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Editorial: City's historic grain elevators deserve national recognition

If backers of a “national park” designation for Buffalo’s Silo City are referring to a national historical park, or a place of interest within another federal (or even state) recreation area, they may be onto something.

Buffalo’s cluster of six grain elevators is certainly interesting and important. It is evocative of a particular time in American history, especially along the Great Lakes and, within that area, in conjunction with the Erie Canal. That makes it worthy of consideration that could provide funding, development and promotion for a piece of American history.

First, though, it’s important to understand terms, because if backers truly mean a “national park,” they are on the wrong page. Yellowstone is a national park. Grand Canyon is a national park. The Everglades is a national park. These are landscapes the nation has chosen to protect, both for their natural beauty and the wildlife they support. But they are not grain elevators, factories or museums.

When enthusiasts talk about such places, they are referring to sites that may come under the auspices of the National Park Service, a federal agency with authority over national parks, national monuments, national preserves, national lakeshores, national seashores, national historic sites and more. In all, there are 417 such places in the country, covering more than 84 million acres, but among them are just 59 national parks – and, sad to say, none of them is in New York.

Thus, the factories in Lowell, Mass., are classified as a national historical park, while the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, Minn., is considered a place of interest within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. These are distinctions with a difference. How these terms are used and understood will inevitably influence how both the public and policymakers evaluate the idea of turning Silo City into a site worthy of federal designation and protection.

On that score, it’s certainly a fair argument that Silo City owns the same kind of standing as the early factories in Lowell, Mass. First of all, grain elevators were invented in Buffalo in 1842 by Joseph Dart and Joseph Dunbar. The area around Silo City also includes the densest collection of grain elevators in the world. This city has a righteous claim to their history.

Adam Sokol, an architect with offices in Allentown and Los Angeles, has produced conceptual plans for “Buffalo Grain Elevator National Park.” What the name lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in heart.

“The grain elevators in Buffalo are one of a handful of iconic historic resources that are emblematic of the city, are very visible and close to downtown,” Sokol told The News. “They are also an important part of the cultural history of this country.” And important enough that Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is intrigued. That doesn’t hurt.

The idea has a lot more going for it today than it did even a few years ago – before Canalside, before improvements and easier access to the Outer Harbor, before HarborCenter. The grain elevators were just as historic and just as interesting in those days, but there was radically less reason to believe they would attract attention or support.

That’s changing, and not just because of what is happening along the waterfront. The restorations of the Richardson Towers into a hotel and the Darwin Martin House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, are helping to make Buffalo a destination. So is the city’s ongoing economic revival.

This is nothing more than an interesting idea at this point, but it is at least that, and it’s the place where all projects such as this must start. If ever there were a time to consider a proposal such as this, it is now.

First is to figure out what it should be; whatever that is, it’s not a “national park.”

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