Josh Fehnert reporting from Buffalo: After a post-industrial plummet in its economy, outlook and population, rust-belt city Buffalo is preparing to take flight once again. We find urban renovation, new businesses and positive activism – and independent restaurants that fly without wings.
Also known as: City of Good Neighbours, The Nickel City and The Queen City
US presidents from Buffalo: 2
Notable former residents: F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and Rick James
Distance from Niagara Falls: 32km
“Buffalo is the most important city that no one’s talking about,” says urban-planner Chris Hawley, raising his voice and pausing over a steaming pork pierogi at the dimly lit dining table we’re sharing. Hawley’s delivery is intense and sincere. “Everyone thinks it’s just old tenements and abandoned steel mills but there’s more. It’s a profound place.” Naturally he’s on to something but sadly for Chris – a devoted history buff who lives in the Black Rock neighbourhood – most people don’t even know that about New York State’s second-largest city. Few are ever encouraged to look beyond the clichés of Buffalo hot wings or the city’s middling American football team.
A former bulwark of the steel industry, perched on the eastern tip of Lake Erie in western New York State, the rust-belt city’s rise and decline has been a tale of agonising extremes: prosperity and poverty, improbable economic highs and gallingly long-term lows. But today, for the first time in decades, a glint of revival too.
Things are clearer from the top of the 32-storey art deco gem of a city hall, among the US’s largest when it was built in 1931. You can see the radial spoke-on-a-bike-wheel street plan laid out in the early 1800s, as it was in Washington. Squares emanate out to sporadically grand buildings erected in the economic high watermark of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s Louis Sullivan’s terracotta-relief Guaranty Building, Daniel Burnham’s boxy Ellicott Square offices and the neoclassical Liberty building (topped with miniature Statues of Liberty facing east and west to represent Buffalo’s strategic position as a central trading point). Elsewhere you’ll glimpse a massive Medina sandstone church, a gold-domed bank, theatres lit by twinkling lights and a beaux arts electricity tower – glitzy commissions that speak of the bygone grandeur and largesse of this former industrial hub.
From the observation deck at city hall you’ll also spy the green fringes of Delaware Park to the north, where Fredrick Law Olmsted – with the designs for Central Park in New York freshly completed – went about developing the rolling parklands and green corridors that have peppered the city since the 1860s. Cast your eyes south of the city along the banks of the Buffalo River and you’ll see the concrete cylinders of the grain silos that inspired the work of modernists Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier in the early 20th century. Many of the industrial buildings are now disused, standing hauntingly still and silent against the pale-blue sky.
Unprecedented growth came as Buffalo was chosen to be the end terminal of the Erie Canal waterway, which connected Buffalo to Albany – via the Hudson – to New York in the early 19th century. But the golden age of prosperity eventually began to tarnish. Sparked by the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959 and coupled with the collapse of the steel industry, Buffalo’s port (once among the world’s busiest inland hubs) was left high and dry. Decades of depression, depopulation and strife followed. In 1982, when Bethlehem Steel shut, thousands of jobs were lost overnight and incrementally the city’s key businesses failed and faltered. The once-proud place had become one of the US’s poorest corners – something that is still evident in the impoverished, mainly African-American east side.
But now, for the first time in decades, the population has crept upwards and a frisson of optimism can be felt around the city. “It’s a huge underdog story,” says Newell Nussbaumer, a community activist and founder of online magazine Buffalo Rising. “We hung our hat on the steel industry and it buckled but industry leaving was the best thing that ever happened. If it was still here our buildings would be black with soot,” he adds with a chuckle and a sip of lager.
“In the 1990s the local government was a shit-show so we just decided to do it for ourselves,” continues Nussbaumer, who’s wearing an alice band, mustard-coloured slacks and a floral shirt. He gestures outside from a restaurant on Elmwood Avenue, a bohemian stretch directly north of the city proper where he was born. Now dedicated full-time to finding positive stories for his online magazine, he started his activism by opening a shop and then reclaiming parkland, pulling out dead bushes and hosting concerts. “Very few people want to be first in because it costs money to back them,” he says. “At the time no one had done it.”
