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Archive for the ‘East Side’ Category

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North Oak Street shown in red.  Source:  Google

Today, we are going to be talking about urban renewal again, specifically what was known as the “Oak Street Redevelopment Project”. The project revolved around the North Oak neighborhood, bounded by Best, Michigan, Goodell, and Main Streets.  This is basically the same boundary as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus today.  North Oak formed the central corridor of the neighborhood. It’s ironic that the street they named the project after was pretty much removed from the area, as Oak Street now runs disjointedly through the medical campus.

North Oak Street runs between Genesee Street and High Street.  This is one of the odd street naming conventions in this area. Elm Street and Michigan Avenue remain Elm and Michigan north of Genesee Street, without the north demarcation. There was historically a North Elm Street, running between Northampton and Riley Streets, but it was renamed Holland Place.  Similarly, nearby Pine Street north of Broadway becomes North Pine while the other streets in this area do not change as they continue across Broadway.  I am not sure of the rationale behind these naming conventions, in the case of North Oak, I imagine it could possibly be to differentiate the residential portion of Oak Street from the business section which runs from Genesee Street to Seneca Street.  The southern section of Oak Street has also been changed greatly by urban renewal as well.  In a separate urban renewal project, everything between Elm and Oak Streets in downtown was demolished.

Historically, the North Oak area was referred to as “The Orchard and the Hill”.  The Orchard is what we would refer to today as the Fruit Belt, with the streets named after fruits.  The Fruit Belt term began to be used in the 1950s and 60s.  More to come on the Fruit Belt in future posts.  The Hill was built around the area that is now Buffalo General Hospital, first built on High Street between North Oak and Ellicott Streets.  High Street is the top of the hill, hence its name as the highest street.  Due to the hospital, the area is sometimes called “Hospital Hill”.  When the hospital first opened in 1858, High Street was a rural area, outside of the city.  Keep in mind that when the City limits were set in 1832, North Street and Jefferson Street were set as the outer limits of the City of Buffalo – most of the city was still concentrated between the Terrace and Chippewa Street.  This was the northeastern corner of the city limits.  Up through the 1860s, much of the area between Mulberry Street and Main Street was open fields.  This is where the circus would pitch tents during summers.  

The gentle slope of the hill set the area aside from the rest of the East Side.  As buildings grew on Jefferson, Genesee, and Main Streets, the neighborhood was hidden from view.  The streets had lots of trees and gardens.  There weren’t large mansions or estates in the neighborhood, so there was a street face of small frame houses built close to the street line.  This created a continuous  urban feel to the neighborhood.  The area was mostly residential.  Many of the first residents came in the 1830s when a group of German Lutherans fled the religious persecution they were experiencing and came to Buffalo to settle in this area.  Due to the German’s proclivity towards brewing, the area is also sometimes referred to as “Brewer’s Hill”.  

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Example of a business in the neighborhood – Wil-Bee Dry Cleaners on Ellicott Street near Best Street, circa 1944. Building was built around 1864. Source: George Apfel, friend of author

The main commercial streets were Virginia, High, and Carlton Streets, which were lined with two and three-story cast iron and brick buildings with stores downstairs and apartments above.  Most of the residents lived and worked in the neighborhood – bakers, confectioners, seamstresses, carpenters, blacksmiths, and coopers.  Taverns were important institutions and social centers where the neighbors would mingle.  There were also many churches in the neighborhood.  One of the jokes in the neighborhood was that if you had a nickel, you could have a pint of beer for four cents and still have a penny left for the church offering plate.

By 1894, the neighborhood was mostly built out – mainly with one and a half-story wood-frame houses and two-story commercial buildings.  By the 1920s, this was one of the densest areas of the city.  Since the area developed as a working-class neighborhood, many of the residents relied on shops and services that were only a short walk away.  This was the horse and buggy era, and at that time, those were typically not within the means of a working-class family.  The Washington Market at Washington and Chippewa allowed many of the residents access to a variety of fresh produce and products just a short walk away. 

North Oak Street was a quiet, tree-lined street.  During the 1880s, North Oak was considered the Delaware Avenue of the East Side.  There were stately homes with tall windows and formal gardens.  Three mayors grew up on the street.  Soloman Scheu, Mayor of Buffalo from 1878-80 lived at North Oak and Goodell Street.  Mayor Scheu was famous in the neighborhood for the dinners hosted at his home and his New Years Parties were the hit of the neighborhood.   After his death, his house was used as the Neighborhood House for many years, one of Buffalo’s earliest settlement houses.  The house was torn down to become the M. Wile Company clothing factory.  Louis Fuhrmann, Mayor from 1910-17, lived at North Oak near Tupper in a big frame house with massive fireplaces.  After he was mayor, he moved to the Wicks House on Jewett Street (across from the Darwin Martin House).  Charles E Roesch, Mayor from 1930-33 lived at 633 North Oak.  He was born and raised on the street and continued to live there while he was Mayor.

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Oak Street School. Source: Buffalo (N.Y.). Department of Public Works, “School No. 15, Oak Street School,” B&ECPL Digital Collections, accessed May 18, 2021, http://digital.buffalolib.org/document/1765.

Public School No. 15 was located on North Oak Street, at the corner of Burton Street.  The College Crèche, a day nursery was also on North Oak Street.  The Crèche served 40 children whose mothers were widowed or deserted.  Buffalo General Hospital, the first big hospital built in Buffalo was at North Oak and High Street.  In the 1850s and 60s, the Ladies Auxiliary helped fight to get the hospital built.  Nearly every society woman in Buffalo was a part of the auxiliary.  It was a small feat at first to get the hospital built, but it continued to grow and prosper into the entity that we know today.  

There were also many churches in the neighborhood, with two churches on North Oak Street – the Hellenic Eastern Orthodox Church, built like an old Greek Temple was located at 361 North Oak Street.  The Hellenic Church eventually moved into the former North Presbyterian Church at Delaware and Utica in December 1952, having outgrown its Oak Street space.  St. Mark’s United Evangelical Church was also located on North Oak Street near Tupper Street.  In 1929, St. Mark’s merged with St. Paul’s and used their building on Ellicott Street between Tupper and Goodell.  The church was demolished as part of the construction of the Oak Street interchange of the Kensington Expressway in 1970.  

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Oak Street Renewal Area shown in blue. Extant streets shown in green. Non Extant Streets shown in red. Source:  Author, based on historic maps

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Houses on Ralph Street.  Source

The North Oak neighborhood was a dense neighborhood.  I often get questions from readers researching their family histories.  They’ll say, “I found the house was at this address, but I can’t seem to find it on a map”.  Usually, it’s because a street name has changed, which we’ve covered a few on this blog.  But sometimes, it’s because the street no longer exists.  Here are some of the forgotten streets of the North Oak Neighborhood:

  • Burton Street- a portion of this still exists, but the road used to reach all the way to Mulberry Street
  • Edwin Alley – between Elm and Michigan, running from Goodell to Tupper
  • Werrick Alley – between Elm and Michigan, running from Goodell to Burton Alley
  • Ralph Alley – between Elm and Michigan, running from Burton to Virginia
  • Hammond Alley – between Elm and Michigan, running from Virginia to Carlton
  • Demond Alley – between Oak and Elm, running from Tupper to Virginia
  • Coolin Alley – between Oak and Elm, running from Virginia to Carlton
  • Morton Alley – between Ellicott and Oak, running from Goodell to Virginia
  • Neptune Alley – between Elm and Michigan, running from Carlton to High

While in many parts of the city, the Alley name is reserved for the rear part of the property, often for service to a carriage house or garage.  However, these alleys in the North Oak Neighborhood were lined with their own rows of houses, due to the density of the neighborhood.  Leading to some of the confusion is that some of these alleys had additional names over the years:

  • Demond was Boston Alley
  • Morton was Weaver Alley
  • Edwin was Goodell Alley
  • Hammond was Swiveler Alley
  • Neptune was Ketchum Alley
  • Coolin Alley was also called Codlin or Collin Alley
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Example of the type of housing in the North Oak Street neighborhood.  Source:  New York State Department of Health

The neighborhood continued up through the 1950s when project talks began for the redevelopment of the area.  The city applied for funding from the federal government in the late 1950s.  This was the City’s fourth federal aid renewal project.  The City applied for the funds “with the background of the decade old failure of the Waterfront and Ellicott District renewal projects to materialize and slow pace of developing the Thruway Industrial Park as a renewal project.”  The City was slow to move on the Oak Street project, despite announcing plans, leading to many tenants abandoning the area prematurely.  This furthered the decline and blight of the neighborhood.  

Mayor Frank Sedita signed the contract between the city’s Urban Renewal Agency and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the 145 acre Oak Street Redevelopment Project Area.  The project to acquire and clear the land and build new housing was expected to take five years and a phased approach.  They planned to do a “tear down-then building” approach which at the time was referred to as a “checker-board” method of demolition and new construction.  The intent was to help minimize the relocation difficulties for residents living in the area.  The long-range plan called for 1500 new housing units built over five years.  Approximately 514 families and 311 more individuals would be relocated as a result of these activities.

The Oak Street Redevelopment Project was to include

  • 1544 low/moderate and elderly housing units
  • Recreation facilities
  • Spot residential rehabilitation
  • Commercial Plazas
  • Hospital and Medical Facility Expansions – a $4 Million Roswell Park Research Studies Center, a $4.3 Million Roswell Park Cancer Drug Center, a $4.5 Million Buffalo General Mental Health Center, and a $1.6 Million Buffalo Medical Group building.
  • Three new parking ramps – one on Michigan between Carlton and Virginia Streets – to serve Roswell Park Memorial Institute, one at the SW corner of Michigan and North to serve Buffalo General Hospital, and one on Goodell between Oak and Ellicott Streets – to serve the Courier News, Trico, Eastman Machine, M. Wile and other industrial businesses in the area. These new parking ramps would have built 4,100 new spaces.  The largest of the three ramps, the 2000 space ramp on Goodell to serve the industrial businesses was never built.

The initial new housing was at the site adjacent to what was then the Fosdick-Masten Vocational School.  They purchased 39 parcels and tore down 29 buildings along Michigan between North and Best Streets.  In April 1968, the Board of Education agreed to release the open space around the school to BURA for these new apartments.  The school had been planning to move to Main and Delevan when their new school was completed.  This never happened and Fosdick-Masten graduated its last class in 1979.  The school was used as a warehouse and the interior was stripped, with plans to be demolished.  Those plans also did not come to fruition.  In 1980, the school became home to City Honors School.   Along the Michigan Avenue side of the site, they built 160 units of townhouses and garden-style apartments there, called Woodson Gardens.  A new street, Fosdick Avenue, was built to serve these apartments.  Woodson Gardens were demolished in 2013 and the school is raising money to rebuild their open space into Fosdick Field.  

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, which was located at 161 Goodell Street worked with the city to be the nonprofit sponsor of the first phase of construction activities.  St. Philip’s was founded in 1861 in a basement on Elm Street between North and South Division.  At the time, they were one of the seven original African American Episcopal churches in the country!  St. Philip’s expanded in 1921 when they moved to Goodell Street, to the former home of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.  The church had been built in 1892.  St. Andrew’s moved to Main Street in University Heights.  St. Philip’s worked with the city to help relocate the residents into new housing.  The church was originally going to be moved to a new site within the neighborhood – to the corner of North and Ellicott Street.  Those plans fell through.  In 1973, St. Philip’s church was razed by the urban renewal project.  The church secretary stated, “We survived as an African American community for more than 150 years.  Now we’ve been through trials and tribulations.  It wasn’t all pretty and sweet.  It’s just the way it was”.  The congregation now calls the Delevan-Grider neighborhood their home.

William Gaiter was interviewed in the early 1970s as a leader in the Black Community and was looking forward to seeing the new housing developed in the area.  Especially the 500 units of low to moderate-income housing for elderly people that was planned for the site.  By 1975, the units had still not been built, due to lack of funds. 

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Example of some of the run down houses in the North Oak Street neighborhood.  Source:  New York State Department of Health

The project was originally planned to start in 1962 and be completed by 1965.  The Urban Renewal Commissioner, James Kavanaugh, earmarked $599,000 for razing properties before the Common Council and the Federal Government approved the project.  This lead to displacement of residents before the relocation study was completed, so they were not eligible to receive their federal grants and assistance with relocating their families, who were made homeless by the urban renewal project.  The buildings started to be razed in May of 1965 because Roswell Park Memorial Institute was planning to start their expansion project, so they needed the building site to be clear.  Buildings were demolished, even though the federal project wouldn’t be approved until July of that year.  In May 1968, the City of Buffalo went to court to obtain titles to 15 of these parcels near Roswell.  The owners would be paid 75% of the federally established price for their properties while the properties went through the condemnation process.  They had already obtained titled to 20 of the properties in this area.  

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605 North Oak Street. Source

I was able to speak to the Salvatore Sisters, Melody and Michelle.  Their family lived at 605 North Oak Street.  The house had been purchased by their parents June and Michael Salvatore in the mid-1950s.  The house had been divided into four apartments, they lived in the upper rear apartment.  They attended 2nd and 3rd grade at School No 15.  They would go to Barone’s corner store at North Oak and Carlton.  Like many property owners in the area, the family depended on the rental income.  Offers were made to purchase the properties in the area by eminent domain.  The City’s offer to buy the house didn’t take into consideration the loss of the rental income in addition to the loss of their property and their home.  June Salvatore hired an attorney and sued the city for fair value.  In the meantime, houses around them were demolished, one by one.  Construction crews would leave debris around their property to intimidate them and block access to their home.  In the end, 605 North Oak was the last house standing on the North Oak and Elm Streets.  June Salvatore refused to be intimidated by this and continued fighting.  The sign went up on their house that said “We would rather fight than submit to legal robbery.”  Eventually, June Salvatore won the battle and was given $35,000 for the house (about $240,000 in 2021 dollars).  The family moved in 1968.  

While June Salvatore won her battle, how many were not so lucky?  

 

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Vacant lot in foreground where homes had been demolished. Houses in the rear waiting to be demolished.  Source:  New York State Department of Health

Demolition of this area around Roswell began in January 1968.  There were 126 people living on the block bounded by Oak, Elm, Carlton, and Virginia.  There were also commercial properties – businesses on the site included Joseph A Kozy, Volker Brothers Inc, Inro Inc, Pollack Building Corp, and Kreiss Sign Company.

A second area that began to be cleared in 1968 was the 8 blocks that became McCarley Gardens eventually.  This area was home to more than 530 people.  There were also five commercial properties   – the Good Neighbors Store, Nino’s Entrata, W. Martym Cleaner, Mildred’s Food Store, and T&L Cleaners.  Two other non-residential properties were in this area – St. Philip’s Episcopal on Goodell Street and Neighborhood House Association on Ralph Street.  Neighborhood House was a settlement house founded in 1894.  We discussed St. Philip’s above.  In 1981, Neighborhood House merged with Westminster Community House to form Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers (BFNC).  BFNC Drive, which runs between the Locust Street exit of the Kensington Expressway and Goodell Street, is named after the organization, which provides family focused services for adults and youths living in low income and disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lockport.  The road was previously North Service Drive was renamed after the organization in 1994 as part of their centennial celebrations.  

