Monday, July 12, 2010

Random Buffalo Thoughts

Two recent articles in the Buffalo News reminded me how much the city has changed for the worse since I lived there 40 years. And Buffalo was already in serious decline before I attended college there in the fall of 1968.

The first article notes that the once “strong and stable” neighborhoods surrounding the old main campus of the University of Buffalo are now struggling, the result of creeping urban decay caused by declining property values, absentee landlords, foreclosures, and predatory lending . It specifies an area of Buffalo and three of its neighboring suburbs that lies within a 1½-mile radius of the intersection of Main Street and Niagara Falls Boulevard, which encompasses most of what you see in the aerial photograph below. The green arrow points to the intersection itself, which for all intents and purposes has served as the access point to the ‘front door’ of the campus.

I know this part of Buffalo very well. What you see in the aerial photograph is where I spent the majority of my life for nearly 4½ years, from September 1968 to December 1972. I probably traversed most of the streets you see there, mostly on foot. As for the Main Street/ Niagara Falls Boulevard intersection, I can conjure it as though I were standing there right now, as the following series of Google Map Street View screenshots allow me to do virtually.

What immediately struck me about the above street view, which was probably photographed within the past few years, is the fact that the quarter-mile section of Niagara Falls Boulevard between Main Street and Kenmore Avenue is still paved with bricks, just as I remember it. On the other hand, I don’t recall so much open space across the street from the church. (I assume it’s still in use as it appears to be in excellent condition.) The Theta Chi fraternity house is one of at least four structures, all of them similar in size and age to the house you see in the left-center background, that have been razed since I regularly traveled this street.

About three-quarters of a mile north and a block east of this point are the Allenhurst Apartments, once owned by UB to house the influx of baby boomers that started to arrive in the mid-1960s. A Google Street View at this point shows that the former Tops grocery store, where I was a regular shopper during my sophomore year, is now occupied by Lakeland Auto Parts, and Dunkin’ Donuts, a favorite late-night haunt that probably accounted for a portion of my “freshman 15”, is now home to the Dip ‘n’ Dive Scuba Company.

A sprawling commercial area, which initially blossomed in the early 1960s, begins another half-mile north, where Sheridan Drive intersects. When I had the Mustang to drive around during the first semester of my sophomore year, we’d occasionally shop at the Park Edge Supermarket located here. The store’s prominently arched roof and navigably wide aisles gave the interior a sense of unusual spaciousness, at least compared to the modest, small-town, 1960s-era grocery stores I’d become accustomed to living in Warren. Loblaws, Acme, Quality. In this age of warehouse-sized “hypermarkets, some of which cover as much as space as four or more football fields, I’m sure Park Edge wood resemble a corner grocery store in today’s retail environment. Park Edge, by the way, no longer exists. A shopping center with Office Depot as its main tenant gas claimed this space.

About 300 feet north of Sheridan Drive, on the left hand side of Niagara Falls Boulevard, sits a series of low-slung building, one of them housing the Factory Sleep Shop, take up space where Gleason’s used to be the huge draw. Unable to pinpoint where the ‘Googie’-style restaurant used to be located, I almost feel as though someone is trying to erase a part of my memory. Surprisingly, I have found no evidence of this local chain’s history or operation on the Internet, no matter what search terms I use. And in a somewhat related matter, I find it odd that I never owned a camera during my college years. Neither did any of my roommates. I have no photographs from Allenhurst, Tonawanda Creek Drive, or Bailey Avenue. In fact, there is no pictorial evidence that I attended UB. I guess you’re just going to have to accept my word for it.

Looking in the opposite direction from the first Street View, I see the old campus, now referred to as the South Campus and home to a number of graduate and doctoral programs. The broad expanse of lawn in front of Hayes Hall, the former administration building, is unusually parched. The photo must have been taken during a severe dry spell. (Hayes Hall, including its white-topped domed, is partially obscured by the trees in the middle distance.) The trees look oddly misshapen, almost dwarfed, and lack of people gives the campus a surreal appearance, like an on-location movie setting for a remake of the 1961 science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

My last visit here occurred in July 1988, when JoAnna, a 10-month-old Andy and I visited Tony and Andrea Szczygiel and their two young boys for a day. At a distance, the campus looked much the same, but once we meandered around the heart of the campus, the area between Tower Dorm and Lockwood Library, I felt as though we had been dropped into an alien space. The remodeling of Norton Union, once the campus nerve center where you could always count on running into someone you knew every few steps, produced a feeling of loss.

To the west of the Main Street/Niagara Falls Boulevard intersection is the Amherst Shopping Plaza, a standard-issue, late50s/early 60s shopping center. The twenty or so businesses were clustered in two narrowly rectangular buildings, set at a slight angle to one another. The plaza offered the usual retail mix: a department store (AM&A’s), variety store (Grant’s), grocery store (A&P), drug store, bakery, cleaners, two restaurants, and a record store (the location where you’d be most likely to find me). Not to mention a first-run movie theater, where I saw such features as Goodbye Columbus, Midnight Cowboy, and Straw Dogs.

The eastern edge of the Buffalo city limits is located a few blocks beyond this point, at the intersection of Bailey Avenue, which should have a familiar ring to it. From here, Main Street continues its way through the increasingly more upscale and land-eating suburbs of Eggertsville, Snyder, Williamsville, Harris Hill, and Clarence. But as Donn Esmonde, a writer for the Buffalo News pointed out, the suburbs are no longer immune from urban ills, which “creep from the city across one ring of suburbs after another, trailing poverty and shriveling economic growth in its wake.”

“People keep leaving Buffalo and such older suburbs as Cheektowaga and the Tonawandas,” he continues. “Even shiny Amherst, once the flight destination of choice, is morphing from winner to loser. It dropped an estimated 1,000 people during the past decade.

The more folks who flee to the Wheatfields and Clarences, the louder the sucking sound of inner-ring abandonment— and the greater the need for tax-inflating new roads, schools, sewer lines, strip malls, and police and fire services.”

Unfortunately, this message has consistently been drowned out by the chants of local boosterism – not just in the Buffalo area but all around the United States. Even in an area as progressive as Madison and its inner-ring suburbs, the idea of working cooperatively is usually considered only as a last resort.

Our third and final view of Main Street looks in the direction of downtown Buffalo, which for me 40 years ago was about a half-hour bus trip. In September 1968, the central business district was in its “last hurrah” period. The first of the supersized malls – Eastern Hills - didn’t open until 1972. Not only were all of Buffalo’s flagship department stores still intact - AM&;A's, Kaufmann's, Hengerer's -- but city officials also had the foresight, or so they thought, to build Main Street Place, an enclosed, multi-level, climate-controlled shopping mall. At a minimum, this redevelopment project would keep city residents from spending their shopping dollars in the suburbs. As you are well aware, this rosy scenario didn’t happen. In 1988, it was still in operation, with the added feature of a food court, but all of the anchor tenants and many of the smaller businesses had closed up shop.

In 1968, five 1920s-era movie palaces still offered first-run movies and filled their large theaters on the weekends. I particularly remember a showing of The Boston Strangler that a group of us attended in the fall of 1968. We ended up sitting in a remote area of the balcony. And not by choice. It was the only place where we could sit together. Within two years, all but one had gone out of business, and it had started to show X-rated movies to survive.

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