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Posts Tagged ‘urban renewal’

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).

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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)

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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.  I have heard that this was the first Urban Renewal project in New York State, but I could not verify.  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.

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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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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).

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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.

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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.

This next series of streets will be streets around the Frederick Douglass Senior Community: Mary B. Talbert Blvd, Mary Johnson Boulevard and Gladys Holmes Boulevard. The Frederick Douglass Towers were formerly known as the Talbert Mall Development, sometimes called the Jefferson Ave Projects. The area is bounded by Clinton, Jefferson, Division, and Spring Streets, part of the Ellicott Neighborhood.

This will be a multi-part series. We will begin with the story of Mary B. Talbert.  Her story will be divided into three parts. This post covers her early life and what brought her to Buffalo. Part 2 covers her life in Buffalo. Part 3 will discuss Mary’s legacy and the legacy of the Talbert Mall.

The Ellicott Neighborhood where these streets are located was historically a mix of Jewish, Italian, and Black families. Twenty-nine blocks of the neighborhood were demolished between 1958 and 1961, displacing 2,219 families and 250 businesses. Here is a map showing the Talbert Mall area in 1950:

PhotoGrid_1598717935709

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

The Towers were built in 1957, opened in 1959, and consisted of 12 towers each 7 or 8 stories tall. The buildings were designed by James William Kideney Associates. When they were built, they were named for Mary Talbert. On 16 acres and containing 763 units, the Talbert Mall was the largest of three developments built during this time period. The other developments, include the Ellicott Mall, which we discussed previously, and Kensington Heights, which we will likely cover on another date. It was planned for 3,612 people to live at the Talbert Mall site. The housing that was demolished to build the Talbert Mall was reported to be “the worst kind of blight in Buffalo. The apartments were supposed to be an urban renewal success story. We’ll talk more about what actually happened in Part 3. Here is an aerial photo of the Talbert Mall Towers in 1959 when they first opened:

1959

Talbert Mall in 1959

mARY FREEDOM WALL

Mary B. Talbert on Buffalo’s Freedom Wall. Photo by Author

The Talbert Mall was named after Mary Morris Burnett Talbert.  Mary Burnett was born in born in Oberlin, Ohio on September 17, 1866. Mary was the child of Cornelius and Caroline Burnett.  Of the nine Burnett children, only Mary and her younger sister Clara were born in Ohio, the rest were born in North Carolina.  Cornelius Burnett was born to free parents in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1816. Caroline Nicholls Burnett  was born in 1833 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Caroline was a descendant of Richard Nicolls, the Englishman who captured New York from the Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch in 1664. Nicholls became Governor of New Netherlands.  While he was Governor, New Netherlands/New Amsterdam became New York, as it was now under control of the Duke of York, whom Nicholls served under.

15 South Main

Modern Image of 15 South Main Street in Oberlin.

While still living in North Carolina, Cornelius and Caroline Burnett purchased land in Oberlin in 1860. They hoped to give their family a better opportunity and education in hopes of a better life up North. The Civil War prevented their travel. They arrived in Oberlin in 1866, shortly before Mary’s birth. Mr. Burnett built a two-story building at 15 South Main Street. It became a restaurant and boarding house, run by Mrs. Burnett. It was one of the first hotels in Oberlin. Mr. Burnett also had a barbershop in the building and worked as a barber. The family lived behind the business. The building suffered from a fire, one of the worst in Oberlin history, where many structures were damaged. The building was rebuilt in 1886, incorporating parts of three older buildings. The middle, one-story portion of the building is believed to be the original brick house where the Burnett family lived after the fire. The building was significantly remodeled in 1906 when it became a bank and again in 1980. The building is currently the location of Black River Café. The building is a contributing structure to the Downtown Oberlin Historic District and is known as the Carpenter-Burnett Building.

When Mr. Burnett died in 1896, his obituary called him “one of Oberlin’s best known and highly esteemed colored citizens”. After his death, Mrs. Burnett moved to Buffalo to live with Mary.

49924653908_4f11007234_o

Mary Burnett in Oberlin Days. Source: Oberlin Heritage Center.

The Burnett family were respected members of the Oberlin Business Community. Mary graduated from Oberlin High School at age 16 and attended Oberlin College, receiving an S.P. in 1886. She graduated at the age of 19, the only Black student to graduate that year.