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North Oak Street “Wasteland”. Source: Buffalo Courier Express, May 1973

By 1972, only 60% of the area had been demolished when President Nixon put a freeze on federal funds to build low-cost housing.  The area was left littered with building debris and rubble.  The City had planned to avoid what had happened in the Ellicott District, where the land laid cleared, vacant and strewn with trash for years.  Instead, the Oak Street project created an eyesore on the edge of Downtown, right where motorists were exiting the new Kensington Expressway.  As motorists drove into Downtown, they were greeted with a view of acres of rubble-strewn land, surrounded by empty, crumbling houses.  The City’s Community Development Commissioner’s solution was to screen the view by erecting a fence.  The fence held a sign explaining that the clearance activities were a “measure of progress toward making Buffalo a more attractive and livable city”.  

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The Oak Street Redevelopment Area outlined in blue. Buildings shown in black are still standing. Buildings in red have been demolished. Source: Author, based on 1951 Sanborn Maps

In 1951, the Oak Street Redevelopment Area was home to 1308 buildings.  Only 41 of those buildings remain standing today.  Of the 1268 buildings demolished, 461 were residential:  434 frame houses, 1 rooming house, 13 flats (Buffalo upper and lowers), and 13 apartment buildings.  As was the case with the Salvatore home, many of the houses had been subdivided into multiple units.  The average number of people per unit in this neighborhood was 2.93 people.  Conservatively, this neighborhood had been home to at least 2000 people, and likely many more.  The 1500 housing units that were planned for the redevelopment area resulted in only 513 being built….with most of those units built nearly two decades after the residents were kicked out of their homes and the buildings demolished.  

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Roosevelt Apartments, 1978Source

In 1971, the City unveiled plans for its first big modernization project.  This was 80 apartments designed for the elderly at the building at 11-23 High Street, the Roosevelt Apartments.  The building is a seven-story Renaissance Revival Style building that was built in 1914.  The city acquired the building as part of the Oak Street Redevelopment.  This was the first project of its kind undertaken by BURA.  The current rents in the building were about $63 and they were expected to go up to $79/month ($520 in 2021 dollars) for one-bedroom and efficiency apartment.  The project never happened and the city turned out all remaining tenants in 1973 because they were losing money on the building.  the building sat vacant, on the brink between demolition and revitalization.  Groups went back and forth trying to figure out a way to renovate the building and find financing.  The building was slated to be torn down if one of the interested groups, Roosevelt Renaissance Group, was unable to obtain financing for their project.  The building sat vacant and abandoned until 1984 when it was converted into 113 apartments subsidized for the elderly.  The apartments are currently managed by MJ Peterson.

After years of sitting vacant and being an eyesore at the edge of Downtown, McCarley Gardens was built.  The complex consists of 150 affordable apartments,  with rents subsidized by HUD.  The groundbreaking for McCarley Gardens was in December 1977.  The site was built by and is still owned by, Oak-Michigan Development Corporation, an affiliate of St. John Baptist Church, located just across Michigan Ave from the complex.  The 15-acre housing site is located between Goodell, Oak, Michigan, and Virginia Streets.  They were the first low to moderate-income housing built in Buffalo in a decade and they received more than 1000 applications for the 150 units before opening.  The first tenants moved into the complex in March 1979 and the site was formally dedicated in July of that year.  McCarley Gardens is named after Burnie McCarley, a pastor of St. John’s.  Burnie’s daughter Jennie married King Peterson, for whom King Peterson Road is named.  

When McCarley Gardens opened, they were touted by the Courier Express as an “outstanding example of what can be accomplished through private initiative” and that St. John Baptist should be “highly commended for pursuing the project over mountains of red tape and craters of bureaucracy to a successful completion”.  The project took nine years to be completed.  The hope was that McCarley Gardens would serve as a rebirth for the neighborhood.    

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UB Medical School, Main and Allen Source

In the early 2000s, University of Buffalo proposed removing McCarley Gardens to turn the site into an academic and research facility to support the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.  The plan was vehemently opposed by both residents and politicians.  By 2014, UB backed away from those plans, building their new Medical School at Main and Allen Street and using the former M. Wile Company space as the UB Downtown Gateway Building.  Several different plans have been made for rehabilitation of the McCarley Gardens complex in recent years, including a recent plan involving Nick Sinatra to rehab many of the units to bring them up to date.

The other housing built in the Oak Street Redevelopment Area was Pilgrim Village, an 11.3-acre site at the north end of the redevelopment area, bounded by Michigan, Best, North, and Ellicott Streets. The 90-unit affordable housing community was built by former Buffalo City Court Judge Wilbur Trammell in 1980.  In 2002, the site was passed to Trammell’s son, Mark.  Mark Trammell worked with McGuire Development in 2017 on a redevelopment project for the site that was called Campus Square.  At that time, 25 apartments were demolished to prepare for new buildings.  Campus Square was supposed to be the start of redevelopment for the entire site, but construction was delayed, the project stalled and McGuire ended up taking the whole Pilgrim Village site through foreclosure.  

A portion of the Pilgrim Village site, 4.5 acres at the corner of Michigan and Best, was purchased by SAA-EVI, out of Miami.  The group is planning a $50 Million project to build two affordable housing projects –  a four-story building for seniors and a five-story building for families.  The two buildings are planned to have 230 apartments in total.  Plans for the rest of the Pilgrim Village site include new buildings that are a mix of housing, offices, stores, and medical labs.  The blocks have been difficult to redevelop despite many efforts over the years, so it is yet to be seen what will happen at the site.  There are currently 65 townhomes spread across the site.  

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Washington Place Houses that were preserved in the 1980s.  Photo by Author

Four houses that were supposed to be demolished were saved.  In the early 1980s, these four houses on Washington Street were boarded up, vandalized and filled with trash.  They are brick, Italianate houses built before 1872 and are adjacent to four houses on Ellicott Street used by St. Jude Christian Center and the Kevin Guest House.  The City was looking to demolish the Washington Street homes at 923, 929, 933 and 937 Washington Street to clear the land for a future, undetermined development.  These houses were the last of their kind in this area and the only remaining homes on Washington Street.  Austin Fox, a preservationist and architecture buff stood up to the City and argued the case for the houses.  The restoration project that resulted was called Washington Place.  The project restored the exterior of the buildings with public money with the intent of selling them to private developers.  The City spent $330,000 in Community Development Block Grant money to clean the outside brick, repair the masonry and put on new roofs, gutters, downspouts, doors and porches. The street on this block had been cobblestone, but the city repaved the street and built a 40-car parking lot adjacent to the buildings to make them more attractive for tenants.  At the time, this was one of four city-managed projects happening in this neighborhood that were designed to bring new life to the area. The other projects were the Allen Street subway station along with the metro rail, the renovations of the Roosevelt Apartments, the construction of the 14-story building at Ellicott and High Streets to expand Buffalo General Hospital, and construction of an indoor shopping mall at Franklin and Allen Streets – can you imagine, a MALL IN ALLENTOWN???? Thankfully, the mall never happened, though the other projects were completed!  With the hospital just two blocks away from Washington Place, the houses were marketed for medical offices.  As construction was wrapping up in 1981, the City was in negotiations with a medical group to buy the properties.  Since 2005, the houses have been owned by an entity of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.  

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Anchor Bar. Source: Buffalo & Erie County Public Library

One beloved Buffalo site – the Anchor Bar  – was among buildings planned to be razed as part of the Oak Street Redevelopment project.  The Anchor Bar property was a part of a 3.1 acre parcel that was intended to be redeveloped with housing with St. Philip’s Church located at the NW corner of Ellicott and North Street, as mentioned previously.  Those plans did not come to fruition, and in 1974, BURA then intended to build a new facility for Carlton House Nursing Home on the site.  The Nursing Home began operating at 60 Carlton Street in the late 1960s, but their original site was purchased by the State for Roswell Park Memorial Institute.   Roswell still uses the Carlton House name for the structure. Many in government were angered by the purchase, as the City of Buffalo needed nursing home beds more than they needed the hospital.  The Anchor Bar was left out of the nursing home site at Ellicott and North, under the condition that the restaurant be rehabilitated and that the restaurant purchase 16,000 square feet of adjacent property around their restaurant to allow for off street parking lots.  The nursing home site at Ellicott and North has been the home of Buffalo Hearing and Speech since their building was constructed in 1994.  Can you imagine Buffalo if the Anchor Bar had been demolished just ten years after they “invented” chicken wings?  They may not be everyone’s favorite wings, but they certainly are a Buffalo tradition….if they had gone away, would Buffalo be known for wings today, or would everywhere call them chicken wings instead of Buffalo wings?

So the next time you are on the Medical Campus, think back and remember the North Oak Street neighborhood that used to be there.  To learn more about how urban renewal shaped the near east side’s Ellicott Neighborhood, you can read this post:  JFK Park, A Case Study in Urban Renewal.   Want to learn about other streets?  Check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  • Oak Street Project Contract Signed – Courier Express December, 16, 1970, pg 14
  • Report on Third Acquisitional Area – Health Research Incorporated New York State Department of Health. 
  • Report on Second Acquisitional Area.  Health Research Incorporated New York State Dept of Health.  Roswell Park Memorial Institute.  1968
  • Cichon, Steve.  “Torn Down Tuesday:  Ralph Street has Been Wiped Off the Map”.  Buffalo News.  November 3, 2015.
  • “City Goes to Court over Land Acquisition”.  Buffalo Courier Express March 1, 1968
  • McAvey, Jim.  3 Auto Ramps Planned for Oak Street Area.  Buffalo Courier Express.  June 29, 1967.  
  • Turner, Douglass and Dominick Merle.  Commitment of $599,000 Asked of City.  Courier Express.  September 18, 1961 p1.
  • “Council Votes Cash for Oak Street Project”  Courier Express, May 18, 1966.
  • Locke, Henry.  “A Conversation with William L Gaiter”.  Buffalo Courier-Express, July 14, 1975. P 9
  • Oak Street Area Project Is Backed.  Buffalo Courier Express.  November 22, 1957. P5.
  • Oak St Project Hearing Is Urged – Buffalo Courier Express, Sept 21, 1965, p 4.
  • Turner, Douglass and Dominick Merle.  Commitment of $599,000 Asked of City.  Courier Express.  September 18, 1965. P1.
  • Dearlove, Ray.  McCarley Gardens Keeps Construction on Schedule.  Courier Express.  August 20, 1989, sect H, p1
  • Williams, Michelle.  Church Dedicates Pastor’s Dream.  Buffalo Courier Express, July 16, 1979, p2.
  • City Aides Back Roosevelt Group for Renovation.  Buffalo Courier Express.  October 25, 1973.
  • Epstein, Jonathan.  At Medical Campus’ edge, a taller plan for a hard-to-develop block.  Buffalo News.  July 20, 2020. 
  • Decrease is Reported in Oversized Classes.  Buffalo Courier Express.  April 25, 1968. 
  • “Yes, Mayors Grow on North Oak Street:  Three Sons of Tree Lined Thoroughfare have Answered to ‘His Honor’ as Buffalo’s Chief Executive”.  Buffalo Timers, Sept 3, 1930.
  • Ritz, Joseph.  “Oak St Wasteland Seems Likely to Continue”.  Courier Express.  May 6, 1973, p B1.  
  • “Planning Board Approve Site for Nursing Home” Buffalo Courier Express.  Sept 27, 1974, p 15. 
  • Cardinale, Anthony and Mark Pollio.  “Community Group to Celebrate Centennial Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers Festival Set for Aug 20”.  Buffalo News.  August 8, 1994.  

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Bennett Street, current alignment shown in red. Former alignment included the portion in yellow

Bennett Street is a short street in the Ellicott Neighborhood of the East Side.  The street runs for one block from Broadway to William Street. Historically, the street continued a second block to Clinton Street prior to the urban renewal which demolished much of the neighborhood.  You might be thinking, but Angela, didn’t you already write about Lewis Bennett?  I did write about him, Lewis Bennett named the Central Park neighborhood, and Bennett High School, but this is a different Bennett and a different school!

pbennettPhilander Bennett was born to Nathaniel and Sarah Bennett on April 29, 1795. in Catskill, New York.  The family moved to Clinton in Oneida County while Philander was a child.  He attended Hamilton College and graduated in 1816.  Following his graduation, he went to Delaware, Ohio to try to establish a business.  A stock of goods being shipped along Lake Erie had to stop in Buffalo because of a storm.  They decided to unload the product in Buffalo and open a business at the corner of Main and Eagle Street, called Scribner & Bennett.  Scribner & Bennett quickly became the largest mercantile shop west of Albany.

Mr. Bennett married Henrietta Griffin in December 1817.   They had four children:  Griffin, who died at sea coming from St. Croix to New York at age 22 in 1841; Charles who left home in 1847 or 48 to attend Hamilton College near Utica and was never heard from again;  Mary Henrietta, who married Rollin Germain; and Edward.

In 1820, Philander Bennett left the merchant business to study law in the office of Heman B Potter, who became the District Attorney of Erie County.  In October 1822, he was admitted as an attorney of the Supreme Court and in February 1828, he became a counselor in the Court of Chancery.  He was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1822.  He was appointed First Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Erie County in 1829.  He held that office until 1837.  He also partnered with Le Grand Marvin in the firm Marvin & Bennett.

Mr. Bennett’s father, Nathaniel, moved to Williamsville in 1820 and lived there until 1838 when he relocated to Ohio.  Philander and his father were members of the Buffalo Land Company and owned a great deal of real estate in both Toledo and Cleveland.

Philander Bennett served as an Alderman of the City of Buffalo in 1832 and 1833 and again in 1840 and 41.  He was appointed by Governor Clinton the Judge Advocate of the 47th brigade of Infantry.  For many years he was connected with the “Albany Regency” but in his later years, he became deeply anti-slavery and took up the cause and joined the Republican Party when it was organized in 1854.

Mr. Bennett served as President of the City Bank of Buffalo and was Vice President of the Buffalo & Attica Railroad Company.  When President Van Buren came to Buffalo in 1839, Mr. Bennett was chairman of the committee of citizens appointed to receive the president and delivered a speech welcoming the President to the City.  He was a member of First Presbyterian Church.

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Bennett House on Clinton Street

The Bennett family lived in a house that was constructed in 1831 at the corner of Eagle and Pine Streets.  The house contained the first marble mantels to be brought to Buffalo.  The house was well known in Buffalo, residents often brought visitors to go see both the Bennett House and the Fargo House, as two examples of the most beautiful houses Buffalo had to offer.  The Bennett house was a square house with a cupola and stood in 15 acres of landscaped lawns and gardens.

