Buffalo, pre-wrecking ball

Post Author: Nate Dorr

By chance, we run into two men on a city contract to tear down hundreds of Buffalo’s abandoned homes in the next few months. One of them spots while the other manipulates the claw of a backhoe to tear out floors and support until walls and roof spill inward.

At 9:30, they’re already on their second house of the chilly morning, only a tiny piece of an ongoing five year/5,000 house demolition project, all over the city. They describe the job as “taking out the trash.” Passing locals acknowledge that the empty husks of buildings have to go, but wish that they could have been restored or replaced with something other than empty space.

Loss of jobs has driven away half of the city’s 1950’s peak population of half a million and left their former homes, boarded and slowly decaying in place, in many of the city’s working-class neighborhoods. Demolished, these former homes leave gaping vacant lots, or in especially hard hit neighborhoods, whole stretches of empty fields. It’s a disconcertingly common sight even only a few streets away from the mansions and tree-lined Olmstead-designed promenades leading to Delaware Park and the site of the Pan American Exposition of 1901. Then, Buffalo was one of the biggest and most economically successful cities in America, but in 1957, much of the shipping traffic previously sent through the Eerie Canal was rerouted by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and all that changed.

First Ward

Despite this, many of those who’ve stayed seem to be doing okay. Later, down in the First Ward, the evening is quiet. Massive grain elevators tower over the narrow houses of the predominantly Irish neighborhood, nearly encircling it. Many of the elevators around here are still (or again) operating, still providing jobs for many of the residents, as throughout the Ward’s history. While other elevators stand silent, and many more have been knocked down in the years of slow Rust Belt decline (a turn-of-the-century map indicated 97, of which a fraction remain), life goes on. Here, abandoned houses are rarer and there’s an anticipatory feeling: tomorrow is the Ward’s own St. Patrick’s parade, and ensuing festivities likely to pack the neighborhood’s small, history-steeped pubs. We’re in one of them, the Swanee House, a preferred spot of workers at the still-operating General Mills elevator just the length of a bridge away. Perhaps there’s also a sense of optimism that comes with the knowledge that new investments and jobs are coming into the city at last. Apparently Forbes Magazine recently rated Buffalo ahead of New York City in job opportunities. At the same time, there are undercurrents of defeatism which may be hard to shake after the long years of economic downturn. Unfinished plans are cited: a subway to nowhere, an ambitious casino abandoned as a looming steel frame a few blocks away, replaced by a much cheaper aluminum box filled with slot machines.

Heads of horses

Two stops on the way up: the towering Tunkhannock Viaduct, which dwarfs the town of Nicholson, PA, and was the largest rail bridge of its kind upon completion in 1915, and the Village of Horseheads. We tried to get the a reason for the name and horsehead reliefs on the offramp from the locals but the story was a little vague. After a great deal of historical detail on a Revolutionary War campaign through the region leading up to a successful