In 1894, Oberlin granted a Bachelor of Arts degree to Mrs. Talbert based on her accomplishments and her studies. This degree was granted at this time to many Oberlin students who had previously earned an S.P.(Specialist) degree. She then became a member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. At the time, she was the only Black woman in the City of Buffalo eligible for admission to the association.

First myth debunked: It’s often said that Mary was the first African American to receive a PhD from the University at Buffalo. However, according to sources, including the UB archivist, this is not true. At the time, UB was only Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dentistry. The College of Arts and Sciences did not exist yet. By the time Mary had died, UB had only awarded 2 PhDs total. Some believe this story began because of the confusion when she received her second degree from Oberlin. Additionally, those who took continuing education at UB at the time were awarded certificates that were called “doctorates”, so Mary may have received one of those doctorate certificates.

state street little rock

Union High School was located on this corner, now parking lots.  Photo by Author.

After college, Ms. Burnett taught in Little Rock, Arkansas for six years, first teaching at Bethel University (which became Shorter University). It was said that she was a born teacher. After a year of teaching at Bethel, she became Assistant Principal of the Little Rock Union High School in January 1887. At the time, this was the highest position held by any women in Arkansas.   (Note from Angela:  I was in Little Rock in March and I was saddened to learn that much of what Mary knew of the city is gone – The site of Union High School is now a parking lot.  The original site of Bethel University is now a Starbucks.  The house where Mary lived in Little Rock is now a vacant one story commercial structure.  I asked the staff members at Mosaic Templars – the African-American museum in Little Rock- and they did not know her, but said they’d look her up.  I hope they’re reading this now.)  Mary left teaching after her marriage but was often asked to reconsider and return to the profession.  Regulations in Buffalo at the time forbid married women from teaching in the public schools.

william talbert

William Talbert. Source: Uncrowned Community Builders.

In 1891, she married William Herbert Hilton Talbert, who went by Will. They were introduced to each other by Mary’s sister Henrietta, who married Will’s brother Robert. Mary and Will were married on September 8th in Oberlin. Harry Burleigh served as Will’s best man. Harry Burleigh, a musician from Erie, PA. Will and Harry had become friends as Harry’s father would pass through Buffalo working on the Buffalo-Chicago run of the Lake Shore Railroad. Harry Burleigh is well known for his compositions, including arrangement of many Negro Spirituals. Both the Talbert and the Burnett families were musically inclined.

Will Talbert worked as a clerk in the City Treasurer’s office and helped managed his family’s real estate holdings. The family’s real estate office was at 79 Clinton Street. Will’s grandfather, Peyton Harris, was one of the early Blacks in Buffalo, settling here around 1833. Peyton Harris came from Powhatan County, Virginia. He served in the Army during the War of 1812. When he came to Buffalo, he worked as a dyer and in the clothing repair business. He had a shop at 21 Commercial Street near the Erie Canal. He was known around town as “Uncle Peyton” and helped to establish the Michigan Street Baptist Church.  On October 3, 1850, Uncle Peyton was part of a group of Black men who resolved to speak out and fight against the Fugitive Slave Act. Their resolution stated: “We unhesitatingly accept the issue forced upon us and of the two evils presented choose the least, preferring to die in resisting the executive of so monstrous a law rather than submit to its infamous requirements…we pledge ourselves to resist the execution of this law at all hazards and to the last extremity”.

Peyton Harris and his son in law, Robert Talbert (Will Talbert’s father) were successful real estate men. They owned many properties, including a large portion of Grand Island. In the 1870s, Peyton Harris was reported to own parcels valued at $12,000. Robert Talbert had gone to California during the Gold Rush and had been successful. Will was born while the family was in California. Robert Talbert invested his gold in real estate in California, Oregon, and New York.

In addition to owning a great deal of real estate, Uncle Peyton is believed to have built the house at 521 Michigan for his family. The house was one of the oldest in the city. Some sources say it was built in 1827, but other sources have Peyton Harris arriving in Buffalo during the 1830s and building for himself to live. Uncle Peyton also built the house next-door in 1845 for his daughter Anna and her husband Robert Talbert, at 515-517 Michigan Avenue.  These houses had stood witness to emancipation and the signing of the 15th Amendment, when the parishioners at the Michigan Street Baptist Church held a large celebration, with a parade through the streets and a dinner at St. James Hall to honor the occasion.  Will Talbert inherited both houses after his mother died. After Will’s death, the houses went to his and Mary’s daughter.

michigan street baptist

Michigan Street Baptist Church

The Talbert and the Harris families were members at the Michigan Street Baptist Church. Uncle Peyton had helped found the church. When Mary arrived in Buffalo after their marriage, she founded the Christian Culture Congress at the Church and served as president of the organization for more than 20 years. Since she couldn’t teach in public schools Mary continued her educational pursuits and established classes at the church. She trained more than 300 Sunday School teachers.

