Sep 29, 2013

Congress for New Urbanism at the Central Library This Week to Discuss Upcoming Buffalo Conference

The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) is coming to Buffalo next year from June 4th through through the 7th for their 22nd conference. In anticipation of conference, there will be a short presentation at the Central Library downtown on Thursday, October 3rd at 6pm. This free event is open to the public and will discuss who will be at the conference, a list of the tours planned, and how the CNU can aid Buffalo and the surrounding WNY communities.


John Norquist, CNU president and CEO will be on hand to discuss the conference, followed by Norman Garrick will present on current trends in transportation. Garrick is a transportation expert from the University of Connecticut and CNU board member. Buffalo: America's Best Design City, John Paget's latest film will also be screened at the event. Once the meeting concludes, be sure to head across the street to the Pan American Grill in the Hotel Lafayette for a CNU social hour at 7:30.

The CNU conference is the premier event for architects, planners, transportation and housing experts, public officials and citizen activists from all over the U.S. and from other countries to meet, learn, listen and engage with one another on how to make their cities, towns, and villages more livable.


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Sep 27, 2013

The History of Hamlin Park Part VII: Early Housing Acts and the Start of Urban Renewal

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.

Like many large American cities, Buffalo’s mid-twentieth century history was significantly influenced by federal urban renewal programs. The roots of urban renewal in the United States can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when industrialization and mass immigration led to the proliferation of overcrowded and unsanitary urban slums.  
"Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'" by Jacob Riis
During the Progressive Era, reformers began to create social awareness of the poor living conditions of the impoverished in our urban centers and to call for housing reform.  Tenement reform laws and the design and construction of model tenements were some of the early efforts to ameliorate these conditions in New York City.   Nevertheless, the small groups of model tenements constructed in the city between 1855 and 1905 paled in comparison to the fifty thousand speculative tenements erected in the same period.   In the early twentieth century urban planners such as Grosvenor Atterbury, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, among others, experimented with planned communities; however, most were outside the city limits, in deference to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City model.  Stein and Wright’s Sunnyside Gardens (1924-28) in Queens was one notable example of a complex that used urban forms, such as the rowhouse and the city grid, to best advantage.  Although Sunnyside was funded by a limited dividend corporation, it primarily benefitted skilled workers and the middle class, not the dwellers of substandard tenements.  

Sunnyside Gardens by Stein & Wright. Image courtesy of City Land NYC
In 1929, at the height of the prosperity in this country just prior to the Great Depression, about 50 percent of families were living at minimum subsistence level.  According to a period government inventory of sixty-four cities, only 37.7 percent of the housing was in good condition and 2.3 percent was unfit for human habitation.  The onset of the Depression only made these conditions worse.  Between 1928 and 1933, housing construction fell 95 percent and in 1932 alone, 273,000 homeowners lost their homes to foreclosures.

Prior to the 1930s, the federal government exercised a limited role in providing for the social welfare of its citizens and had no role in the debate over housing reform.  Nineteenth-century reformers never considered the possibility that government would play a role in building or subsidizing housing.   However, the overwhelming need for housing combined with a stagnant economy and the desperate need to create jobs as a result of the Depression sparked the federal government’s first efforts to create housing for the urban poor.    Thus, during the 1930s the federal government began passing legislation to encourage private investment in the construction of housing for low to moderate income families.  The Federal Home Loan Bank System, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and the Federal National Mortgage Association were all established to encourage mortgage credit flows, aiding in financing construction and purchase of housing for low-income families.  But while these programs aided middle-class families, they did very little for low-income homeowners, as the FHA discouraged loans to low priced homes and rental properties.  In 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act, in an effort to help bring the country out of the Depression, provided for a federal housing program administered by the housing director of the federal Public Works Administration (PWA), which sponsored slum-clearance and the construction and operation of low-rent public housing.  Under this program, which had no state or local participation, the PWA’s own slum clearance and direct build housing program cleared 10,000 substandard units and provided housing for 22,000 families in thirty cities.   Neither local communities nor members of the real estate industry were enthusiastic about slum clearance and public housing, but while there were limitations, the PWA program paved the way for future programs by producing the first government subsidized housing projects for low-income families.

The U.S. Housing Act of 1937

After the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall low-rent housing bill, which created the United States Housing Authority and established a clear federal commitment to providing decent low-cost housing to America’s poor.   The act established a system for the federal government to provide loans and grants to local agencies for low-rent public housing.  Federal approval was required for sites, plans, costs and rents, and local authorities oversaw site acquisition, development, administration and ownership.  Although the act required the building of one unit of housing for every slum dwelling eliminated, the provisions of the bill only provided for a half billion dollars over a three-year period, far less than was required to address the housing needs of the time.   The United States Housing Authority ultimately constructed 370 public housing projects, accommodating 120,000 families and spending more than $540,000,000.

