Feature: Amherst Street
Sue Cholewa, urban developer and language teacher, in the doorway of her latest Amherst St. acquisition
It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting at a picnic table in the Buffalo neighborhood of Black Rock.
To the left of me is American Legion Post 1041, with its rear garage-style doors open and welcoming September breezes. Volunteers are decorating its interiors for an Oktoberfest celebration that will feature bands, beers, and brats up and down the locale’s host street. To the right of me is a horsedrawn carriage, loaded up with two hollow wooden beer kegs and one real (albeit smaller) one, full of beer traditionally enjoyed by the neighborhood’s German and Polish ancestors. Pretty soon, the carriage’s engines will clack their way down the street, past vibrant art galleries and authentic taverns, past brownie vendors and sausage makers, past rowdy blues venues and chic restaurants. And when I watch the carriage settle in the parking lot of Grant Street’s Polish Cadets Hall, men in lederhosen will play tubas and Buffalo State students will hoist beer cans under the city’s West Side sunlight.
This is the scene along one of Buffalo’s best-kept secrets: Black Rock’s burgeoning Amherst Street. It sure looks a lot different than it did five years ago.
A stretch that was once dominated by Buffalo’s only urban Wegmans is now complemented by it. A neighborhood once home to the historic Polonia District’s overflow is now a mix of generational German- and Polish-Americans; ambitious, cost-conscious house hunters; and a mélange of newcomers from places like Iraq and Somalia. A district that was once mysterious to many Western New Yorkers is now becoming much more visited by those looking for inventive art, a quiet beer, or a face-melting guitar solo.
It’s also the first year of the neighborhood’s River Rocktoberfest, an all-day affair initiated to pay homage to Buffalo’s German ancestry while welcoming celebrants into a variety of authentic and eclectic Amherst Street locales. These taverns, halls, and gourmet kitchens were the motivating factor for festival organizer Eddy Doboseiwicz, the galvanizer behind such Queen City-based productions as Off-Beat Cinema, Forgotten Buffalo Tours, and the annual Dyngus Day spectacular. When Doboseiwicz conceptualized what Buffalo’s massive Polish party could be, he did it with his native Polonia District neighborhood in mind. Houses were being bulldozed. Bars were disappearing. City decisionmakers depreciated the area’s authenticity, as more blocks became rubble-strewn or completely vacant. On Amherst Street, Doboseiwicz sees the authenticity still intact, and he wants the festival to shine an oomp-pa-pulsating light on it so the neighborhood can gain more exposure—and shine even brighter.
“The area has fascinated me because it’s so similar to the historic Polonia District, but the density still remains intact here,” says Doboseiwicz. “The buildings haven’t been demolished. Storefronts are still in existence. And, over the last few years, the area’s experienced something of a renaissance, as young entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, and the creative class have started to set up shop.”
But why Amherst Street? What is it about the clandestine stretch between Elmwood and Military that’s earning it mention with Hertel Avenue, Allen Street, and the muchvaunted Elmwood Village? Is it the dining? The drinking? The hilariously low home prices? Or, is it simply Black Rock quietly emerging? Take a self-guided tour. Have a few conversations. In the end, you’ll likely conclude the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Clockwise from top left: Greg Rohall, scenes from a night of conviviality at Rohall's, and a performance at Sportsmens Tavern
Talk to Greg Rohall and you’ll learn that he did exactly what you and your Jamesoninhaling buddies always talked about doing: he bought and opened the kind of bar he wanted to inhabit. Then, he named it Rohall’s Corner.
“I wanted to create the type of place I’d like to hang out in,” says Rohall, who’s poured pints at such Buffalo institutions as Mr. Goodbar and Sterling Place Tavern. “When I first opened up, I had a lot of people coming in here telling me the place looked great, but I needed a dart board, jukebox, or chicken wings. That wasn’t the type of place I wanted. Thankfully, over time, people who want to hang out in a place like this have found it.”
Walk into his bar and you’ll wonder whether Rohall simply pulled a tarp off the bar as it existed in the seventies. The truth’s not that far off. The previous owner—whose bar operated under the name Our Grill—mothballed his establishment in 1984 and, when Rohall purchased the building at auction in 2007, it was largely intact. Over the next four years, he added paint, serviced some water damage in the ceiling, and added classic tavern decorations, like German beer steins and antique Beck’s beer trays. In 2011, he opened the town-hall-style tavern, which eschews an Internet jukebox for a piano, serves Utica Club instead of Bud Light Lime, and has officially become the welcome mat to Amherst Street’s developing district.