Will and Mary Talbert lived at both 515 and 521 Michigan Avenue at different times, along with other members of the Talbert and Harris families. Mary and Will had one child, Sarah May, born in 1892.

Stay tuned as we cover more about Mary’s life after she moved to Buffalo in Part 2, which you can read here.   And more about her legacy will be coming in Part 3, coming next weekend.

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 had 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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This post is Part Two in a series of three posts about Buffalo’s Canal District.  Click here to read Part One, discussing the early days of the Erie Canal, when the area was part of the seedy underbelly of Buffalo.  Part Three will come out next week and will discuss the most recent years of Buffalo’s Canal District.  Today’s post discusses the Italian Quarter and Dante Place, the street that replaced Canal Street.

1925 Map of the Canal District

1925 Map of the Italian Quarter

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, built in 1906 on LeCouteulx Street

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, built in 1906 on LeCouteulx Street Source: America’s Crossroads by Michael Vogel

The Canal District slowly died as trade along the canal was replaced by railroads.  Industry and immigration began to change the landscape of the area.  The sailors and canal business moved out of the area and sought work elsewhere.  The vacant buildings were taken over by immigrants.  The Canal District made way to what was called the Italian Quarter, due to the influx of Italian immigrants.  Between 1900 and 1920, the Italian population of Buffalo increased from 6,000 to 16,000 (Buffalo’s total population in 1920 was 506,775).  The Italian community separated in Buffalo based on the territories and villages of their homeland – each settling into different parts of the City of Buffalo.  The Abbruzzese moved to the upper East Side; the Campobassini moved to the Lower East Side; the Calabrians moved to South Buffalo; and the companies moved to an area near Downtown Buffalo.  The Italians who settled in the Canal District were coming mainly from Sicily to escape a famine and high taxes.

The area was also known as “The Hooks” after the cargo hooks that the dockworkers and longshoremen used.  Near the entrance to the district was “the Coop”, an Italian fruit vendor stand.  The bath house posted instructions in both English and Italian.    The name of Canal Street was changed to Dante Place in 1909.  The impact of changing the name of the street had a large impact on the neighborhood. The rule limiting the women of Canal Street from venturing north into Buffalo proper was lifted.  After the women left, the saloons and concert halls began to close.  The once notorious dance hall saloon known as the Only Theater became a “normal” tavern and politicians meeting place.

Jacob Schoellkopf, a millionaire who made his money from tanning...owner of the Revere Block

Jacob Schoellkopf, a millionaire who made his money from tanningowner of the Revere Block.  Newspaper articles of the day criticized him for the poor conditions in his buildings.

Former brothels and hotels for canal workers and travelers became tenements.  These three and four story brick buildings housing multiple families in crowded conditions. The tenements were poorly-ventilated, small rooms with little heat, frozen pipes in winter and little sunlight. Cholera and pneumonia were common in the tenements.  Many of the immigrants lived in poverty. Rooms rented for $6/month (about $100-130 in current dollars).  In 1890, one old hotel called the Revere Block, originally designed to hold 100 guests, had 1,040 residents living in crammed conditions.  Reports in other buildings included 18 families crammed into four rooms; 56 people sharing eight bedrooms.  Conditions in many of these tenements were disgusting and unsanitary. Social work organizations began working to help deal with the conditions in the district.  Charity Organization Society and Miss Maria Love began to work with the churches around 1895, working to organize efforts against poverty throughout the City of Buffalo.   Seventy-six churches, of 12 denominations, pitched in to help around the city.  Each church was responsible for a district, working for the “moral elevation of the people, and for the relief of all the needy and neglected persons of whatever religious faith within the district”.  Instead of offering direct relief, many of these societies attempted to address the cycle of poverty.

Images from Welcome Hall, one of the settlement houses in Dante Place.   Click here to see in greater detail

Images from one of the settlement houses in Dante Place.
Click here to see in greater detail

Remington Hall was located at the corner of Erie Street and Canal Street (next to the Revere Block) and was one of the settlement houses located in the canal district.  Miss Mary Remington was the head of the settlement house, working with First Presbyterian Church to reform one of the “vilest tenements in Buffalo”.

