If Canalside can be a tourist destination, why not Michigan Avenue?
It was a key stop on the Underground Railroad.
It still boasts three historic anchor structures – the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the Nash House Museum and the Colored Musicians Club.
It attracted luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
But the approximately 2.4-mile Michigan Avenue corridor, from South Division to East Ferry streets, shows few obvious signs that the thoroughfare defines so much of the Buffalo black community’s history.
“I envision and imagine Michigan Avenue being as busy as Canalside, with bus tours of people coming from across the state to experience the rich history of African-Americans in Buffalo,” Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen said. “And we’re beginning to see it.”
But progress has sometimes been slow, Pridgen and others agree.
They want to make Michigan Avenue a new tourist destination, complete with an archway at Michigan and Broadway, life-sized cutouts of historic figures, banners and benches to mark historic spots, period sidewalks and a new visitors’ center.
Much of that work was supposed to be completed by last summer, especially the cornerstone archway.
“Have I been frustrated?” Pridgen asked. “Absolutely. But I’m optimistic – barring something unforeseen happening – that it’s going to be done by this summer.”
The busy street serves as a bridge linking three of the city’s hottest recent developments, starting just north of the Outer Harbor, extending east of Canalside and wending its way through the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Supporters say it’s only fitting that Michigan Avenue be a key piece of the “new Buffalo.”
If only Michigan Avenue – once called Michigan Street – could talk, because there’s little else that jumps out at you as you drive that corridor.
Grants totaling more than half a million dollars in city, state and county money have been awarded to the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor Commission over the last five years, to coordinate programs and tourism readiness among the three historic anchors and other locations. Some of that money is helping create a tourist magnet amid Buffalo’s other shiny new toys.
But the archway and cutouts are coming from other funds.
The delays aren’t new. The Buffalo News A 2012 noted nearly five years of frustrating delays” in building a heritage corridor to showcase the history of the Michigan Avenue neighborhood.
Stakeholders still see the obvious potential.
“There is a lot of promise,” said George K. Arthur, treasurer of the Nash House Museum and former Buffalo Common Council president. “But I’m disappointed in the plan, in the fact that the money has not been well spent in the main part of the corridor on Michigan, from Broadway to Eagle, to attract tourists to that block, which can be a major tourist attraction to families all across America.
“That is where the physical structures are," Arthur said. "That is the birthplace of the black community, and that story has not been told.”
An artistic archway
The project’s centerpiece will be the archway at Michigan and Broadway, celebrating thehistory but also paying tribute to the struggles of the African-American community, dating back to slavery and abolition.
Community groups and city officials still are meeting to discuss the details of the metal archway, which may include the ability to interchange some of the artistic work. The archway may use symbols, messages, musical notes and images of people to convey the corridor’s history.
That history includes the Underground Railroad stop, the fugitive slaves following the North Star into Canada, the Jazz Age, the civil-rights movement and plenty of religious and historic figures who either lived here or visited frequently.
“No one structure can capture the whole story, because the story is so broad, and it covers so many time periods,” said Karen Stanley Fleming, who chairs the heritage-corridor commission. “The central theme of the corridor is freedom throughout the ages, including freedom from slavery in the abolitionist period, freedom from discrimination in the civil-rights period, freedom of creative expression in the Jazz Age, and we’re still fighting for civil liberties to this day.”
The roughly $200,000 archway was supposed to installed last summer, but there have been delays, especially the wording on the bond document not matching the exact location.
The city Public Works Department has hired an artistic consultant, and Pridgen wants to speed up the whole process.
“Now that we have the financing in place, the consultant on board, I’ve asked them for weekly meetings with the stakeholders, to get this done by Juneteenth,” Pridgen said. “I’m very optimistic that the stars are aligned for this summer.”
Getting it right
The new, highly visible tourist lures will include a life-sized cutout of local musician and Army Pvt. Jesse Clipper, the first black soldier from Buffalo killed in World War I. Before being deployed, he had been vice president of Colored Musicians Local No. 533, which dates back 100 years last week.
That cutout also has had delays and challenges, starting with the misspelling of Clipper’s first name on an old monument near Michigan Avenue. Then there was the challenge of accurately depicting Clipper’s uniform and face, with little photographic evidence. And community groups suggested changes that in the cutout’s wording.
That cutout is done, ready to be installed this spring. Other possible life-sized cutouts include Harriet Tubman and maybe Mary B. Talbert. And organizers want to create a Visitors’ Center, at 509 Michigan Ave.
Some less obvious improvements already have been made, including the installation of banners, along with a period sidewalk between Eagle and Broadway.
“There is a bronze imprint of two footprints and also a North Star,” Stanley Fleming said. “This represents fugitives, or runaway slaves, running to freedom.”
George W. Scott, president of the Colored Musicians Club, summed up the progress so far.
“It would be real nice to have the archway, but we’re out there. People are starting to see us,” he said. “And the archway will be the icing on the cake.”
Meanwhile, the corridor’s anchors tell much of the story of how crucial Michigan Avenue was in Buffalo’s history.
•The Colored Musicians Club, at nearby 145 Broadway, is considered the longest continuously operating club of its type in America. Back in the day, it played host to superstars such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lena Horne and Nat “King” Cole. Not only did those artists perform here, but they’d also sit in with local musicians who were jamming afterwards.
•The Michigan Street Baptist Church, built in 1845 at 511 Michigan, became a well-known Underground Railroad station, offering sanctuary to hundreds of people heading to Canada for their freedom. Abolitionists and anti-lynching activists often gathered there, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
•The Nash House Museum, at 36 Nash St., just off Michigan, opened in 2007, honoring the life of Rev. J. Edward Nash, the church’s pastor for more than 60 years who lived at that address for much of his tenure.
A more recent cornerstone is WUFO, which began serving the local African-American community in 1961 and moved to 143 Broadway in 2013.
Officials interviewed for this story seemed to agree on a key reason for the project’s delays. It’s difficult, and time consuming, when you’re dealing with government funding and seeking input from different community voices.
Pridgen calls that process the “paralysis of analysis.”
“We had so many people coming up with so many different opinions,” he said. “I don’t think that’s bad. I think that’s what happens when you do things right.”