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WEEDS, TRASH MAR OUR LINK TO HISTORY

You can see the most historic site in Buffalo. But you'll have to peer at it through weeds, scrub brush and scrap wood.

You can come to the viewing stand overlooking the place where the Erie Canal ended and Buffalo's grip on greatness began. But you'll have to walk past empty pop bottles, abandoned highway signs and a discarded tarpaulin near the old Aud.

Fourth-graders learning about the Erie Canal can visit the place where DeWitt Clinton drew a bucket of water in 1825 to start an economic revolution. But the lesson includes the tawdry way we treat our history.

Digging starts this spring on a $46 million project to unearth and celebrate the historic canal terminus. Preservationists around the country would give an artifact to be working on it. The state bureaucrats running the show won't even invest in a Weed Whacker.

The buried canal walls were discovered five years ago. After a lawsuit and a public outcry, the original generic waterfront project was changed to uncover history. The canal terminus is the crossroad where civilization met the early frontier, through which countless settlers passed on their way west.

We've got the definitive site on the world-renowned canal. So why does it look like Tiny Gleed's back yard?

A viewing stand has been up for years. People stopped all summer to gaze upon what was and what will be. The historic Commercial Slip will be excavated and rewatered. Building foundations and cobblestone streets that mark Buffalo's place in the history books will be unearthed. It's a historic legacy all of us can be proud of -- or would be, if the site wasn't overrun with weeds and pockmarked with litter.

It sends the same message as the guy who doesn't cut his lawn or paint the house: We don't care. It's the usual story -- politicians who want credit but do nothing; bureaucrats who aren't true believers.

There's a giant on-site sign listing a handful of politicians who want credit for the project. Even the sign is a sign of neglect. Among the names is John LaFalce, who left Congress two years ago. The site name was changed to Erie Canal Harbor three years ago, but the sign still bears the old name. Nobody is taking care of business.

Rep. Jack Quinn, frustrated with the reluctance of local politicians to step up, pushed Tony Masiello two years ago into the "quarterback" role. To the surprise of no one, the quarterback can't even keep trash off the field.

But most of the blame goes to Empire State Development, the Albany agency running the project.

"We need to (cut the weeds), it's our responsibility," admitted project manager Tom Blanchard. "I've sent out some e-mails on it."

If the people running the show and the politicians who claim credit really cared about the site and what it means to Buffalo, they'd make sure it looked good. Period. Vacant lots are in better shape.

What we've seen doesn't inspire confidence in what's to come. There's little money for the project extras that will make history come alive -- a canal boat, a three-story "ghost" building, a cutaway of a lake freighter, re-created buildings, an interpretive center. It's up to Blanchard and the politicians to find preservation dollars.

In a time of tight budgets, finding more money is far tougher than cutting weeds and picking up trash. If they can't keep the site clean, how can we believe they're up to the heavier lifting?

I hope I'm wrong. I hope the trash and weeds is just a crumb left on the table, a flaw overlooked. But it's like the lazy homeowner. You can make him cut his lawn and paint his house. But you can't force him to care.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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