The Rebirth of Buffalo

By Ed Healy

Published on

Reintroducing the Queen City

It was a warm summer evening as more than 500 bicyclists gathered in the shadow of Buffalo’s Central Terminal for a Monday night ride organized by Slow Roll Buffalo. That week’s 10-mile route was named “New Good Neighbors Ride” in recognition of the new immigrants from places like Bangladesh and Burma who are helping to repopulate the city. The diverse group of riders shared a sense of community and the joy of being together on their bikes as they set off down Paderewski Drive. It was a pedal party that not too long ago would have been unimaginable. Now it’s just a typical happening in the new “unexpected Buffalo.”

In The Past

Slow Rolls, as well as any number of amenities, attractions, festivals, walks, talks and tours that today are woven deeply into the fabric of Buffalo, were not even a gleam in the city’s collective imagination 40 years ago when Buffalo’s reign as an industrial powerhouse was coming to an end. 

As local historian Mark Goldman explains in the opening chapter of his new book, “City of My Heart,” at that time there was no Olmsted Parks Conservancy, no Garden Walk, no Slow Roll, no Elmwood Festival of the Arts, no Elmwood Village, no Juneteenth, no Burmese Water Festival, no bike paths, no farmers markets. There were very few places to simply sit out-side and have a cup of coffee. Buffalo was a post-industrial city that hadn’t envisioned a future beyond industry.

Buffalo had been a classic 19th-century American boomtown, growing explosively after the Erie Canal connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. As the western terminus of the canal, Buffalo became a center of shipping, flour milling, railroads and, eventually, industries like steel, automobile manufacturing and aerospace. 

Buffalo became a wealthy city with aspirations to greatness that were reflected in its palatial homes, broad boulevards, expansive parks, seminal cultural institutions and ambitious architecture. 

By the middle of the 20th century, however, Buffalo’s glory began to fade, and its legacy of greatness entered a long period of decline. 

“Each time a cherished building was demolished, a park and parkway trashed, a piece of the waterfront despoiled, the people of Buffalo gradually began to lose their connection to their roots,” Goldman said in an email exchange. “And as they did, their city, like a flower or plant, began to die.” 

Make Our Garden Grow

But to a small but passionate group of preservationists, ur-banists and optimists, Buffalo was worth saving, a place with “good bones” still recognizable despite years of neglect. Not unlike the city’s many mansions that had been subdivided, ne-glected or abandoned, Buffalo needed a new generation that recognized its charms. New hands and hearts had to bring it back from the brink. Buffalo needed love and commitment.

“There were people all over the city who never lost faith in themselves and in their city,” Goldman writes. “People stared down decline, rolled up their sleeves, went to work and  got it done.”

The road to recovery hasn’t always been smooth. It rarely proceeded in a straight line and sometimes inspired contentious community debate—a debate that occasionally found its way into the courts. But 40 years—and a couple of generations—into this ongoing  community undertaking, Goldman asserts, Buffalo has found a way to “fix this place.” 

“Preservation—of the man-made and natural  environments—has helped to restore the soul of our city,” he writes.

Among the many residents who took up the challenge were the city’s gardeners, including Jim and Leslie Charlier, who live in the Elmwood Village neighborhood. Their Lancaster Avenue garden is one of the highlights of Garden Walk Buffalo, packed with curious crowds who come every summer with questions and compliments about the Charliers’ shed in the style of their Dutch Colonial home, the Harry Potter-themed garden and the art collection that includes multi-colored poles that Jim Charlier designs and sells. As longtime participants in the walk, the Charliers have seen it evolve from a modest one-block affair in 1995 to what is now the largest free garden tour in the United States. It’s the perfect grassroots illustration of how Buffalo has rolled up its sleeves and rebuilt itself. 

“There is not one event or festival that shows off Buffalo better,” Jim Charlier said. “Getting people walking around neighborhoods, appreciating the gardens and architecture, getting to go into people’s backyards and talk with the gardeners—where else does that happen?”

