Developing: Stylish Larkin Square
For those who missed the opportunity to experience the iconic Art El at Lewiston’s Artpark before it was taken down in 2004, there is now a funkier younger sibling at Larkin Square, the privately owned community park in the heart of Buffalo’s Larkin District neighborhood. Built in the early 1970s as an elevated boardwalk reminiscent of seaside resorts, the original Art El sat incongruously on a manmade hillside in Western New York. Overlooking the Niagara River, it was outfitted with touches of Americana like a log cabin and candy-colored truck bodies. Visitors to Artpark’s 172 acres in its heyday—when it was known worldwide as a risk-taking art space—would encounter poets, storytellers, musicians, and contemporary artists creating artwork in situ.
Buffalo businessmen Howard Zemsky and Joe Petrella, under the auspices of the Larkin Development Group (LDG), are channeling this relaxed creativity in the most publicly welcoming addition to the Larkin District to date. Instead of the Art El’s log cabin, a gleaming 1964 airstream trailer serves distinctly nonseventies fare, including espresso drinks and artisanal sandwiches with ingredients like lamb and kimchi. Food trucks are also welcome here, and for recreation—a game of Pickleball anyone? Never heard of it? It is a cross between tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong played on a small family-friendly court. Hula hoops will probably be next. The retro-chic may be a little too cute, but it elicits neighborly smiles and goodwill, so why not? Most importantly, this is not a closed off Disneyland-type environment, but one that’s in dialogue with its surrounding community. The fundamental philosophy behind the recently developed Larkin Square seems sound.
The Larkin District accurately reflects Buffalo’s fierce pride in the remnants of its manufacturing past. Adjacent to the site of Frank Lloyd Wright’s demolished Larkin Building and skirting the largest extant collection of grain elevators and their attendant railway tracks, Larkin Square dynamically sits at the radial convergence of Seneca, Swan, and Emslie Streets. Refurbished multiuse factory buildings, which are occupied by a village of corporate tenants, surround the park, in addition to former brownfields and a historically working class neighborhood. “The first challenge,” according to dogged preservationist Tim Tielman, who worked as a consultant on the project, “was to break this block up into smaller, more humane pieces, on the basis of human behavior, rather than preconceived notions of architecture or design.”
Yet Larkin Square cannot help but seem slightly unreal. It features a strange conglomeration of Miami Beach meets wooden, open-air barnyard constructions bounded by a fire station and modest residential homes amidst vast empty green lots. The nearby wildlife preserve, Tifft Farm, for which the concrete grain elevators serve as a backdrop to nature trails, triggers a similar off-kilter feeling. Until recently, these hulking structures were home to Buffalo’s fringe culture of graffiti artists and fisherman, but now, thanks in part to businessman Rick Smith, they are becoming an edgy cultural destination.
LDG embraces its role in this cultural resurgence of Buffalo’s oldest manufacturing district, which, with its proximity to the waterfront, also encompasses the grain elevators and Canalside. Taking a holistic approach to development (with the generous financial backing of First Niagara Bank), LDG is upgrading its streetscapes, making them more pedestrian friendly, removing blight through selective demolition, remediating contaminated land, and contributing to a community improvement fund administered by the Old First Ward Community Association. Instead of creating an exclusive and gated island for relatively well-heeled tenants, Larkin Square is a porous place for people to hang out. And the individual design elements are not expensively lavish—they consist of a simple walkway with a stage for bands, an elevated picnic area that provides a lifeguard view of the square, a large pile of rocks for kids to scramble up and down, bright blue sheds equipped with electricity for local vendors, and plenty of movable pop-colored beach chairs for lounging. Hanging out is an activity that Zemsky and his partners take very seriously and, in most cities developed around the car, there can be a dearth of comfortable public places to linger without the litigious charge of loitering. As Tielman notes, no matter how innovative the architecture is, “The spaces between buildings are every bit, and perhaps more, important than the buildings themselves.”
Good place-making also involves generating an array of stakeholders and others who feel invested in the project and committed to its success. Larkin Square excels in this area. There is no real architect of record; rather, Zemsky and Tielman spearheaded the project, juggling their own adventuresome ideas with those of local engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, neighborhood groups, and architects, including the firm Giusiana Architects, which, might be noted, hails from Lewiston, home of Artpark. This mashup of ideas could have been a recipe for disaster, and Zemsky was told many times the project didn’t make any financial sense, but, somehow, the bottom-up approach was perfect for the small scale of the square.
Much of the furniture and landscaping was manufactured in Buffalo, and all of the programming, coordinated by Leslie Zemsky, draws on local talent. Concert promoter Seamus Gallivan is in charge of booking bands for Larkin Square’s Wednesday night concert series, as well as the low-key troubadours who can be seen roving around on Wednesday evenings and during lunch hour on Mondays and Thursdays. Buffalo State’s Small Business Development Center was an indispensible resource in identifying vendors for the Wednesday Night Farmer’s Market. Shoppers can choose from robust cheese from Nickel City Cheese Shop, locally grown produce, and of course, cupcakes and other desserts.
What about winter you might ask? Will the square shut down? Leslie Zemsky has thought about that, and wants to offer classes in the Filling Station restaurant modeled after those taught at a crowd-sourced, community-driven school called the Brooklyn Brainery. Managing your gmail inbox, architectural trivia, and canning are just some of the idiosyncratic topics offered to the genuinely curious by the makeshift school. It is not unlike the Buffalo Barn Raisers’ monthly compilation of free events, which range from potlucks to honing your circus skills.
In the past few years, Buffalo’s attempts at urban revitalization have gained momentum. Even London’s the Economist, in a recent issue, took note, optimistically predicting that the city is poised to lead the next economic wave in the United States. For Howard Zemsky, the key piece of the economic and cultural resurgence puzzle is Larkin Square’s ability to help Buffalo attract and retain young people, who want to live in a city propelled by energetic and participatory social spaces.
Sandra Firman is curator for the University at Buffalo’s Art Galleries and a frequent contributor to Spree.