Video and Q&A / Bringing back Broadway-Fillmore

The mission of Stephen Karnath



 

 

Steve Karnath, executive director of Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services/HomeFront (BFNHS), is working to save an urban neighborhood with a lot of amazing architecture and history.

 

Video Credits:

Chris Gallant: Video Journalist

 

Music:

“A Human Being”
by Andy G. Cohen
Released under a Creative Commons Attribution International License
https://andyg.co/hen/songs/human

“Just A Blip”
by Andy G. Cohen
Released under a Creative Commons Attribution International License
https://andyg.co/hen/songs/blip

 


 

If Steve Karnath has learned anything in his three decades of neighborhood revitalization and housing advocacy work, it’s that challenges are also opportunities. The executive director of Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services/HomeFront (BFNHS) since July 2014—the latest job he’s held in a career spanning the field with stints in public sector, not-for-profit, and for-profit agencies—is fighting to save what he sees as an important urban neighborhood with a lot of history. Its renewal has already kicked into high gear, he says, with a growing number of immigrant families buying houses—joining the African-American, Polish, and German residents who never left. Karnath also points to an influx of public and private investments in housing projects, new commercial ventures, the continued viability of the Broadway Market (though he admits it could become much more), and the stately presence of the neighborhood’s architecturally significant churches. Lifelong Western New Yorkers like Karnath—who is a University at Buffalo Law School graduate—admit that the slow deterioration of parts of Buffalo can cause residents to lose hope. But such despair is not a factor for this self-described tilter-at-windmills. 

 

Demolition—now there’s a word you don’t really like. But why not just tear down derelict properties? Is this a neighborhood worth saving, and for whom?

 

Look, if it’s going to cost a million dollars to demo something, I would rather have the money to stabilize it. The problem with demolition is one leads to another, leads to four more, and ten leads to twenty. You take stuff down; you can’t get it back. I want city officials to think of us, at BFNHS, before they tear something down, to have us in on the conversation. We are working on preserving the history of this neighborhood, including trying to get South Fillmore added to the National Register listing as part of the Olmsted Park system—the stretch from Martin Luther King Jr. Park to Larkinville was part of his original parkway system. 

 

There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of people who think the East Side can succeed and want this neighborhood to come back. We’re never going to run out of work to do in the Broadway-Fillmore area. But we can accelerate the process [of renewal], and we can make it thoughtful. I want to trigger private sector investment, but I will never apologize for spending significant amounts of public money to revitalize a poor urban neighborhood. I can think of a thousand worse ways to spend public funds. The development community is starting to believe it, and, according to the US Census, this neighborhood has added population, a couple hundred people, since 2010.

 

You’ve said that “failure is not the end, it’s the path forward.” So what has set you back, and how do you move on?  What projects are highest on your priority list?

 

We were poised to move ahead with a structure at Fillmore and Paderewski—what we think is the oldest building, circa 1870s, in the neighborhood. It was a cigar factory, then a general store, and last, a boarding house.  It was nearly destroyed in a fire last November. We wanted to save what is left; we were able to save a masonry building in the back, and a crummy little plank-construction garage. But we stabilized it, and have requested additional funding from the state to rebuild, according to our original plan, six housing units and one commercial space. It is still an important project, on an important corner—one of the entranceways to the Central Terminal, another project that I believe will finally come together. 

 

What else is happening? Torn Space Theater is working with its home-partner, the Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle at 612 Fillmore, to build a new theater nearby. BFNHS continues its efforts to stop hasty demolitions, including the historic residence at 806 Fillmore, a late 1800s structure built for Dr. Irving Potter, and later purchased by Dr. Francis E. Fronczak, the first health commissioner of Buffalo. While the building is stabilized and major restoration work is going on, we are planning how to use it—perhaps it will become a welcome center for immigrants. Another big project is underway at 950 Broadway, the beautiful 1940 Art Moderne building designed by Bley & Lyman, which housed Eckhardt’s and then Kobacker’s department stores. These are iconic buildings in the neighborhood, as are the churches that form a framework—no neighborhood in Buffalo has as many significant churches. I would like to see the rectory, school, and convent of St. Ann’s at Broadway and Emslie redeveloped. Transfiguration at Sycamore and Mills is another incredibly unique structure. And the Broadway Market? We are working with officials there to make it more than a holiday destination; already there are vendors reflecting the newer resident groups, including an Asian fish market, for example.

 

So how does BFNHS keep all these balls in the air? And do you get support from city officials?

 

We offer a variety of programs and services to improve existing housing, encourage homeownership, provide affordable rental opportunities, assist businesses and recruit new ones, and preserve neighborhood history. We work with a long list of partners and supporters. We are part of Fillmore Forward, a new community-based volunteer-driven organization dedicated to revitalizing the commercial centers of the Broadway-Fillmore and Martin Luther King neighborhoods. I am cautiously optimistic about the city’s support. I would like to believe the city is ready to be cooperative on a number of issues regarding Broadway-Fillmore. We always want to be in the back of peoples’ minds as part of the solution. I think I can be helpful with a lot of the work that needs to be done, but whether or not I am here, I do think this neighborhood will come back. The unique attributes of this community are still standing. We want to stop the bleeding. You know, twenty-five years ago, people laughed at the idea of a Central Terminal restoration. But look at the restoration of the Richardson Complex on the West Side. I believe a majority of people now say [the Terminal] will be saved one day, with a similar significant investment of public money on the East Side.                

 

To learn more about the neighborhood and Stephen Karnath's mission, watch the video here.

 

 

Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.

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