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Residents air ideas for African American Heritage Corridor

Gail Wells was born and raised in Harlem, three blocks from the Apollo Theater, but she now lives on Clinton Street near Michigan Avenue.

She wants to see the history of Buffalo's black cultural renaissance from 1967 to 1981 included in the master plan for the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor.

Kevin Cottrell is the project manager for the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center planned for the 1863 U.S. Customs House in Niagara Falls. He would like to see the still-to-be-determined boundaries of the corridor extend all the way down to Erie Canal Harbor and tie into the development there.

And Yvonne Brown, a retired Buffalo Public Schools teacher, suggested a specific physical structure should be the focal point in the corridor.

"It's wonderful we can take [tourists] all over the city. The thing is you need something more centralized, a physical structure in the corridor to tie in the history," she said.

Wells, Cottrell and Brown were among about 40 people who attended a public meeting Tuesday evening with the consultants from Huntley Partners/CHA who will be working with the corridor commission to develop a master plan for the area. The corridor includes such historic sites as the Colored Musicians Club, Michigan Street Baptist Church and the Nash House Museum.

The meeting was held in the Frederick Douglass Community Center on Jefferson Avenue.

Huntley has worked on similar projects in San Antonio, Florida and internationally, said Karen Stanley Fleming, commission chairwoman. The local partner is Watts Architecture & Engineering, a black-owned firm with offices in downtown Buffalo.

"We're thinking globally and acting locally," Stanley Fleming said, stressing that the master plan will be developed largely with the public's input.

"It will be a plan the entire community is engaged in and hears its voice in," she added. "We are documenting a vision."

Established by state legislation in 2007, the commission originally was charged with developing a master plan by Aug. 31 of last year. A bill requesting an extension into 2013 is pending in the State Legislature, said Laurence Rubin, attorney for the commission.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, the planners shared some of their preliminary concepts and research. Everett L. Fly, a landscape architect on the team, pointed out that other Michigan Avenue connections have importance beyond Buffalo and fit into the nation's cultural history.

The Michigan Street YMCA, for example, was the second "colored" YMCA designed by John Brent, an African-American architect. The YMCA opened in 1928 and became the cultural center of Buffalo's black community. In 1945, Brent began working for City Hall and did plans for the Buffalo Zoo, the nation's third-oldest zoo, Fly said.

While baseball legend Jackie Robinson played one season in 1946 with the Montreal Royals, he played 20 games in Buffalo at Offermann Stadium, which was at East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue, Fly said.

And in 1843, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at Front Park to an audience of 5,000.

"For a black man to give a public speech in front of 5,000 people during that time -- it's a national event," Fly said.

Once the master plan is developed, it will enable the corridor to get additional grants and other resources to develop the area.

"Then the public and private investments will occur," Stanley Fleming said.