These shacks in Atlanta, GA were cleared to make way for the Capital Homes public housing project as part of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act. 
There was another force at work on urban issues at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This group consisted of business interests, real estate investors, and city politicians who were alarmed over the decentralization of American cities, as wealthy urban dwellers began to desert the metropolis for the suburbs.  This flight was associated by urban experts and leaders with the spread of slums and blight in the downtown areas, thus compromising real estate values.  Concerned over the loss of tax revenue, members of this groups called for the replacement of obsolete building stock, the redrawing of street plans, and the promotion of downtown areas. 

Many members of the real estate industry felt that the solution to deteriorated downtowns, surrounding industrial buildings, and low-income housing was to replace these run-down structures with expensive residences and office buildings. As early as the 1930s, the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) looked for urban redevelopment through private investment rather than public housing programs.  The NAREB called for cities to acquire properties in blighted areas through eminent domain and sell them to private developers at below-value prices.  The board proposed that the government provide subsidies to cover the difference between the purchase price and the value after redevelopment.  While several states complied and passed statutes to encourage urban redevelopment by private enterprise, the success of these programs was limited due to the lukewarm response of developers, who believed that they were not lucrative investments.  The reluctance by developers to invest in slum areas was a continual problem in the history of urban development.

The Housing Act of 1949

During World War II, housing was needed in and around newly created war-related industries, and the federal government issued a substantial number of housing contracts for defense workers.  Low-rent public housing complexes that were under construction or near completion were converted to defense housing, more than 625,000 inexpensive or temporary units were built in the most congested areas, and local housing authorities  built numerous units of new housing for the defense industry.    In 1941 members of the home building industry formed the Home Builders Emergency Committee so that private industry could participate in the building campaign.  In 1943 home builders formed the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which became one of the country’s most influential lobbies.  

As World War II ended, a political battle began in the United States between liberal housing reformers and members of the real estate community over federal legislation for urban redevelopment, especially concerning the question of public housing.  In 1944 Senators Robert A. Taft, Allen J. Ellender, and Robert Wagner sponsored federal legislation that included a provision to assist local agencies in purchasing and clearing slum properties and selling the cleared land to private developers. Because of the provision for more public housing, the NAREB joined forces with the NAHB to fight the bill.   This bill, finally passed in 1949, provided federal aid to localities specifically for projects that would result in more residential development. Although not intended to subsidize wholesale rebuilding of aging urban centers, the Taft-Ellender-Wagner bill, later renamed the US Housing Act of 1949, recognized slums as a national problem and described two impediments to slum clearance: cost and lack of housing for displaced families. The cost of the land, its clearance and redevelopment was frequently more than its value after its redevelopment as affordable housing.

The 1949 Housing Act paved the way for massive "slum clearance" projects to construct new public housing like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis for example. Here it appears shiny and new before everything went to hell.
Title I of the 1949 housing act, “Slum Clearance and Redevelopment,” provided a federal financial assistance program for local communities for clearance, site preparation and sale of federally and locally approved redevelopment projects.  While the act did not specifically join public housing to urban redevelopment projects, it did make the provision that for projects to qualify, the site must be “predominantly residential” before or after redevelopment.  Title I specified that the slum clearance and redevelopment projects had to be locally planned, managed and serve local needs. Communities had to meet certain requirements, including a process to provide temporary housing for displaced families and permanent sound, affordable housing.  The 1949 housing act did not achieve its framers’ goals for clearing slums and providing low-income housing.  Only a small percentage of the substandard housing units were eliminated and redevelopment of these areas into public housing did not occur, primarily because it was not economically feasible. The areas were frequently lacking in supporting facilities, such as commercial and recreational services.  And, although the 1949 law appeared to provide a substantial increase in federal aid, in reality none of the urban renewal grants between 1949 and 1958 rivaled the amounts spent on highways, airports or water and sanitation projects.

Less than 20 years after it was constructed and heralded as a masterpiece of modern architecture, the complex designed by Minoru Yamasaki was leveled. If you haven't seen The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, it's worth a watch for the full story
While the supply of standard housing decreased, the demand increased.  The housing situation was compounded after World War II by millions of returning soldiers, most eager to marry and start new households.  Existing urban areas simply lacked enough housing units of any kind to shelter these new families, leading to a profound housing shortage, which in part fueled a massive exodus of middle-class families to burgeoning neighborhoods of single family houses being constructed outside the city.  This further reduced the economic viability of urban neighborhoods, which now consisted of people who were poorer and less able to invest in their neighborhoods.

