“The City of No Illusions”
For the first installment of hopefully dozens of blog entries, my travel series, Rust Belt Tales, chose Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is a mix of East Coast briskness and Midwestern friendliness. Strategically located on the former Erie Canal at the eastern end of Lake Erie, Buffalo was built on the fortunes of steel, grain and automobiles. Buffalo reached its population peak in 1950 at around 580,000 residents. Population has dwindled to around 260,000, but most, including myself, feel as though the population hemorrhage has stopped. Buffalo has a hearty, blue-collar, hard-working, no-nosense DIY ethic that is transforming the city. Among the vacant parcels, abandoned buildings and former manufacturing sites, a new Buffalo is rising.
After driving over one hour from Rochester on the New York State Thruway (why the hell do they have people handing out tickets – no wonder the taxes are so high) on a warm day with gray skies, I was in the mood for some breakfast, and I knew just the place: Paula’s Donuts. Located in the tidy northern Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, I came to Paula’s to try the uniquely Buffalo Peanut Stick Donut. I was even more excited when I found Paula’s runs a breakfast special where you can get a breakfast sandwich, a coffee and a donut for $5.00. I chose a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on an everything bagel and topped it with hot sauce and ketchup. It was exactly what I needed to start the day. After finishing the sandwich, the donut that was staring at me for the past five minutes was about to be devoured. What you get is a cake donut topped with some sort of white icing and rolled in crushed peanuts. This thing is a monster. It took me about five minutes to slay this dense delight. Paula’s was so good, I went back again the second day and ordered the exact same breakfast. I even took two donuts home.
After enjoying the peanut stick donut and breakfast sandwich, I headed to another Buffalo institution, Watson’s Candies. Watson’s makes a special treat that will make any Buffalonian drool just thinking about it: the Sponge Candy. Made by Watson’s for decades, Sponge Candy is a seafood-like, crunchy molasses candy enrobed with dark or milk chocolate that quickly melts in your mouth. I had to resist the temptation to try these, as my intention was to bring them home to Michigan. Upon actually trying them, I was hooked and was sad I did not buy more.
Don’t worry, this is not a food blog. This is a travel blog – in particular, documenting my impression of Rust Belt cities. After putzing around and procuring some chocolates to take with me, I headed to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, now the Richardson-Olmsted Complex. I had done my research beforehand, and was impressed with the massive and unique architecture and tales of abuse, neglect, overcrowding and torture that have taken place at the asylum. As I drove down Forest Avenue, I started to see two massive, patina towers peek out. I was listening to the local public radio station and right as I pulled into the complex, they were discussing the complex and how they turned a potion of it into a urban resort and conference center. What timing! Upon arrival, I was in awe of how large this complex was and how detailed the architectural features were. Made of sandstone and brick, this complex was built in 1870 on over 90 acres of land. Designed by famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson, this building coined the architectural term Richardsonian Romanesque. It originally featured a large central administration building flanked by the two towers, and had six wards on each side, forming a V-shape. To preserve this National Historic Landmark, a corporation was formed and lawsuits ensued to save this beautiful building. Parts of the building are undergoing restoration, with planned restoration of the entire complex over the next several years. The entire complex is a fenced-in construction site and is patrolled by police to deter would-be explorers.
I stopped by the desk of the newly-opened Hotel Henry, and an employee graciously showed me a hotel room. The rooms are all modern, but keep the historic nature of the building intact with the large doors and high ceilings. Do you dare stay there? After spending a good hour at the asylum and still feeling in a spooky mood, I headed to Forest Lawn Cemetery. A cemetery, you ask? I often visit cemeteries in new cities to catch a glimpse of who the prominent people were in the city, as well as how they are treated in the afterlife. This sprawling 270-acre cemetery is the final resting place of such notable Buffalonians as Rick James, President Millard Fillmore and many other prominent figures from Buffalo. There were several birdwatchers with professional-looking cameras at the cemetery when I arrived. They seemed particularly taken with the stone bridge over the creek.
