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Michigan Corridor group is challenged and encouraged

Members of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission on Tuesday were challenged to think outside the box.

During an intense, four-hour brainstorming session in the Frederick Douglass Center, the group was encouraged by a team of design and planning experts to stretch the previously conceived boundaries of the state-designated historic corridor on Buffalo's near East Side and to link it with other important sites across the city and region.

"Open your minds and think about this in a way you haven't thought about before," said Everett L. Fly, a landscape architect who is based in San Antonio.

"There are lot of links that haven't been explored or stressed in Buffalo's history as it relates to exploiting its potential as a tourist destination," he added.

Joining Fly in leading Tuesday's session were representatives from Huntley Partners Development Consulting of Atlanta and CHA Consulting of Buffalo, who were hired to help the commission prepare a heritage corridor management plan aimed at guiding the economic and physical revitalization of the corridor.

Fly, who spent weeks combing through archives at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society and even those warehoused in the bowels of the Erie County Courthouse, said Buffalo is uniquely rich in historical significance.

"I've spent 30 years researching this kind of thing, and I've spent a year or two, collectively, in the national archives in Washington, D.C. So it's hard to impress me," Fly said.

Among his findings were that two African-American Baseball Hall of Famers participated in minor league or Negro League games at the long-gone Offermann Stadium, which was located at Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street for decades.

Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball, played 20 games on the field with the Montreal Royals against the Buffalo Bisons. Former home run king Hank Aaron played there while he was still in the Negro Leagues.

Nineteenth century abolitionist William Wells Brown and mid-20th century architect John E. Brent were Michigan Street residents. Brent, Buffalo's first African-American architect, designed the Michigan Avenue YMCA, as well as two gate entrances at the Buffalo Zoo, which still stand today, Fly said.

In terms of selling Buffalo, in general, and the Michigan Street Heritage Corridor, in particular, as a tourist destination site, the architects of the plan need to be looking at telling lots of stories that are linked together as one big collaborative story, he explained. The goal is to create multiple-day excursions for tourists.

"We're not looking for a story or a history that you can get in 15 minutes. I'm looking for histories and stories that [tourists] would have to stay several days [to absorb], and they're here," Fly said.

"It's the sustainability in tourism," he added.

In the course of scouring public records, Fly found interesting historic connections that he challenged commission members to exploit that go beyond touting physical structures, like Michigan Street Baptist Church or the public park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

"What about those places where lots of working, everyday people contributed, and the result was something nationally significant, and the way they used those places, buildings, those free spaces between the buildings? That's cultural landscaping," said Fly.

"Believe me, you've got a lot of it," he added.