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East Side Story, a walk around Buffalo's Old Polonia neighborhood

“You must be a sightseer!” remarked the kindly elderly lady I passed.

“Something like that,” I replied with a smile.

I suppose I was a sightseer of sorts, as I, equipped with my trusty camera, a backpack, and a Buffalo Bills ski cap, ambled around the Genesee gateway with no particular goal in mind, peering into the windows of the former Beer Stube restaurant and trying not to drop the hot dog I was snacking on.

Most guys my age, especially those, who, like me, are from the suburbs, would not think to spend a perfectly good day walking around admiring abandoned warehouses and churches, especially with the snow blowing as it was that day. In fact, most people my age don’t seem to head downtown at all unless it’s to break a fence in an effort to see some washed-up rapper at Canalside.

But I’ve always loved being in the city, getting a sense of the urban atmosphere and the great people. One of my earliest memories is walking through a dirt lot near the old Aud to get to the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is the crown jewel of the city’s renaissance. With 9 million gleaming square feet of research, medical and laboratory space, it towers on the horizon as one comes into the city from the Kensington Expressway. A welcoming sight; a sight of progress and new energy.

The former St. Ann's Church is an East Side landmark.

But, just a few blocks away, a lurking memory of economic downturn and racial unrest remains.

They called it Polonia, home of the thousands of Polish immigrants that came to America, searching for a better life; home of some of Buffalo’s finest attractions, like the Sattler Theatre, the Central Terminal and the Buffalo Forge Company; home of spectacular churches like St. Anne’s and Our Lady of Lourdes, featuring awe-inspiring architecture stretching over two of Buffalo’s major thoroughfares – Broadway and Fillmore Avenue.

Today, these buildings stand rotting in the harsh Buffalo winters, symbols of the area’s decline. Broadway is merely a shell of its former self, a long stretch of pavement surrounded by the remains of a once-great commercial strip.

For an amateur photographer, these remains provide some excellent shots. On my days off, I jump at the chance to snap them before either the wrecking ball or the long march of time takes them down.

I stopped at a restaurant for lunch and headed down Broadway, my Canon Rebel ready for action.
When many of the original Polish residents moved to the suburbs, a supposed haven from the racial turmoil gripping the 1960s, they left behind their shops and homes to be purchased by a new group of people, a rising African-American population, which needed housing and work after moving north following World War II.

The problem? This new demographic was ignored as the city was hammered by the economic turmoil of the 1970s. As poverty spread, shops closed and violence rose. The general public, now comfortably residing in the suburbs, turned a blind eye to these problems.

On the day I visited, Broadway was quiet, but not without life. In fact, I passed more than one construction company, restoring an apartment building to house homeless veterans and building good, solid homes for low-income residents.

Beyond that, the faded murals on the walls of the Pollack and Blakemore Discount Furniture building caught my eye (and camera lens). Even though they are decades old, their detail and color remained vivid alongside the cold black gate that covered the door and windows.

It was then that something occurred to me – amid all the decay that went on around them, there were many good people left who are just trying to make their way in their world.

Many of us imagine the East Side as a haven for crime and violence. This mural, however, stands out to me as a symbol of those fighting the stereotype of violence by making their livelihoods, pouring hard work and time into a business that may or may not have had a good chance to survive.

Ads on the side of a building add a splash of color to Buffalo's East Side.

As I stood in a vacant lot enjoying the benefits that “urban renewal” brought us, I could make out the cranes piecing together Buffalo’s renaissance just over the horizon. I looked back at the mural on the wall, and at the restoration teams, and I realized that it is time for the development to come to the East Side.

The seeds are planted; preservation groups are working tirelessly to stop historic buildings and homes from meeting the wrecking ball. Development companies are investing time and money into brand-new mixed-use buildings, exemplified by the Fairmont Creamery building.

Now it is time for the “Buffalove” to spread down Broadway, Fillmore, Jefferson, and the other thoroughfares that once carried thousands of people. We need to reach out and build up these historic neighborhoods.

We cannot be “One Buffalo” if we don’t extend the renewal to each corner of the Queen City. Let’s bring the development to the East Side.

Michael Pesarchick is a senior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.

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