Nussbaumer’s work has paved the way for others who are keen to hang out their shingle and take a stake in the city’s high streets. Carpenter and craftsman Sean Wrafter founded his shop on Hertel Avenue in 2015. “I started by making tables in my basement and I got to a point where I had an opportunity to go for it,” says Wrafter in an ever so slightly nasal accent that betrays Buffalo’s proximity to Canada (the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River connects the two nations). “It’s the people that keep me here: I’ve worked in larger markets but years of being down-and-out has made a cheerleader of everyone. People have really come out of the woodwork to support me.” He strains as he manoeuvres a slab of salvaged wood from his truck into the shop he shares with lighting designer Emerson James.
Buffalo’s bins often brim with pieces of wood from dilapidated houses that make for rich pickings in the salvage game: it’s a material that Wrafter has used to build his carpentry business as well as kitting out and decorating eight restaurants to date. “Gentrification is a bad word but Buffalo is blue collar enough to not let it happen,” he says, when pressed on the confidence many in the city are feeling about its future.
Wrafter isn’t exaggerating when he says that people here are cheerleaders for the city. Today it is home to the headquarters of M&T Bank and First Niagara bank but ask almost anyone about Buffalo’s boom years and you’ll be treated to talk of the many products, services and inventions that were honed here in its heyday. That includes the invention of the grain elevator, ripcord parachute, air-conditioning and the paid coffee break; it was also among the first to have electric streetlights and dream up the crash test dummy. It would all feel a little desperate and deeply 20th century if people weren’t so sincerely proud of it.
Shops such as Wrafter’s have helped to recharge the city’s street life and cheap rents have provided a low barrier to entry for experimental businesses, including Vertical Fresh Farms. Founded in early 2015 by Jeremy Witt, the idealistic venture hand-harvests small batches of microgreens: sorrel, popcorn, shiso mint and pea tendrils, many of which are sold to the city’s restaurants. After nine years as a project manager for a software company, Witt decided to plump for a long-term play that he hopes will provide low-cost nutritious food for the community and show what can be done with limited space. Although hopeful, Niagara County-born Witt is wary of playing up Buffalo’s credentials just yet. “There’s a wave of energy but it needs to keep going if the city’s going to grow,” he says. “It’s premature to say the city’s coming back.”
Although a mixture of public and private initiatives to repopulate Buffalo’s city centre is working, there’s more to do. Preservationist and historian Tim Tielman sees beyond the city’s economic upswing to how the built environment could make Buffalo a better place to be. Having supported the remodelling of Larkin Square (a popular spot where food trucks converge on Tuesday afternoons) and the city’s Canalside – a $50m (€45m) revamp of a now-pedestrianised waterside precinct – he’s concerned with creating liveable spaces within the city.
“The 1960s destroyed the urban ecosystem and the small streets that allowed people to survive and run businesses,” says the energetic urbanist, who grew up in public housing on the city’s rough east side to an Indonesian father and Dutch mother. “Giving people something to be proud of is about recreating that ecosystem.” He’s also careful to honour the city’s gilded past without suggesting the place needs to relive its salad days. “Expectations were too high after the successes of the early 20th century and people just need to get on with it,” he says. “There are cities that are 1,000 years old that aren’t what they used to be but that doesn’t mean they’re not fascinating places.”
Buffalo’s city centre may be an “apogee of American architecture” according to Tielman but a few architectural outliers are also firing a newfound interest in the area’s long ignored design heritage. One example is the 1870-built Richardson Olmsted Complex, a foreboding turreted former insane asylum that is slated to become an 88-room boutique hotel by next spring.
Elsewhere in the leafy Olmsted-designed neighbourhood of Parkside sits the Darwin D Martin house, an early example of lauded US architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style creations. Completed in 1905, the sprawling complex, like much of Buffalo, fell into disuse and disrepair before being painstakingly reinstated. The space fell derelict; children used to ride their bikes on the pergola and a 1.5-metre snowdrift broke through the skylight before blocks of ugly flats were added. The faithful refit has been a slow one. Sourcing the Roman bricks used to rebuild the 53-metre walkway alone took eight years, while 13km of saw-cut US oak were added to the place. But crucially it sets the tone for how and why design, architecture and history matter in Buffalo. Fully reopening this autumn, the space offers a springboard for civic pride that generates money for the community as well as honouring the city’s history.
