IF THESE GUYS practiced what they preached, we would end up with a better downtown waterfront.
Everybody but the Dalai Lama showed up Monday morning for the groundbreaking at the Inner Harbor. Besides the governor, there were two congressmen, one current county executive -- and, judging by the polls, a future one -- a half-dozen state and county legislators, at least one millionaire businessman and three members of what we call the "general public."
The plan calls for digging boat inlets and building a new Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park and plaza on the riverfront near Memorial Auditorium. They also -- here's the problem -- will dig a replica of the Commercial Slip, which is where the historic Erie Canal ended and Buffalo's history as a great city began.
"Too often, great communities like Buffalo turned away from their past," Gov. Pataki intoned. "We will reseize history and build on it."
Mayor Masiello chimed in: "I believe our future is tied to our past."
OK. But if you believe that, how come you're digging a replica of the historic canal slip, instead of excavating the real one?
The real thing, as archaeologists discovered a few months ago, is still there, right next to the planned replica. They found the stone wall of the 1825 canal, the top of it buried 6 feet underground. It extends a few hundred feet, from the water back toward the Aud. The wall might date to 1825 or to an 1880s canal widening; preservationists aren't sure. The point is it's the actual site, the place where Gov. DeWitt Clinton baptized his "ditch" nearly 175 years ago.
If they wanted to, they could excavate the old canal slip, let water again fill it and use it for a boat dock, with walkways on either side. It would be a historic anchor for the Inner Harbor, a connection between past and future, a place people would come to see.
Instead, they will build a fake slip and -- get this -- rebury the old wall. And -- oh yes -- to throw a bone to the complainers, they will plop a piece of the old wall on a pedestal, along with the ever-unsatisfying "interpretive signage," to explain how important the site is.
Which only raises the question: If it's so important, why don't we excavate it?
Why? Because the people running the show -- the state and the city -- think it's more trouble than it's worth.
Removing 1920s concrete storm drain running down the middle of the old canal slip would cost $3 million.
So what? The way Washington is throwing money at the Erie Canal, $3 million is spare change. The canal is the pet project of Andrew Cuomo, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The agency has spent more than $300 million across the state, funding canal-side coffee shops and fixing cracked canal sidewalks. There's no way $3 million wouldn't be there to revive the most historic site on the canal, if somebody asked.
Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., whose district includes the Inner Harbor, says he is following the city's lead.
"I can go ask for the money (to excavate the canal), if they decide that's what they want," Quinn said.
Masiello has a good preservationist track record, but so far he hasn't stepped up.
Politics is part of it. Restoring the old canal slip would take more time than dredging an imitation. Masiello will be running for re-election in two years. He wants a finished project to point to, something he has done. Digging up the real canal might take too long.
Besides, everybody is impatient. We have had 50 years of waterfront plans, but no progress.
But if the last half-century taught us anything, it's this: Better to do it right, than rush ahead and get it wrong. People 10, 20, 50 years from now will ask why we didn't excavate the most historic site on the canal, instead of digging an imitation. What will we tell them -- we were in a hurry?
Across the country, cities are instilling pride and making hay off their history. Providence recaptured its waterfront by ripping up parking lots to redig canals and rebuild bridges. San Antonio was reborn around its river.
I don't think the Albany folks understand that. Three previous variations of the current Inner Harbor plan would have destroyed the old canal wall.
I'm not saying millions of tourists will come to see where the Erie Canal ended. But some will. And having it there makes whatever comes next better. Seeing something real, touching a piece of history, adds to the experience of whoever comes to the children's museum or sports entertainment zone or whatever they eventually put in the Aud.
John Rigas, chief executive officer of Adelphia Communications, also spoke Monday, and what he said ought to make people think twice.
"(Cities) only get one chance on the waterfront," said Rigas. "This is Buffalo's turn."
For once, let's not blow it.