Preservation Ready: The active path to rebirth
Three proud Queen Anne-style brick townhouses sit on a rise. Built around 1880, and later owned by English immigrant Charles Berrick (a prominent builder of the Round House for the Lake Shore Railroad, the original Buffalo Library, and Barnes & Hengerer’s store), each is now painted in a different color scheme. They boast elegant towers, ornamental brickwork at the cornices and between floors, and bay windows. In 1885, tenants like Reverend L. E. Rockwell of the Glenwood Methodist-Episcopal Church walked out his front door and up the street to catch the train to the Genesee Conference of Methodist Episcopals in Lima, New York. And the Dau Blue Books of the early 1900s list other notable residents, such as Charles Dudley Arnold, official photographer for the 1893 World’s Columbian Fair and the Pan-Am Exposition. But this isn’t Delaware Avenue, Linwood, or Ashland; it’s 36–50 East Utica Street.
In this city, recognizing potential doesn’t require much imagination. All that is required is a quick survey of scores of successful adaptive reuse projects, both residential and commercial, to see the incredible resources we have in architecture and community. Just a block away from 36–50 East Utica is the mostly preserved Linwood Avenue, which boasts a strong neighborhood association and is held up as an example of classic Buffalo. Eight blocks farther is Elmwood Village, named one of the “Ten Best Neighborhoods in America” by the American Planning Association. Yet on East Utica, these properties sit empty because their private owner apparently ran out of money to work on them. And without boarded windows or enough eyes to keep watch, vacant homes can become problems.
At least one neighbor says she’s hoping the city will force a demolition, because a sensitive renovation seems unlikely. In a city with thousands of vacant houses, this is often the reality, but for a relatively stable area now consolidated under the newly-formed “Utica Heights Block Club,” within sight of a light rail stop and near a good deal of recent reinvestment, there are reasons to expect better.
Last spring, on nearby Laurel Street, artists and activists gathered for a Painting for Preservation event. Across from the unique brick duplex, they created plein-air art to draw attention to the languishing, but very much intact, structure. Neighbors stopped by and chatted, interested parties leaned out of car windows to wonder about the fuss, and the event was publicized across social media networks after the fact. This new kind of grass roots activism can raise the profile of underutilized spaces. In The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, Howard Mansfield writes, “One way to transform a city is to look at it. A group staring at a building lifts that building up from invisibility. Others might look again where they haven’t looked in decades, and an ordinary house or storefront is unveiled for them.”
The creative class
Aside from vacant houses, what does Buffalo have in droves? Young, educated, creative people. Many of Buffalo’s active or activist folks are new to Buffalo, or have returned after long stays elsewhere. Because they have experienced other places, they know what’s possible and see potential where others see problems. Emerging Leaders in the Arts Buffalo and Buffalo’s Young Preservationists are two organizations that benefit from this infusion of energy. Both groups are leveraging the city’s existing assets and learning from the best practices of similar groups across the country. Their DIY attitude embodies the Buffalo spirit: through grassroots efforts, they plan huge arts event at the grain elevators, work to save historic buildings, and get citizens to re-engage in their community.
When the National Preservation Conference came to Buffalo, locals couldn’t help but feel proud (and maybe a little shocked) at the incredibly positive response from attendees. What’s more, this network of intelligent, caring, and community-minded mentors continued to pay attention to Buffalo issues long after the tours and field sessions were over.
The spotlight has been focused on Buffalo for a while now—New York City media sends a reporter to spend a weekend here, the city gets mentions on national blogs like The Atlantic Cities or included on best-of lists in well-known magazines. As a best-kept secret, the Queen City is not as secret as it once was. The world is watching, and those in the know recognize the value of not only our real estate, but our special brand of community.
All of these factors can help turn the tide and provide for the rebirth of our struggling neighborhoods. In future Buffalo, 36–50 East Utica wouldn’t be left to languish. Now, all we need is to convince our own residents and get them even more engaged in government, so that our voices will change the status quo at City and County Hall.
Dana Saylor-Furman is an artist, preservation activist, and historian. Visit her website at oldtimeroots.com.