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Lorraine Pierro: From ‘crackpot’ to waterfront visionary

The community’s embrace figuratively wraps her in its arms. Its drastic change in sensibility is a “thank you.” The consensus shift in opinion about the hulking edifices – once seen as eyesores, now as attributes – is her reward.

For those ahead of their time, gratification comes with longevity. Hang around long enough, and you live to see everyone else catch on. Fringe morphs into mainstream. Welcome to Lorraine Pierro’s world.

“I always thought it would take time before people appreciated all of it,” Lorraine Pierro told me, on a sunny Friday morning at the Outer Harbor. “I didn’t know it’d take 30 years.”

It might’ve taken longer, had Pierro not crammed a prizefighter’s resolve and a debt collector’s obstinacy into a 5-foot-tall body.

For four decades, she touted the “outdoor museum” of our collection of grain elevators and industrial buildings along the Buffalo River. Like fossilized prehistoric beasts, the hulking waterfront edifices marked Buffalo’s muscular identity as a no-excuses, authentic outpost in an increasingly homogenized American landscape. This is a “real place,” built on sweat and muscle – not some frilly Sun Belt burg that sprung to life after the invention of air conditioning (another Buffalo distinction, by the way).

The waterfront “dinosaurs,” she insisted, were a source of pride, not embarrassment; to be appreciated, not scorned. They were invented here, inspired the “form follows function” Bauhaus movement a century ago, were photographed for the Library of Congress, acclaimed by Europeans – and largely dismissed by local residents.

In a column I wrote a quarter-century ago, Pierro imagined that state waterfront officials regarded her as a “crackpot.”

Yesterday’s “crackpot” is today’s visionary.

Buffalo’s status as the off-load port for Midwestern bounty made it, in the 1920s, the grain-tonnage capital of the world. That changed after the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway – but the industrial landscape remained. In recent years, it has – finally – been discovered by a legion of kayakers, bikers, boaters, public officials and developers.

The change in sensibility is reflected in commerce. The $15 million RiverWorks restaurant/entertainment complex incorporates the concrete “ruins” of the Wheeler-GLF grain mill. The grain silos are painted as a 100-foot mock six-pack but, hey, whatever. A long-ignored parcel next to RiverWorks just sold for $2.2 million. The Cargill grain elevator looming over Gallagher Beach, bought for $10,000 in 1983, sold two years ago for $475,000. Although impressive as landscape architecture, the behemoths have been reused globally for everything from student housing to restaurants, hotels and condos.

A once-lonely fight waged by Pierro’s Industrial Heritage Committee is now celebrated as a communal victory.

“This is Buffalo’s history, this is who we are, and that’s not going to change,” said Pierro, as we sat Friday near the Cargill elevator. “It’s valuable, and we’re fortunate most of it is still here.”

IHC’s Buffalo River boat tours, once a niche attraction, have gone mainstream. The decades-long push by Pierro, Jerry Malloy and cohorts for an Industrial Heritage trail is now a show-and-tell reality along Fuhrmann Boulevard.

A convergence of forces lifted, to my mind, the industrial landscape out of the valley of disdain to the height of public opinion.

The pro-urban attitude of millennials, the revival of grand downtown buildings and a renewed appreciation for authenticity in a mall-ified America paved the way. The development of Canalside, the Outer Harbor and Silo City, Rick Smith’s destination grain elevator “village,” brought waterfront access to the masses. Buffalo’s renewed sense of communal self-worth includes an eagerness to embrace our singular, industrial legacy.

Besides, the hulking behemoths look cool at the urban water’s edge.

“Whenever I go to another city, I want to know what’s different or unique about it,” said Pierro, who two years ago survived a bout with cancer. “This is part of Buffalo’s identity, what gives it a sense of place.”

Pierro has been mesmerized by the concrete monoliths since age 9, when her dockworker father gave her a close look. She has beaten the drum for decades, never lost faith in the cause, and now basks in the industrial glow.

Hang around long enough, and people come around.

For Pierro, it was worth the wait.