Mary Remington was born in 1859 in Connecticut and began working to help others at a young age.  At the time, social service was in its infancy and community centers were not common.  In 1894, when Miss Remington came to Buffalo, she noticed that the churches were ignoring the Canal street district, but she saw that the need there was the greatest.  Many Buffalonians did not believe that she could make a difference in that neighborhood, but she was determined to try.

Mary Remington in 1933 Source:  Buffalo Courier Express

Mary Remington in 1933
Source: Buffalo Courier Express

Remington Hall included a kitchen, sewing classes, a Sunday School, mothers’ meetings, a nursery and kindergarten, vocational education, housekeeping and cleanliness classes and recreational programs.  Miss Remington served as landlord, cook, leader of religious services, pianist, teacher and friend to the needy regardless of their race, creed, age or reputation.  She was referred to as “mea madre” by many of the Italian immigrants.  She wrote letters for the men who could not write, she delivered soup and tea to sick women, bailed neighbors out of jail and helped out her neighborhood in any way she could as part of her daily routine.  During the Pan American Exposition in 1901, she took in extra borders and raised $1,000 to do repairs to her building and open a fresh air lodge at the old International Hotel in Fort Erie for poor residents to go to experience a summer change of scenery. She helped more than 100 women who had kept brothels by showing them a different, upstanding way of life.  She sustained the Remington Hall primarily by the rents she charged her tenants.  She was named among the “Woman’s Who’s Who of America” in 1914.  In 1933, Miss Remington said, “If I could live my life over, I would again spend it among the poor”.  During the depression, Miss Remington’s health declined and she was forced to move to the country.  She still continued to provide for the needy, knitting mittens and sending vegetables from her gardens in to the city.

The Settlement House Movement was strong in Buffalo and settlement houses existed across Buffalo.  Two of the oldest – Westminster Community House (1893) and Neighborhood House Association (1894) merged to form the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers (BFNC) in the 1980s and still provide services in the Fruit Belt Neighborhood.

While settlement workers tried hard to make conditions better for the residents in poverty stricken areas, many of the early social workers were viewed as outsiders.  They were thought to undermine old world culture rather than seeing its positive value.  In Dante Place, they misunderstood many of the Italian immigrants, and the Italians misunderstood them.  The American values of sobriety, thrift, sociability, industry, cleanliness, patriotism and “properness” were foreign to the southern Italians of the district.  Many of the Sicilian men resented the settlement’s intrusions into family life. The district was described as “looking more and more like Little Italy by day, and the old-time pit of vice and iniquity by night”.  There were reports of organized crime, but for this area, this was nothing new.

Il Corriere Italiano from the day President McKinley died in 1901

Il Corriere Italiano from the day President McKinley died in 1901

Many of the Italians formed their own fraternal organizations, professional societies and cultural clubs.  There were so many of these groups that a Federation of Italian-American Societies was established in 1906.  One of the important Italian newspapers in Buffalo was known as Il Corriere Italiano (the Italian Courier).  The paper was published from 1898 until the 1950s.   The editor of the paper also published a book in 1908 called La Citta di Buffalo, NY (the City of Buffalo, NY) which was written to bring potential immigrants from Italy.

Most of Buffalo’s Italians worked as laborers.  Many of the Italians worked on construction of the Pan-American Exposition in the northern part of the City of Buffalo in 1901.  During the Pan-American Exposition, the Italians were represented by the Venice in America attraction on the Midway of the Exposition.  The attraction included mandolin and guitarist players.

Here is a view of the area from 1921:

1921 View of the Area

1921 View of the Area

During the 1920s, New York State began to fill in the Erie Canal.  At the time, the abandoned canal waters stood stagnant and polluted.  By the 1930s, the area was considered one of Buffalo’s worst slums.  Citizens living in the “proper” part of Buffalo continued to cast their eyes down on the waterfront.   City Planners began a 40-year fight to change the area to create something new on the waterfront, to create something of which the whole city could be proud.