Another illustration of Buffalo’s rebirth can be found across town on the patio at Buffalo RiverWorks on Ganson Street. On a late summer afternoon, it’s filled with the din of conversation as servers come and go holding platters of chicken wings, beef on weck sandwiches and frosty mugs of beer brewed on site. 

A newly erected Ferris wheel turns nearby, giving riders an unobstructed view of the Buffalo River and the kayaks, paddleboards and waterbikes darting across the water below. Cycleboats and River History Tours packed with people navigate around the sleek powerboats jockeying for position at the RiverWorks dock. What was once a desolate landscape at the defunct GLF grain elevator complex has become a destination full of life.

Examples like this abound, showing off the tremendous strides that have been made since the 1970s. As the city’s fortunes revive and signs of progress replace the once all-too-common “For Sale” signs, there is still work to be done to ensure the rebirth reaches into every neighborhood.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

The city’s emerging African American Heritage Corridor on Michigan Avenue is a case of a previously overlooked asset joining the city’s revival.

Anchored by the recently expanded Colored Musicians Club and Museum on Broadway, the Michigan Street Baptist Church—once a stop on the Underground Railroad—and the Nash House Museum on Nash Street, the Heritage Corridor celebrates African American history and the Black experience in America. 

“Our Corridor revival efforts come at a time when nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism have sparked interest in history in general and African American heritage specifi-cally,” said Corridor Executive Director Terry Alford. “At one time, the early-20th-century Michigan Street birthed the likes of the Rev. Edward Nash and Mary Talbert, early champions of what we now know as social justice.” 

Buffalo is also investing in its legacy of historic architecture and cultural attractions. An expan-sive restoration and reconstruction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House and the surrounding cam-pus was completed in 2020. Graycliff, another Wright home built for the Martin family in nearby Derby, is finishing a lengthy restoration and add-ing a new visitors center. 

And there are more transformations on the way: Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, in Main Street’s Theater District, is expanding and enhancing visitor access and amenities, and is one of the most popular stops for touring Broadway shows in the country. 

The University at Buffalo is building a James Joyce Museum at its South Campus to house its massive collection of Joyce manuscripts, letters and photographs. 

The reinvigorated Canalside district, down-town at the Buffalo River, continues to evolve with the addition of the Buffalo Heritage Carousel and the Longshed, where Buffalo Maritime Center vol-unteers are building a replica of the Seneca Chief, an Erie Canal packet boat.

Dozens of murals by local and internationally renowned artists have brightened the once-faded streets of Buffalo with dazzling displays of color. 

The former LaSalle Park is being transformed into Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, with the goal of creating a world-class waterfront destina-tion at the 100-acre site where Lake Erie meets the Niagara River.

But the frosting on Buffalo’s cake is the once-in-a- lifetime expansion of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum,  formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, at 1285 Elmwood Ave. The $195-million construction project adds 30,000 square feet of space for the display of the museum’s extraordinary collection of modern and contemporary art plus room for classrooms, community space and more than half an acre of new public green space. It’s the most ambitious investment in Buffalo’s cultural sector in the city’s history and has the potential to elevate Buffalo’s profile as a world-class cultural destination. In a very public way and on a grand scale, it represents the culmination of 40 years of investment and shared community labor to revive, rebuild and reimagine Buffalo. 

“At a moment when the world is starting to pay attention to this extraordinary city,” said Janne Sirén, the museum’s Peggy Pierce Elfvin director, “the Buffalo AKG will present unforgettable museum experiences to visitors from across Western New York and around the globe with a level of intimacy and sophistication that is unique to Buffalo.”

Much like Buffalo, the museum—with its new bridge connecting the original gallery built in 1905 with a sparkling 21st-century glass counterpart—will be more  welcoming, inclusive, thought-provoking and fun than ever before.

Ed Healy headshot

Ed Healy

Ed Healy is the vice president of marketing for Visit Buffalo Niagara.