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Archive for June 7th, 2020

Note from Angela:  Given what is happening right now in Buffalo and across the country, it doesn’t feel right to write about another “important” white man. I realize my platform isn’t as large as some, but I know I must use my voice to lift those who are suffering and fighting for justice. I know that most of you are here for the history and not the politics, but for the next two months, I am going to only write about streets named after African-Americans.  I am remiss for not doing this sooner.  Our black brothers and sisters have been here since the beginnings of Buffalo, and they deserve more recognition. For more information and resources, please check out the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable website. If you are looking for a list of Black Owned Businesses to support, you can find that at this link.

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Ellicott Mall Property outlined in red. Minnie Gillette Drive shown in yellow.

The first series I’ll be writing about will be a series of four streets in the Ellicott Neighborhood – Minnie Gillette Drive, Delmar Mitchell Drive, Ora Wrighter Drive, and King Peterson Drive.  These four streets were created as part of the same project in the 1990s.  Today, Part 1 will be on Minnie Gillette Drive.  Stay tuned for Parts 2 through 4 which will posted over the next two weeks. 

The Ellicott Neighborhood is a neighborhood on the near East Side of Buffalo.  Up through the first half of the 20th Century, the neighborhood was a diverse neighborhood consisting of Italians and Jews, along with most of Buffalo’s African American residents.  My Italian grandfather was born (on the kitchen table) in this neighborhood in 1928 at the corner of Hickory and Division Streets.  The following map shows the area as it looked in 1950. 

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1950 Map of Ellicott Neighborhood

 

In 1958, much of the Ellicott Neighborhood was completely cleared and demolished in the name of “Urban Renewal”.  In this portion of the neighborhood, the Ellicott Mall public housing project was built.  The Ellicott Mall was run by Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and consisted of eight residential towers that contained 590 apartments.  The JFK Community Center and associated park/playing fields were constructed east of the Ellicott Mall.  Here is an aerial photo of the area in 1966.

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1966 Aerial Photo of Ellicott Neighborhood

By the mid-1960s, the project had begun to deteriorate and the apartments closed in 1981.  There is still an active group of Ellicott Mall residents who lived in the neighborhood and still meet up for Ellicott Mall Reunions to celebrate the bonds of those who lived in the neighborhood.  During the 1990s, the City began planning to redevelop the area.  Norstar, along with First Shiloh Baptist Church, created a mix of housing that is now known as the Ellicott Town Center.  Here is what the area looked like in 1995.

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Aerial Photo of Ellicott Neighborhood from 1995

The project consisted of demolition of four of the towers and replacement with new housing, and renovation of the remaining towers.  The Ellicott Town Center consists of 281 apartments, 48 private townhomes and 24 senior garden apartments.  The project was completed in 1997.  Minnie Gillette Drive is one of the new streets that runs through the Ellicott Town Center. 

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Painting of Minnie Gillette on the Freedom Wall Source: Albright Knox

Minnie Gillette was born in Alabama in 1930, but was raised in Buffalo.  She attended Buffalo State College, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition. She worked at Columbus Hospital on Niagara Street as a dietary supervisor.

Mrs. Gillette was elected to the Erie County Legislature in 1977. She was the first African American woman elected to the Legislature. Her candidacy was backed by the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties. Her obituary called her “a feisty political figure who strayed from party lines in the interest of her constituents”. She didn’t get involved in partisan politics, instead focused on serving her community.

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Minnie Gillette and Joan Bozer meeting with contractors as they convert the post office building into ECC. Source: Buffalo News

Mrs. Gillette worked with Legislator Joan Bozer to convert the former Post Office Building into the Erie Community College City Campus.  According to the Buffalo News, in 1969, in a letter from Erie County Democratic Chairman Peter Crotty, the building was called “a mongrel structure of no authentic period, dungeon-like in its aspect, repellent to the visitor and lacking in the convenience suitable for habitation”.  The building was considered “a monstrous pile of death-like stone”. 

ecc city campus

“A monstrous pile of death stone”? ECC City Campus

At the time, people did not always appreciate old buildings, and the idea of having an entire city block to redevelop was enticing to those who thought new was better.  Legislators Bozer and Gillette helped change that attitude, save the building, and bring ECC into the City.  At the time, ECC was only located at what is now their North Campus, in Amherst/Williamsville.  

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Buffalo Library’s Ram Van.  Source

Mrs. Gillette helped to establish the “Ram Van”, which was a traveling lending library. She also fought to ensure that minority contractors got a fair share of county contracts.  While in the Legislature, She was named the Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen for 1979. She received the University at Buffalo’s Outstanding Women of Western New York Government Award in 1980.

Mrs. Gillette served two terms as a legislator. After she left, she continued her work advocating for the homeless, the poor and the needy. She was appointed as the first director of the County’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program. She worked at a food pantry in the Towne Gardens Housing Project. She won a Martin Luther King Award in 1990 from the Erie County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mrs. Gillete was very involved with many organizations. She served on the board of the William-Emslie YMCA and helped to establish the senior citizens center there. She was a chairwoman of the Seventh (Ellicott) District Planning Board, on the Advisory Board of the Equal Opportunity Center on Washington Street, president of the Association of Retarded Children and president of the New York State Community Action Agency. She was active in the Community Action Organization, the Western New York Health System Agency, the Paramount Chapter 57 of the Order of the Eastern Star, the Jesse E. Nash Health Center and the Buffalo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mrs. Gillette died on January 7, 1992. She had been ill with cancer for a year before she died, but she continued to work on community projects up until about two weeks before she died. Mrs. Gillete had three children – Hasinah Ramadhan, Loretta Gillette, and Calvin Gillette.  Mrs. Gillette is featured on the Freedom Wall at Michigan and Ferry.  In addition to the street, the auditorium at ECC City Campus is named for her.

Stay tuned for the next streets in this series, which will be posted over the course of the next two weeks.  Part Two, about Delmar Mitchell, can be read at this link.  If you haven’t subscribed to the blog, you can do so on the upper right hand side of the screen when on a desktop computer.  You can also like the page on facebook at facebook.com/buffalostreets to follow along there.  To check out other streets that have been written about, check out the street index here.  If you grew up in or currently live in the Ellicott Neighborhood, please reach out – either by leaving a comment here or emailing me at buffalostreets@gmail.com –  I’d love to hear your stories. 

Sources:  

  • Allen, Carl and Dave Ernst.  “Minnie Gillette Dies at 62:  First Black Woman Legislator”.  Buffalo News.  January 7, 1992.
  • Kirst, Sean.  “In demolition-happy 1970s, the fight to save the old Post Office”.  Buffalo News.  November 30, 2018.
  • Sapong, Emma.  “Resurrected public housing project to be celebrated Sunday”.  Buffalo News.  July 9, 2014.
  • Kraus, Neil.  Race, Neighborhoods and Community Power:  Buffalo Politics 1934-1997.  State University of New York Press, Albany:  1997. 

 

 

 

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