“When I bought this building in 2007, this area was still pretty quiet,” Rohall recalls. “None of the current momentum had taken hold yet. Now, I live here. I’m invested in this area, and my bar’s just a piece of puzzle of all the great things happening around here.”
The street’s offerings are certainly a jigsaw of options, with locations as varied and creatively repurposed as their owners are noteworthy. Another Mark Goldman-cultivated locale inside a converted hardware store? Enter Black Rock Kitchen and Bar, and order the asparagus fries with roasted garlic aioli and creolaise. A Budweiser-focused tavern with a fish fry as big your forearm? Try Casey’s. Looking for a space overflowing with stunning works of art and photography? Stop into 464 Gallery, home to a rotating roster of Buffalo’s artists, and one of the corridor’s first colonizers.
Continue along and the options multiply. A decadent brownie and softened ambiance can be found inside Delish. An eye-opening breakfast sandwich is on offer at the Katsu Market. Homemade bologna and something called “potato surprise” are featured at Spar’s German Market. Nestled in a checkered stretch between Grant and Military, Sportsmen’s Tavern has stood as a Fender-laden port in the storm before any of its street’s latest developments, its national-touring rock and blues purveyors echoing progressive chords off neighboring storefronts seven nights a week. Now, Sportsmen’s is a renovated beacon for both live music loyalists and those finding Black Rock for the first time.
Just down the street from Sportsmen’s, you’ll find Mary Logue, who opened The Phoenix (at Amherst and Military) in March 2013. The Kenmore native wasn’t too familiar with the area when she resurrected the former Ed and Joe’s location from its fire-damaged ashes and renamed it after one of region’s most historic taverns. The moniker belonged to the first tavern rebuilt after the Buffalo territory was burned to the ground during the War of 1812. Now, it belongs to a fine dining restaurant that bookends a burgeoning district.
“We’re trying to make this a destination,” says Logue, whose impressive resume includes food service management with Delaware North and Olympics-caterer Compass Group, along with restaurant management stops at New York’s Smith and Wollensky, Todd English’s Olives in Boston, and Buffalo’s Oliver’s. “The bars and restaurants are nice, but we need other things, too. The Elmwood area has shopping, bars, restaurants, and other things that draw people to it. That’s what we’d like to become.”
Step into The Phoenix and you’ll see a place seemingly transported from the heart of Allentown or the Elmwood Village—as Logue notes. Look out their back door, and you’ll find a secluded patio, perfect for snacking on polenta fries or sipping the house’s signature Bloody Mary. But outside the front door, the still-developing shabbiness of this end of the strip can be seen in the vacant lots, boarded homes, and undeveloped properties that remain. Logue’s reputation has attracted diners usually found inside Hutch’s or Rue Franklin; it has also introduced them to development opportunities waiting to happen. No matter how many unique places Amherst Street already boasts, they could always use a few more.
“It would be great if more people had faith in this strip,” says Logue. “There are still a couple of pieces of property primed for development right now.”
From the top down: Mark Kubiniec of Joe's Serivce Cetner with a Buffalo CarShare vehicle, a cooking class at Delish, the Delish storefront
Demographics new and old
Buffalo has long been known as a Polish-American hotbed. President John F. Kennedy attended the city’s Pulaski Day Parade in 1962. The Broadway Market still sells traditional ethnic fare like makowiec and paczek, and you can’t find a business in this region without an employee roster full of ‘ski-ended surnames. Most of Buffalo’s Polish-Americans can trace their local roots to two neighborhoods: the city’s Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood on the lower east side—or stretched off Amherst Street in Black Rock.
“Black Rock’s Polish population once accounted for one-fifth of Buffalo’s overall Polish population, with the other four-fifths residing in Broadway-Fillmore,” says Mark Kubiniec, owner of Joe’s Service Center and president of the Grant-Amherst Business Association, which meets once a month inside the neighborhood’s Polish Cadets Hall.
Kubiniec has lived off Amherst Street for the last ten years, but has lived in the surrounding neighborhood for most of his life. He knew the area when it was full of family-owned shoe shops and delis, and he watched when those locales shuttered amid the emergence of one-stop stores and shopping malls. But, when these small businesses closed, the family-owned buildings were retained—and maintained—so that future business owners and neighborhood residents could eventually utilize the properties. Amherst Street is now dotted with residents doing just that. Example: Kubiniec’s father, Richard, now runs his law firm out of one of these buildings, right across the street from Graser’s Florist and Spar’s sausage.
