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Renovation stirs memories of Main-Allen

Tom Powers lives in Rochester, but his heart is in Buffalo. Specifically, it's at Main and Allen streets, in the beautiful old terra cotta apartment building called the Red Jacket.

He lived there as a boy in the 1930s and '40s. His father -- a former Great Lakes sailor he always called by his first name, Andy -- worked there as building superintendent. Or janitor, as Powers puts it.

"I used to go with Andy when he made repairs," Powers recalls.

"There were some grand flats. Many faced Main Street, where there was a view of the No. 8 streetcars making their way to the city line, near Bailey, or downtown to the Terrace and beyond. If the street scene got boring, you could always get a glimpse into the windows of the Roosevelt Apartments across the street."

The scene doesn't sound boring.

Recently, hearing the Red Jacket had undergone a renovation, Powers began writing down his memories of the area. He recalls a newsstand, a "smoke shop," a "greasy spoon," a cobbler and a funeral home where a buddy used to use the embalming needle to fix deflated footballs.

The picture he paints is especially enjoyable because, after decades of decline, his old 'hood is on the mend.

With the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and new plans to connect it with Allen Street, change is in the air. Buildings boarded up for years are being converted into luxury housing. And Clover Management, which oversaw the successful Sidway Building, is procuring tenants for the first floor of the spiffed-up Red Jacket.

"The neighborhood is starting to support better retail," says Richard Greenspan, Clover's executive vice president.

"A lot of it is because of the hospital corridor," adds Kristy Morgan, property manager for BRACO-I, which owns the Red Jacket. She agrees that, for the 1894 building and its old friend, the still-stately Roosevelt, the future is bright.

"Hopefully, it's moving into high-end housing," she said.

Powers remembers life on the block as prosperous but gritty.

His oldest classmate at St. Louis School was Rich Battaglia, a 16-year-old ladies' man who wore expensive Italian suits. For fun, the kids arranged a fight between Battaglia and "Red" Gordon, a public school WASP who was also 16 and in eighth grade.

"The goal was to build up a grudge fight between two guys who didn't know the other existed," Powers explains. "The plotters invented statements, taunts, insults, ethnic slurs and such that were attributed to Red or Rich, depending on the audience. Eventually a date, time and place were set. Monday, after school, corner of Main and Virginia, in front of the Catholic Library."

Rich's lazy opener was: "Heard you been lookin' for me?" Red yawned: "Guess so."

The fight was vicious but brief.

"Some pacifist from the Catholic Library called the police," Powers sighs.

Gordon, Powers says, died in a car crash at 17. A few years later, Battaglia's body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car on the West Side.

Powers, though, went on to a successful accounting career. A few years back, he revisited his old turf for a reunion at St. Louis School. With him was his second wife, Susan, whom he met eight years ago in a water balloon fight.

"He walked his old route," Susan Powers says of her husband, who used to deliver The Buffalo Evening News.

Both were depressed by the area's gloom. Next visit, though, should be different. Life is returning to Main Street.

It may not be exactly the life Powers knew. But then, maybe that's a good thing.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com