The Baltimore Plan

During the 1950s, some city planners and real estate industry organizations believed that rehabilitation and conservation of neighborhoods could be as effective as slum clearance projects in bringing life to declining cities. A number of cities experimented with rehabilitation of existing buildings and preservation of neighborhoods.   Building repair and rehabilitation, clean-up crusades, and strict enforcement of building codes became priorities.  This plan had been developed in Baltimore as early as the 1940s.  The horrific conditions of Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods were publicized in the 1930s and the city government’s measures to correct these ills were ineffective.  A citizen’s group, the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association, called for Baltimore’s government to create an independent department to make and enforce housing standards and, if necessary, demolish buildings that could not measure up to the standards.  The group also called for a rehabilitation commission, which would buy and rehabilitate substandard structures and then sell or lease the structures.  In 1947 the city created a housing court to address only those concerns resulting from residential code violations.  The so-called “Baltimore Plan,” was touted as a national symbol of how to transform blighted areas. 

At least twelve cities, including Boston, Detroit, Miami and St. Louis, followed this approach in an effort to avoid slum clearance. Some cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee, tried this approach through the initiative of local citizens groups. This theory of code enforcement and rehabilitation for urban change was expressed by industry consultant Miles Colean in his 1953 book, Renewing Our Cities.  Colean stated that urban problems were interrelated with economic problems, including decentralization, suburban spread, downtown congestion, and slums.  Rather than replacing slums with new housing, Colean recommended a more comprehensive approach, including improving the city’s infrastructure and schools, aimed at rehabilitating the city as a whole.  Colean had a major influence on the phrase of urban renewal that included code enforcement and rehabilitation.   However, the failure to address social issues completely led to a lack of sustainability for many of the Baltimore Plan experiments.  By 1951, Baltimore’s own planning commission noted that “relief can be only partial and sometimes temporary in nature.”   Nevertheless, the holistic “Baltimore Plan” contained the seeds of the Model Cities Program developed a decade later.

The Housing Act of 1954

In the early 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Advisory Committee on Government Housing Policies and Programs, which introduced the concept of “urban renewal,” drafted the main tenets of the Housing Act of 1954, which, among other provisions, expanded the definition of an urban renewal project to include the restoration of deteriorating structures, as well as projects involving clearance and redevelopment.  The law also required local agencies to have a ‘workable plan’ to meet overall problems of slum and blight in order to be eligible for urban renewal grants and loans and to receive federal assistance on low-rent public housing.  The law also offered FHA mortgage assistance for private developers building residences that helped meet the goals of urban renewal programs and matching grants to state planning agencies providing assistance to small cities.

In spite of the hope that this act would reduce urban problems, there were difficulties from the outset.  First, the programs were costly and complicated to initiate.  Interest by developers never materialized to build or rehabilitate in slum areas and builders found that the provisions for loans hindered projects.  Even after Congress loosened loan terms, builders encountered difficulties obtaining land from government agencies.  As of 1960, only 15,550 residences were built under Section 221 by developers and 1,500 under Section 220.    Code enforcement was not strengthened; local authorities continued to be lax and the federal government did not compel them to comply.  Funds continued to be supplied to local governments for urban renewal projects without effective code enforcement.  Citizen group efforts to implement code enforcement disintegrated by the end of the 1950s.  Despite being encouraged to undertake comprehensive planning, most cities continued to proceed on a project by project basis.  By 1959, the federal government began to offer planning assistance to any city willing to design a comprehensive Community Renewal Program, which would analyze the redevelopment and housing needs, inventory existing resources, and prioritize needs and resources. 

Urban Renewal and the 1960s

A shift in emphasis from requiring projects to be ‘predominantly residential’ to allowing an increasing percentage to be non-residential between the 1949 act and the 1954 act gave local governments an incentive to apply for federal funding to build non-housing projects.  The 10 percent exception allowed in the 1954 act was increased to 20 percent in 1959, 30 percent in 1961, and 35 percent in 1965.   Consequently, cities took this provision as license to demolish thousands of homes and build highways, civic centers, and other projects.  Between 1958 and 1963, federal urban renewal programs finally began to have a much greater effect on American cities – especially in comparison to the earlier period, when they primarily targeted housing projects.   