For the last 16 years of his life, Philander lived in retirement, engaging in some foreign travel but mostly occupied with horticultural pursuits on his property.

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Bennett House. Philander is at the bottom of the steps, with family members on the steps. Source: Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo

Philander Bennett died on July 22, 1863.  After his death, his widow remained in the home.  Following Henrietta’s death in 1885, the house and the grounds were sold by the two remaining children to the City of Buffalo.  Edward Bennett was born in 1827 and served as a successful merchant and owned substantial real estate.  Edward served as a parks commissioner from 1872 until 1888.  Mary Henrietta and her husband Rollin Germain (his name might sound familiar to those familiar with street names…) lived next door to the Bennett House.  Mary also owned substantial real estate throughout the city in her own name, which was rare during those times.

The Bennett family house was demolished in 1888 to construct Bennett Place/Bennett Park.  Many in town mourned the passing of that landmark which had been a center of luxurious social life and culture for half a century.  Some of the furniture and the mantel from the house were owned by their great-grandson Edward Bennett Germain, who lived at Nottingham Terrace in the 1930s.  Edward Germain was president of Dunlop Rubber and Tire Corporation.

Bennett Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1887.  Olmsted’s design called for entrances from each corner of the property with flagstone walks circling around a horseshoe-shaped lawn at the center.  There was  a shelter house constructed in 1888 which faced Eagle Street and a gravel playground adjacent to Clinton Street.  The shelter house contained restrooms, a tool room and a large covered space open on three sides.  Thick foliage screened the park from the streets and helped conceal the park’s small size.  Bennett Park was a popular park, as it was located in a very densely populated neighborhood.

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Olmsted Plan for Bennett Park

The park still exists but has been modified from its original design.  In 1920, a softball diamond and tennis courts were built and a new shelter house.  The gravel playground and many of the plantings were removed.  The park has been combined into the JFK Community Center Park and contains only the tennis courts.   The trademark Olmsteadian curvilinear paths on the west and south sides of the park still remain.

The part of Bennett Street between Clinton and William Streets was divided into East and West Bennett Streets.  The area between the two streets was home to the Clinton Street Market.  The market was one of the oldest in Buffalo, established around 1849.  The land had been deeded to the City for market purposes by the Bennett family from their property.  Because of its location, it was often referred to as Bennett Market, though the city preferred the Clinton Market name.  A Liberty Pole was raised and consecrated at the Market on the Fourth of July 1855.  The pole was 140 feet high and topped with a gilt eagle with outstretched wings.  This Liberty Pole was in addition to the one at the Terrace.  In 1856-57, the City graded and paved the Clinton Street Market site, along with the Chippewa Market (at Chippewa and Washington) and the Court Street Market (located where the Buffalo Fire Headquarters is now located).  The City also built market buildings on the three sites.  The Clinton Street Market and the Chippewa Market buildings were identical at 392 feet long by 36 feet wide, built in the Romanesque style.  The market building could accommodate 82 farmers’ wagons under the shelter.  Each stall was supplied with gas, water and sewerage.  The Court Street Market was built in the form of a Greek Cross, but with similar dimensions as the other market buildings.  The Clinton Street Market was a popular meeting site for residents of the 5th Ward for community matters, elections, etc.

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1872 Hopkins Atlas. Map shows the location of the Clinton Market, the original location of PS #32 and the location of the Bennett House. Note several other properties owned by Bennett Family members, including Mrs. Mary Germain and Edward Bennett.

In 1925, the City wanted to abandon the Clinton Market to build a community center and public bathhouse. Residents protested the closure of the market.  The city argued that the market was not profitable, however, the vendors said it was only not profitable b/c the market was not kept up by the city.  It had been ignored and no repairs had been made.  At the time, all of the markets in the city operated at a loss to the city.  Residents argued that the public markets should be operated for the benefit of the people and not the profiteers.  The residents signed petitions with more than 1000 names arguing to keep the market open.   The Market at the time had 22 stalls and 17 of the stalls were occupied.  The East Side Business Men’s Association put together a proposal to keep the market and establish the bath house at the southern end of the site, but the plan was rejected.   The Bath House was originally intended to be for the use of the Blacks in the neighborhood, but members of the Black community fought back and protested against the Bath House saying that it was segregation and discriminatory.  The Buffalo American (a Black Newspaper), stated that

“He (the Mayor) is guided solely by the sentiment there expressed, the Free Public Bath House and the Community House will be exclusively for Negroes.  If this is the Mayor’s program The American will oppose such a measure as will all of the thoughtful citizens of this section of the city.  A Public Bath House and Community Center for all citizens in this section of the city will meet with a hearty welcome from all, but a Bath House and Community Center for Negroes is nothing less than segregation and will not be sanctioned by any thoughtful person.  We do not know who the Colored men are who are urging the Mayor to take such steps, but we will not stand by idle and see all of our people segregated for a mere bath.”

Mayor Schwab had to make it clear on several occasions that the Bath House would be for both Black and Whites. Public Bath House No 4 opened in 1927 on William Street on the former location of the Clinton Street Market. A small stub of East Bennett Street was renamed Embassy Street.

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1951 Sanborn Map showing the location of the Bath House and the location of Bennett Park School

Despite the protests, the Clinton Market was closed.  On Saturday, October 16, 1926, at 10pm, the last of the merchants gathered their wares and left their stalls for the last time.  Under the terms establishing the market, the property reverted back to the heirs if it was used for any use other than market purposes.  The building was quickly demolished.  On the northern portion of the site, Public Bath House No 4 was built.    The southern end of the site was to be a gymnasium or a community center, but the empty lot was quickly taken over by students and teachers arriving at Tech High School, across Clinton Street from the former market.  The City originally thought that using the site for the Public Bath House and Community Center would be allowed under the agreement, but it was not.  Corporation Council and Charles B. Germain (Grandson of Philander Bennett and son of Rollin Germain), representing the heirs of the Bennett family, came to agreement for the City to pay the heirs $10,000 (about $154,000 in 2021 dollars) to abandon the market and receive the property.

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Bennett Park School

The Bennett Park name also survives at Public School #32, Bennett Park Montessori School.  PS 32 was originally built organized in 1851 with the building originally located on Cedar Street (just behind the school’s current location).  In 1872, the school expanded with a second building next to the original building.  The current building on the site was built in 1913 and was known as the Bennett Park School, due to its location across the street from the park.  In 1969, the building became home to BUILD Academy, the City’s first Community School.  BUILD Academy moved to Fougeron Street in 1975.  In 1977, the building became home to Bennett Park Montessori Center (BPMC).  BPMC is the only public Montessori Program in Western New York and one of the largest Montessori schools in the country.  BPMC came about as a result of the desegregation of schools that was happening in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The Arthur vs Nyquist last suit was filed in 1972 by a number of African American parents, including George Arthur, against Ewald Nyquist, the Commissioner of Education, the Board of Education, the Mayor and the Common Council of the City of Buffalo.  The case took a long time to be settled, but one of the things to come out of it was the establishment of magnet schools.  Magnet schools draw students from the entire school district, as opposed to neighborhood schools which draw from the neighborhood the school is located within.  Magnet schools tend to be more diverse, due to students coming from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.  Parents and teachers from St. Mary of Sorrow’s Montessori preschool program and others worked together to create a public Montessori program.  Before BPMC, any parent who wanted their child to have a Montessori education had to pay for the teacher and the program.  St Mary’s Montessori program differed from other Montessori programs in the region because it was an integrated preschool.

In September 1977, BMPC opened, along with several other magnet schools.  BPMC had received 560 applications for Black students, 320 from white students and 42 from other races.  They had a total of 922 applications for 261 spots!  They opened on September 7th with 131 minority and 131 majority students.  During the 1990 school year, the school expanded to 560 students.  An addition constructed in 2009 expanded its capacity to 980 students.  The addition received the 2010 Best Education Project in the Brick by Brick Awards by Business First.  The school celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2018.

So the next time you drive by Bennett Street, think about Philander Bennett, his beautiful house, the park that was named after him and the school named after the park.

Want to learn about other streets?  Check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  • Smith, Katherine H.  “Bennett Street Memorial to Merchant, First County Judge”.  Courier-Express.  April 6,1941, sec 5, p5.
  • Editorial.  The Buffalo American.  December 18, 1924.
  • Protest Plan to Replace market with Bath House.  Buffalo Courier.  February 15, 1925.  pg 72.
  • Mayor to Ask Council to Buy Clinton Market Site.  Buffalo Courier.  February 11, 1925, p4.
  • Citizens Ask Retention of the Clinton Mart.  Buffalo Timers.  January 10, 1925, p2.
  • The Fourth in Buffalo.  Buffalo Morning Express.  July 6, 1855.  p.3.
  • Clinton Street Bath House Project May Fall Through.  Buffalo Courier.  August 10, 1924, p 76.
  • Krueger, Pauline.  Abolishment of Clinton Market Boon to Tech.  Buffalo Times.  October 30, 1926.
  • Council Defers Action on Clinton Market Petition.  Buffalo Courier.  January 10, 1925.  p3.
  • Public Improvements – Markets and Public Buildings.  Buffalo Weekly Republic.  July 14, 1857, p2.
  • Edward Bennett Dead.  Buffalo Evening News.  May 12, 1898, p 19.

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person st

Person Street

Person Street runs between two sets of railroad tracks in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood of Buffalo.  The street runs for three blocks south of Broadway, and then  jags at Broadway and continues another two blocks.  The two halves of the street do not line up.  This is because north of Broadway, the street was once known as Kuempel Ave.   Sometime between 1893 and 1900, Kuempel Ave was changed to Person Street.  Person Street seems like a generic kind of name.  But it is named after an actual person who also happened to be a Person – Charles Person.

charles personCharles Person was born in Alsace-Lorraine in 1827.  He came to Buffalo in 1841 at the age of 14.  He worked in a liquor business learning the trade.  At the age of 23, he started his own liquor business.

Mr. Person and his wife Sophia had 11 children.  The lived on Elm Street, which was still a mostly residential neighborhood at the time.  George Urban and his family lived around the corner on Genesee Street.  The Person family had grape bushes along the length of their property, with plum and pear trees in the backyard.  The children spoke German with their mother, who had come to Buffalo at 18 but Charles Person insisted on speaking English whenever he could to learn to master the language.  

Mr. Person’s business, C. Person’s Sons was the city’s “foremost whiskey rectifier”.  Charles started the company in 1850. He sold his whiskey wholesale from 390-392 Elm Street next door to the family home.  His firm was the largest liquor warehouse in Buffalo.  Their building is currently part of the site that is presently the Catholic Health Headquarters.  The company was well known, not just in Buffalo but throughout New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Two of their brands were Buffalo Club Whiskey and Riverside Whiskey. The whiskey business continued for three generations until prohibition.  For the two weeks before Prohibition started, the line outside of their business went for blocks, everyone stocking up on whiskey.  To understand the size of the business, when the doors closed, they still had 2,000 barrels of bonded whiskey remaining!  One of the grandsons reported that they kept the whiskey at his house, and that they still had stock into the 1940s!  During Prohibition, there were 4 attempted robberies at this house, so he had a special vault constructed to store the whiskey.   

Mr. Person held a lot of real estate throughout Buffalo and was the first person to own property on the street that now bears his name.  Mr. Person was Erie County Supervisor from the 4th Ward in 1873 and 1874.  In 1875, he was elected Alderman of the 4th Ward.  At the time, the 4th Ward encompassed Downtown between Eagle, Michigan, Goodell and Main Streets.  

Source:  Buffaloah.com 

Mr. Person died in 1885.  He left his business to three of his sons – Daniel, William and Frank.  The sons continued the success of the business.  When Charles first started the business, it was located in a space 20 by 30 feet.  The business grew to take up 60 times the space – a 4 story building with dimensions of 60 by 150 feet.  The building was described as including “elegant office and a distillation, packing, and storing area which employs an army of workers.”  In addition to their own whiskeys, they also sold imported wines from Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Hungary.  They were also the local agent for Cook’s Imperial Champagne, Pellich Gin, Sheboygan Mineral Water, and Anheuser-Busch Budweiser Beer. 

Son William Person was also Fire Commissioner of Buffalo for 18 years.  At  the time this was the longest anyone had held that title.  William ended up selling the remaining Person family lots on Person street in order to finance his son Eugene’s education at the University of Michigan.

Daniel H. Person was also a director of Meadville Distilling Company and of the Union Bank of Buffalo.  He was a member of the Harmonia Lodge No 699.  

Frank was the son who mostly managed the business.  Frank had 2 sons – Frank W. and two daughters – Clara and Flora.  Frank’s son and several of his nephews worked for the business.  Frank was director oft the Buffalo Automatic Smoke Consuming Company and the Freehold Savings and Loan Association.  He was a thirty-second degree mason.  

So the next time, you pass Person Street, think of the Person family…and maybe raise a glass of whiskey in their honor.

Want to learn about other streets?  Check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.  

Sources:

  1. Smith, H. Katherine.  “Person Street Honors Land Owner Who Held City and County Posts”.  Buffalo Courier -Express.  October 1, 1939, Sec L-4.
  2. Mueller, Jacob.  Buffalo and Its German Community.  German-American Historical and Bibliographical Society.  1911.  Translated by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks.
  3. White, Truman, editor.  Our County and Its People.  The Boston History Company, 1898.

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urbanst

Urban Street (shown in red). George Urban St owned properties (shown in orange). Jacob Urban property (shown in blue).

Today we are going to talk about two roads.  The first is Urban Street on the East Side of  the City of Buffalo.  Urban Street runs from Fillmore Avenue to Moselle Street.  The second is George Urban Boulevard running from Harlem Road to Transit Road in the Town of Cheektowaga.  Both roads are named after the prominent Urban Family of Buffalo. 

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George Urban Boulevard shown in orange. The form boundary of Pine Hill Farm shown in red.

George Urban Boulevard is 5 miles long and was constructed in 1924 at a cost of $125,000 a mile.  The road was designed to serve as an “Eastern Park Drive” to provide a direct highway (with Genesee St) from Buffalo to Lancaster and Alden.  The road was designed during the same time when suburban highways such as Millersport Road (now Millersport Highway) in Amherst, Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda were being constructed.  Main Street from the city line to Williamsville, Niagara Falls Boulevard and River Road highways were improved as well during this period.  Traffic planners of the era considered these streets to be extensions of the radial street grid (Broadway, Seneca, Genesee, Niagara, etc) that starts at Niagara Square.  These radials would connect to the main north-south highways such as Union Road or Transit Road to connect between radials.  Remember, there were no highways at this time, so these radial streets were the quickest way to get to outer suburbs.  

george urbanGeorge Urban, Sr was born in August 1820 in Morsbrunn, Alsatia.  This area is a mix of French and German and has passed between France and Germany five times since 1681.  When George Urban Sr was born, this region was part of France but is now part of Germany.  He came to Buffalo in 1835 at the age of 15, with his parents – Philip Jacob Urban and Katherine Gass Urban. Katherine’s parents (George’s grandparents) had come to Buffalo in 1828. They were part of the first wave of German Settlers to arrive here in Buffalo. The Urban family purchased land (shown in blue on above map) in the northeastern part of the City – from Fillmore Avenue to Moselle Street, south of Ferry Street. Woodlawn and Glenwood Streets now run through their property. They also owned extensive other properties throughout the East Side of Buffalo, including the land where Urban Street is now located and several properties along Doat Street and the land where Rustic Place and Lansdale Place are now located.

