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Chippewa's pioneer has some regrets

He walked into the coffee shop on the downtown corner, in the heart of what he started, on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon. No heads turned.

Sometimes there is no justice.

The curly-haired guy with the sparkling eyes and the fireplug build was the root of a revolution. What grew into the bar-centric entertainment district known as the Chippewa Strip began with him, 20 years ago.

Mark Goldman bought the terra cotta building on the corner of Franklin and Chippewa from tailor Charlie LaRussa for $200,000, no money down, LaRussa holding the mortgage. He created the legendary Calumet Arts Cafe, a Goldmanesque amalgamation of bar/restaurant/art/theater/performance space. With it came The Third Room, a one-size-fits-all bar, and -- later -- the Hispanic-flavored nightclub La Luna.

Goldman's stake jump-started the transformation of Chippewa from a seedy stretch of streetwalkers, pawn shops and cut-rate stores into a critical mass of bars and restaurants.

Drinking joints popped up like spring flowers in the Calumet's wake, drawing a twentysomething legion -- many of them from the 'burbs -- and giving Buffalo, long an insider's town, an obvious nightlife destination. When hordes of visitors descend, as for last week's NCAA basketball tournament, they know where to get fed and watered.

It ends, for him, next month. The Chippewa Strip pioneer has sold the Calumet building, now home to Bacchus restaurant. Regrets, he has a few.

"I [envisioned] a mixed-use, arts-driven urban village, and it never really happened," Goldman said, sipping coffee. "I saw what was going on in other cities, what happened in [New York's] SoHo. Instead, it's a bar-driven strip. To me, it's a disappointment."

He is 66, still as eager and inquisitive as a puppy. I have known him for decades, a sparking wire with a big imagination. He never made money on the Calumet, always better at creation than execution. He loves cities and old buildings, and he thought that the Calumet -- early home of the Irish Classical Theater, venue for top-shelf jazz artists, bar, restaurant, performance space -- would be a prototype for the street. Instead, most of those who traced his footsteps to Chippewa saw only the bar piece of Goldman's vision.

"I was naive, thinking that the power of the arts would drive the market," said Goldman, resigned but not downcast. "It's easier just to put a bar in."

The district is not all drink-till-you-drown. I think that everything from the subsequent arrival of iconic Spot Coffee, to restaurateur Mark Croce's multiple-place presence, to the coming of the corner-anchoring Hampton Inn, to the blooming of a pro-urban sensibility in a younger generation, is at least partly traceable to Goldman's trailblazing.

It may not be the legacy he imagined, nor is it his only claim to fame. Goldman is an entrepreneur, college professor, author of two essential books on Buffalo history and an urban pioneer. He ventured five years ago into Allentown, bringing -- with the oddly named Allen Street Hardware -- a creative edge to the standard-issue neighborhood bar. But the Calumet is where Chippewa, as we know it, began.

"I'd like to think," he said, "that the Calumet had a role in changing people's thinking about downtown."

I think there is no question about it.

Goldman said the building's new owners will put law offices in the upper floors. It will bring 60 white-collar workers to the street, adding variety to Chippewa's alcohol overload.

"It's ironic, 20 years later," said Goldman, "but I think it might be the start of something."

It would not be the first time.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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