By the early 1960s, cities were experimenting with a wide variety of different options in an effort to reverse urban decline, taking full advantage of the federal funding to create everything from downtown government centers and plazas to sprawling industrial parks.  In cities across the country, some of the grandest and most optimistic schemes were proposed during this period.   Many of them shared common characteristics, such as focusing on marginal areas adjacent to central business districts, targeting waterfront areas, and being conceptualized as multi-purpose projects that combined building types such as housing, hotels, entertainment, offices, and government centers.   At the same time complaints and protests about the justice and economic feasibility of urban renewal projects that involved demolition and displacement and redevelopment of neighborhoods of low and moderate income housing with unaffordable alternatives began to be heard across the country.   

After the dense Italian neighborhood of Dante Place was cleared, the Marine Drive apartments were erected in its place on Buffalo's waterfront. Image courtesy of WNY Heritage Press
In 1965 the Department of Housing and Urban Development Act was passed, creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an agency with cabinet status that replaced the Housing and Home Finance Agency, the previous administrative agency for urban renewal.  The first major legislation passed under HUD was the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 (Model Cities Act).  Incorporating some of the theories embodied in the Baltimore plan, the model cities act was an attempt to create and administer an integrated program of social services and citizen participation.   In response to criticism from groups that felt that their communities had been taken from them, the Model Cities program required a considerable amount of public participation in the decision making process.   The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 combined the Model Cities Act with legislation for new housing as well as the community development tools to make social and economic change more effective.  In addition to the loans and grants for programs authorized under the Model Cities Act, the 1968 act adopted a target of 26 million new or rehabilitated homes to be built between 1968 and 1978; six million of them were designated for low and moderate income occupants. 

In spite of the good intentions and various innovative methods of urban reformers, government officials, and business interests, by the 1970s, urban renewal had become synonymous with the demolition of low-income inner city housing and the displacement of its residents.  Given the disproportionate numbers of minority groups affected by these projects, critics of the program called it racist.  By 1974 the program had become so unpopular that Congress ended it as a federal program.  Not only had urban renewal failed to solve the problems of slum housing that had inspired it, it also failed to solve the problems of aging city centers, many of which continued to be plagued by the migration of businesses and commercial enterprises, lack of new construction starts and job opportunities, decaying infrastructure, loss of interest in downtown areas, and crime.

Portions of this section of the National Register nomination were written by several historic preservation officers at the State Historic Preservation Office. You can check out the previous pieces in the series here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, & Part VI


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Sep 26, 2013

Councilman Golombek Proposes Devoting Casino Money to ECC Downtown Expansion

North District Councilmember Joseph Golombek, Jr., issued a call to Erie Community College today to consider partnering with the City of Buffalo to expand its City Campus. Since 2010, ECC has proposed constructing a $30 million facility at its North Campus in Amherst to serve health sciences, STEM, and other programs. The Buffalo Common Council and citizen advocates have urged ECC to consider its City Campus as an alternative location for this expansion.

The lure for ECC’s Board of Trustees to consider a downtown location, Golombek believes, is for the City to pitch in on the project's costs. Standing outside ECC's City Campus on Ellicott St., Golombek proposed that the City “puts its money where its mouth is.” Golombek forwarded a resolution to the Common Council this afternoon proposing that a "significant portion" of casino cash recently promised to the City of Buffalo by the Seneca Nation of Indians be devoted to assisting ECC in achieving its expansion, if the college agrees to shift the expansion downtown.

"In 1968, this region made a huge mistake by expanding the University at Buffalo to a swamp in Amherst, rather than downtown Buffalo," said Golombek. "We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past. I can think of no better way to spend the City's share of casino revenues than to help expand ECC's downtown campus."

In July, Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered to Mayor Byron W. Brown a ceremonial check for $15.5 million, a sum that represents four years worth of casino payments to the City that were withheld by the Seneca Nation of Indians in protest after the State allowed gaming machines at Western New York racetracks. With that dispute resolved, Golombek believes that the City should step in to help ECC shift its expansion to downtown, and is calling on the college's Board of Trustees, Mayor Brown, and his fellow Common Councilmembers to rally behind the proposal.

"I propose that we use casino payments to help achieve an economic development project that will benefit taxpayers across Erie County," said Golombek. "The benefits to the region of expanding ECC's downtown campus, rather than the North Campus in Amherst, are overwhelming.”

Golombek added that 47% of ECC students live in the City of Buffalo, yet the City Campus is still the smallest of the college’s three campuses and, due to its limited programs, serves only 25% of ECC’s students. With its abundant access to public transportation and proximity to the rapidly expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Golombek said, the City Campus has obvious advantages over expanding the college's outdated North Campus on Youngs Road.