Mr. Urban first worked for a general merchandise store, Colton’s, on Main St at the corner of Genesee Street. Mr. Urban established his own business in 1846, specializing in flour wholesale. His business was located at the northeast corner of Oak and Genesee Streets.  He eventually built several buildings at that corner that were known as the Urban Block.

In 1870, Mr. Urban went into business with his son, George Urban, Jr. The firm became George Urban & Son. The business was enlarged in 1881 when they installed the first steel roller mill in Buffalo, across Oak Street from their original store.  Before this, mills used traditional grindstones. The mill had a capacity of 250 barrels a day, which was increased until they reached a maximum daily capacity of 900 barrels.

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Sanborn Map, Northwest Corner of Oak and Genesee 1889. Red box shows urban mill location

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Modern view of building on Oak Street that was formerly part of Urban Mills (photo by author)

Mr. Urban, Sr. was in high standing among the German community in Buffalo, but also among the greater community as well. He was a member of the Board of Trade and Vice President of the Western Savings Bank. He served as a Parks Commissioner and was influential in the establishment of the East Side parkways and Humboldt Park. Sources claim that the “East Side Park System, including Humboldt Parkway and the Parade owe their existence to his energetic and persistent efforts”. The Parade is now MLK Park. Humboldt Parkway was destroyed for the construction of Kensington Highway (the 33).  Fillmore Avenue was originally the other East Side Parkway, but it was converted to commercial purposes in 1906.

georgeurbansrgraveIn 1846, Mr. Urban, Sr. married Marie Kern, also from Alsatia. They had three children: George Jr., Caroline and William C. Urban.  Mr. Urban died on Oct 13, 1887 at the age of 67.  He is buried in the Urban Family Plot in St. John Cemetery in Cheektowaga, not far from the road that would later be built and named after the family.  

urbansonsWilliam Charles Urban was born on July 28, 1861. After graduating from public schools, he became a bookkeeper of the flour business. He became a member of the firm in April 1897 when the firm incorporated as Urban Milling Company.

William married Miss Louise Burgard of Buffalo in June 1886. They had six children – Grace, William, Raymond, Ada, Edward, and Louise. He retired in 1900 to private life at his home on the Pine Hill Estate in Cheektowaga. While he was well known around town because of his family, William kept a lower profile than his brother and father. He preferred to stay at home with his family rather than being a member of social clubs. He was a member of the English Lutheran Church. William died in 1902 and is buried in the Urban Family plot in St. John’s Cemetery in Cheektowaga.

urbansonsGeorge Urban, Junior was born on July 12, 1850 in the Urban Family house at the corner of Oak and Genesee Street, across from the Urban Mill he would help his father build. He went to city public schools. At 16, he joined his father’s business. He became a partner in 1870. Mr. Urban, Sr. retired in 1885 and George, Jr. became head of the firm and the firm became Urban & Co, a partnership between George Urban Jr, Edwin G.S. Miller and brother William C. Urban. In 1897, the Urban Milling Company was incorporated.

Mr. Urban, Jr was particularly interested in electric power for lighting and equipment. He was involved in many electrical endeavors. He served as Vice President of the Buffalo General Electric Co., Vice President of the Cataract Power & Conduit Co., President of the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Electric Light & Power Co., President of the Buffalo Loan, Trust & Safe Deposit Co. He also was a director of the Buffalo German Insurance Co., the Buffalo Elevating Co., the Buffalo Commercial Insurance Co., the Ellicott Square Co., the Market Bank, the Bank of Buffalo and the German American Bank. He was also involved in politics, serving as Chairman of the Republican Committee of Erie County from 1892 -1895. His social club memberships included the Buffalo, Ellicott, Saturn, Country and Park Club. He was also a member of the New York Club and the Republican Club of New York City and the Whist Club of Rochester.

pine hillIn October 1875, George Jr married Miss Ada E. Winspear. They lived at a large estate located at 280 Pine Ridge Road. The home had large grounds and gardens with greenhouses. The home has gone by several names including Pine Hill, Hill Top and Urban Hill. The property was purchased by Ada Winspear Urban’s grandparents in 1841 from the Ebenezer Society. Ada’s father, Pennock Winspear, purchased another 60 acres of land in Cheektowaga. The house was built between the 1850s-60s. The Urban family also purchased property after George and Ada met and owned over 120 acres of the Town of Cheektowaga. In 1892, Pine Hill Road was renamed Pine Ridge Road. While most of the business interests of the Urban family were in Buffalo, the bylaws of the Board of Directors of the milling company included that they were required to meet at least once a year at Pine Hill. Residents of Cheektowaga recall a parade of carriages coming up Genesee Street whenever there would be a party at the Pine Hill. There were often beer parties and clambakes.

Beautiful Buffalo Homes

Pine Hill Estate. Source: Beautiful Homes of Buffalo.

In 1882, the Urban farm was the location where Grover Cleveland‘s presidential campaign was launched.  George Jr was a staunch Republican but a friend of Grover’s, a democrat.  They had mutual acquaintances in the flour milling business and over time became friends.  The land where Urban Street lies was purchased by the Urban Family through an auction when Grover Cleveland was sheriff.  After Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1884, George Urban, Jr. insisted that he refused to cross party lines to support his friend. They remained friends despite their political differences.

georgeurbanjrgraveMr. Urban Jr. raised poultry as a hobby, winning first prize for his poultry.  He also served on the Board of Directors for the Pan American Exposition in 1901.  The Urbans had four children – a son, George P. Urban, and 3 daughters- Emma, Ada and Clara.  The children were all born at the farm.  Mrs. Ada Urban had graduated from Central High School and was the first Jesse Ketchum Medal winner at the school.  George Urban Jr. died on February 23, 1928 and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.  

george pGeorge Pennock Urban, son of George Urban Jr, was born in 1877. He went to Public School No. 9 and Central High School. He then attended Yale University to study mechanical engineering, graduating in 1901. In 1903, he became secretary and treasurer of George Urban Milling Company.

In 1913, George P. Urban married Mildred Pierce. They had one son, George P. Urban, Jr. Mildred passed away and George married Florence Zeller in 1918. They had four children – Katherine, Henry Zeller, Florence and Ada. Henry Zeller Urban would go on to be President and Publisher of the Buffalo News from 1974 to 1983.

George P.  Urban was the member of the family who began to break up the estate, as Cheektowaga was growing and there was a need for recreation, education and housing. The family home was moved to 218 Linwood Avenue but summers were still spent on Pine Hill.

In the 1920s, the Felician Order of Sisters purchased a part of the Urban estate to use as their convent and school.  the Sisters run Villa Maria College, which is located on lanes formerly part of the Urban estate.  The original Old Sisters’ Infirmary was originally William C Urban’s home.  In 1939, the Urban family home at 280 Pine Ridge was the site of the Cheektowaga Centennial Exposition. In 1946, part of the property was given to the Town and is now Cheektowaga Town Park. In 1950s, the land west of the Felician property was sold for residential development. Streets that were once part of the estate include Markus, Parkview, Parkedge, Pinewood and Pennock Streets.

George P.  Urban was also involved in the establishment of a Free Library System for the Town. In 1939, the Urban Home was offered as location for a library. Due to it’s location, it was decided the house was too far away from the rest of town to be a useful library location. At the time, Pine Hill Road was still an unlit dirt road. In 1947, the Winspear Library was opened, named after George’s maternal family. The library was only open for one year when the County took over the library system and decided another location was more suitable.

George P Urban was President of George Urban Milling Company after his father’s death. Additionally, he was President and Director of Thorton & Chester Milling Company, Mill Sterilizing Corp and the Riding Club Realty Co Inc. Like his father and grandfather, he was very involved in many organizations. He was a President of the Buffalo Corn Exchange, Director of the Automobile Club, member of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and the Buffalo Convention and Tourist Bureau. He was also a member of the Humane Society, the Public Library, Buffalo Country Club, Saddle and Bridle Club, Buffalo Trap and Field Clubs, Rotary Club and the Yale Alumni Association of Western New York, the New York Produce Exchange, Buffalo Orpheus, Buffalo Canoe Club, University Club, Saturn Club, Buffalo Club, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and Bowmansville Grange.

George P. Urban died in August 1966 at the age of 89. By the time of his death, the Pine Hill Estate had transformed from a sprawling farm to a residential home in a large suburban town. The house was sold in 1954 to furrier Pauline Fracasso who held elaborate parties in the home. It was sold again in 1971, 1983. 1996 and 2004.

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Mill on Urban Street, circa 1911. Source: Buffalo and Its German Community.

In 1903, when George P Urban became Secretary of Urban Milling Company, the company closed the Oak Street plant.  They built a large flour mill on Urban and Kehr Streets. The mill was built along the New York Central Belt Line tracks.  The location on the Belt Line helped to increased the ease of both bringing wheat to the factory and shipping off the finished product via rail. They manufactured several different flour brands that were distributed to all parts of the country. The mills were the first in Buffalo to be powered exclusively by electricity, powered by the mighty Niagara Falls. The daily capacity was 1,000 barrels a day when it opened, but this was increased to 1500 barrels a day. The mill was considered a model mill for cleanliness and for rapid and economic handling of products. This was in part because it was built away from the “dirty and dusty part of the city”. At the time, Buffalo was the second largest milling center in the world, second to Minneapolis.  Urban Flour continued to use office space at their old property on Oak Street.  

george urban ad 1903

Ad announcing George Urban’s new mill in The Weekly Northeastern Miller, October 1903.

Urban flour was considered to be especially good quality. They used a process that was first developed in Buffalo for milling that used a purifier to separate the whiter part of the flour from the lower grades. This process used electricity and was used for many years until the development of chemical processes to purify flour.  The flour was sales were limited to just the Northeast  – but Urban Flour had a stronghold across New York, New Jersey, New England and Pennsylvania.  They were most well known for Urban’s Liberty Flour and Up-an-Up Self Rising Cake Flour.

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Example of an Up and Up muffin tin from Urban Flour

In the 1920s, Buffalo had 7 flour mills. By 1930, Buffalo was the flour milling capital of the US, surpassing Minneapolis, Minnesota which had held the title since 1880.  This was in part because after WWI, the market had shifted to places where it was easier to obtain and process Canadian wheat, which placed Buffalo in a strategic location.  In 1930, Buffalo’s milling capacity was 40,000 barrels a day and the industry surpassed 11 million barrels that year, conquering Minneapolis’s 10.8 barrels and becoming the grain capitol.  In 1936, the George Urban Milling Company, at 90 years old, was the oldest flour mill in the Eastern United States. They held a 90th Anniversary celebration at the Pine Ridge Farm, a luncheon at Hotel Lafayette and a banquet at Hotel Statler. In attendance at the banquet was Donald Sands of the Sands, Taylor & Wood Company in Boston. The company had been a customer of Urban Mill since it began milling flour.

Milling in Buffalo started to decline around the middle of the 20th Century. In 1957, George Urban Milling Company merged with Maritime Milling (formerly located at Hopkins and Lockwood in South Buffalo). When the two companies combined, the company employed nearly 700 employees and had annual sales of more than $30 Million. Maritime Mill was heavily in debt and Marine Trust Company stopped financing the Maritime Mill and Maritime was forced to declare bankruptcy, owing the bank more than $2.8 Million. The Maritime Mill closed, the mill property was sold. The building was in South Buffalo was vacant and abandoned for many years until it was eventually torn down.

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Urban Mill in the 1990s when owned by Cargill. Source: Library of Congress

By 1965, the Urban family interest in the company had lessened. The George Urban Milling Company was purchased by Seaboard Allied Milling Corporation, a large grain company from the Midwest. In 1982, Seaboard sold all of their domestic flour mills including the Urban Mill to Cargill, Inc. In March of 1994, Cargill closed the plant, stating that the location was no longer profitable because much of the plant was obsolete and more expensive than other sites which were accessible by water. There were 45 employees remaining at the plant when it closed. The mill was demolished shortly after it closed.  In 1994, Buffalo had four remaining mills, but was still the largest flour milling site in the world.  By 2001, just General Mills and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM…formerly Pilbury) remained, the industry no longer what it used to be.  

So, the next time you buy some flour to do some pandemic baking, think of when Buffalo was flour capital of the world and three generations of George Urbans made flour that made countless loaves of bread.  

Want to learn about other streets?  Check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  1. Buffalo and Its German Community. German-American Historical and Biographical Society. Jacob E. Mueller: 1911-12. Translated by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks, July 2005.
  2. History of the Germans in Buffalo and Erie County, New York. Reinecke & Zesch. Buffalo, NY : 1898.
  3. Historic Background: The H. Seeberg Building: 113-125 Genesee Steet, Buffalo NY. Clinton Brown Company: Jan 11, 2011.
  4. “George Urban Milling: A History” Buffalo Express. January 16, 1916.
  5. Baldwin, Richard. “Old Hulk of Maritime Plant Still Remains Menace Despite Numerous Demands That It Be Torn Down”. Courier Express. April 30, 1967, p C10.
  6. “Urban Milling Firm Observes 90th Milestone”. Buffalo Courier-Express. August 23, 1936, p L3.
  7. Seaboard Corporation Timeline. Company Website: https://www.seaboardcorp.com/about-seaboard/seaboard-timeline/
  8. Memorial and Family History of Erie County, New York. Volume 1: Biographical and Genealogical. The Genealogical Publishing Company, Buffalo, NY: 1906-8
  9. “Cheektowaga’s Historical Site – The Urban – Winspear Estate – Pine Ridge Road” https://tocny.org/cheektowagas-historical-site-the-urban-winspear-estate-pine-ridge-road/
  10. “Urban Boulevard Plans Prepared”  Buffalo Enquirer.  Sept 2, 1924, p2. 
  11. Schroeder, Rick and Rick Stouffer.  “Cargill Shutting Down Flour Mill”  Buffalo News.   January 21, 1994.  
  12. Thomas E. Leary, John R. Healey, Elizabeth C. Sholes.  Urban Mill & Elevator, 200 Urban Street, Buffalo, Erie County, NY.    Historic American Engineering Record.  Retrieved from Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ny1684/ .  
  13. “Minneapolis Flour Milling Boom”.  Minnesota Historical Society.  https://www.mnhs.org/millcity/learn/history/flour-milling

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Screenshot (13)Verplanck Street is a north-south street running between East Utica and East Ferry, parallel to and two blocks west of Jefferson Avenue in the Masten Neighborhood of the East Side.  The street was originally known as Clifton Street but the name was changed in December 1880 to honor Isaac Verplanck.  

