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2011 City Guide: Medina

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While Buffalonians rightfully celebrate the recent renovation of the downtown Genesee block—the most concentrated architectural reminder of Buffalo’s post-Civil War economic expansion—and look forward with hope to more historically themed development around the rescued Erie Canal Commercial Slip on the waterfront, those who want to spend a few hours soaking up some strong vibes from the Boom Years of Yore are well-advised to head east to the village of Medina.

Situated on a bend in the Erie Canal that made it a natural hub for transporting the region’s fruit harvest and sandstone (the source material for many of New York City’s legendary brownstones) from nearby quarries, Medina’s future once seemed so bright that when a new municipal building was dedicated in 1908, it was named City Hall in anticipation of continued future growth. But with the decline in both ship traffic and nearby industry, the village drifted into the survival mode that too many upstate canal towns have found themselves struggling with. Fortunately, urban renewal also bypassed Medina and, as a result, the downtown area remains virtually intact since its Erie Canal heyday.

Now designated a National Historic District, the quarter-square-mile area centered around Main Street features an array of more than fifty buildings built between 1855 and 1910. With only a few modern buildings in sight, it’s possible to stroll up Main towards the canal and imagine that Grover Cleveland still resides in the White House. Among the most notable structures is 444 Main, an impressive three-story sandstone building that once housed Bent’s Opera House and is now the focus of a local initiative to restore the performance space. A few blocks away at 530 West Avenue, the Medina Railroad Museum—the largest museum of its kind—resides in one of the last surviving wooden freight depots in the country. After exploring the downtown area, stop in the Shirt Factory Café at 115 West Center (once the site of Robert H. Newell and Company, providers of fine shirtings to Winston Churchill and numerous U.S. presidents) for gourmet sandwiches and coffee, or try Zambistro at 408 Main for the creative cuisine of chef Tony Zambito, a Medina native trained at the Culinary Institute of America.

Not far from downtown you’ll find two sights that have been featured in Ripley’s Believe or Not: St. John’s Episcopal Church, a.k.a. “the Church in the Middle of the Road” (200 East Center Street) and the Culvert, the only place where the Erie Canal passes over a roadway (take 31 East from Main Street and turn north on County Road 35).

A mere forty-five miles from the western terminus of the Erie Canal, Medina not only makes for a nice daytrip, but will leave you pondering the possibilities of what our own Canal District could look like if the architecture of the period were to be replicated.

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