"This is an opportunity to transform the City Campus into the flagship, rather than the smallest, of ECC's three campuses," said Golombek. "This region can't afford to miss another once-in-a-generation opportunity."

The ball, Golombek said, is in ECC's court. Will ECC's Board of Trustees consider an offer to help fund the college's expansion? Will it consider shifting its expansion to downtown Buffalo if the City pitches in with casino cash? "We need to hear from ECC's Board of Trustees," said Golombek. "We want to know how much financial assistance ECC needs to get its expansion underway, so that the conversation can start about how the City can help."

Golombek was joined by Bernice Radle, co-chair of Young Citizens for ECC, an advocacy group that has pushed for expanding the City Campus. Radle noted that when ECC initially made its proposal three years ago, the proposed expansion was more ambitious. She noted that back in 2010, ECC's proposed Health Sciences Center for Excellence was slated to be a four-story, 100,000 square foot facility. Since then, she said, college officials have told her that rising construction costs have shrunk the size of the proposed facility.

"We praise Councilmember Golombek for proposing that the City pitch in to expand the City Campus, and we believe the Mayor and Common Council will rally behind it," said Radle. "The resources  City can bring to the table can help close any gap the college may be facing, or supplement the expansion’s $30 million budget so that the proposed facility can be as ambitious as the college intended in 2010. The key to getting it done is ECC agreeing to reconsider the City Campus as a location.”

Golombek added that the City's share of revenue from the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino is intended be used to bolster economic development, increase the tax base, and help lift families into the middle class. No better investment, Golombek said, can help achieve these ends than the expansion of ECC’s City Campus.

"The bottom line is, the City can and must help make this community college expansion happen, if ECC shifts this investment to a smarter location in downtown," Golobmek said. "The question now is whether ECC's Board of Trustees will reach out to the City and ask how we can help."

Photo credit: David Torke of fixBuffalo

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Sep 17, 2013

Historic District Certification Will Bring Historic Tax Credits to the Cobblestone District

The Cobblestone Historic District is currently only designated at the local level, which means owners who plan rehabbing those properties are not able to utilize the historic tax credit program. Preservation Studios has completed a certification application for the owners of a property at 49 Illinois Street in the Cobblestone District that would enable property owners to access those historic tax credits. The application is currently at National Park Service awaiting their determination.

The Queen City Engineering Building at 49 Illinois Street

There have been several other districts in Buffalo that have gone through the same process like the Linwood Historic District and the 500 Block District. These two districts are not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but are rather certified historic districts, which entitles them to the same tax credit benefits of an officially listed district.


Savarino Companies pursued the designation for the building at 49 Illinois Street, which is being transformed from a shuttered factory into Buffalo’s newest music venue, Buffalo Iron Works. The building is owned by a partnership including Sam Savarino, Roger Trettel, Ed Plata, and Dan Mania. The building was built in 1902 for the Queen City Engineering Company, which occupied it until 1965. It was then purchased by Buffalo Wholesale Supply and used until 1993 when it was vacated.


One of the biggest benefits of this certification has yet to be seen, but has all the potential to be great for the aggregation of attached buildings at the corner of Illinois Street and South Park Avenue. Portions of this complex date to pre-Civil War, when it was used as the Mugridge Steam Bakery. Although currently vacant and neglected, the added benefit of historic tax credits may entice the owner of those properties to either repair/restore the buildings or sell them to someone who will.

This great complex sits vacant and neglected. It's owned by Darryl Carr, the owner of the Cobblestone Bar

The district boundaries are the same as the local designation from 1994, which can be seen here. The local district was established in response to the plans for the Marine Midland arena, which demolished two blocks of historic structures. It encompasses the full block of buildings at between Illinois, South Park, Mississippi, and Perry, the cobblestone streets of Baltimore and Columbia, and the Edward M. Cotter Fireboat dock. Savarino Companies has already purchased and renovated several of the properties within the district.

For more images of the Cobblestone District, check out my Ipernity album here.

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Sep 12, 2013

You Can Help Secure Wildroot as Future Tenants are Pursued for this East Side Landmark

Mark Paradowski has always imagined the shuttered Wildroot building on Bailey Avenue being reused as an anchor of the community. Growing up just down the street, Mark has had a long time interest in the building and recently began taking care of it, when no one else would. Now he is speaking with potential tenants all over Buffalo and the country that may have an interest in taking over the complex, with several mixed use concepts.

