As Buffalo leaders try to decide whether or not to reopen Main Street to traffic and cultivate visions of replacing empty department stores with downtown housing, it's probably a good time to reflect on the impact the street has had on the development of city neighborhoods in the past nearly 150 years.
Buffalo's Main Street is a sort of Maginot Line, dividing the city not just east from west but, at various times in its history, separating affluent from working class or poor, Catholic from Protestant, and more recently black from white.
With a mere 20-foot width of blacktop separating the two sides, Main Street's physical topography is hardly impregnable. Yet east and west remain disparate and distinct in the minds of many.
The foundation for this urban schizophrenia, it seems, can be traced to Buffalo's 19th century beginnings. The city's choice central area, which is entirely west of Main Street, was born over a century and a half ago.
Back then, that was the city, and there was little development east of Main Street, said Timothy Tielman, executive director of the Preservation Coalition of Buffalo and Erie County, and a Buffalo history buff.
"The physical conditions of the 19th century, when Buffalo was laid out, were very poor on the East Side, much better in the central area, and once again, poor near the Erie Canal," Tielman said.
"It's reflected in the landscape today," he added. "The area between Main Street and Richmond (Avenue) has the large houses, which tend to retain their value."
These were the homes of Buffalo's original elite, mainly transplanted New England Yankees and second-generation German-Americans, Tielman said. The institutions they built, including most of the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, can still be found on the West Side.
At least from the perspective of the elite, hardened feelings about the strangeness and assumed inferiority of what lies east of Main Street appeared to have developed early in the city's history.
In her memoirs, "Intimate Memories," Mabel Dodge Luhan, the celebrated Buffalo-born blue-blood, artist, art patroness and socialite, recalled the central city east of Main Street in the 1880s was the "fashionable part of Buffalo," in contrast to what lay east of Main Street which, to those in her circle, was "just an outer wilderness."
Among those with whom the 19th century debutante socialized, the East Side was home to "bad places" and streets that grew "more lonesome-looking and uncommunicative" the farther east you went.
"Our instinctive feeling towards the East Side was one of contempt that had something inimical in it," she wrote.
Class divisions and cultural differences may have played a strong role in exaggerating those rather uncharitable perceptions, but in a very real sense, the two sides of the city couldn't be more different.
Outside the band of industrial zones on Buffalo's Lower West Side and in Black Rock, the bulk of the city's less expensive housing was built up around the burgeoning industrial centers east of Main Street. These areas were largely the domain of newly arrived European immigrants and Buffalo's then-small African-American community just before the turn of the century.
"The poor people were largely Catholics, at least the immigrant pools that were coming in -- the Irish, Italians and Poles -- while the establishment was Episcopalian, and later on, Lutheran," said Tielman. "It's amazing how that endures to this day."
The economic, ethnic and racial stratification became more pronounced as the city grew, said Alfred Price, a historian and professor at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.
By 1853, Buffalo's current boundaries were set when it annexed the Village of Black Rock in what is now the northwest corner of the city. By the turn of the century, its population had increased more than tenfold, Price said.
"Between 1832 and 1900, Buffalo grew in exponential terms. You can't jump from a village of 10,000 to 352,000 without developing a lot more real estate, so the city spread out and grew in very rapid fashion," he said.
Much of that expansion was north and eastward as new arrivals began swelling the city's ranks.
"Generally, new immigrants were looking for cheap digs . . . and they moved into the poorer neighborhoods, mainly east of the central city. The more well-to-do streets like Delaware got built northward, so you got more substantial neighborhoods that stayed central city. . . . Those remained upscale housing as simple physical outgrowths of what and where they had been," Price said.
The lower West and East sides also bulked up, with a hodge podge of modest homes, tenements, factories and stockyards decades before the city's first zoning ordinances were drafted in the mid-1930s.
"For the workingman, that was a nice deal to be able to take his lunch pail from home and walk into the factory. So the working classes fought to get houses near factories," Price said. "We forget those kinds of realities and truths, but that's part of the way working-class neighborhoods grew up, with land use and function cheek by jowl."
As immigrant groups became more prosperous, they established more affluent communities on the East Side, as German-Americans did in Cold Spring and the Parade area around what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Or they supplanted older groups living in established neighborhoods, as when Buffalo's Jewish community exited the Fruit Belt and settled in the Richmond Avenue area on Buffalo's West Side.
One of the more critical events in the history of the East Side was the large black migration from Southern cities between 1940 and 1970. In that period, the city's African-American population ex-panded by almost 74,000 people, said Henry L. Taylor, associate professor of American studies and director of the Center for Applied Public Affairs Studies at UB.
"The epoch of massive black in-migration coincided with the massive white out-migration, and much of that out-migration among whites took place on the eastern side of the city," said Taylor.
The white exodus to the suburbs played a crucial role in shaping and hardening current attitudes about what lies east of Main Street. But it would be an oversimplification to assume white flight from the city was strictly a reaction to the influx of large numbers of African-Americans, or that the pattern first emerged in the mid-20th century, Price said.
It was, in fact, the development of the electric street railway or trolley system at the turn of the century that facilitated the first moves toward suburbanization, he said.
"We tend to think of suburbs as a post-World War II development, as automobile suburbs, but the city began decentralizing very much earlier than people are inclined to recognize," Price said.
Many of the first-ring suburbs started out as trolley turnarounds. They were the points where the trolleys traveling out just beyond the city line turned around and headed back into the city, Price explained.
"They went out straight north on Delaware (Avenue) to the Village of Kenmore, north on Main Street, and east down Genesee Street to Sloan," said Price.
"The street railway operators and owners who purchased the properties surrounding the trolley turnarounds created the first trolley suburbs. The same thing happened in industrial cities like Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and many other Northeast urban centers," he said.
Of course, the growth of suburbs accelerated after World War II as the black community expanded, supplanting white ethnic enclaves on the East Side.
"As the city expanded, (white ethnics) expanded and began to move closer to the suburbs," said David Gerber, a UB history professor. "What we ended up with is a sort of . . . ethnic definition of the suburban ring. More or less, there were the Italians moving north, the Irish moving south into Sloan, the Poles going out to Cheektowaga, and the Germans and Jews moving east to Amherst."
African-Americans remained largely in the city, more or less confined to areas east and north of the central district, said Taylor.
"As the black population moved, they kind of followed the path of least resistance, with the migratory pattern tending to be north and northeast, with some movement across Main (Street) to the lower West Side, again into cheaper housing over there," he said.
Buffalo businessman Mark Goldman is the author of a 1989 book, "City on the Lake," that chronicles Buffalo's social, political and racial history through the 20th century. Goldman acknowledges that while racism played a part in white flight, the exodus allowed Buffalo's burgeoning black community to expand as well.
"One of the interesting questions that I've never been asked -- and it would certainly be impossible to answer -- is, what if those (white) immigrants had decided not move?" Goldman said.
Meanwhile, the question of restoring some sense of parity between the two sides of Main Street also goes largely unanswered.
Taylor blames racism and poor leadership for the decline of the East Side.
"The East Side could travel one of several roads, and whatever road it travels is up to the people who run the city and the community," he said. "There's some awesome, awesome problems, and I think the only way you can solve them is to step out of the box and see the whole city and the whole East Side. Right now, nobody is doing that. We have not planned for reality."