Isaac Abraham Verplanck  was born in Coeymans (near Albany), NY.  The Verplancks (sometimes spelled Verplank or Ver Planck) were a prominent family during the New Netherlands era of New York.  Abraham Isaac Verplanck, a Dutch entrepreneur, came to New Netherlands in the 1630s.  One of Abraham’s sons, Isaac Verplanck, moved to Albany and established the Verplanck line in the Capital Region of New York State – he had 10 children!   One of Abraham’s daughters married David Schuyler.  David’s brother was Phillip Schuyler, the G-G-Great Grandfather of the Schuyler Sisters who you may be familiar with, particularly if you (like me) spent a great deal of 2020 watching Hamilton on repeat on Disney Plus.  The Hamlet of Verplanck in Westchester County and Ver Planck Street in Albany are both named after the Verplanck family.  

After several generations of Verplancks, Buffalo’s Isaac Abraham Verplanck was born in October 1812 to Abraham and Elizabeth Verplanck.  Isaac graduated from Union College in Schenectady and moved to Batavia to study law in 1831.  He was admitted to the bar in 1834 at the age of 22.  By the age of 26, he became District Attorney of Genesee County.

In 1847, Mr. Verplanck was lured by the growth of the City of Buffalo and moved here to continue his profession. He grew his law practice by partnering with Henry Smith.  

In 1854, he was elected Superior Court Justice.  The Superior Court of Buffalo had just been formed, so Judge Verplanck was one of the first justices along with Judge George Clinton and Judge Masten.   Judge Verplanck was reelected twice and served for 19 years until his death.  He was a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1867- 68.  Judge Verplanck was also an officer of the Buffalo Club. 

Episcopal Church of the Ascension, North Street

Judge Verplanck married Laura Allen of Batavia in 1834.   The Verplank family lived on North Street in Buffalo.  They were members of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension.  Judge Verplanck was very involved, having been one of three laymen who started the congregation in 1855 and often serving as a representative of the church to conventions.  The Verplanks had three children –  Ethan Allen who died at the age of 9; Sarah, who married George C Webster and served as organist at Ascension Church for 17 years; and Abram George.  Abram attended Yale and served in the Army.  Abram died in Washington, March 7, 1880.

Judge Verplanck  died suddenly on April 15, 1873 of a stroke.  His funeral was held at the Church of the Ascension on April 18th.  The church had just opened in their new sanctuary the day prior with a large worship service attended by pastors from many local congregations.  During the service, Judge Verplanck’s death was announced during the sermon.

As a lawyer, Mr. Verplanck was said to be one of the fairest, most logical and most learned jurists ever to preside in a local court.  After he died, his obituary read, “Nature has ordained him to be a dispenser of Justice, and no man ever held the scales more evenly than he” and that he “was a man of great mental resources, an able lawyer, an incorruptible jurist a true gentleman, and a noble hearted generous citizen”.

114108830_138195578916Prior to his funeral, a meeting was held at “the new courthouse” for members of the Erie County Bar to share their remembrances of the Judge.  I believe the new courthouse referred to what we now consider Old County Hall, which was built between 1871 and 1875.  Sheriff Grover Cleveland draped the judge’s desk and courtroom in black for mourning.  After his death, the Genesee County Bar association also passed a resolution to honor Judge Verplanck as he had played such an important role there.  Judge Verplanck is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

If you’d like to learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

I hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year!  2021 will be my 10th year of blogging, can you believe it!  We’ll have to do something special to celebrate ten years next summer.  Let me know what streets you want to learn about this coming year!  Thanks for all of your support, this year, and always!

Sources:

  • “Church of the Ascension:  Opening Services Yesterday, Sermon by Bishop Coxe”.  Buffalo Courier.  April, 18, 1873, p2.
  • Gazetteer and Biographical Record of Genesee County NY 1788-1890, p. 56.
  • “Obituary:  The Late Hon. Isaac A Verplanck”.  Buffalo Weekly Courier.  April 23, 1873, p2.

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Screenshot (7)William L. Gaiter Parkway was a newer street relative to many of Buffalo’s streets.  The Parkway was constructed during the 1990s on an abandoned railway line from Kensington Avenue to Delevan Avenue.  The Kensington Expressway (Route 33) is near the middle of the parkway.  The road follows a portion of the path of the former Erie Railroad.  During planning for the roadway, it was referred to as the Northeast Parkway, but was quickly named after William (Bill) Gaiter.

7._bill_gaiter_-_akg8324William Luther Gaiter was born in 1927 in Alabama in a small town outside of Selma.  Mr. Gaiter moved to Buffalo by the 1950s and worked in Buffalo as a bus driver.  After events that happened in his hometown of Selma and throughout the south, he wanted to get involved in the Civil Rights movement by attending a 1966 meeting of BUILD(Building Unity, Independence, Liberty and Dignity) – the activist Black federation of religious and community groups.    The day after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, April 5, 1968, he became President of BUILD.  In 1970, he became Executive Director of BUILD.    While he was director, he helped to develop the halfway house that BUILD ran, as well as an outreach recruitment center.

During this time, BUILD was a large part of the changes that were happening in the Black community.  BUILD confronted, demonstrated, picketed and fought for a better community.  City Hall, the School Board and the Police Headquarters were targets of change for the organization.

The organization convinced the Buffalo Board of Education to establish the BUILD Academy in the public schools.  BUILD Academy was established in 1969, serving as basically a charter school years before charter or magnet schools were a thing.  BUILD Academy was the first school in the city to provide free breakfast for poor children and the first to offer full day kindergarten.  Parents had a major say in how the school ran.  The school promoted Black cultural awareness and tolerance towards others.  The school moved from Clinton Street to Fougeron Street in the 1975.  The BUILD Organization faded in the 1980s and the school operated until 2018 when it was closed.  The school reopened the following year as PS 91 BUILD Community School.

Mr. Gaiter also headed a counseling program, STAR – Student Timeout for Academic Renewal.  He also developed a Behavior Counseling Program for high school students who were at risk of dropping out.

During Mr. Gaiter’s tenure as director of BUILD, working with Claudia Sims and Judson Price, he organized the first Juneteenth Festival in Buffalo in 1976.   Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery and is also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day.  It is officially on June 19th, which is the date the Union Army General arrived into Galveston Texas in 1865 to free the people in slavery.  Since Texas was the most remote slave owning state, it took the longest for the Union troops to arrive there and officially free the slaves.  While Juneteenth recognizes the end of slavery, it was still legal and practiced in Delaware and Kentucky until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December of that year.  The first Juneteenth celebrations were held in Texas beginning the following year and were held across the South into the 1920s and 30s.  After the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, Juneteenth celebrations began to spread across the country.

Juneteenth Buffalo was established as a cultural alternative to counter the Bicentennial Celebrations happening across the country and in Buffalo during the Fourth of July 1976.  Juneteenth was originally held on Jefferson Avenue, which served as “Main Street” for Buffalo’s Black community.  The festival eventually outgrew Jefferson Avenue and moved to Martin Luther King Jr Park.   Buffalo’s Juneteenth celebration is one of the largest in the Country (often listed as 3rd largest or the largest, but I could not find sources to verify this fact.)

In 1984, he formed the Western New York Council for African Relief.  This organization worked to improve the quality of life in a selected African community and develop ties between Africa and Western New York.  He went to the village of Malika in Senegal to deliver more than $75,000 raised by 47,000 Buffalo school children.  During the famine in Ethiopia, he organized a fundraising effort to bring relief to the victims.  He developed a student Exchange Program that allowed 500 American students to study the Senegalese Culture.  He served as President of the Institute of People Enterprises, which he organized in 1978.  The Institute for People Enterprises served as a support organization for community groups to connect people and organizations.

BUILD fought to make sure that minority construction workers got their fair share of the work.  Mr. Gaiter fought with the University at Buffalo in 1968 to get minority workers on construction jobs.  In 1983, he was appointed Equal Employment Opportunity Coordinator for Erie County.  this position monitors and improves the county’s hiring of minorities and helps provide opportunities for minority businesses.  He remained a part of the struggle to increase opportunities for minorities – in 1996, he made sure that Roswell Park Hospital gave contracts to minorities as the Affirmative Action/EEO Officer for Roswell’s Remodernization Project.  He also worked with the Buffalo Affirmative Action Program, which recruited, trained and unionized minorities in the construction industry in Buffalo and WNY.

Mr. Gaiter was named Buffalo News Citizen of the Year in 1988.  In 1993, he received the Buffalo Urban League Evans-Young Humanitarian Award.  He was recipient of  many other honors, including the Buffalo Challenger Buffalo Citizen Award, Phyllis Wheatley Club Certificate of Appreciation,  and the Black Educators Association Community Service Award.  He also served on the Board of Erie County Crisis Center, City of Buffalo Manpower Planning Advisory Council, Board of Directors Sheehan Memorial Hospital,  and the Board of Architectural and Environmental Planning Traineeship Program at UB.

Mr. Gaiter also worked as a political strategist.  He was Field Operations Coordinator for Arthur Eve’s mayoral campaign in 1977.  He coordinated a Voter Registration Campaign which registered 10,000 new voters!  The democratic primary turnout for that election was a historic 81%.  That was the highest voter turnout in the history of the Northeast.  Mr. Gaiter also worked hard on the campaigns for Wilbur Trammel and George K. Arthur when they ran for Mayor.  He taught a course on Social and Political Organizing at the Cora P. Maloney College at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

William L. Gaiter died on April 20, 1997 while attending services at Free Spirit Missionary Baptist Church.  He left behind his wife and 14 children.

In August 1998, ground was broken for the Northeast Parkway project.  The road construction project was designed to connect American Axle directly to the Kensington Expressway.  The commitment to build the road was an agreement between American Axle and Mayor Masiello.  The road was built partly in an effort to save United Auto Worker jobs at the East Delevan Avenue plant.  The idea was that the road would provide better access in and out of the plant for both raw materials and finished products, allowing the plant to remain open.  Before the shovels were even in the ground, it was decided that the road was going to be named in memory of William Gaiter.

gaiter business center

William L Gaiter Business Center

Opening of William Gaiter Parkway also allowed vacant or underutilized brownfield land along the rail corridor to be put back to use.  In addition to supporting American Axle, the road improved access for a dozen other business when it opened.  Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation (BERC) created the William Gaiter Business Center, which opened in October 1999.  The center was designed as a business incubator to help grow the industrial, commercial warehousing and distribution companies in Northeast Buffalo.  The 25,000 square foot Business Center was 100% leased when it opened, occupied by five businesses.  Three of the businesses were minority or women-owned.  The businesses created 50 new jobs and retained 25 existing jobs.  The companies included QTA Machining,  American Window Creations, Quality inspection Services, American Rated Cable & Communications, and Gas Technology Energy Concepts.  Business Incubators such as this one are designed for businesses to get a cheap rent while they are starting out in order to grow and become successful.  The Business Center was purchased by Safetec International in 2015.

A multi use trail also runs parallel to William Gaiter Parkway.  There are currently efforts by the University District Community Development Association to build the Northeast Greenway Trail which would connect the existing trail along William Gaiter Parkway with the North Buffalo Rail Trail in North Buffalo.

So think of Bill Gaiter the next time you pass by William L Gaiter Parkway or next year when we celebrate Juneteenth, and as we continue our fight for more justice.

If you’d like to learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  • “William L. Gaiter”  Uncrowned Community Builders.  https://www.uncrownedcommunitybuilders.com/person/william-1
  • Obrien, Barbara and Mike Vogel.  “William Gaiter, Activist, Civil Rights Leader, Dies.”  Buffalo News.  April 21, 1997.
  • “Mayor Breaks Ground for Northeast Parkway”.  Buffalo News.  August 27, 1997.
  • “Remembering Bill Gaiter”.  Buffalo New.  August 25, 1998.
  • Sapong, Emma and Susan Schulman.  “Juneteenth Celebrates Slavery’s End”.  Buffalo News.  June 15, 2001.

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JFK parkToday’s post is is a little different.  We’ll be learning about JFK Park.  Unlike most of our posts, we’re not going to look much at the person for whom this was named, but rather the circumstances that created the park.  You can google President John Fitzgerald Kennedy if you’d like to learn more about him – there are plenty of books, movies, documentaries about him – see Note 1 for recommendations.    JFK Park and the Community Center were created in the 60s, and, like many things built following President Kennedy’s death, named after him.

I spent the summer knee-deep in the history of the neighborhood surrounding the park, researching for the blog.  I have written about the Ellicott Mall on one end, and the Talbert Mall on the other.  To learn more about the Ellicott and Talbert Malls, and about the namesakes of some of the streets that run through this area, you can read the following posts:

20201004_152725JFK Park fills most of the space between the Ellicott Mall and the Talbert Mall. This is also my neighborhood park, and I’ve spent a lot of time here the last few months during the pandemic.  I walk through the park often during my daily walks. Sometimes, I’ll bring a blanket to sit and read while listening to kids play in the playground and (during non-pandemic times) on the ballfields, basketball court, pool, and tennis court.  The photos I’m sharing here lack people out of respect for not wanting to post pictures of children without consent, but even during the pandemic, this is a well used and well-loved park.  It also serves as recreation space for the JFK Community Center, Bennett Park Montessori (PS #32), and Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (PS #6).

Screenshot_20200925-193528_Photos

427 and 429 N Division

This is also the place where my Italian immigrant family’s roots here in Buffalo started.  My Great-Great Grandparents Anthony and Angeline Valerio lived across Hickory Street from what is now the park, at 429 North Division Street.  Anthony and Angeline’s daughter, my Great Grandma Susan married my Louis Violanti at St. Columba Church in September 1927.  The church has merged with St. Brigid’s and has built a new building, but it is still located near the same spot on Hickory, across from JFK Park.  The Violantis moved into 427 North Division Street, located right in front of the Valerio’s house at 429 North Division, along with Louie’s parents – my Great-Great Grandparents Joseph and Rosie Violanti.  My Grandpa, Joe Violanti, was born on the kitchen table at one of these houses in December 1928.  One generation later, the entire neighborhood as they knew it was gone.

This neighborhood was called the Ellicott Neighborhood.  It’s a name that isn’t used much anymore.  Sure, there’s the Ellicott Council District, but you don’t hear people refer to the neighborhood as much any more.  It may have had earlier names as well, before it was called Ellicott, I often struggle to find information about historic neighborhood names.  If you know, I’d love to learn more.  Like much of the East Side, it’s identity is lost and it’s lumped into a larger area.  It gets assigned a vague description “the area between Downtown and Larkin”.  It was demolished, and therefore lost much of its identity.

This park that I love so dearly was 7 blocks of active city life.  In 1950, the neighborhood looked like this:

jfk PARK 1950

Sanborn Map of JFK Park area in 1950

In 1950, there were 253 buildings with the following uses: 36 stores, 3 schools, 2 restaurants,  2 churches, 1 synagogue, 1 junk exchange, 1 contractor’s yard, 1 filling station, 1 clubhouse, 197 private dwelling units,  4 buildings of flats, and 3 apartment buildings.  At the time, a private dwelling referred to a building that was home to up to two families, flats referred to a frame structure where a family occupied each floor (the common Buffalo upper-lower houses).

288 south divison - wny heritage

288 South Division Street in the 1950s. Now part of JFK Park. Source: WNY Heritage

What remains of those 253 buildings?  Just two buildings, both are schools –  the former Technical High School, now administrative offices for the Buffalo Public Schools and other is PS 6, still an active elementary school.

In 1950, the average household size in Buffalo was 3.4 people per dwelling unit.  Assuming that there were 2 units in each of the flats buildings and 4 units in each apartment building, that gives a conservative population of about 737 people on these seven blocks.  (For comparison’s sake, the average number of people per dwelling unit in 2018 is 2.24)

20200921_174344

Example of houses stacked on a lot. Picture houses on either side of these houses as well to picture how dense the neighborhood was.

This is just 7 blocks, and we demolished at least 32 blocks of this area, basically everything surrounded by William, Jefferson, Swan, and Michigan. Picture if the Allentown Neighborhood was shifted from north of Downtown to just east of Downtown, that’s about how dense the Ellicott Neighborhood was, except it was actually even more dense.  A common thing in this neighborhood was houses stacked on lots – so there’d be both a front house and a back house on the lot.  You can still see evidence of this on some of the blocks there weren’t completely demolished, and on the historic maps showing just how many houses were crammed onto these blocks.

“Urban Renewal” is typically used to refer to a series of programs that were used by cities in the middle of the 20th Century to address urban decay in cities.  The programs cleared out blighted areas of cities by clearing out areas that were declared slums.  The programs were designed to replace the “slums” with new, higher class housing and new businesses.  Often, the projects were implemented by local public housing authorities, which is the case in the Ellicott Neighborhood Redevelopment projects.

Most urban renewal programs involved municipalities taking land within a designated urban renewal area by purchasing properties or taking the properties by eminent domain.  The properties would then be razed and selected developers would build a new development on them.

The Housing Act of 1937 created the US Housing Authority, a federal corporation able to loan money to states and local governments to build housing for those unable to find suitable housing themselves.  Under this act, one housing unit of slum clearance resulted in one unit of new modern low-income housing built.  About 150,000 units of housing were built across the country under this act before the start of WWII.  Most of the housing authorities found that new housing alone was not enough to remove the slums and provide urban redevelopment.  The new housing often became the new slum a few decades after it was built.  The idea became that we need urban renewal- including housing, zoning, schools, enforcement of health standards, transportation, and minimization of racial restrictions.

The GI Bill (The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act), passed in 1944, allowed veterans to obtain mortgages, allowing many to purchase houses in the suburbs.

The Housing Act of 1949, also known as the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Act, provided loans to cities to acquire and clear slum areas to be sold to private developers to develop under a plan prepared by the city.  The act also provided grants to cover up to two-thirds of the city’s costs.  Under this act, the programs implemented were known as “urban redevelopment”.

The Housing Act of 1954 made these projects more profitable by providing mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration.  Programs implemented under this act were known as “urban renewal”.

The first major modern Urban Renewal project was completed in Pittsburgh in 1950.  This project demolished a portion of Downtown Pittsburgh and converted it to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena (the former Mellon Arena).

Urban renewal programs had an immense impact on our cities.  Highway construction was often a part of urban renewal programs – getting cars out of crowded city streets and routing them onto highways to allow people to get places more quickly was the reason so many urban highways were built during this era.  These highway projects had the additional consequence of exacerbating sprawl, as they allowed people to live further away from Central Business Districts in the suburbs and commute to work via the new highways.

20201012_164131In 1955, Buffalo Common Council designated the 160-acre Ellicott District Redevelopment Project Area to be totally cleared and rebuilt except for religious and education buildings.  This was the first Urban Renewal project in New York State – designated with project number NYR-1.  In December 1957, a $10 Million Capital Grant (approximately $92 Million in 2020 dollars) was funded to begin to acquire the 1050 parcels and relocated residents and businesses.  In 1961, a $600,000 ($5 Million in 2020) addition was added to PS 6 and $450,000 ($4 Million in 2020) in renovations were completed a the Former Technical High School (at the time, it was Clinton Junior High).  25 acres were set aside for the $1.5 Million ($13 Million in 2020) Elliott District Recreation Center, which became JFK Park.

The Urban Renewal Area was appraised in 1959 and there were 2,219 households in the area.  Average household size was 4 people, and a total population of 8,836 people.  There were 1004 parcels, 1447 improvements (buildings), and 2,215 dwelling units.  Most of the dwelling units were 2 and 3 family buildings.  Seventy percent of the buildings in the area were classified as substandard.  When inventoried, there was only a vacancy rate of 2% throughout the neighborhood.  There were 81% rental units and 19% owner-occupied units.  At the time, the City considered a slum and blighted area to be when there were fewer than 45% owner-occupied units.

Relocation continued for 27 months.  In total, 1600 family groups and 400 roomer households were relocated.  Others had left on their own volition when they saw the writing on the wall, or just the normal course of moving due to life circumstances.  The average household size of households relocated by the government was 3.14 people.  The average length of time of residence before relocation was 7 years, with owners having a longer tenure in the neighborhood than the renters.  Black owners in the neighborhood had lived there an average of 12 years.  The white owners in the neighborhood, in particular, had lived there for a long time, with 50% of white owners being 60 years or older and 67% of them had lived in the neighborhood 20 years or more.  Most of the relocated families, approximately 70%, remained in the Ellicott District or moved north into the Masten District.

20201012_163202.jpg

Graphic showing the “problem neighborhood” as an octopus

The housing here in the Ellicott Neighborhood was some of the oldest in the city.  Most of the housing was a typical 2.5 story frame structure with a peaked roof and a front porch that you see throughout Buffalo.  It was run down and crowded.  The Ellicott Neighborhood was labeled as the highest in the city in terms of crime, delinquency, disease, and mortality.  In the 1950s, Buffalo was the 15th largest city in the Country, but still had the same boundaries as it did in 1854 (and basically still same area today).  As Buffalo grew, many people were tired of the crowded dirty inner-city neighborhoods.  Swan Street, just south of here, was once the fashionable neighborhood where “important” people lived – Mr. Blossom, Mr. Tillinghast, Mr. Pratt, to name a few. The rich started to move out to areas where they could have larger houses in the Elmwood Village or mansions along Delaware Avenue.  Even regular folks started to want to move into houses in newer, less crowded sections of the City.  The blocks between Seneca Street and the Thruway were particularly run down during the 1950s because they had originally been designated as the route of the NYS Thruway.  The Thruway shifted south to the railroad corridor, but structures had seen little maintenance and improvements as they had been planned for demolition for highway construction.

Redlining by banks allowed mortgages for white people to move to new houses in newer sections of the city, or in the suburbs.  Mortgages and housing loans were not granted to Blacks.  This meant that the worst, most crowded housing was often all that Blacks moving to the North during the Great Migration could afford, mostly the housing that was being left behind by those moving into the newer neighborhoods.  This furthered decline in the Black neighborhoods as there was no new money coming into the neighborhoods or new investments happening in the neighborhoods.

The City of Buffalo had at least 44 Urban Renewal Plans.  The “Ellicott District Redevelopment Project” was approved by Common Council on August 2, 1957.  The area was described as “predominantly residential in use but characterized by predominance of substandard and insanitary dwellings, the infiltration of mixed commercial and industrial uses, obsolete subdivision, undesirable street layout and traffic hazards, overcrowding of families, and inadequate public utilities and community facilities”.   The plan was to divide the land use in the area as follow: medium density housing suitable for middle-income and lower middle income families (63.18 acres), expansion of public schools and public recreation areas (26.99 acres), community business districts (8.31 acres), existing public school sites (6.94 acres), land for expansion of existing charitable organizations (13.12 acres), existing charitable institutions (3.07 acres), and streets (39.78 acres).  (161.39 acres total)

My Great Grandparents, they moved to South Buffalo.  Their new house on Ladner Avenue was much closer to Great Grandpa’s job at the steel mill and they were able to own a large two-family house, with lots of land around it for Great Grandpa Louie to grow his large gardens.  South Buffalo was kind of like the suburbs back then, but easily accessible via streetcar.  Their house was at the end of a row of houses, with nothing beyond their home except fields.  My other set of Great Grandparents lived one street over, on West Woodside, and the two families would cut between the fields to get to each other’s houses.  I am not sure of the exact circumstances of their move.  At the time, there was a lot of discrimination against Italians, but my family was likely able to benefit by their ability to purchase a home outside of the crowded inner city.

20201021_161343Robert T. Coles, the Buffalo-born architect, wrote his thesis in 1955 at MIT about a plan for Recreational Facilities in the Ellicott Community Renewal Area.  In 1960, Robert Coles returned to Buffalo and was placed in charge of programming, design, and construction supervision of the recreation center that became JFK Community Center.  The Rec Center building is a great example of Coles’ modern architecture style.

The lead demolition contractor on the project for the JFK Park project was Schwab Brothers.   The Schwab Brothers were a demolition company from Buffalo that eventually had offices across the country – they became the largest demolition company in the country and held the demolition contract for the old Madison Square Garden and the old Yankee Stadium.  Robert Coles teamed up again with Schwab Brothers to form Mid City Gardens, Inc, which designed the Mid City Gardens Apartments.  The plan that had been created for the Ellicott Redevelopment Area was determined not to be urban enough for the area, so the Schwab Brothers proposed their plan.  The plan looked at closing streets to prevent traffic congestion and keep local traffic moving – Clinton Street was disconnected from Downtown at this time, making William Street the main east-west thoroughfare to serve this neighborhood.  William Street was widened at this time to its current configuration.  Mid City Gardens consisted of 1,370 dwelling units and off street parking for each unit.  The units were in a combination of high and low-rise buildings with “breathing room” between them.  Two-story garden apartments were grouped with their own parking area and play space.  There were 616 units in towers and 74 in garden apartments.  The towers consisted of 77 units ranging from studios to two bedrooms and the garden apartments were two-story 3 and 4 bedroom units.

What eventually got built was garden apartments – the Ellicott Park Apartments, Towne Gardens, etc and single-family housing along William Street.  Clinton Street was eventually reconnected through to Michigan and single family housing was built along there as well.  The neighborhood is still home to three schools, five churches and is anchored by JFK Community Center in the middle of it all.

In the 1960s, novelist James Baldwin called Urban Renewal “Negro Removal”, after the way that the programs targeted neighborhoods primarily lived in by Blacks.  As we’ve looked at in our previous posts about the Ellicott Mall and the Talbert Mall, the housing projects created by Urban Renewal programs were often not successful.  High-rise towers often saw an increase in crime.  The buildings were built quickly and inexpensively, so they often were run down quickly, without money to cover maintenance costs.  While I covered an overview of urban renewal, this is by no means a conclusive study and I recommend looking into other sources for additional information.  Public housing projects were built and demolished in many areas, not just in Buffalo (See Note 3 for additional resources).

20201021_161218So the next time you’re walking through JFK Park, or any park or neighborhood, think about what used perhaps used to be there.  Neighborhoods change over time, both my forces we can control and by those we cannot.  Our cities are built on what came before.  There might be more to the story than what you first see.  A peaceful park might have been a whole neighborhood that no longer exists.  Take a moment and remember.

We’ll be back to talking about streets in my next post – which will about William Gaiter Parkway.  Some of you may remember Bill, who was a founder of the Juneteenth Festival here in Buffalo.  Stay tuned for that!  If you’d like to learn about additional streets, please check out the street index.

Note 1: If you’re looking for a biography about JFK, I recommend An Unfinished Life:  JFK 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek or Jack: A Life Like No Other by Geoffrey Perret.(Side Note from Angela:  in addition to Buffalo history and streets, one of my other hobbies is reading political biographies.)

Note 2: You can read the City of Buffalo Urban Renewal Plans here: City of Buffalo Planning Library

Note 3:  For more information about public housing and urban renewal , I recommend watching the following documentaries:  The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about a housing project in St. Louis, Ken Burns East Lake Meadows, about a housing project in Atlanta, and James Baldwin’s Take this Hammer about San Francisco.   For more about what happened locally, I recommend reading Partnership for the Public Good’s report:  A City Divided:  A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo.

Sources:

  • US. Department Of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.  “1950 Census of Population Preliminary Reports:  Characteristics of the Population of Buffalo, New York”.  Washington, D.C. May 14, 1951.
  • City of Buffalo.  “Redevelopment Project for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Project”.  August 2, 1957, as amended Oct 5, 1971.
  • Cities Under Austerity:  Restructuring the US Metropolis.
  • Coles, Robert T.  Community Facilities in a Redevelopment Area.  Thesis submitted for the Degree of Master of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 1955.
  • Rashbum, William and Charles Bagli. “Demolition Man”.  The New York Times.  July 23, 2009.
  • “MidCity Gardens:  A Proposal for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Area” Schwab Brothers – Developer, Robert T Coles – Architect.  undated.  From the Collection of the Grosvenor Room, Buffalo Library – HT177.B8 S34
  • Davidson, Mark and Kevin Ward.  Cities Under Austerity:  Restructuring the US Metropolis.  State University of New York Press, Albany.  2018.
  • Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.  Ellicott Relocation:  A Preliminary Report.  March, 1961.
  • Brown, Harris, Stevens, Inc.  Appraisal Report Ellicott District Urban Renewal Area, Buffalo NY.   Prepared for the Board of Redevelopment, City of Buffalo.  April 14, 1959.

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talbert mall

Former Talbert Mall property shown in red. Gladys Holmes Blvd shown in

Today we are finishing up our series on streets in the Talbert Mall/Frederick Douglass Towers.  For more about the area, I suggest you start with the series on Mary Talbert and the Talbert Mall, which can be found at this link.  Today, we will be discussing the two other women that streets were named after here – Gladys Holmes Blvd and Mary Johnson Blvd.

In 2001, during the renovation of the towers and the building of the townhouses, Mayor Masiello renamed the streets.  The tenant council selected the names and submitted them to City Council, choosing the names of three women important to the community.

mary johnson - shared by Geneva Anaya

 Source: Geneva Anaya, Ancestry.com

Mary Johnson was born in Buffalo on August 25, 1925.  She worked as a Staff Assistant and Manager a the Buffalo Urban League for 23 years before retiring in the 1990s.

