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Goldman left a legacy for Buffalo

When the story of Buffalo's reawakening is written, Tony Goldman will figure as an important bit player.

Goldman, the lauded preservationist who died last week in Manhattan at 68, is best known for breathing new life into New York City's SoHo neighborhood and turning the formerly sleepy town of Miami Beach into a thriving year-round destination.

But he also played an integral role, directly and indirectly, in Buffalo's ongoing grass-roots movement to take charge of its own future. In a November 2010 meeting destined to go down in history as a key turning point in Buffalo's revival, Goldman gave a passionate and inspirational speech about the possibilities of the city's waterfront.

He was invited by his brother, Mark Goldman, Buffalo's most outspoken proponent of small-scale development and a central player in the new direction the city's waterfront has taken. For a half-hour, the audience in the City Honors High School auditorium hung on Tony Goldman's every word, interrupting him with applause at certain points as you might interrupt a president's State of the Union address. He railed against the staid philosophy of narrow-minded Buffalo developers whose plans for the waterfront involved massively subsidized retail outlets and other silver-bullet solutions.

"I'm not a Buffalonian in presence, but I am in heart," he said. "It would kill me to see that process go further. To build another garage is criminal. To knock down another building is criminal, unless you have a very specific use, sign, sealed, delivered."

The speech was brimming with ideas for the development of Buffalo's grain elevators. He envisioned an outdoor mural museum, similar to the popular one he created from a group of bland warehouse walls in Miami. He mused about creating mini-nightclubs inside each of the grain silos at Silo City. He dreamed up the idea of creating multihued windmills along the Outer Harbor, and of creating a sprawling, sculptural park that would double as "the greatest sunset theater in the world."

Some of these ideas struck the practical listener as, to put it mildly, far-fetched and fantastical. But that is exactly the point with Goldman, whose overactive imagination allowed him to see a thriving neighborhood where others saw old buildings to replace with cookie-cutter office buildings or warehouse walls most saw as depressing symbols of abandonment.

"We took a little enclave, a 19th-century enclave of buildings amidst the canyons of Wall Street and we saved it," he said at the meeting. "Culture, color, form, context, texture, stimulates the human being. It takes us out of our environment and takes us into the possibilities of what can be in this universe."

Sounds lofty to some, borderline looney to others. The Goldman philosophy continues to be lampooned and dismissed by local cynics whose faith in the fantasy model of massive subsidies for paltry returns remains unshaken in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

We can be sure that Mark Goldman, who has been fighting for years to duplicate his brother's internationally regarded successes on the local scale, will carry the torch for his late brother's grand vision in Western New York.

"We're kindred spirits," Tony Goldman said of his brother in 2010. "We share the same values about community and about the purpose of life is do what you do with passion and make sure that you affect the quality of life of others ... We are in business. We are commercial enterprises. But at the end of the day, it's not about the money. It's about the achievement of the community."