A typical tenement in Dante Place - 42 Fly Street

A typical tenement in Dante Place – 42 Fly Street

Little Italy lingered on for a little longer; however, the neighborhood began to look old and dilapidated.  Many of the Italians from Little Italy began to integrate into the rest of the city, as their families began to earn enough to move into houses on the Lower West Side.  The paved streets, concrete sidewalks and trees of the Lower West Side was seen as an improvement from the manure filled cobblestones and wooden sidewalks of the Canal District.  In 1949, Mount Carmel Church closed, and St. Anthony’s on Court Street replaced it as the main Italian church in Buffalo.  The Italians celebrated many of the feast days with parades and large religious festivities.  Among these was the Feast of St. Anthony, when people came together for a parade and festivities.  The St. Anthony’s Festival on Connecticut Street began in 1976 as a way to bring back the days of the old traditions.  The Connecticut Street festival was moved to Hertel Avenue in the 1980s and is the annual Italian Heritage Festival, held every summer and attracting an estimated 600,000 annually.

A 1947 painting titled Dante Place by Joseph Carvana

A 1947 painting titled Dante Place by Joseph Carvana

In 1936, one of the residents of a tenement in Dante Place lit a candle and went into the basement, causing a Natural Gas explosion that lifted the entire building off its foundations.  Five people died in the blast, bringing national attention to slum areas, which spurred new legislation.   Buffalo quickly moved to raze the substandard buildings in Dante Place, and by 1937, over 160 buildings had been demolished.  In 1948, only 90 families remained in the area.  The Buffalo Courier Express noted in October 1936 that this may have been the first slum clearance rehabilitation project in the United States.  In the 13 block area, there had once been 1500 residents and by 1936, there were only 124 remaining.

City officials used Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds to construct Memorial Auditorium on the northeastern portion of Little Italy.  The Aud replaced the Broadway Auditorium.   When construction began, the Buffalo News reported:

As if overnight, the Terrace once more is coming to life.  The massive new hall will be the mainstay, but city planners also want to improve the section with a boulevard in the old canal bed, waterfront parks and relocation, if not removal of the New York Central tracks.  Visible proof of these good intentions is construction of the new hall.

Postcard of Memorial Auditorium

Postcard of Memorial Auditorium

The Aud opened in October 1940.  The Aud was host to many events, including circuses, concerts, sports and political events.  Over the years, the Aud was home to the Buffalo Bisons of the AHL, the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL, the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, the Buffalo Stallions of the MSL, the Buffalo Bandits of the MILL, the Buffalo Blizzard of the NPSL, and the Buffalo Stampede of the RHI.  Additionally,  The last of the old saloons was the Peacock Grill, located at 136 Dante Place.  In 1950, Libby and Joe Guillo sold the rights to the Peacock Grill building and moved up to Main Street.  The era of the Canal District as Little Italy had ended.

Stay tuned for Part Three, which discusses the last 60 years of Buffalo’s Canal District.

Learn about other streets by checking out the Street Index.

Sources:

  1. Courier Express Dec 17, 1952 p 15
  2. Buffalo Evening News 4-15-1950 “Echoes of Revelry Have Faded out and Earth-Movers Clang Away.
  3. “Housing Project Rises where Canalers Roistered” Courier Express 10-29-1952
  4. “Lusty Canal St. Lived Hard and Fast in Heyday” Courier Express 10-26-1952
  5. “Dante Area Streets Get Single Name” Courier Express, November 11, 1960 Buffalo Streets Vol 1.
  6. America’s Crossroads:  Buffalo’s Canal Street/ Dante Place.  Buffalo NY Heritage Press, 1993.
  7. Dug’s Dive.   Buffalo Express Saturday Morning August 29,1874
  8. Hart, Mary Bronson.  Partitioning Poverty:  Zones of Influence in Social Work.  Boston Evening Transcript.  August 29, 1900.  http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2249&dat=19000829&id=z40-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=qFkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6968,6102881
  9. Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia.  Family and Community:  Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880-1930.
  10. Maggiotto, Anthony, Sr.  LaTerra Promessa:  The Promised Land:  200 Years of WNY Italian-American Experiences.  Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York,  2007.
  11. Mary E. Remington Founder of Dante Place Mission.  Buffalo Courier Express, August 27, 1933.  P 4.

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Wilkeson Way is a small street…ok, technically, it’s basically just the entry way into a parking lot down by the Erie Basin Marina.  It’s named after the man who was extremely important to the building of Buffalo in the early 1800s, so I’m including it.  Originally. Wilkeson Street was a little further north of the current Wilkeson Way, behind City Hall, in an area which changed due to urban renewal in the 1960s.

While the street is short, the man it was named for happens to be my absolute favorite Buffalonian, Samuel Wilkeson. (more…)

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