Main Street in Buffalo is acknowledged as both an actual and an inadvertent divide in the city, between east and west, struggling and vibrant, black and white.
Then there are the streets that intersect the city’s center, such as Ferry Street, which runs from the Niagara River to Bailey Avenue and truly reflects that divide.
Mark Goldman knows that street tells a story. And he hopes he can get people to hear it.
Goldman and his group Friends of the Buffalo Story have chosen it for an ambitious public art and theater project. The City of Buffalo is co-sponsoring the project, which is funded by a $100,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The idea is to use the “Ferry Street Corridor” as a storytelling device about the city in an effort to put residents in touch with the city’s history and inspire them to change its future.
“I really believe that one of the great building blocks of citizenship is knowing your heritage and knowing your stories. I think if we can get people to know more about where they live, that converts into an economic development strategy,” said Goldman, a Buffalo historian and restaurateur.
The project will begin next week when 30 students from Lafayette High School and the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts collect stories from throughout the neighborhoods along the street. The stories will be shaped into theater performances and public art pieces of a size and scope yet to be determined. Students from SUNY Buffalo State’s Anne Frank Project also will be involved in the project, which is being directed by Goldman’s collaborator Marissa Lehner.
One goal of the project is to honor the history and legacy of the East Side, which has been left out of recent conversations about the city’s cultural and economic revival, Goldman said.
“The East Side has been kind of off the radar screen in many, many ways, particularly in terms of getting their heritage out,” he said.
He noted that he wants to focus special attention on the intersection of Jefferson and Ferry, which has four businesses that date to 1960-61, owned by the same families: Gigi’s Restaurant, Doris Records, Dexter Leader Drugs and Hargrave New York News.
“Now that’s an important story,” he said.
Ferry Street was an obvious choice for the incipient project, Goldman said. As one of the longest east-west corridors in the city, it is essentially a cross-section of the city’s cultures and neighborhoods. It cuts through the historically Italian West Side into the heart of the Grant-Ferry business district, which is becoming a thriving nexus for the city’s growing immigrant and refugee populations. From there, it slices across one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods before arriving at Main Street, the symbolic divide between Buffalo’s segregated east and west sides.
“People all of a sudden start saying, ‘Oh wow, really?’ You start thinking differently about where you live,” Goldman said. “You start thinking differently about where you lead your daily life, and all of a sudden the street that you’re walking on takes on a different kind of meaning.”
Beyond Main Street, East Ferry is a veritable string of historical and cultural pearls, from the popular New Skateland rink near Michigan Avenue along the southern boundary of the historic Hamlin Park neighborhood and across the Kensington Expressway, a widely disparaged example of mid-century urban renewal which was built over Frederick Law Olmsted’s elm-lined Humboldt Parkway.
On Friday, a crew installed a 20-foot-by-40-foot sign announcing the project on a building at the northeast corner of Main and Ferry streets, where Goldman has rented a 5,000-square-foot outdoor space to host public art projects that will emerge from the project.
“We’re using roller skating to promote diversity and inclusivity and multi-generational, multi-racial, social hangouts. That’s what I’m doing with skating, and it works really well with the Ferry Street Corridor project,” Gordon said. “The fact that it’s on Main Street helps tap into this effort to bring people together in a segregated city, and Main Street happens to be that geographic color line. … I think we have similar goals, which is to unite people through place.”
For Goldman, who has led a wide range of community-focused art and theater projects including a collection of murals on Allen Street and a theater production about the history of the waterfront, the Ferry Street program represents a chance for him to leave his mark on the city.
“I figure I have 10 good years left, and this is the kind of work I want to do,” he said. “This is not about putting yarn-bombing on a tree on the corner. It’s not that. It’s much larger.
“It’s gonna be – if we can pull it off – a big deal.”