“This neighborhood has retained its urban fabric. Its storefronts are to the street, it’s a walkable neighborhood, and, over the years, it hasn’t been shredded apart like many other sections of the city,” stresses Kubiniec.
Keeping its streets and buildings intact has not only designated it as desirable for entrepreneurs. It’s made it accommodating for a diversified collection of residents. The neighborhood still hosts families whose ancestors emigrated from Poland and Germany before the first World War, but it’s also home to a growing refugee population from Iraq, Burma, and Somalia. Sit on the steps of Assumption Catholic Church and you’ll see these families’ children playing on sidewalks, flanked by plastered photos of Black Rock’s parochial school past. Stand outside Delish and you’ll hear these inhabitants speaking their native languages as they make this once-heavily Polish enclave their own. It’s the definition of a melting pot, and it’s one of the reasons Susan Cholewa decided to make Black Rock her home.
“There’s a real family atmosphere around here that not a lot of people realize, and the refugee population helps to facilitate that. They’re very family-oriented, and that stabilizes the neighborhood.”
Cholewa, a foreign languages teacher and urban developer, decided to leave her Elmwood Village farmhouse and purchase a fixer-upper off Amherst Street this year. But, it’s not that she’s unfamiliar with the neighborhood. Far from it. She owns the buildings that house 464 Gallery and Black Rock Kitchen and Bar. Over the summer, she purchased a shuttered gas station and hopes to convert it into a space applicable for a Caffé Aroma-style oasis. Until that time, she’s hung a simple bannered message—Believe in Black Rock—from its shingled roof. She believes, and she doesn’t think it’ll be long before multitudes of others adopt her line of thinking.
“This is a great neighborhood for young people looking to buy,” said Cholewa. “They can walk to art galleries, stop by Rohall’s or Black Rock Kitchen to have a beer, go to Katzu’s Market for breakfast, or go to Sportsmen’s for live music. The Thruway is right near here, and on the other end, I have quick access to Elmwood Village. And, houses go for about $50,000 to $60,000. It’s super entry-level, but you get all the accessibility and amenities that go with (the neighborhood).”
Buffalo’s young professionals want to live in the city. Expats returning from overpriced metropolises are looking to buy and settle around urban conveniences to which they’ve become accustomed. Buffalo State students are graduating and looking to start the next phases of their lives. Elmwood Village residents are growing frustrated with the neighborhood’s rising rents and home prices. They’re all looking for the next hot neighborhood. The possibilities off Amherst Street are available—and evolving.
Filling in the blanks
Despite all its success, allure, and festival-ready atmosphere, the Amherst Street corridor is still developing. There are streetscape improvements to be made for drivers and bikers; sidewalks need repairs to make the stretch more walkable, and the street’s freight-friendly street lights need to be swapped out for signature posts and brighter illumination. As for the places and the people, Mark Kubiniec can point out stabilized storefronts ready to be converted and quaint housing waiting to be filled. “We’d like to see more of the incoming business owners and merchants live in the neighborhood, just like many of us already do,” he says. “This will help continue to stabilize the area. It’s already happening, but we’d like to see it continue.”
Greg Rohall wants to see a bookstore. Susan Cholewa wants a quiet café. Mary Logue wants more locally owned boutiques and markets. And, they all want more of one of Buffalo’s greatest assets: art.
“I would love for Amherst Street to become the city’s artist corridor,” said Logue. “Elmwood has its shops; Hertel has its Italian markets. Amherst already has Sportsmen’s music and a few galleries, and maybe the city could establish a few of the street’s vacant buildings for artist lofts. I would love to see that.”
But, what you’ll see on Amherst Street today is a budding strip featuring the essence of Buffalo, both appreciated and evolving. Cherished taverns still stand while old buildings find new life. Diehard music fans listen to blues sets while settling immigrants find new lives. Fish fries are available, but so are seared scallops and foie gras. Embracing it all is the inescapable authenticity of the district. This, according Eddy Doboseiwicz, is what sets it apart. “People are screaming for authenticity. And, as far as I’m concerned, our city’s authenticity is the answer to our prayers. When our political leaders look for a silver bullet, they’re overlooking what we have in a neighborhood like this one.”
Overlooked? Maybe before. But, with every new restaurateur, homeowner, or festival patron who finds this Amherst Street stretch, its days of being underappreciated are fading away.
Michael Farrell is the author of Running with Buffalo and a frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree.