extreme makeover any day now); better yet, head to Las Vegas, a city that strives on constant, obsessive reinvention every three weeks. Both are metropolises rich with history, but finding physical evidence of any of it can prove maddening.

Buffalo, on the other hand, has no shortage of relics of its, and America’s, past: the Erie Canal! Key buildings by some of the most important architects of the last century! Olmsted’s parks system! To say nothing of less heralded structures that nonetheless provide a direct connection to past eras, including dozens of beautifully preserved taverns, diners, and shops dating back before the world wars, and ethnic traditions passed down from generation to generation. All of this irreplaceable treasure becomes more important with each passing year, as more and more of the nation’s cities evolve into carbon copies of each other.

That’s why my nominee for Most Exciting New Thing in WNY right now is the looseknit group of ex-pats and locals responsible for the Facebook group “Preservation-Ready Sites.” Go ahead, check it out and join; you’ll get regular updates, and spirited discussion, about buildings both famous and obscure throughout our area that are in danger of demolition, crumbling from neglect, or on the auction block. Two of the group’s most active voices, Chicago architect David Steele and Sacramento city planner Chris Schmidt, are fervent advocates of downtown development (without demolishing what’s already there) and historic reuse. Thanks to their involvement, P-RS often has inside information about local projects long before the Buffalo News or Business First gets it; in fact, our new regular column “Preservation-Ready” owes a tremendous debt to the endeavor.

Every city in the country has its version(s) of Niagara Falls Boulevard, with the same chain restaurants, big-box stores, multiplexes, and, increasingly, empty storefronts bearing the remains of all the above. But no other city has the ornate elevator doors of our City Hall, the gleam of the Guaranty Building, the pussywillows of Dyngus Day, and the glorious clutter of Swannie House. All of them existed before any of us were born, and we would be wise to leave them intact for our great-grandchildren. Not buried in boxes in the attic, but restored, maintained, and displayed with pride. They’re not just reminders of the Way We Were, they’re proof of what makes this city special: where we have been, and where we can go next.

 

 

Associate editor Ron Ehmke moved to Buffalo for the snow, and stayed for the architecture.

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