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Neighbors hope survey will protect Fruit Belt's history

Buffalo's Fruit Belt neighborhood is getting the attention of historic preservation forces who are beginning the first-ever detailed survey of the 34-block neighborhood's historic structures, homes, businesses, churches and community centers.

Proponents of the work who are worried about developers gobbling up vacant land given the fast-paced growth of the nearby medical campus say it is crucial to document the history, architectural styles, stories, social and cultural fabric of the area before any more is lost to redevelopment.

"I believe it will protect what is remaining in the Fruit Belt," said Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, founder of the Fruit Belt McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force.

The group partnered with the non-profit Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus organization to win a $7,000 state grant for the work.

"We want to be able to change the definition of demolition-worthy," Hemphill-Nichols said.

The historic research study, undertaken by Buffalo-based Preservation Studios, is viewed as significant for the Fruit Belt, which some say has never had its history extensively documented.

The Fruit Belt, once called "The Orchard" because of its fruit trees, has a deep history of German and African American settlements and a mix of residences dating to the 1830s. Some homeowners are worried about preserving the neighborhood's historic character.

"It's a fight for the land right now," said Hemphill-Nichols. "The study will give us a little more muscle to push back."

The consultants will begin going door-to-door to talk with property owners and take exterior photographs of homes, commercial buildings, churches and community centers.  The Housing Task Force will distribute fliers in coming weeks to alert homeowners.

"This is an important project and an important neighborhood," said Derek R. King, a principal with Preservation Studios, a historic preservation consulting firm. "It's meant as a tool for the neighborhood. We're hoping to provide a little bit of everything, but also offer protection for the neighborhood."

The area is roughly bordered by Jefferson, Michigan, North and the Kensington Expressway.

"This is an intensive-level survey and eventually a tool for the community to evaluate historic buildings and important neighborhood stories," said King, noting it could be used for future efforts to apply for national or local landmark designation or special recognition of different sections in the Fruit Belt. "This is a great opportunity to inventory their buildings."

When the study is complete, it will be forwarded to the state Office of Historic Preservation. All buildings and homes will be photographed and logged on a map. There will be a heavy reliance on community groups for historical background.

New construction in the neighborhood will be briefly noted in the report, as well, King said. But the focus is on the history of the neighborhood and older structures.

The grant funding the survey is from the New York State Council on the Arts and Preservation League of New York State.

Depending on the weather, King said company staff hope to be out in the Fruit Belt community before April. They hope to wrap up sometime this summer.

Already, King said his group has begun reaching out to neighborhood residents. "We've begun chipping at the history of the neighborhood," he said Wednesday.

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