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At Sugar City, photographers riff on Buffalo's Belt Line

In 2001, photographer Joel Sternfeld released his book "Walking the High Line," a collection of moody photographs of a rusty, elevated railway that runs for 1.5 miles along the western edge of Manhattan.

The book, New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith wrote, captured the High Line's "stark formal power" and the "Surrealist frisson between wildness of its plant life and the surrounding buildings." And it was instrumental in shaping the public conversation about the decommissioned railway that would lead to its eventual transformation into an elevated public park -- one of the most buzzworthy adaptive reuse projects in recent history.

In Buffalo, we have no High Line. But we do have a Belt Line -- a historic 15-mile railway that rings the city and connects about 12 million square feet of largely vacant post-industrial loft space.

A compact new photography exhibition in Sugar City, conceived by preservationist Chris Hawley and organized by five photographers, aims to bring public attention to the Belt Line and its outsized role in the city's industrial and cultural history.

"Historically, it is as important as Ellicott’s radial plan and Frederick Law Olmsted’s park and parkway system in determining the development of the city," Hawley said. "The Belt Line is the reason that all these industrial loft clusters exist and it was the foundation for all of our early commuter suburbs, like Hamlin Park and Parkside and Grant-Amherst, which became developed only after the Belt Line opened in 1883."

The entire Belt Line remains fully intact and operational, though it now only carries Amtrak passenger trains and CSX freight traffic.

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David Torke's photographs explore the Belt Line's influence on neighborhoods and industry.

Five photographers who are no strangers to urban exploration - David Torke, Molly Jarboe, Christina Laing, Max Collins and Brendan Bannon - produced distinct bodies of work for the exhibition. Torke also created a wall of 100 Instagram photos by 25 people, which resulted from a competition with more than 300 entries.

Torke's work, shot from factory roofs and street corners, gives a sense of how the Belt Line spawned neighborhoods filled hulking warehouses and long shuttered-businesses, such as those that line Lathrop Street in the shadow of the Central Terminal.

Jarboe's photographs, many of which include human figures to lend a sense of scale, focus instead on the Belt Line's partially obscured trajectory along the back yards and sidewalks still-active neighborhoods, where residents may not even be aware that it exists.

Photo by Molly Jarboe.

In her photo series, Molly Jarboe sought out active neighborhoods through which the tracks of the Belt Line pass, perhaps unknown to residents.

Bannon, an internationally regarded photographer whose work often appears in The New York Times and other major publications, shot his series of four dark photographs in the former Otis elevator and Curtiss-Wright airplane factory on Northland Avenue. He took a more abstract approach, using the Belt Line as inspiration for a foray into an industrial space, where he hunted for flickers of color in "a once-clamoring, clanking factory space."

Collins' photographs focus on the texture of the railway, including one piece that captures dozens of discarded railroad ties. Laing's black and white photographs - misty, moody, mid-morning affairs that echo Sternfeld's work - seem to speak in equal measure of the Belt Line's enduring integrity and its great potential.

For Torke, who has long photographed and promoted preservation issues with a special focus on Buffalo's East Side, the exhibition is about communicating a sense of the Belt Line's centrality to the city's development and the way it traverses neighborhoods both prosperous and poor. He calls it "the third strand in Buffalo's DNA," joining Olmsted's parks and Ellicott's street plan.

Photo by Christina Laing.

The mood of Christina Laing's Belt Line photographs is mysterious and freighted with potential.

"When you’re on the roof of some of these places looking out, not just doing a Google flyover, but when you’re actually trespassing and you’re on the roof looking out, you see how this city has developed," Torke said. "You see the matrixing of the religious, the secular, the industrial. It’s really fascinating. It’s something that you don’t experience unless you’re aware."

As far the prospects for some High Line-esque revival of the Belt Line goes, it is tempting to imagine a city in which we could hop on a train downtown, stop off for a drink in Larkinville, pick up our friends at their new loft on Lathrop Street and end our ride at the foot of Ferry Street, a block from where Sugar City stands today.

This was possible 80 years ago, but Hawley suggested that given the state of transportation funding and our continued reliance on cars, it may be another 80 years before it happens again. He suggests we focus instead on Buffalo's "very un-sexy but high-impact bus system."

Even so, his appreciation for a time when the likes of Darwin D. Martin could ride the Belt Line from the Parkside neighborhood to what is now Larkinville is clear. And this exhibition may be the first step in a long process to make that trip possible again.

"Whether there is a long-term outcome from an art show, I have no idea," Hawley said. "But we got 500 people in the room, many of them opinion leaders, many of them leaders in the art world, who are now looking at the Belt Line through a new lens."


What: "The Belt Line: Hiding in Plain Sight"
Where: Sugar City, 1239 Niagara St.
When: Through Jan. 29
Admission: Free


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