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One project that transforms “One Buffalo” from empty catchprase to reality

As mottos go, few are as ironic as “One Buffalo.”

For football and hockey fans with championships on their minds, the phrase serves as a rallying cry for Terry Pegula’s instantaneous sports empire.

For politicians, it serves as a weightless, aspirational saying that sounds good from behind the podium.

But for citizens struggling with the national embarrassment that is Buffalo’s public school system, for the almost 50 percent of children here living in poverty or for the thousands of citizens who stand to see little benefit from the city’s so-called economic resurgence, it’s little more than an insult.

One Buffalo? Please.

There’s never been one Buffalo. If we’ve been paying any attention, we already know that.

But there is one project, which had its official launch on Wednesday afternoon at the corner of East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue, that aims to lend that phrase ring at least a little more weight.

The Ferry Street Corridor Project, launched by Mark Goldman and his group Friends of the Buffalo Story with help from the City of Buffalo and Young Audiences of Western New York, is motivated by the idea that disparate communities separated by policy can only reconnect to one another through culture. It will consist of plays, events, exhibitions, readings and as-yet undreamed of projects designed to bring West Siders eastward and East Siders westward.

That’s why it was so heartening to see the crowd of more than 100 diverse Ferry Street residents, workers and admirers assembled near a white tent on Wednesday. It was attended by longtime East Side residents and longtime West Side residents, by jazz musicians, Burmese immigrants, a Baptist pastor, a Buddhist monk, Canisius High School students, actors, performers and students from all walks of life.

They came to celebrate the unveiling of the first series of the project, a series of historic photographs of Ferry Street residents and sites, ranging from mixed-race crowds at Offerman Stadium in the 1950s to musician Pappy Martin playing with jazz legend Elvin Shepherd at an unnamed Ferry Street club.

Up at the corner of Ferry and Main, in an anonymous gravel lot, another series of photos of current Ferry Street residents hangs near a rented shipping container that Goldman called “the Friends of the Buffalo Story Garage.” Judging only by the photos, the project doesn’t immediately strike you as an epic accomplishment of cross-cultural bridge-building. But, thanks to Goldman’s vision and the clear appetite from Buffalo residents for more cultural understanding across the entire city that the young project has revealed, that’s exactly what it is.

“We often think that we have a divided city, that often times Main Street is referred to as a divide, a historic divide between us. But what this turnout today suggests to me, and it should suggest to all of you, that this is really one city,” Goldman said to the crowd. “One of the purposes of our work is to demonstrate that there are no divisions, and those divisions can blend from learning our heritage.”

The divisions, of course, exist. But they are artificial. And while it’s easy to dismiss public art projects as the pursuits of pie-eyed idealists rather than crucial tools to foster empathy and fight injustice, it is in cultural spaces like the ones Goldman and his many collaborators have created in an empty lot on East Ferry Street where those divisions begin slowly to dissolve.

During Wednesday events, attendees heard two nonfiction stories written by the veteran Buffalo playwright and actor Joey Giambra. One was about the 1960 Buffalo Jazz Festival held in the now-demolished Offerman Stadium, which drew people from all backgrounds from across the region to revel in the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. The other, read by Buffalo actress Mary Craig, was about an Italian mailman named Nick Lama, who introduced a community of black children to the music of Puccini during his daily rounds on the eastern section of Ferry Street.

In those narratives lies the simple, powerful potential of the Ferry Street Corridor: To tear down the cultural and racial barriers that continue to hold the city back from genuine progress one photograph, one art exhibition, one story at time.

And in his moving remarks to the crowd, Mayor Byron W. Brown seemed to shed his political skin for a moment and to become a Ferry Street resident once again.

“We’re all working hard to build a city of opportunity, a city where there are no divisions between East Side and West Side, a city where Main Street is not the dividing line and a city where the prosperity that we are seeing grow in the city of Buffalo can be shared by each and every resident,” he said. “Sometimes building opportunity comes right down to the street level, which is why this project is so important, because this is going to give people the opportunity to reflect, the opportunity for people to think, the opportunity for people from all parts of the city and the region to come together to see that we are one community.”

It’s almost enough to make you believe that one day, “One Buffalo” could come true.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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