The long abandoned riverside grain silos and factories are also receiving a new lease of life thanks to committed developers. Fourth-generation Buffalonian Doug Swift’s Riverworks development has been renovated as an event space and brewery with four bars, a restaurant and two ice-rinks. As we talk, a steady stream of kayakers splash past, enjoying the Buffalo River and basking in the midday sun.
“When I started you could have shot a cannon down any street in Buffalo and not hit anybody,” says Swift, who has spent $20m (€18m) on the project beside the Buffalo River and insists that the total figure could triple or quadruple as he continues to develop and repurpose these hulking concrete behemoths with partner Earl Ketry. “It’s authentically Buffalo and it’s not been shipped in. People feel that. People are finally opening up their chequebooks and investing,” says the architect-by-training who has worked in the industry for the past 30 years. “Buffalo was on top of its game then it fell off the map and there was a citywide inferiority complex. I wasn’t sure I’d live to see the day I’m seeing.”
Further south along the river sits a cluster of dystopian-looking disused steel-and-concrete structures. After rethinking his plan to turn one into a biomass plant, businessman Rick Smith’s mission took a magnanimous turn when he decided to lease out the spaces for artistic performances. On a grassy patch close to Smith’s Delta 88 convertible a rabble of blues-music fans are massing for an evening gig, while in the hall of the nearby Marine A building an odd-looking troupe called the Wild Things (variously dressed in stilts and laced leather gloves, with a cellist and a singer playing an accordion) are tuning up for an experimental evening performance.
The site has become a place for events, art shows and historical tours. As we explore the 16-storey grain mill we come across a calendar from 1993, the year the building was finally vacated. While many older Buffalonians who worked in these factories for decades see them as a symbol of the city’s decline and failure, a new generation is using these relics of the past to glean something of its future. “We’ve got to get back to the arts and renew and celebrate who we are,” says Smith, his thick moustache twitching beneath a crisp, white 10-gallon hat. “We are trying to step lightly. It’s easy to develop but it’s hard to keep things authentic.”
Several independent restaurants have also bolstered Buffalo’s credentials to brag about something more than its chicken wings. Southern-style restaurant Toutant opened in an abandoned tavern last May after an 18-month revamp. This was after stints in Mexico, the Southern US and a tour of New York State. The 110-cover three-storey spot has maintained its original Douglas fir rafters. It has also added cladding made of wood from abandoned houses and sturdy tables made of hitching posts from Kentucky on top of hardy new Maplewood floors.
The menu features southern specialities and seafood that’s flown here three times a week, including drumfish, amberjack, soft-shell crab and shrimp. The fried chicken (brined, soaked in buttermilk and then pressure-fired in peanut oil) is nothing short of superb. “People have been talking about regeneration for the past 40 years but are finally getting their asses into gear,” says chef and founder James Roberts. “We’re starting to see the dying-off of places that don’t care about what they do.”
A few creative ventures have also found a foothold here. Brandon Davis and Patrick Finan launched the magazine Block Club in 2007 before diversifying its offerings into the 10-strong creative agency they own today. The knee-to-ceiling windows of their airy whitewashed spot just off Main Street illuminate a modish and minimal space that wouldn’t look out of place in London or Los Angeles, decked out with pale wooden floors and hanging tubular pendant lights.
So what’s made Buffalo an attractive place to live and work? “It’s a city that’s not fully formed: it’s pliable, there’s space to play and experiment and make it into the city you want it to be,” says Davis. “That and we stopped hating ourselves,” adds Finan as he fusses Miles, the pair’s deaf but delightfully inquisitive labradoodle. “Unlike our parents’ generation we’ve only seen improvements in Buffalo. And while brain drain has plagued us, some friends in their thirties who want houses are now moving back.”
Finan’s brother Bobby is one such returnee. After stints in New York and upstate he returned to Buffalo to found Tommyrotter, a small-scale distillery and shop in a renovated box factory on Seneca Street, last summer. As well as turning out the likes of a small-batch vodka and an impossibly strong bourbon-barrel gin (feisty at 61 per cent ABV), he sees his business as a contribution to his hometown as much as it is a livelihood. “There’s a satisfaction in making something – bringing intangible things into existence – but it’s a snowball effect, inspired by having seen others stick their neck out and take matters into their own hands.”
