When I first moved to the Ward – or Buffalo’s Old First Ward neighborhood in common parlance – I would explain to friends, family, and the curious the geographical boundaries of my new home. I’d describe it as a triangle north of the Buffalo River, south of the I-190, and then name its bounding streets. There were, usually, some confused looks as listeners tried to place my triangle.
Then I’d add in, for good measure, that if they know the location of what is now KeyBank Center, then they might imagine a neighborhood one mile to the east. Some might ask if my neighborhood was near the late, great, and mustard-yellow Weber’s Mustard plant (it was at the corner of South Park Avenue and Louisiana Street, and is now located on Reading Street in South Buffalo), or the Perry Projects, and then I knew they had this storied place in mind.
“The Old First Ward” by Vinny Alejandro & Yames – Republic St.
Here I’d like to point out, having just mentioned South Buffalo, that South Buffalo and the Old First Ward neighborhoods are not synonymous. Those closest to me know that I bristle whenever someone hears that I live in the Ward and then says, “Oh! I love South Buffalo.” To which I attempt explaining that South Buffalo is its own place/beast, and is to the east of the OFW.
In the early 1990’s, when I first moved to the Ward, most Buffalonians had scant knowledge of its location. And I liked that.
I’m a rare citizen of the 716 who has lived in all quadrants of the city: I grew up in North Buffalo; I lived on the West Side in two places, one being my father’s ancestral home on Putnam Street; I had a yearlong stint on the East Side in an Arts and Crafts bungalow that two friends owned; I lived in Black Rock. Then it was on to the incredible Old First Ward – first as a renter (I was friends with the landlords’ son, also a photographer who had lived in the home when his parents owned it, and where I had attended several of his parties), and then as a proud homeowner of the same property when the owners retired down south.
Residential meets industrial in the Old First Ward
What immediately drew me to this neighborhood is that it feels like a small town within the city. The homes are modest, people are friendly, and the landscape is a walkable mix of homes, nature, and light industry. I have become a champion of the neighborhood, promoting its old-style glory to others. Some have said to me that they see decrepitude when they drive through the streets; somehow, they’ve missed the community pride, the peacefulness, and the small businesses that include one of the city’s major social hubs – Gene McCarthy’s/ Old First Ward Brewing Company.
The Ward is supremely lucky to sport three very distinctive parks: Father Conway Park on Louisiana Street, Mutual Riverfront Park on Hamburg Street, and Buffalo River Fest Park on Ohio Street. Father Conway Park was formerly the Ohio Basin, where ships would be moored and this fact has captivated my imagination since learning it: the remains/ruins of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building lie underneath the neatly-kept sod where many soccer games happen. I imagine how this architectural loss could be unearthed and reconstructed as an homage of sorts.
River Fest Park is a genius sliver of urban green space with a river view and some excellent free concerts since its inception. The park’s Tewksbury Lodge is named after the runaway freighter that crashed into the Michigan Avenue lift bridge, destroying it and flooding the neighborhood on a winter night in 1959.
Live music at River Fest Park
This park is within a short walk of some primo bars: Swannie House with an antique pub interior (including old plank floors) that’s been hosting shenanigans since 1886. Fun Fact: it’s where the watchmen were sipping when the Tewksbury got loose and crashed nearby. Ballyhoo is another fab place for creative cocktails, house-made sausages, and handpies. Other, newer additions to the Ward menu of bars and restaurants include the massive Resurgence on Chicago Street, near Hartman’s Distilling Company.
At the edge of the Ward, on Katherine Street, is the intriguing Cook’s Bar and Grill, down the “Not a Street” street (access road), as I am fond of saying, from McCarthy’s. It runs along the still-active train tracks where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot some deer, and perhaps an albino member of the pack.
Nearby is the most discreet park of the Ward, Mutual Riverfront Park, at the corner of Hamburg and South Streets. It has beautiful gardens and built-in tables and chairs for picnicking: most know it as the place they traverse to get to the kayak launch and dock nearby.
Ballyhoo, Resurgence & Gene McCarthy’s (Photo by Eric Frick)
It must be noted that two local businesses adjacent to one another at the crossroads of South Park Avenue and Hamburg Street are tasty destinations in their own right: Carbone’s, and Undergrounds Coffeehouse and Roastery. Carbone’s is home of masterful Buffalo cup & char pizza and more, and Undergrounds has a following for its layered sandwiches, and coffee and tea-based beverages – in a former funeral home. They also carry kombucha on tap by Big Norwegian Kombucha, now based at nearby 500 Seneca Street.
A favorite activity of mine, a regular ritual, is walking my neighborhood, any time of year, usually in the evening, and ending up at the foot of Hamburg Street. I take in a lengthy view: the river, the grain elevators, and the sky. There are the sounds of industry all around: trains, boats, trucks. Most know this spot as a popular launching site for kayaking in the summer, but it’s where neighbors sit and meditate on this place. People from all over the city come here to fish. Some come here to party, and signs of that are visible the next day.
I love photographing and drawing the places where industry and homes, or industry and nature touch: a view where you can see a grain elevator soaring near a two-story home, or where train tracks intersect a street where geese cross and the bank of the river is nearby. I’ve been known to stop my car to throw it in neutral and jump out when I see something that needs to be photographed immediately: these images have been exhibited by me many times over the years.
Another way that I promote the beauty and wondrousness of my chosen neighborhood is by holding my annual Old First Ward Pub Stroll in early November. I started doing these in 2007 and it has a core group of ardent admirers who always ask if it’s on, beginning in October. It’s a great way to gather friends who share an appreciation of inner-city sites, strolling, and tippling: calling it a stroll rather than a crawl, I have always felt, gives it an air of classiness.
We hit five places and I was able to make it pandemic-friendly, happily, in 2020. I usually mix up the order of stops; destinations include Swannie House, McCarthy’s, Adolf’s, Cook’s, Ballyhoo, The Barrel Factory (corner of Republic and Vandalia), and the elusive (as in its only open Fridays, or sometimes Fridays and Saturdays) Buffalo Bar and Grill on Louisiana Street, home of delicious wings and hand-hewn burgers.
The Barrel Factory, Undergrounds & Adolf’s
There are layers of history in the Ward encompassing its past when all of the grain silos were in full throttle, the river was jammed with boats, and more houses stood (there are empty lots of places that didn’t make it to the present day). Some who’ve lived here their whole lives share family stories about what it was like back when, and some still seem surprised that I have lived here so long without what some call “heritage,” meaning Irish ancestry.
Equal parts Polish and Italian (a true Buffalo blend), I chose the Ward for its sense of open space, accessibility to just about everywhere, and neighborliness. There are changes happening here as in most of the city as our urban reality evolves into the next phase of change and growth. My hope, and biggest wish, is that the Ward, my chosen home, never loses its quirky charms.
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