North Fillmore Avenue, aglow with artificial light generated by the neon signs of new businesses. Jefferson Avenue at East Ferry, jammed with midday shoppers. Can it become a reality in the urban core of Buffalo as 2000 beckons?
Urban planners and neighborhood residents involved in rebuilding two of the East Side's main business districts say it can. There is a bevy of development activity and rebirth going on in neighborhoods that have been too long associated with crime and urban decade.
New single-family homes line the block of East Ferry near Jefferson Avenue. A block away on Jefferson, 1490 Estates, 64 units of housing for senior citizens and handicapped residents, recently opened its doors. Down the street near Best, one of the city's largest elementary schools -- the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center -- sits across the avenue from the Johnny B. Wiley Sports Complex, bearing a stone entrance with a bison relief that stirs the memory of the old Rockpile, former home of the Buffalo Bills.
"It's going to take a little time -- too long for some people -- and money, but we're on our way," said Herbert Bellamy Sr., the longtime president of the East Side Business Association.
North Fillmore Avenue, from Main Street to Martin Luther King Park, the largest business strip in the city's African-American community, is poised to be transformed through public-private partnerships, Masten District Council Member Byron W. Brown said.
Brown noted that the Buffalo Museum of Science, on the edge of the park, is seriously looking at a $25 million to $60 million expansion at that location. Plans and projects are under way to improve the park's walking paths, control vehicle access and devise a design solution for the wading pool.
Fillmore, one of the city's longest thoroughfares, is being incrementally repaved out of the city's capital budget, Brown said, and ground has been broken for the $3 million C-District police station at East Ferry and Fillmore, along with a planned supermarket.
"Fillmore Avenue, as I see it, will become one the city's shopping districts that will be the location of choice for regional and national retailers," Brown said.
On Jefferson Avenue, the city has launched a $3 million initiative to convert the old Apollo Theater at 1346 Jefferson into a 18,000-square-foot telecommunications center and the permanent home of public-access cable television.
"This vision is not mine. It is ours. People in other parts of the city also want to see the East Side reborn, rebounded and restructured," Council Member at Large Beverly Gray said during a groundbreaking ceremony in December.
What's different now, from past efforts at reviving the core neighborhood business strips, is that everyone involved is on the same page, said Henry L. Taylor, professor of American studies and head of the Center for Applied Public Affairs at the University at Buffalo. Everyone sees the potential; the differences now seem to focus on what's the best way to proceed.
"One of the keys is rebuilding our commercial strips. They are the windows through which people see us. If the commercial strips appear to be run-down, then people assume that the neighborhood is run-down," Taylor said.
Taylor is working with the city's Office of Urban Initiatives to draft a strategy for reviving the business district on North Fillmore Avenue from Delavan Avenue to Best Street, where Martin Luther King Park is situated. He said plans will focus on creating "neighborhood commons," or areas where the concentration of business and services create an urban space where people can come together.
"When our neighborhood strips are functioning properly, an interface goes on on a regular basis," he said.
Leon Gresham, the owner and operator of the Metropolitan Style Shop, 1399 Jefferson Ave., for more than 30 years, said Brown and Ms. Gray have pushed for development on the East Side business strips, and pursued initiatives in partnership with business people and residents.
"I am hoping they put up more housing. That would create more business, because there would be more foot traffic. I have a lot of walk-ins," said Gresham, who is known for trimming Buffalo Bills players at his barbershop.
Gresham said that while the city has demolished buildings that were of no use, a proportionate number of structures haven't been built. The result: gaping fields of hardy weeds, and urban trash, next door and across the street from struggling small businesses.
"I see the future, I see development coming into the area. . . . I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Bellamy said.
On the east side of North Fillmore Avenue at East Ferry Street, the site of an old General Electric factory has been cleared, and late last year officials gathered there for a groundbreaking ceremony for a new police station that will serve the area. However, residents have had their own plans for that corner for a long time. They want to build a community-owned supermarket there. The site is large enough for both projects.
"We are for the police station 100 percent," said Cleveland McCloud, chairman of the Our Market Board of Directors, which was started three years ago to shepherd the project into reality.
The Our Market supermarket project began when East Side residents, who have long been without a major market in their community, decided to build their own. The project has garnered support from individuals who have purchased $25 memberships, and encouragement from some area lawmakers.
"The community needs to do this, to lift up the spirit of the community," McCloud said.
While Our Market supporters are unsure of the exact method that will be used to make their dream a reality, they are certain of what they want: a fully stocked supermarket in the heart of the inner city that will help provide jobs, generate investment and solve the problem of community residents in effect paying a "surcharge" on their groceries. Taylor explained that because they have to use taxis and other transportation to get to shopping areas in other parts of the city and beyond, they pay what amounts to an extra fee.
Brown said after two years of investigation, including visits to community-sponsored supermarkets in the Bronx and Newark, N.J., he believes the optimal approach is a partnership between a supermarket chain and a community development corporation.
The community development corporation would focus on community needs, while the supermarket would do what it does best, run a profitable business. Jobs would be created, and the non-profit corporation and the business could collaborate to sponsor projects to help the community.
McCloud stressed community control and the need for residents to feel a sense of ownership for the proposed market. He said, so far, Brown appears to be unsuccessful at attracting a regional supermarket chain to the site. The Our Market Board is exploring other options.
"We are talking to a number of other financial institutions about this," McCloud said, adding that a national fast food chain is interested in building a restaurant on the corner opposite the new police station if the market is present. The group has met with City Comptroller Joel Giambra and is exploring the use of tax-facilitated bonds to finance the project.
McCloud also envisions a jitney service that moves shoppers between their homes and the store, tie-ins with public transportation already in use, but most of all, a place where the community can invest and circulate dollars in the neighborhood.
"We are going to be looking at a patronage dividend, where people could redeem it for groceries," McCloud said.
Judson Price, also a member of the market board and longtime president of the Winslow Avenue Block Club, has seen the worst of times and the best of times in his neighborhood adjacent to the Fillmore Avenue commercial strip.
Price led the fight to rid that East Side neighborhood of drug dealing. In January 1993, he was shot in the face when he answered the door at his home. Two men convicted in the attempted murder were later connected to drug gangs in the neighborhood.
Price said he still answers the front door of his home with trepidation, but change, he said, is evident. He pointed to about a dozen new single-family homes that have been built on Woodlawn Avenue, the street just south of Winslow. Price also noted that businesses, such as Mattie's Texas Hots, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary in business on Fillmore, is looking at expanding and that other business and agencies located on the strip are investing in improvements.
"The whole area is really being built up. People who left this area because of the problems want to come back to live. They want to get back because they see it has changed," Price said.
Price said members of his block club have planted flowers in the empty corner lots, and that neighbors have taken up the responsibility of clearing snow, and cutting grass in front of homes that are unoccupied. Some have invested in properties.
"We've had our problems, but the people who caused the problems have been dealt with. We've acted and turned things around," Price said.