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Canalside needs more real historical elements

It was nice to see water flow last week into the first “historically aligned” canal on the downtown waterfront. Building Canalside’s theme around the site’s history was a turning point in Buffalo’s template. We made the most of what we’ve got, instead of pleading with outsiders to guide us or seeking salvation in a succession of big, one-shot “magic bullets.”

But the shallow, decorative “canal” – a centerpiece for future development – is also a reminder of unfinished business. The historic Erie Canal site from which Canalside gets its name has never been finished.

Not that we didn’t invest in it. That’s the pity. Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to excavate and re-water the historic Commercial Slip – the canal’s original western terminus, across Scott Street from the new project. Unearthed 19th-century canal stones were placed above the waterline. Replicas were built of the 19th century bowstring bridge and red-bricked Coit-McCutcheon building, which houses the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park. The best-effort authenticity, for which activists waged a years-long battle, conveys the sense of history that makes the site so cool.

But we never put the historic icing on the cake, added the accessories to better tell the site’s story. Six years after the slip’s unveiling, numerous recommended or “expected” elements of the state’s 2004 master plan remain undone – ranging from a replica canal boat to a museum. Still gathering dust are preservationist-drafted plans for a museum in a re-created canal-era hotel that housed freed slave William Douglas’ Dug’s Dive bar/rooming house. Still missing is the obvious, Instagram-moment statue of DeWitt Clinton. It was at Commercial Slip in 1825 that the visionary governor officially opened the waterway that transformed America – and made Buffalo great. The guy has waited 189 years for Buffalo to show its gratitude.

Sam Hoyt of the state-run Erie Canal Harbor board acknowledged the unfinished business. He vowed that the Canal Harbor board will finally do something about it.

“We’re committed to making sure that elements in the master plan are finally implemented,” Hoyt told me. “More needs to be done, and we’d be wrong not to do it. This is very much part of the origins and history of Buffalo.”

The more we celebrate history, the more it helps Canalside.

Preservationist Tim Tielman led the years-long fight to resurrect the Commercial Slip, and later to save the site from a proposed Bass Pro incursion.

“The historic elements are what gives everything around it credence and value,” Tielman said. “Fads and businesses come and go. History has a generation-to-generation appeal. That’s why it’s so disappointing that this stuff hasn’t been done.”

The money is there. Hoyt acknowledged there is enough in the Canal Harbor board’s “existing funding stream” to “enhance the historic/interpretive elements, some of which were included in the 2004 master plan ... We would not have to break the bank to do a first-class job.”

That sounds good, but we’ve heard it before from other state officials.

“What we need,” Tielman noted, “is a timeline, a budget and a project list – done in collaboration with preservationists and with community input.”

The changes should extend to the site’s signage, badly crafted six years ago in a sham process without public input. It’s a confounding hodgepodge of canal information with little focus that, bizarrely, underplays the site’s importance and Buffalo’s canal-era prominence. It glosses over the iconic “Wedding of the Waters” story. It minimizes Buffalo’s role as the hub of East-West trade and as a gateway west for countless settlers. Duncan Hay of the National Parks Service, one of the historic advisers, admitted to me at the time that the signage should have been more “site-specific.” Despite tweaking, the problem largely remains.

Ready, finally, to be fixed.

It’s nice that history shapes the look and feel of Canalside. It’d be even nicer to finally make more of the real history that inspires it.