Until the day comes where a tenant has been secured, Mark will continue to maintain the property to the best of his ability. He’s already invested a fair amount of his own funds to secure the building in the mean time, but is looking for some help for a big push.


He’s started a donation campaign with a goal of $500 for materials to seal the building and get the debris removed from the premises. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Mark helping to secure the building and can attest to his abilities to get things done. So far he’s installed a new fence, secured several openings, cleared the roof of trees and growth, and so much more. If you have an interest in contributing to his efforts, you can check out his campaign site by clicking here. Mark has the following to offer about the building’s history and his goals.
“The Wildroot Company was a major employer in Buffalo that obtained nationwide fame. Its legacy includes the WNY (Wildroot) Foundation and a building that acted as an anchor for a thriving neighborhood.  The company closed when an outside corporation gained control, leaving its headquarters building to fend for itself.

Our goal is to mothball the building, and this fundraiser would secure step one of that process. Most of the doors and windows have been secured, but there are gaps in that coverage throughout the massive 100,000 square foot complex. Combined with a volunteer effort to clean-up exterior debris, foliage, and graffiti, a proper mothballing would make the building safer for residents of the neighborhood, while also being more attractive to developers that could bring jobs back to the community
This project is being led by concerned citizens who are investing their own money and donating their labor on a property that they are not profiting from. Be sure to follow Wildroot on Facebook for updates and lots more on the history of the company and building.”
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Sep 5, 2013

The History of Hamlin Park Part VI: Post WWII Transformation and Changing Demographics

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.

The residents of Hamlin Park were not the only Americans seeking an idyllic living situation. Buffalo experienced a great deal of change in the years leading up to and immediately after World War II, spurred by the push of residents towards residential developments similar to Hamlin Park located even further from the city center. The initial growth of inner-ring suburbs in Kenmore, Tonawanda, and Amherst in the 1920s had been spurred on by Buffalo’s streetcar system, with dense residential neighborhoods emerging on Buffalo’s outskirts. The development of the automobile further accelerated this growth.

1935 Buffalo Streetcar Map
1935 Streetcar System in Buffalo
The population of Amherst doubled between 1920 and 1930, from a total of 6,286 to 13,181, and the trend toward suburbanization dramatically altered the character of the formerly farming-based community. To accommodate the increasing automobile traffic, many of Amherst’s roads were widened and connected. For instance, Maple Road, which was little more than a dirt path between farms during most of the nineteenth century, became a two-lane highway connecting Millersport and Transit Road. Sheridan Drive was a similar byproduct of the need for better, wider roads for automobiles. By 1936, Amherst led Erie County with the most miles of road, necessary to accommodate the significant number of workers who commuted into Buffalo. 

Crosstown Boulevard
Crosstown Boulevard (Sheridan Drive) before development ramped up and it was widened
Despite severe economic hardship during the Great Depression, Amherst and the surrounding neighborhoods grew quickly. The expanse of industry brought on by the start of the Second World War helped Amherst and Buffalo make economic strides out of Depression. In the post-war environment, industrial cities like Buffalo prospered, and the burgeoning of the middle class continued through the late 1940s and early 1950s. By 1956, Amherst’s population was 42,000, and the expansion of strip malls and shopping plazas provided not only food and other amenities, but lowered the tax burden on residents.

1930 Dominant Races by Census Tract
1930 Racial demographic map. Hamlin Park falls in census tract 32 and 33. The yellow designation indicates there was no one dominant race, but rather a fair mix of several at that time
Even as the surrounding suburbs expanded dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s, Buffalo itself continued to grow. During World War II, companies in Buffalo held war contracts amounting to approximately five billion dollars, the fifth largest in the country.  As a result of this investment, jobs were plentiful in the city, enough so that the Department of Labor declared Buffalo a labor shortage area. This surplus of employment opportunities attracted migrants from across the country, including a significant number of African Americans from southern states. This was part of a national trend, known as the “Great Migration,” in which thousands of African Americans, mainly from rural areas, relocated to northern industrial cities.  Between 1940 and 1950, Buffalo’s African American population doubled, from approximately 18,000 to almost 37,000. This trend continued after the war, as an average of ten African Americans per day migrated to the city.

