In a place already world-renowned for its art, architecture, sports and food, much still awaits to be found in Buffalo, celebrating its 175th anniversary as a city this year. From Starin to South Park avenues, our city abounds with a rich past, present, and future. Upon exploring this city even further, every place and person tucked away within Buffalo's depths has an interesting story to tell.
I always find interesting facts about Buffalo to share with my parents at the dinner table. Like how the Electric Building, site of the New Year's Eve ball drop, was modeled after the Electric Tower, the centerpiece of the Pan American Exposition that was held here in 1901. Or how the blinking Statues of Liberty atop the Liberty Building face away from each other, to the East and West, to illustrate Buffalo's significant geographic location. Niagara Street was named appropriately as it points to Niagara County, and Genesee Street to Genesee County.
I found out these and other facts at one of Buffalo's best-kept secrets, the frequent tours given by the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier.
"We are about lifelong learning," said Dennis Galucki, executive director and tour guide for the society. Depending on the week of the tour, you may be able to visit the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, a stop on the Underground Railroad, where slaves would rest before escaping to freedom in Canada. Witness the awe-inspiring details of the inside of the Gold Dome at Main and Genesee, and bask in the Art Deco masterpiece that is City Hall, currently being refurbished. Or take the June boat tour down the Buffalo River to experience the magnificence of the grain elevators (invented here.)
On my downtown tour, the raw January wind whipping down Main Street did not deter from the beauty of the arches on Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building, one of the earliest skyscrapers in the world, or the Rotary Rink in Fountain Plaza, the only spot in Buffalo that offers free ice skating daily. (Call 852-3300 for specific tour dates, times, and registration, or visit www.buffalotours.org.) Taking this tour offers a whole new outlook on buildings you've passed by hundreds of times, and opens your eyes to the underappreciated beauty of our city.
In the middle of Buffalo lies an underused haven of peace and tranquility, the Rumsey Woods section of Delaware Park. Delaware Park was completed in 1870 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to ensure a large recreation area for all citizens of Buffalo. It acted as the centerpiece to the Buffalo Park System, a swath of parks and parkways created by Olmsted that is still very much intact today. (Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park, once called Buffalo "the best-designed city in the country, if not the world.") While the tall trees that bathe Rumsey Woods in shadow were battered in the October snowstorm, a massive reforestation campaign based on donations is about to take place. In spite of the nearby din of the Scajaquada Expressway, Rumsey Woods and Hoyt Lake provide the perfect backdrop for the Rose Garden that blooms in spring, the Shakespeare in the Park in summer and the sledding on Shakespeare Hill in winter. "In the 21st century, we want to reconnect the people with the parks," said Brian Dold, associate landscape architect for the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. Upon a recent stop there at twilight, all was quiet as I looked over the serene pathways crossing the woods and surrounding the lake, across to the majestic Historical Society and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, each illuminated in a milky splendor of white light.
On the north side of downtown lies an eating and drinking establishment that opened in 1868, eight days before Gen. Custer met his demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Ulrich's, which celebrated 50,000 days of operation in 2005, continues to proudly stand on Ellicott Street as Buffalo's oldest tavern, a living relic of the city's past. I sat on a barstool, ordered a Pepsi, and talked to the bartender about the place on a gray late Saturday afternoon. Along with a serving of sauerbraten and potato pancakes comes a steaming heap of Buffalo history at this watering hole. (A family-friendly restaurant, with red-tiled ceiling and wooden walls adorned with old 19th century Buffalo maps is in back). Even though the upper middle-class German neighborhood that originally patronized the tavern is gone, a new customer base continues to develop from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus across the street. Originally, when one purchased a drink, they received a free lunch; the neighborhood around Ulrich's was once home to several local breweries. During Prohibition, the upstairs of the tavern was used as a speakeasy that catered to politicians and newspaper reporters.
Another great stop, the Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society, is tucked away at the corner of Erie and Franklin streets downtown. "We hope this museum can make people aware of Buffalo's maritime history," said Jack Messmer, one of the many volunteers operating the museum, which opened in 1999. "It's what made Buffalo." Although a sign on the door read "closed for the holidays," upon hearing our griping Messmer cheerfully let my friend Nick and me in to explore the glory days of the Great Lakes and Buffalo. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 drew thousands of travelers and commerce into the city, ultimately leading to its industrial heyday. We learned of the "infected district," the mid- to late 19th century neighborhood near the Erie Canal in Buffalo's inner harbor that teemed of "brawls, murders, drugs, liquor and gambling." According to the museum, "a humanitarian group once claimed that seven out of every 10 crimes in the country were committed on Buffalo's waterfront." Now, 180 years later, the original slip of the Canal is being unearthed and revived, creating a new, historic district (a bit more family-oriented) to accompany the revitalized Buffalo Naval and Servicemen's Park. In the museum are gun pellets recovered at the bottom of Lake Erie from the War of 1812 (in which the village of Buffalo was burned), models of Great Lakes freighters, and a map of more than 100 ships that have capsized in Lake Erie's shallow, turbulent waters.
Finally, at the corner of Oak and West Huron Streets is a bookstore that, among its 500,000 used books, prides itself on sharing Buffalo's history. Old Editions Bookshop and Cafe, which moved downtown in 2003 after a lengthy stay in University Heights, is home to three floors of literary works. Among its many shelves and cases is an 1890 guide to Buffalo, original signed manuscripts of works by Hemingway and Stephen King, and other rare collectibles as well as baseball autographs and magazines. Books cost from 50 cents to more than $400; while many of the cheaper soft covers were in my price range, sadly, I needed the $1.50 I had to ride home on the subway. "Downtown is coming back to life, so why not come here?" said owner Ronald Cozzi, who scours garage sales and answers house calls in search of valuable used books.
Of course, these aren't the only hidden treasures in Buffalo. Along Elmwood and Hertel avenues, from Kaisertown to Allentown, there are shops, cafes, bookstores, art galleries, museums and restaurants that comprise the great cultural and ethnic fabric of the city. Combine that with well-known gems such as Shea's Performing Arts Center, the Albright-Knox, professional sports teams, the Anchor Bar and the world-renowned Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and you have a city unlike any other, the Queen City of the Great Lakes.
Brian Hayden is a freshman at Syracuse University.
Do you know of any little-known, unique places in Buffalo that truly add to the character of the city? NeXt is looking to do a follow-up article featuring other hidden treasures of Buffalo. Readers 18 and younger are invited to e-mail email@example.com with your name, age, school, and favorite little-known place in Buffalo by Feb. 1.