As I was winding my way through the peaceful cemetery, I noticed the quaint and picturesque cemetery chapel. After spending some reflection time in the cemetery, I travelled across town to South Buffalo to see the abandoned grain elevators at Silo City. Nestled among the meandering Buffalo River are what many affirm as the largest collection of grain silos in the world. Buffalo became an important grain distribution center for the entire world with its location on Lake Erie and the Erie Canal. When globalization and free trade increased, Buffalo just could not compete any longer. Thus, we are left with an enormous concentration of grain silos in different states of decay. I was in awe of how tall some of the silos are and how many of them there are. As I was exploring around near the river, an older, scruffy gentleman rode up on a bicycle and told me I could not be back here do to liability issues. I explained I was from out-of-town, and he then instructed me to a different silo to explore. After driving the car and parking again, I wandered around the back of the silo facing the Buffalo River. I was amazed to see an old ship anchored to the back of the silo (The S.S. Columbia), slowly rusting away with time, just like the grain elevator it is tied to. After spending a good amount of time at Silo City, I had worked up an appetite and had remembered reading about Buffalo-style pizza. I knew just the place to satisfy my craving: La Nova Pizzeria. La Nova is located in Buffalo’s Westside neighborhood and has been dishing out pies since the 1950s. In addition to pizza, La Nova offers wings too. Buffalo-style pizza is characterized by a thicker crust (with sesame seeds), a more savory pizza sauce, plenty of cheese and thick-cut pepperoni that curls and chars as it cooks, leaving a nice puddle of grease. I washed down two slices of pepperoni pizza with a PJ’s Loganberry Drink. What the hell is loganberry, you ask? Loganberry is a Western New York staple soft drink that is made by two different companies. It is syrupy sweet and non-carbonated, and tastes like a mix of blackberry and raspberry. It is definitely a must-try when visiting Buffalo. After feeling the grease settle in, I decided to check out an abandoned railroad station currently under remediation and renovation, the Buffalo Central Terminal. I started getting glimpses of the railroad station tower meandering around the adjacent city streets. After circling one of Buffalo’s many roundabouts, I finally set eyes on the railroad station. I was completely amazed at how large and grand this old dame of a railroad station was. Anchored by a large, 18-story tower, this station features a large concourse and several decaying platforms and accessory buildings.I was unable to go into the station, but from the desolate grounds, the exterior is quite haunting. The railroad station is tucked away in an equally decaying and desolate neighborhood. The entrances were all boarded up and there were several signs urging against trespassing. The building is surprisingly spared from large amounts of graffiti, although nearly all of the windows in the platform offices are removed. When I walked closer to the terminal, I saw an old, rusted awning that read The New York Central Railroad Co. Back in its heyday, I can imagine this railroad station anchoring a booming area and bustling with people. There have been (and still are) several proposals for what to do with this hulking structure. After spending over one hour walking the grounds of the Buffalo Central Terminal in awe and amazement, I headed west to the imposing and historic Connecticut Street Armory, located on Buffalo’s West Side. This building encompasses an entire city block and is completely made of sandstone. Built in 1899, the armory features a large central tower and several adjoining defense towers. It is currently home to the New York National Guard’s 74th Regiment. Located nearby is Lafayette High School, which was built in 1903 and is the oldest public school in Buffalo. It is one of the best examples of the French Renaissance Revival architectural style in the United States. In addition to the historic secular architecture, Buffalo has several notable and elaborate churches scattered across the city. Downtown, I stumbled upon the St. Joseph’s Cathedral. This Gothic Revival building is the local diocese’s cathedral church. Located nearly one block away, stands St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese on Western New York. St. John’s Church stands tall over Buffalo’s Black Rock neighborhood. This beautiful red brick church features a large spire with a four-sided clock.Located within walking distance of the Buffalo Central Terminal are three significant Catholic churches built to serve Buffalo’s Polish communities of the Eastside. Nicknamed “Polonia,” this neighborhood numbered around 100,000 immigrants of Polish descent by the 1920s. All three look very similar on first glance, but they are quite different from each other. Corpus Christi was built in 1907.St. Stanislaus was built in 1908 (although the parish was founded much earlier).St. Adalbert’s was established in the late-1800s. All over the city are stark reminders of past fortunes in the way of abandoned buildings. Although not nearly as bad as such cities as Flint, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Youngstown and the like, the City of Buffalo has experienced over a 50% decline in population from its peak in the 1950s. As I was driving around the city, I saw many notable abandoned buildings. This abandoned factory is located on the rickety Elk Street viaduct over the railroad tracks and was undergoing remediation.This abandoned factory was located along the railroad tracks heading north from the Buffalo Central Terminal. This abandoned Wonder Bread Factory is located near Genessee Street in the MLK Park neighborhood. The factory was churning out loaves of bread and other baked goods from 1923 to its closure in 2004. The Church of the Transfiguration has been abandoned for over 25 years. When I was driving by, I noticed that an Arabic bookstore was located next door to this shuttered church. As I continued driving around this neighborhood, I was seeing many women walking around wearing dark clothes that covered their whole bodies. It occurred to me that this Buffalo neighborhood is slowly being resurrected from the dead by Muslims. They are building this area just like the Poles did in the early-1900s by building a community, practically from scratch. I also noticed that while Buffalo has plenty of vacant land, there is a lack of abandoned buildings, relative to other Rust Belt cities I have visited. I surmise that the high tax rates of Western New York can afford to demolish structures more quickly than other states. Located on East Ferry Street, St. Matthew’s Church saw its last mass in 1993. This