The influx of African Americans into Buffalo during a relatively short period of time sparked major demographic changes in the city. Prior to the war, most of Buffalo’s African American population lived in the Ellicott District, a large swath of the East Side located between downtown and the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. As the new African American migrants arrived, most moved into the Ellicott district. Pullman Porters and other upscale and semi-skilled black laborers lived in developments such as Willert Park, a federally funded housing development in the Ellicott District built in 1938-1939 specifically for African Americans.   During the war, the pressing need for housing had prompted an addition to Willert Park, but demand continued to outstrip supply.  By 1951, Buffalo was reporting severe cases of overcrowding, high rents, and neighborhood blight in the Ellicott District.  The housing shortage in Ellicott pressed African Americans to migrate into nearby residential areas, like the longstanding ethnic German “Fruit Belt,” and other neighborhoods, from which white ethnic residents began to move to the suburbs.

1950 Non-white population by Census Tract
Jumping to the 1950 racial demographic map, the African American population begins to move into the Hamlin Park neighborhood in a big way

White residents, aided by federal policies such as the GI bill and FHA housing loans, enjoyed more residential choices than their African American neighbors. The general pattern of white residents leaving the city and African Americans moving into the vacated homes and neighborhoods has been called, “white flight,” though the reasons for this pattern are complex and contested.  Whether the motivation was financial, incentivized by Federal Programs, or racial, escaping the growing African American presence in the city, the suburban growth was fueled by the migration of white families out of Buffalo. In the case of the East Side, much of the German and Polish communities pushed eastward, past Broadway Fillmore and even Kaisertown, to the growing suburb of Cheektowaga.

For middle-class African American families, the exodus of ethnic whites from the East Side created an opportunity for them to escape the growing poverty of the Ellicott District. Commenting on the transition of neighborhoods with increasing African American presences, the Rev. Kenneth Bowen, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said in 1956, “the movement of second-generation middle-class Negroes from the Ellicott district to the Cold Springs and the Humboldt Park section has been steady, smooth and successful, devoid of friction.”  As more and more ethnic whites moved to the suburbs, it became easier for African Americans to move into new neighborhoods, including Hamlin Park, without risk of conflict.

1960 Non-white population by census tract
By 1960, African Americans make up the majority of Hamlin Park residents

African American families began moving into Hamlin Park in a two broad waves. The earlier group consisted of families that had been established in the Ellicott District for generations and left when that area became overcrowded with migrants during and shortly after World War II.  A second surge of African Americans into Hamlin Park occurred after the Buffalo Common Council announced plans for the demolition of the Ellicott District in 1955 due to its blighted conditions as part of a larger Urban Renewal program in the city.  While demolition did not take place until 1958, the announcement discouraged continued investment in homes and other buildings that faced imminent destruction.

Demographic information from the city of Buffalo documents the influx of African Americans to the area after World War II. Between 1940 and 1970, census tracts 32, 33 and 52, which cover the district area, experienced net population declines but had significant percentages of new residents and increasing numbers of African Americans. Between 1940 and 1950, tracts 32 and 33 had a net loss in population, though in the last year of that decade, 7.5-10.9 percent of the population in tract 33 were “newcomers.” In this early stage of postwar population transformations, large numbers of white residents moved out of the area, leaving vacancies to be filled by residents of more crowded areas, such as the predominately African American Ellicott District southeast of downtown. The following decade shows a similar pattern, in which there was a net loss of population but a significant percentage of newcomers. Between 1950 and 1960, tracts 32 and 33 fell into the highest category of 56 percent or more new residents, and tract 52 (which includes the northern section of Hamlin Park) was only one category lower, with 46-55.9 percent newcomers. The surrounding tracts, particularly to the south, saw a more significant loss of population, tallying -15 percent or more, and lower numbers of newcomers. This directly reflects the effects of the Ellicott renewal project, which displaced over 2,000 families from the area between 1958 and 1961.  By 1960, over 70 percent of residents in tracts 32 and 33 and 5 to 24.9 percent of residents in tract 52 were nonwhite. 

Though Hamlin Park saw a dramatic demographic shift in the 1950s, the middle-class status of the African American families moving into the neighborhood helped stifle the issues plaguing the community to their south. Throughout the city and the country as a whole, officials pursued large-scale and often unsuccessful Urban Renewal programs like the one that demolished the entirety of the Ellicott District.

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Sep 3, 2013

The History of Hamlin Park Part V: Initial Physical Characteristics of the Neighborhood

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.

Several factors contributed to the initial physical characteristics of Hamlin Park, including the Olmstedian principles employed in the northeast corner of the neighborhood, the years in which development occurred, and the class of residents moving into the neighborhood.