She was very involved in the community and served on the Board of Directors of the Community Action Organization, the Board of the JFK Community Center, the Urban League Education Auxiliary Group, AMVETS Auxiliary Post 5, Ellicott Neighborhood Advisory Council and the YMCA Heart of the Home Club.

20200914_182422Mary Johnson lived in the Talbert Mall/Douglass towers starting in 1960.  Her family had lived in the neighborhood for a long time – she and her parents are listed in the 1930 Census living at 61 Spring Street.

Mary died in Niagara Lutheran Nursing Home in June 2013 at the age of 87.  She was survived by her Son George Jr, and six daughters – Jean Ann Robinson, Estelle Arlene Blue, Catherine Lee Watkins, Virginia Beard, Ann Mae Hoskin and Mary Harris.

20200914_182312Gladys Holmes was born in 1927 in Macon, Georgia.  Gladys married Grady Holmes in 1943.  Grady served in the Marine Corps during WWII.  After the war, Grady and Gladys moved to Buffalo, arriving in 1952.  Grady worked at Bethlehem Steel.

111530256_137000136352Gladys and Grady lived in the Talbert Mall/Frederick Douglass Towers for 37 years before she died in 1997.  When they named the street for her, they called Gladys a “community mom”.  In addition to being mother to the community, she had five daughters of her own – Betty Holloway, Jeannette Bishop, Annette Holmes, Graleen Dowell and Barbara Ann Singletary.  She is buried in Forest Lawn.

I was unable to find much information about Gladys Holmes.  Part of the difficulty in researching more contemporary subjects is that they’re not yet written about in history books!  If anyone knew either Gladys or Mary, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Another difficulty in my research of Gladys is that there was at least one other Gladys Holmes living in Buffalo at this time.  The other Gladys Holmes was the first Black woman to give birth in Children’s Hospital in Buffalo.  You can read more about her in the book Born in Mississippi, Raised in Buffalo New York.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

If you’re interested in hearing me speak, I am on the fall schedule for Erie County’s University Express program. I will be giving two talks. Programs will be streamed live so you can watch from the comfort of your home.  For more information, visit the University Express website here.

Sources:

  • “Mary Johnson, Buffalo Community Activist”.  Buffalo News.  June 12, 2013.
  • Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst.  “Housing Authority Honors Three”.  Buffalo News.  June 16, 2001.
  • “Grady Holmes”.  Buffalo News.  October 10, 2001.

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talbertst today

Mary Talbert Blvd, shown in orange. The Talbert Mall property is outlined in red.

This post continues the series about the streets around the Frederick Douglass Towers/Talbert Mall and Mary B Talbert Blvd. If you haven’t read the first two parts, I suggest you start with Part 1, about Mary Talbert’s early life or continue with Part 2 about Mary’s life in Buffalo.  Today, we will discuss the legacy of Mary Talbert, and continue the story of the Talbert Mall and the Ellicott Neighborhood.

Mary B Talbert

Mary Talbert (and this commonly used photograph) was  included in Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro, published in 1902.

When we left off, Mary Talbert had died on October 15, 1923.  Her obituary in the Buffalo News called her “probably most noted woman in the world”.

After her death, there were some efforts to save the house at 521 Michigan Avenue.  On the day her obituary ran in the paper, the Buffalo Times also ran an editorial calling for the house to be made a national shrine, saying that “no member of the Negro race ought to knowingly pass it without feeling a deep and solemn sense of gratitude emanating from a reverent heart, for one of the grandest figures in the annals of Negro History in America”.  The newspaper went on to say that she fought to save the Frederick Douglass Home and that Buffalonians should not stand by and lose her own house.  It continued, “In ages hence, when Negro people shall come to Buffalo, the city in which Mrs. Talbert worked and died and ask to be shown the house in which she lived and worked, the house in which she and Dr. Washington used often to exchange vices, what are we to say:  an ingrateful people have allowed the house to rot and crumbled to dust with her.  God forbid!”

In 1926, the Michigan Ave Baptist Church led an effort to try to save the house as a shrine, but was unsuccessful.  At the time, the house was noted for having the “good fortune that two of the greatest leaders of their time, and, indeed all time to come, used to sit and speak of the great questions confronting the negro race”.  The house was one of the oldest in the city and in the 1920s, it was close to 100 years old.

In 1932, two memorial trees were planted at the new Centennial Park (now Lasalle Park, currently being re-branded and reconstructed to become Ralph Wilson Centennial Park).  One tree was planted for Henry Williams, a black man who fought with Commodore Perry during the War of 1812.  The second tree was to honor Mary Talbert.  Dr. Nash spoke at a ceremony honoring the two.  The Negro Legionnaires and the Boy Scouts were involved in the ceremony.

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Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes laying flowers at Mary Talbert’s Grave in 2017. Source: Buffalo News

In 1935, the National Association of Colored Women laid a wreath on Mary’s headstone.  Mrs. W. Sampson Brooks of San Antonio, Texas, Miss Robert Dunbar of Providence Rhode Island and Miss Estella Wilson of Worcester, Massachusetts accompanied Mary’s daughter Sarah to lay the wreath.

In 1939, Mary McLeod Bethune, another influential Black woman like Mary Talbert, gave a talk at the Michigan Street Baptist Church and inspired a group of local civic, fraternal, political and church organizations to pledge financial support to reclaim and save the house.  Newspapers reported they raised $3,000 ($46,000 in 2020 dollars).

20200903_184906

Current view of 521 Michigan Avenue (foreground), Michigan St Baptist Church can be seen to the right of the photo. Photo by Author.

Despite these attempts to save the house, both of the Talbert family houses at 521 Michigan and 515-517 Michigan were demolished sometime between 1940 and 1950.  The site of 521 Michigan is now a parking lot and 515-517 Michigan is a grassy lot. A historical marker was placed at the site of Mary’s house in 1998.  The marker reads:
“Mary B Talbert helped found Niagara Mov’t, forerunner of NAACP, chaired US Anti-Lynching Commitee, delegate to 1920 Internatn’l Council of Women.  1866-1923.”

In addition to Mary Talbert Blvd, her name can also be found on:

  • Mary Talbert Way at UB.  Source:  UB Campus Planning

    Talbert Hall on North Campus at the University at Buffalo(UB), which was built in 1977.  The building is home to the University Honors Program, Bert’s Dining Center,  international student services and classrooms.   Just this week, UB also installed markers on the newly named Mary Talbert Way.  This road replaced Putnam Way, which was named after James Putnam, who was a NYS Senator and UB Council member who held openly expressed racist views.

  • Mary B. Talbert Hospital, Cleveland. Source: CSU Archives.

    Mary B Talbert Home and Hospital in Cleveland was founded as Mary B. Talbert Rescue home in 1925, and provided assistance for unmarried, pregnant women and girls. In 1960, the home merged with Booth Memorial and was known as the Booth-Talbert Clinic. The Clinic closed in 1976.

  • NACW Club Branches were named in her honor in various cities including Buffalo; Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; New Haven, Connecticut and Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  In Rocky Mount, the Club purchased the first athletic park for Blacks, which they named Talbert’s Park after Mary.  The park was later purchased by the City and still goes by “Stith-Talbert Park”.
  • City Federation of Women’s Clubs Branches are named for her in Florida and Texas
  • In 2000, Child and Family Services named their Main Street Clinic at 923 Main Street in her honor
  • During WWII, emergency housing was built on Clinton Street that was called the Mary B. Talbert Homes. This housing was built for workers (many of whom were Black) coming to Buffalo during the war to work in the war industry.   These houses were demolished after the war.

While Mary’s father-in-law, Robert Talbert, did own property in Oregon, and Mount Talbert is named after a prominent family there.  While there’s some evidence that some of the Talberts may have moved out west, I couldn’t find any evidence linking the Talberts of Mount Talbert with the Buffalo Talberts.  If anyone knows for certain, I’d love more info!

During Mary’s lifetime and into the 1930s, most of Blacks in Buffalo lived in integrated neighborhoods.  While there were groups of Blacks in sections of neighborhoods, most Blacks would report that they had white neighbors and at least one white friend.  The Federal Housing Authority programs during the 1930s and 40s began to change that.  The programs meant that mortgages were not given to Black residents in the suburbs or in white neighborhoods of the City.  The white residents were able to get mortgages to move and establish themselves in modern and more aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods.  As a result of this, combined with the increasing Black populations due to the Great Migration, Blacks were forced to move into the houses vacated by the whites in what was often the oldest and least favorable housing of the city.  This resulted in children going to school with all blacks or all whites, with residents having neighbors of only one color.  Within one generation, Buffalo and become a very segregated city.

PhotoGrid_1598717935709

Location of the Talbert Mall outlined in red. Sanborn Map from 1950.

During the Urban Renewal era, this resulted in Black neighborhoods being declared “slums” and being demolished in hopes of building new projects for people to live in.  When Talbert Mall opened, it was considered to be an urban renewal success.

1959

Talbert Mall in 1959

The Talbert Mall were named after Mary when it opened in 1959.  At first, the apartments reportedly had a strong community feel. In 1964, the tenant council debuted an art show.  German Gonzales was praised for his work – a series of oil paintings depicting “the History of the American Negro”. The apartments became run down and deteriorated quickly during their first decade.

1966

1966 Aerial Photo of Talbert Mall. Note the demolition of properties all around the Talbert Mall property (outlined in red)

During the 1970s, the Talbert Mall had a reputation for issues, particularly gangs. The New York Times and other Northeastern United States newspapers reported about a crime wave through the area during the spring and summer of 1971.  Gangs had taken over the Talbert Mall and other housing projects in Buffalo.  The crime wave at the Talbert Mall prompted 145 families (approximately 1/4th of all residents at the time) to request transfer to another project. Reports of snipers shooting from roofs and robberies were rampant.  Some reported that someone would call the police so that they could shoot at them when they arrived.  Several people were murdered, including a construction worker and a 14 year old boy named Jerry Wise. At the time, 150 of the units were vacant. Mayor Sedita responded through the creation of a Black Squad of police officers to patrol the neighborhood from 8pm to 4am nightly.

In 1973, the Talbert Mall was renamed Frederick Douglass Towers.  As Donn Esmonde reported in the Buffalo News in 2000, someone had thought that we needed to have a housing project named after an abolitionist, and didn’t even realize that we already had named it after a prominent civil rights advocate!

In 1974, Mrs. Carolyn D. Thomas founded the Mary B. Talbert Civic and Cultural Club after she realized they changed the name of the towers because they didn’t realize Mary was a Black woman.  Every year, the Club recognizes individuals or outstanding leadership, commitment and cultural contributions to the Buffalo community.  Mrs. Thomas also founded the Food Bank of Western New York in 1980.

Due to the vacancy, the buildings in the Talbert Mall/Douglass Towers began closing in the early 70s. Occupancy reached it’s lowest point in 1980, when only 221 of the units were rented, less than 30% of all units. During the 90s, 5 of the 12 towers were vacant.  The vacant towers were not boarded up.  In 1992, a mother was beaten to death in the entrance hallway to her building, while her 1 year old was nearby.  Mayor Griffin opened a police substation on the complex in 1993 at 180 Jefferson Ave.  In November 1992, a $4.6 million renovation was completed on one of the towers.  The project took the vacant tower at 515 Clinton Street and replaced it with 59 modern units.  The building became the only building fully occupied on the site.

The City of Buffalo looked to redevelop the entire site in 1996.  At the time, 321 of the units were occupied.  The tenants insisted that any redevelopment plan would require that 321 units be created, one for every tenant currently at the site.  None of them wanted to be displaced.  Many of the families had originally lived in the Ellicott Neighborhood and were shuffled into Dante Place when the Ellicott Neighborhood was demolished.  They were then pushed out again and relocated to the Talbert Mall/Douglass Towers when Dante Place became Marine Drive Apartments.  They did not want to be displaced again.  The tenants worked closely with Norstar Development to come up with a plan they could all live with, with all of the neighbors remaining on site.

In 1999, a $40 million redevelopment was proposed for the complex.  The plan called for demolition of 9 of the towers.  Two towers would be renovated and converted into senior apartments, with 60 units each.  The third remaining tower was the one that had been renovated in 1992/3.  Additionally, new townhouses would be constructed, along with a community center, garden and a park.

In May 2000, demolition of the towers began.  Phase I of the redevelopment included demolition of two towers and construction of 87 town homes.  The street names were added to honor three women who were important to the community living in the neighborhood – Mary Talbert, Mary Johnson and Gladys Holmes.

2002 Aerial photo. Talbert Mall property shown in red. Note that some of the towers had been demolished and new townhouses had been built.

BMHA continues to manage the apartments.  In 2010, the complex held a 50th Reunion party for tenants who had lived there over the years.  In 2017, 87 of the apartments got new kitchens, bathrooms, windows, roofs and heating systems.  The neighborhood is relatively quiet these days, with the exception of families enjoying their backyards and eating at their picnic tables.

Mary Morris Burnett Talbert Marker

In 2005, Mary Talbert was finally inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.  That year was also the centennial anniversary of the Niagara Movement so it was a fitting time for Mary to be recognized.  At that time, the women of Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs held a tribute at the grave of Mary Talbert.  They were recreating a similar memorial that had happened in 1955 where 100 women gathered for a service and pilgrimage to her grave.

In 2006, a historic plaque was placed in Forest Lawn near her grave.  Some of the funds to place the marker were raised by students at Bennett High School.