church had decayed faster than any of the others I saw. This church is not secured very good, making it a favorite for urban explorers. The former Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Warehouse was built in 1910 and occupies an entire Eastside city block and comprises almost 250,000 square-feet. This abandoned factory is located in the Black Rock neighborhood on Tonawanda Street. Besides grain, Buffalo is a Great Lakes steel town at heart. Located here were some of the largest steel mills in the United States. If you drive south on New York Route 5 from downtown, you will see a massive hulking relics of Buffalo’s industrial past. Factories such as Lackawanna and Bethlehem used to be places that employed thousands of people until corporations figured out they could produce steel cheaper overseas in Asia. The result is a massive industrial wasteland just south of downtown that is plagued with contaminants and will take billions of dollars to clean up. This is the former site of the Lackawanna (later Bethlehem) steel mill in South Buffalo. This steel factory was the largest in the world at one time, employing over 20,000 people. As you can see the contamination cleanup and deconstruction is in progress. This site is over 500 acres in size and is listed as a Class 2 Superfund Site. Further south and across Route 5 from the Lackawanna site is another steel plant that is decaying and/or being demolished. I was haunted by the stark steel shell and broken windows of this abandoned building. I can only imagine how many people worked at this factory in its heyday. I figured I had enough industrial vapors for one day, and decided to conclude my first day in Buffalo. Before heading out of Buffalo, there was one staple food that had been ruminating in my head for months – Beef on Weck. Besides smaller, neighborhood joints where one could procure this local delicacy, there are two renown establishments that serve it up – Schwabl’s and Charlie the Butcher. I chose Charlie the Butcher on price and location relative to the ride back to Rochester. I ordered at the counter and the sandwich was delivered to my table in less than five minutes. The standard here is the hand-carved roast beef, dipped in au jus and served on a kummelweck roll crusted with salt and caraway seeds. The sandwich is served with a dill pickle spear and a side of au jus for dipping. On the table is a container of horseradish, which is essential to this sandwich. Take the top bun off, put on a liberal amount of horseradish, put the top bun, dip a corner into the au jus and take a bite. This is one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. Make sure and wash the beef on weck down with some birch beer. On my second day in Buffalo, I arrived to sunny and windy conditions. It was a nice spring day and the sky was a deep cobalt blue, a nice contrast to the gray clouds so typical of the Great Lakes region. I intended to spend the entire day walking around downtown, before making the eight-hour drive back to Grand Rapids. There are some really cool, striking architectural delights in downtown Buffalo if you look around. The Electric Tower is designed in the Beaux Arts style, and was built in 1912. The four-story, Gothic Revival Old Post Office was built in the late-1890s and features a 244-foot-tall tower. It is currently occupied by Erie Community College. Built in 1929, the Rand Tower is shown with Lafayette Square in the foreground. The Rand Tower is just over 400 feet tall, and some say it served as the inspiration for the Empire State Building. Built in 1925, the Neoclassical Liberty Tower features two miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty on the roof. I don’t often do many touristy things when visiting a new city, but I would be remiss if I did not visit the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. Located on the waterfront near the new Canalside district, this museum includes three decommissioned Navy vessels open to the public. You start the tour aboard the USS The Sullivans, which is a destroyer named after five brothers (the Sullivan brothers) that were all killed aboard the USS Juneau by the Japanese in 1942. I have never toured a warship before. It was very, very cool to see how the ship functioned. There is a lot of walking up and down narrow staircases and squeezing through tight doors. People were definitely smaller back then. What intrigued me was the sleeping areas. The servicemen were stacked up three high on vinyl cots. There was definitely a shortage of space. Next, you walk over a bridge and tour the cruiser, the USS Little Rock. Although the ship was completed after World War II, the USS Little Rock saw some action in the Mediterranean and the Carribean. The coolest sight in the ship was the giant missile loading area. After snaking my way through the cruiser, the third ship is a submarine, dubbed the USS Croaker. This submarine was very small and tight to maneuver through, giving me appreciation for the sailors who spent time on this ship. The USS Croaker saw action in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. I though the battle flag of the USS Croaker explained their name and mission: a ship named after a croaking fish who’s mission was to bomb the Japanese. After spending a few hours aboard the USS The Sullivans, the USS Little Rock and the USS Croaker, I felt it was time to conclude my visit to Buffalo by strolling downtown for a visit to Buffalo’s Art Deco masterpiece City Hall. Built in the early-1930s, this is one of the United States’ greatest examples of municipal extravagance. The fact that Buffalo could afford this type of building speaks to its past riches and fortune. This 32-story building soars over adjacent Niagara Square. It was a particularly windy day when I visited, and rumor has it, that this building used to be cooled by the prevailing Lake Erie winds.One of the highlights of City Hall is the stained glass skylight on the 13th floor in the City Council chambers. The sunlight was hitting just right to show off this elegant craftsmanship in the otherwise dark room. The murals, statues and friezes in the lobby and entry are a site to behold. I imagine the amount of time it took to finish this building with so many details to attend to. The best part of City Hall is the FREE Observation Deck located on the 28th floor, which provides a pristine, 360-degree view of Buffalo and Lake Erie. Buffalo lives up to its moniker, “The City of No Illusions.” Everything Buffalo shows you is face-value. What you see is what you get. The citizens of Buffalo know they have a challenge to restore this city to what it could be – not what it used to be. Luckily. with architectural treasures, history, location relative to Canada, access to fresh water, and hard-working spirit, I truly believe this city has vast potential to be great again.
Eric Dykstra 2017