On Saturday morning, under a cool and cloudy sky, two dozen bicyclists set out at a leisurely pace from the newly restored Hotel Lafayette in the heart of downtown and into what activist and tour leader David Torke called the “oceanic devastation” of Buffalo's battered East Side.
The group dodged potholes on traffic-free streets as they rolled past overgrown vacant lots and shuttered churches with plywood windows, through forgotten alleyways and into some of the most traumatized census tracts in the eastern United States.
This was the latest in a series of the periodic bike excursions Torke calls the “Tour de Neglect,” a modest attempt to bring more attention to the manifold problems and massive potential of the city's largest and most-ignored neighborhood. In just five stops in the span of two hours, the tour sketched an accurate portrait of a complex place that is one of the city's greatest shames, responsibilities and opportunities.
The tour made its way from downtown to the closed St. Ann's church on Broadway and Emslie Street, then to the worse-off Sacred Heart Cathedral, where dusty piles of bright red seat-cushions sat piled in the middle of the crumbling structure like an accidental art installation, evoking the presence of the former congregation. That “zombie church,” as Torke called it, sits on a census tract that has lost 89 percent of its population since 1950.
From there, the tour ambled through glimmering Larkinville – the area's flagship revitalization project – and into the Larkin Powerhouse, a massive coal-burning operation that once powered the entire Larkin industrial complex but is now under the threat of demolition. After a stop at the grand and dilapidated Central Terminal, the tour concluded with a look at the Wilson Street Farm, another hopeful sign in a section of the city where hope has long been in short supply.
During an unscheduled tour stop at the Common Roots Farm on Peckham and Coit streets, Torke reflected on a pair of workers he'd just seen removing what he said was asbestos siding from a nearby house slated for demolition with no masks or signs to warn neighborhood residents of the dangers.
“Those are demolition contractors illegally removing the asbestos prior to the demolition and just throwing it in their pickup truck to dump it somewhere,” Torke said. “It happens all the time. It wouldn't happen in the Elmwood Village, but over here where their eyes and ears are just caught up in the miasma of life over here, people don't care about that sort of stuff. They care about other things. They care about surviving.”
It's probably overstating it to say that neighborhood residents don't care about a neighbor illegally removing carcinogenic siding, but Torke's point stands: The East Side is a different universe than where most of us live.
In the shared imagination of Buffalovers who have been fully seduced by the comfy narrative of revival and redevelopment that has taken hold in the city over the past decade, the East Side is an inconvenient snag. To others less invested in the city itself, it's merely a place you shouldn't drive through.
But Torke's tour – without touching on the complicated dynamics of race and poverty that helped reduce the neighborhood to this state and that no amount of urban planning or progressive development will solve – served the vital purpose of adding new dimensions to the simplistic understanding many Western New Yorkers have of “that place” on the other side of Main Street.
“The West Side is certainly the big story right now, and all the progress on the West Side and Elmwood Village and downtown are things to celebrate, but we also have to remember that there's this other amazing neighborhood, which takes up most of the area of the city, which is still neglected,” said Chris Hawley, a co-organizer of the tour and a Buffalo city planner. “There is as much charm and potential and possibility in the East Side as there is in the West Side. I think folks are starting to recognize that now, and it's only a matter of time before the interest that is generated in a few neighborhoods becomes extended to the East Side.”
The riders on Saturday's tour were a mix of urban advocates, architects, artists, teachers and photographers driven to participate by an innate curiosity about the city. Mary Rockwell, who teaches urban development at Nichols School, came to collect ideas that she'll use in her classes. Artist Mickey Harmon, who rides his bike to Larkinville and the Central Terminal, came to get a fuller sense of the pockmarked neighborhoods that lie between and around those destinations.
As activists and developers talk about extending the revitalization of Buffalo's West Side and downtown eastward, a lot of unanswered questions remain. It was tough, for instance, to ignore the fact that Saturday's exploratory tour group was made up largely of white faces. Most of the conversation focused on buildings; there was very little talk about the East Side's current residents, many of whom could be negatively impacted by the kinds of development strategies now being enacted or proposed.
Even so, Torke's work over the past decade to bring attention to the architectural wonders of the neighborhood and shame on the property owners now blithely presiding over its further decline is indispensable in fostering a broader understanding of the city among its own citizens.
For those interested in taking the tour, an outgrowth of the “Jane's Walks” urban tours that happen annually in more than 100 cities around the world, another is planned for 12:30 p.m. June 7 as part of the Congress for the New Urbanism's Buffalo conference. More information can be found at cnu.org/cnu22.