As we continue to think about civil rights and what that means to all of us today as a nation, think about Mary B. Talbert and her life’s ambition and fight.  We continue to fight for justice for all people.  And we remember all of those who fought for justice, for those who have died and for those neighborhoods we’ve lost, and we remember Mary as we do.  #blacklivesmatter

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

 

Sources:

  1. “3 New Projects to Provide 1724 More Dwelling Units”. Buffalo Evening News. October 30, 1954, pg. 8.”Crime Engulfing Buffalo Project”. New York Times. July 19, 1971, p 26.
  2. “Editorial” Buffalo American. March 4, 1926, p. 2.
  3. “Frederick Douglass’ Properties Handed Over to New Owners!” The Competitor, v.3, no2. April 1921, p 34.
  4. “Death of Peyton Harris” Buffalo Morning Express. Feb 3, 1882 p.4.
  5. “Death Takes Prominent Race Woman” Detroit Independent, October 19, 1923.
  6. “Downtown Oberlin Historic District”. US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. Prepared by O.H.I.O. 2002. Accessed from ohiohistory.org
  7. “Ghetto Growth Traced” Buffalo Courier. February 16, 1968, p 26.
  8. “Home of William Talbert May be Made a Shrine”, Commercial Advertiser, March 4, 1926
  9. “Housing Site Opens After Renovations”. Buffalo News. Nov 17, 1993.
  10. “Local Woman Benefactor of Negro People” Buffalo Morning Express. July 15, 1923. Sec 8, p1.
  11. “Memorial Tribute” Buffalo Courier Express. July 31, 1935, p 9
  12. “Mrs. Talbert, Champion of A Race, Dead”. Buffalo Express Oct 16, 1923.
  13. “Mrs. Talbert, Local Woman Who Has Worked for Advancement of Race for Twenty-Five Years”. Buffalo Morning Express. Nov, 30, 1919, p.36.
  14. “Negro Women Support Talbert Home Project” Buffalo News. December 11, 1939.
  15. “To Plant Trees Honoring Two Negro Pioneers”. Buffalo Courier. June 1, 1932.
  16. Allen, Carl, et al. “Killing Prompts Tenant Call for Better Security City Safety Official Vows Cooperation at Frederick Douglass Towers”. Buffalo News, November 10, 1992.
  17. Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst. “Housing Authority Honors Three” Buffalo News. June 16, 2001.
  18. Culp, D. W. Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. J.L. Nichols& Co: Toronto Canada, 1902.
  19. Esmonde, Donn. “Buffalo Woman Near Forgotten as Civil Rights Figure”. Buffalo News. Feb 28, 2000.
  20. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. “Mary Morris Talbert Burnett”. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn NY: Carlson Pub, Inc. 1993.
  21. Locke, Henry. History of Blacks in Buffalo. Buffalo Courier Express, 1973. Booklet found at F129.B8.L7 at Buffalo Library.
  22. Mather, Frank. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Volume 1. Chicago, 1915.
  23. McNeil, Harold. Douglass Towers Plan Reviewed. Buffalo News. Jan 22, 1999.
  24. Morton, Marian. And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990. Cleveland Public Library, 1993.
  25. Nahal, Anita and Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. “African American Women and the Niagara Movement.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol 32, Issue 2. July 2008.
  26. Payerchin, Richard. “Oberlin Historians Share Favorites of Forgotten Lore”. Morning Journal. April 29, 2019.
  27. Reif, Michelle. “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940”. The Journal of African American History, vol 89, no.3.
  28. Tan, Sandra. Razing of Douglass Towers Heralds Redevelopment of Housing Complex. May 3, 2000.

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talbertst today

Mary Talbert Blvd, shown in orange. The Talbert Mall property is outlined in red.

Today, we’re continuing our series looking at Mary B. Talbert Boulevard and the Talbert Mall.  If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you click this link to start at the beginning.  Part 2 today will cover Mary’s life while she lived here in Buffalo.  Part 3 will be coming on Saturday, September 5th, and will talk about the legacy of Mary Talbert and the Talbert Mall projects.

When we left off in Part 1, Mary had just moved to Buffalo in 1891.  Will and Mary’s daughter Sarah was born in 1892.  Sarah graduated from Central High School in 1911 and the New England Conservancy of Music in 1915.

phyllis wheatley club

Phyllis Wheatley Club – Source – Library of Congress

In 1899, Mary became a Charter Member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club.  The Phyllis Wheatley Clubs were the local affiliates of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).  Phyllis Wheatley Clubs existed across the country, named after an 18th Century Black poet.  The Club created programs and strategies to advance Buffalo’s Black Community.  The second biennial convention of the NACW was held in Buffalo in 1901.  In 1905, the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Buffalo opened a settlement house to help mothers and give job support to women.  They also opened a house for the elderly and donated books by black authors to the public libraries.

darkest africa

African Village Exhibit on the Pan Am Midway.  Note the Pan Am Electric Tower in the background.  Source: Uncrowned Community Builders

In 1900/1901, Mary Talbert challenged the Board of Commissioners of the Pan American Exposition to appoint an African American to the Board and to include an exhibit on modern Black American life, such as Booker T Washington’s Negro Education exhibit that had been featured in Atlanta in 1895 or WEB DuBois’ Negro Exhibit in Paris in 1900.  She protested the Old Plantation Exhibit, which perpetuated the “happy slave” narrative and the “Darkest Africa” village on the Midway.  Many people came out for the protest, and they were successful, the exhibit was included in the Manufacturing and Liberal Arts Building.  Because the exhibit was added later, it was not included in marketing information about the Pan Am, and little information exists about what was included in the exhibit.

In 1905, WEB DuBois and others met secretly in the home of Mary Talbert.  This began the Niagara Movement.  WEB DuBois invited a group of 54 members from 17 different states to come to Buffalo from July 11-13, 1905 to discuss plans to achieve equality.  Twenty-seven delegates from 13 states and Washington, DC came to the meeting in Fort Erie.  It is often said that the Niagara Movement held its first event in Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario because hotels in Buffalo would not allow them.  This myth has been debunked and more about that can be found in an article by Cynthia Van Ness that can be found at this link.

The Niagara Movement continued as a series of conferences and publications between 1905 and 1909.  The group was led by WEB DuBois who had a difference of opinion with Booker T. Washington as to the best way to achieve equality.  The “Bookerites”, led by Washington felt that economic prosperity and education were more important than civil and political equality.  WEB DuBois and the Niagara Movement were looking to demand civil rights immediately.  Mrs. Talbert was an acquaintance of both Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois.  In a letter, Booker T Washington asked his wife to ask Mary Talbert to keep her informed about what was going on with the Niagara Movement meetings and who was attending.  The meetings in July 1905 started at the Talbert home and moved to Fort Erie the next day.

By 1908, the Niagara Movement started to falter.  They suffered from lack of press and lack of funds.  In 1909, a race riot occurred and several Blacks were lynched in Springfield Illinois.  Mobs of white men roamed the city – looting, burning, shooting, and assaulting Blacks.  The riot shook both Black and Whites alike and served as a catalyst for a meeting in 1909 which evolved into the forming of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1910, as leader of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, Mary hosted a meeting with Jesse Nash, John Sayles (secretary to Mayor Louis P. Fuhrmann) along with WEB DuBois and Fanny Garrison Villard of the National NAACP organization.  This was the start of the Buffalo NAACP chapter, which officially formed in January 1915.  The first president of the chapter was John Brent, the first Black Architect in Buffalo.

Mary Talbert was a Charter Member of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women and later became its President from 1912 to 1916.  She also served as statistician, parliamentarian, Vice President, and President of the National Association of Colored Women.

Amenia Conference NAACP - LOC

Amenia Conference. Mary is in the center of the photo, fourth from the left in the 2nd row.  Source:  Library of Congress

In 1915, Mary was a part of the NAACP Conference, called the “Amenia Conference” in Amenia, New York (near Poughkeepsie) at Joel Spingarn’s estate, Troutbeck.  Joel Spingarn was a Jewish man from New York City who fought for racial justice and was influential in the NAACP, one of the first Jewish members of the organization.  He served on the board of NAACP for more than 25 years, as Chairman of from 1913-1919 and President from 1930 until his death in 1939.  The NAACP’s highest honor award is named after Mr. Spingarn.  This conference was held one year after Booker T Washington’s death, with the hopes of uniting the activist movement with Washington’s contingency.  The attendees agreed to a unity platform at this conference, agreeing to work together on civil rights issues.

Mary Talbert addressing servicemen during WWI. Source: Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota 

Second myth debunked:  It is often written that Mary Talbert served as a nurse with the Red Cross during WWI.  This is not true.  In Mary’s own words, after Armistice for the First World War, she went overseas for four months to serve with the YMCA in the Meuse sector near the Argonne Forest.  Of her time there, she said, “I helped the boys who buried 26,000 American dead…we remained in France until the last American soldier was in a grave properly located and marked”.  Sixteen Black women went to Europe to support the YMCA’s war efforts.  Many organizations did not allow Black women to serve overseas during the war effort.  The YMCA was one of the only organizations to allow them.  The YMCA recruited these women to work with the 400,000 black soldiers stationed in Europe.  These women were called secretaries.  She offered classes and prayers for the soldiers stationed there.  She had led Liberty Bond drives during the war and had raised $5 million to support war efforts.

Mrs. Talbert and other YMCA Secretaries used their war work abroad to help secure participation in international conferences after the war.  Gatherings of many groups were occurring, coinciding with the peace treaty negotiations.  Mary attended the Women’s Peace Conference in Zurich in May 1919, as well as the Congress of Women held in Norway in 1920.  Several black women were forbidden by the US government to attend many of these international peace talks.  The US feared that sending too many “protesters” would draw attention to some of the US government’s deficiencies.  Mary’s influence was strong enough that she was one of the few women allowed abroad.  While she was abroad, she went on a tour of Europe and was a guest of Lord and Lady Aberdeen in England and Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands.  Mary Talbert became one of the first black women to join the Women International League for Peace and Freedom.

Mary Talbert was an early supporter of the Dyer Anti Lynching Bill, sponsored by Missouri Congressman Leonidas Dyer in 1918.  The bill would make lynching a federal offense.   She spoke publicly in favor of the bill in 1920, even before the Anti-Lynching Crusaders were founded in 1922.  She traveled thousands of miles across the country speaking to crowds of both black and white audiences.  Her motto was “a million women united to suppress lynching”.  The legislation passed in the House of Representatives in January 1922, but was held up in the Senate due to filibusters by the Southern Democrats.  Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress.  According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched during those years, with almost 70% of the victims being Black.

Mary Talbert described post-WWI Buffalo as “a hard nut to crack”.  Conditions for Blacks had declined.  As the Black population of Buffalo increased, so had the discrimination and segregation tactics by the white residents.  When Mary arrived in Buffalo in the 1890s, the Black population of the city was about 1,100, out of a population of 255,000.  By the 1920s, the Black population had grown as Blacks had come from the south to work in the new industrial production of war equipment during WWI.  After the War, many of those jobs ended.  Employment for Blacks was hard to come by and in the 1920s, many Blacks lived on little to nothing.  Blacks continued to come north during the Great Migration, and the City government did little to help conditions, which were deteriorating in the Black communities.  While Buffalo had nationally known champions for Black rights in people like Mary Talbert and her neighbor Reverend Nash, they mostly ignored the problems that were happening and didn’t use them to help spearhead policy changes that could have helped improve conditions for the Black community.  She was considered to be the most well-known Buffalonian in her time, fighting for change across the country and internationally.  Mary was invited to speak across the country and was published in many newspapers and journals during her lifetime.  The Buffalo Express interviewed her in 1923 and reported that it was likely she was better known outside of Buffalo than inside Buffalo.  She didn’t like publicity and was often very modest about her accomplishments.  In 1920, when she spoke in Cincinnati, advertisements described her as “Our Greatest Woman!  Madam Mary B Talbert.”

In 1921, she spoke in front of the International Council of Women in support of equal right of inheritance for illegitimate as for legitimate children.

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Frederick Douglass Home. Source:  National Parks Service

During her time as President of the NACW, the group purchased and restored the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington DC.  On March 5, 1921, the deed to the house was received by Mary Talbert, representing the NACW.  She also served as President of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which maintains the home.

Mary Talbert Spingarn Medal. Source: Uncrowned Community Builders

In 1922, Mary Talbert was awarded the Spingarn Medal.  This is the highest award of the NAACP, given for “the highest or noblest achievement by a living American Negro during the preceding year or years”.  Mary was present the medal for her continued service to women of color.

Before her death, she had been scheduled to lead a group of more than 200 black clergymen on a tour of the Holy Land and Egypt, but was forced to postpone the trip due to her poor health.

Mary Talbert died on October 15, 1923, of coronary thrombosis.  She was 57 years old.  She is buried in the Talbert family plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery.  Her obituary in the Buffalo News called her “probably most noted woman in the world”.

To learn more about Mary’s legacy and the legacy of the Talbert Mall apartments, you can read Part 3.

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Sources:

  1. “3 New Projects to Provide 1724 More Dwelling Units”. Buffalo Evening News. October 30, 1954, pg. 8.”Crime Engulfing Buffalo Project”. New York Times. July 19, 1971, p 26.
  2. “Editorial” Buffalo American. March 4, 1926, p. 2.
  3. “Frederick Douglass’ Properties Handed Over to New Owners!” The Competitor, v.3, no2. April 1921, p 34.
  4. “Death of Peyton Harris” Buffalo Morning Express. Feb 3, 1882 p.4.
  5. “Death Takes Prominent Race Woman” Detroit Independent, October 19, 1923.
  6. “Downtown Oberlin Historic District”. US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. Prepared by O.H.I.O. 2002. Accessed from ohiohistory.org
  7. “Ghetto Growth Traced” Buffalo Courier. February 16, 1968, p 26.
  8. “Home of William Talbert May be Made a Shrine”, Commercial Advertiser, March 4, 1926
  9. “Housing Site Opens After Renovations”. Buffalo News. Nov 17, 1993.
  10. “Local Woman Benefactor of Negro People” Buffalo Morning Express. July 15, 1923. Sec 8, p1.
  11. “Memorial Tribute” Buffalo Courier Express. July 31, 1935, p 9
  12. “Mrs. Talbert, Champion of A Race, Dead”. Buffalo Express Oct 16, 1923.
  13. “Mrs. Talbert, Local Woman Who Has Worked for Advancement of Race for Twenty-Five Years”. Buffalo Morning Express. Nov, 30, 1919, p.36.
  14. “Negro Women Support Talbert Home Project” Buffalo News. December 11, 1939.
  15. “To Plant Trees Honoring Two Negro Pioneers”. Buffalo Courier. June 1, 1932.
  16. Allen, Carl, et al. “Killing Prompts Tenant Call for Better Security City Safety Official Vows Cooperation at Frederick Douglass Towers”. Buffalo News, November 10, 1992.
  17. Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst. “Housing Authority Honors Three” Buffalo News. June 16, 2001.
  18. Culp, D. W. Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. J.L. Nichols& Co: Toronto Canada, 1902.
  19. Esmonde, Donn. “Buffalo Woman Near Forgotten as Civil Rights Figure”. Buffalo News. Feb 28, 2000.
  20. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. “Mary Morris Talbert Burnett”. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn NY: Carlson Pub, Inc. 1993.
  21. Locke, Henry. History of Blacks in Buffalo. Buffalo Courier Express, 1973. Booklet found at F129.B8.L7 at Buffalo Library.
  22. Mather, Frank. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Volume 1. Chicago, 1915.
  23. McNeil, Harold. Douglass Towers Plan Reviewed. Buffalo News. Jan 22, 1999.
  24. Morton, Marian. And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990. Cleveland Public Library, 1993.
  25. Nahal, Anita and Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. “African American Women and the Niagara Movement.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol 32, Issue 2. July 2008.
  26. Payerchin, Richard. “Oberlin Historians Share Favorites of Forgotten Lore”. Morning Journal. April 29, 2019.
  27. Reif, Michelle. “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940”. The Journal of African American History, vol 89, no.3.
  28. Tan, Sandra. Razing of Douglass Towers Heralds Redevelopment of Housing Complex. May 3, 2000.

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