Before it was cool, it was hot. Bullets flew, hookers strutted. Decent folks who were brave or stubborn enough to stay kept their heads down and their hopes up.
Buffalo’s West Side is not totally tamed, not hardly. There are plenty of blocks where young guys with hollow eyes cluster on street corners or drape across porches of battered, help-me houses.
But – especially lately – under-30s are coming. Empty nesters are resettling. Buy-and-fix investors – instead of parasitic slumlords - are flocking to what not long ago was an urban frontier, off-limits to the faint of heart and weak of spirit.
Joe Galvin was there then. Joe Galvin is there now.
He has seen, over the arc of a quarter century, streets west of Richmond Avenue morph – house by house – from a no-fly zone to one of the hotter real estate markets in the region. Galvin is one of a select few urban pioneers – stalwarts, hard heads and true believers – who years ago planted a stake, hunkered down and hoped for a better day.
That better day has come.
“There are streets that I wouldn’t have walked down alone, where you now see kids outside playing,” he told me. “I’m thrilled about all the people coming in and fixing property, the growing immigrant population, all the cultures. It’s incredibly gratifying, after all the years of war zones.”
Galvin is 57, a retired county maintenance worker and part-time house painter. He has a shock of blond hair, a quick handshake, a cop’s wary eye and a flight attendant’s conversational ease. All – along with a handyman’s “mad skills” – serve him well in a mission to remake a piece of the neighborhood for personal profit and community revival.
That mission started in 1987, when – walking one day into the now-gone Costello’s Paint Store – he spotted a battered Victorian double across Massachusetts Avenue. Its good bones and yearning for TLC captured Galvin’s heart. He bought it and moved in with his then-girlfriend, now-wife.
He now owns 10 houses close to it, and is buying a couple more. Among them is the small barn he converted a few years ago into a man cave/clubhouse, where we met on a recent afternoon. It overlooks his first house, which he switched to a rental upon moving to West Seneca in the early ’90s – after his wife barely eluded a mugger.
Most of his properties, he says, were long-neglected “crap boxes” – dropped ceilings, peel-and-stick floor tiles, senses-assaulting bathrooms – that he gutted and rents to tenants who don’t punch holes in the walls or prompt 911 calls. The mash-up ranges from Burmese immigrants to working single moms to hipster couples to a recent med school grad.
“It’s a great mix of people who care about the community," he said, “and want to be a part of what’s happening.”
The road to resettlement is rocky. Galvin recalls nights in the late ’80s, when drug dealers from a nearby apartment house sprayed a vacant garage with semi-automatic fire. Target practice.
“Even up to a few years ago, you could buy a house for $5,000” on the near West Side, he said. “But nobody wanted to live here. It was shoot-’em-up cowboy.”
About five years ago, he was hanging with friends in the backyard. A young guy ran by, followed by the “bang bang bang” of gunfire. A couple of guys sped past in pursuit, guns blazing.
Galvin told his buds – shocked and scared – to sit tight. He knew they weren’t the drug dealers’ target, just part of the scenery. Better to stay put than run into a stray bullet. Life on the urban frontier – only the hardy need apply.
“I was in the military, I don’t get rattled easily,” Galvin told me. “Plus I’m stubborn. I figured if I could buy enough nearby property, I could control a section of the neighborhood.”
The plan kicked into motion after his 2006 retirement, when Galvin expanded his initial stake. His “buys” included three houses from the widow of a drug dealer killed four years ago in a mid-day shooting on 19th Street. Despite the rising neighborhood tide, there still is ground to cover. On a recent night, Galvin nodded toward three young guys trolling the next block on their bikes – local street-level dealers.
Within a few years, they will likely be a memory. The nearby apartment buildings are neat and clean. Gun battles near Galvin’s stake are history. Priced out of the Elmwood Village, singles and young couples in recent years spilled over what was once the “firewall” of Richmond Avenue. It’s one of the few instances I can recall, in my 30 years in Buffalo, of the prosperity of a good neighborhood spreading into a sketchy one, instead of the other way around.
To some of the newer wave of settlers and investors, Galvin has assumed the status of elder statesman.
“He’s been a mentor and an inspiration, someone who was there from way back,” said Jason Wilson, 28, who with wife Bernice Radle owns a handful of West Side houses. “He has helped us out numerous times with properties.”
Houses on some West Side streets sell for multiples of their asking price a few years ago. Some are snatched up pre-listing, through word-of-mouth. Hipsters, young couples, working singles, empty nesters and local micro-developers are streaming in. Over the past decade, various neighborhood groups, activists such as Harvey Garrett, and enlightened then-housing court judge Henry Nowak pressured slumlords and rallied residents. Destinations like Urban Roots Garden Center attracted outsiders. The growing muscle of PUSH, the affordable-housing group, is seen in rehabs and freshly-poured foundations from Richmond to Niagara streets.
Years before most of them came, Galvin was here. He thought the West Side was cool, long before it got hot.