“There’s more going on here than cheap culinary pursuits and wreckage,” says a defiant Bobby Finan, standing on the distilling floor below his shop. This recurrent intensity and passion for Buffalo to succeed is a citywide preoccupation. Bored by the blight of industrial decline and pessimism, people have taken matters into their own hands and in so doing offered a shining example to post-industrial cities in the rust belt and beyond. You could say that Buffalo – uncowed by decades of economic calamity – has finally found its wings.
Inn Buffalo: This nostalgic nine-room hotel – the former house of an industrialist – was bought at auction and painstakingly restored to its turn-of-the-century grandeur by Joseph and Ellen Lettieri. Built in 1902, the lodging sits on a leafy residential street a short walk from bohemian Elmwood Village.
619 Lafayette Avenue
+1 716 432 1030
Hotel at the Lafayette: As with most buildings in Buffalo there’s a decent yarn to this grand dame of a hotel. Built in the early 20th century by Louise Blanchard Bethune – purportedly the world’s first charted female architect – it’s a French-revival-style stalwart that has been revived thanks to heavy investment. A comfy option close to much of the city’s finest architecture.
391 Washington Street
+1 716 853 1505
Fern Croft Floral: Erin Lalley-Bauer returned to Buffalo to open her pretty flower shop after studying fine art in Boston. Having occupied her current berth on tree-lined Bryant Street off Elmwood Avenue since December, Bauer now sells pottery and plants alongside a tasteful mix of products, from shears to body oils and soaps.
291 Bryant Street
+1 716 445 3389
Wrafterbuilt: Tasteful furniture made from salvaged wood by Sean Wrafter and industrial light fittings by Emerson James vie for attention in this charming boutique on Hertel Avenue. There are also Linwood candles, Cisco cushions and painted hatchets galore.
1376 Hertel Avenue
+1 716 322 7669
Tommyrotter Distillery: Bobby Finan and Sean Insalco’s distillery opened last summer and its small-batch gins, vodka and bourbon-barrel gin are toothsome take-homes. The shop is also replete with bartending books and gear, including sturdy Japanese cocktail shakers and glassware from Koriko.
500 Seneca Street
+1 716 312 1252
Toutant Buffalo: This three-storey restaurant excels at soulful southern-inspired fare. The shrimp and grits, creole jambalaya and fried-shrimp poboy betray chef James Roberts’ Louisiana roots but the flavours show off his enviable network of upstate New York suppliers.
437 Ellicott Street
+1 716 342 2901
Black Sheep: Steve Gedra’s joint opened in 2014 – his previous spot had been in Elmwood for five years – and the energetic, self-taught chef knows how to make a restaurant. He’s worked in Boston, Nantucket, Colorado and New Mexico and his work is defined by a blissfully short menu, peerless pierogis and perhaps the city’s best – and biggest – pork chop.
367 Connecticut Street
+1 716 884 1100
Resurgence Brewery: Named for Buffalo’s newly buoyed fortunes, this roomy brewery-cum-bar excels in eccentric beers that are made on site, a blood-orange saison and sponge-candy stout among them. Established in 2014, the space is rowdy and welcoming, and features a vast beer garden for warmer days.
1250 Niagara Street
11 716 381 9868
Founding Fathers Pub: This boozer on the edge of Allentown is open until 04.00. Owner Mike Driscoll, a former social-studies teacher, will talk you through the presidential-themed bric-a-brac that lines the walls. Expect local brews and complimentary snacks to the tune of nachos and popcorn.
75 Edward Street
+1 716 855 8944
Silo City: A vast complex of preserved but undeveloped silos on the shores of the Buffalo River, this space is frequently used for art exhibitions, gigs and history tours. A poignant reimagining, reuse and celebration of Buffalo’s once-active industrial quarter.
+1 347 687 6545
City-centre walk: Starting at the hulking art deco town hall, take in the view from the gallery before heading back to street level. There’s you’ll find Louis Sullivan’s terracotta-clad Guaranty Building, Daniel Burnham’s boxy Ellicott Square Building, the former Buffalo Savings Bank and the 13-storey General Electric Tower, all within a short walk.
65 Niagara Square
Delaware Park: The large green centerpiece of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s park system is perfect for picnicking or a run along the shores of Hoyt Lake. The lake was a prominent feature of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, when president William McKinley was assassinated and Tesla’s alternating current was premiered: the then-novel electric lights were powered by water from Niagara Falls, 40km upstream.