As noted, Hager planned only the eastern portion of the northern division, and the influence of his friendship with Olmstead is apparent on some of this portion’s design. This is clearest along the northeastern edge that borders the Humboldt Parkway. The sharp southward curve of Blaine at its eastern terminus, otherwise running perpendicular to Jefferson, matches the slow bend of Humboldt Parkway just a block further east. Oakgrove Avenue runs north from East Delavan Avenue and begins to curve eastward, intersecting Blaine at the point where that street begins its own curve, and crosses the parkway only to turn even sharper eastward. 
1927 - Humboldt and Delavan
Loring, Oakgrove, and Eastwood crossed Humboldt Parkway sympathetically to the curve of the Parkway
Loring Avenue, beginning at the terminus of the north-south oriented Meech Street, travels east, before cutting diagonally across Humboldt and then continuing its eastward crawl on the other side. Lastly, Viola Park, a block-long brick street with a small elliptic park that divides east and westbound traffic, is nestled between Pansy and Daisy Place; the latter street is also brick. This small section of Hamlin Park, defined by the unique curves and crosses of these streets, evoke the feeling found in Humboldt Parkway and Parkside neighborhood.

Viola Park from above with the elliptical park and brick streets. Unfortunately the brick on Pansy was paved over

The remainder of Hamlin Park is laid out similar to most of Buffalo’s streetcar neighborhoods, with an intersecting street-grid system between Jefferson and Humboldt. Streetcars traveled along Jefferson Avenue and East Ferry Street, connecting the growing neighborhood to the rest of Buffalo. As Bertha Ader, resident of Hamlin park from her birth in 1929 until moving in the 1950s, remembered, residents often purchased “triple-passes” to catch the Jefferson car downtown, where they would transfer onto a line that would bring them to the Broadway-Fillmore for a day of shopping, before heading back home on the Fillmore line. 

Hamlin Park Subdivison Map
The original rectilinear subdivision plan for Driving Park section of Hamlin Park

Despite the Olmsted-like nature of the Hager Division, the neighborhood as a whole was not planned to attract the same class of resident as the Parkside neighborhood to the north. Unlike the houses lining the curved streets around Delaware Park, Hamlin Park contained smaller lot sizes and more doubles, catering to the burgeoning Jewish and ethnic German and Polish populations on the East Side. By the turn of the twentieth century, Buffalo’s East Side, particularly in the Broadway-Fillmore district, was one of the most vibrant areas in the city, and as the population continued to grow, residents migrated north and further east.  Often the new residents arriving in Hamlin Park were first or second generation Germans who had already established roots in the Fruit Belt, a neighborhood to the south between downtown Buffalo and Hamlin Park. Many started businesses along East Ferry and Delavan, which were thoroughfares connecting the east and west portions of the city. 

1913 4-24 Buffalo Express
Buffalo Express Advertisement from 1913

At the turn of the twentieth-century, several prominent Jewish clothing manufacturers moved their operations to area around William and Michigan Streets, prompting the growth of one of Buffalo’s largest Jewish neighborhoods at the time. As Buffalo’s Jewish population increased by over 10,000 between 1890 and 1910, the neighborhood, already bustling with industry, began suffering from overcrowding, making the new residential developments to the north that much more attractive.  With four synagogues along Humboldt Parkway, walkable neighborhoods like Hamlin Park were very appealing to Jewish families leaving the Broadway-Fillmore area.  A pamphlet released by the International Home Building Company circa 1912 highlighted some of the other qualities of the development:

"Hamlin Park, situated as it is within two and one-half miles from the business center of Buffalo, assures the purchaser of living within easy access to any part of the city and yet in a neighborhood that is strictly residential and away from all smoke and other nuisances. Another feature about this beautiful tract of land is that the smallest lot has thirty-five feet frontage, which gives sufficient room to have a side drive and yet leaves plenty of space between the houses so that their individuality is well shown."

Butler Avenue at Wohlers (4-17-1917 Buffalo Express)
Looking west down Butler Avenue from Wohlers Avenue in 1917

Since there were only two streets (East Delavan and Northland) that traveled through the boundaries of the neighborhood, there was very little non-local traffic. The near-secluded nature of many of the streets created a distinct community, and the neighborhood was a blending of ethnicities, as Jewish, German, and Irish families moved into the development. Children would play all over the neighborhood and in the nearby parkway, and families were very close to one another, often owning and working in stores and shops throughout Hamlin Park, or in the slaughterhouses and rail yards to the south.  Hamlin Park allowed those workers to escape the industrial and bustling landscape for a small-secluded subdivision right within the city.

Butler Avenue at Wohlers
The same view as above nearly a century later. Historic integrity of the homes and streets is remarkable


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