Tom Rush remembers when stores lined Seneca Street and the neighborhood bubbled with activity.
“Seneca Street was the heart of South Buffalo,” the 80-year-old Rush said as he tended bar at Hopper’s Rush Inn. “That’s where, if you needed something, you could find it.”
Locals shopped at the Woolworth five and dime and ordered ham sandwiches and ice cream sodas at the lunch counter. Men and boys purchased Sunday suits and school clothes at Kimaid & Matter and Hamberger men’s shops, while women and girls picked out outfits at Hens & Kelly.
Seneca Street was where shoppers bought their bedroom and living room sets at Trend Furniture Store, and loafers and wingtips at Liberty Shoe Store. Moviegoers packed the Shea's Seneca Theatre, and restaurants and bars flourished on the bustling commercial street.
“Sometimes you had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were so crowded,” said Larry Brooks, sitting at the counter.
Those days are long gone. But after hitting rock bottom, Seneca Street appears to be on the move.
Three developers are taking on ambitious projects in the neighborhood, and if they succeed, Seneca Street may see a rebirth.
Karl Frizlen is converting two former Catholic parish schools into living spaces, including at St. Teresa’s, the parish located in the Seneca Street neighborhood.
Three firefighters have bought several storefronts and apartments on Seneca Street, and are converting two former churches into residential and commercial space.
Another Buffalo fireman, Patrick Lalley, and his brother-in-law Larry Adymy have rebuilt and expanded the Blackthorn Restaurant & Pub on Seneca Street.
But the biggest project is the conversion of the two-story brick building at the corner of 2178 Seneca and Cazenovia streets, once anchored by the movie theater.
Jake Schneider is spending $9 million to convert the Shea’s Seneca building into 21 apartments and commercial space. When completed in the summer of 2018, restaurateurs William and Molly Koessler will run a banquet and special events business from the building. The Second Generation Theater Company will be performing in a 130-seat theater in the old Ginzy’s Bargain Warehouse and a Public Espresso coffee bar will open.
Schneider says his project is more than just one building.
“We’re looking at it as more than just the revival of a single building, and more of a catalyst toward a greater revitalization of the commercial corridor,” Schneider said.
Renewing Shea's Seneca
Some demolition at Shea's Seneca is scheduled to begin in June, with construction starting the following month.
Schneider, with $1.5 million in historic tax credits, will preserve the ornate theater lobby, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling, entryway and foyer. The decorative plaster and other ornamental details – many in a green and copper palette – will be restored by Swiatek Studios, a South Buffalo company experienced in restoring old movie theaters.
“It will look like a decorative theater lobby again,” said Matt Hartrich, Schneider's vice president of development. “We will try to save as much as we can.”
On the second floor, a stage and bar still remain of the music club and bar known in the early 1980s as the Salty Dog Saloon and later as the Rooftop Sky Room. R.E.M., David Crosby, Metallica, the Ramones and Stevie Ray Vaughan are among those who performed there.
“When we redo a project, we like to keep the history of the building intact. If anyone has movie theater or Sky Room memorabilia, we’d love to be able to put it on our walls and remind people what was there,” Hartrich said.
One-bedroom apartments will rent for $1,000 to $1,200, with two bedrooms going for $1,400 to $1,600. Tenants are expected to be baby boomers and millennials.
“For as long as this building has been standing here, it’s been a landmark and centerpiece for this corridor,” Hartrich said. “We think it’s going to be really symbolic to have this structure brought back to life. The uses we’re putting in will be great amenities to the neighborhood, and bring some added vitality.”
A long haul
After decades of decay, the resurrection of Seneca Street – with its empty storefronts and many long-neglected buildings – is likely to be achieved incrementally.
Working in its favor is that, after more than a decade of projects in downtown Buffalo, developers are now looking for new neighborhoods.
"It's safe to say that 95 percent of the housing we have created in downtown has been done with tax credits or brownfield credits," Schneider said. "It's getting difficult to find historic properties to leverage those dollars. That's one of the factors that led to me to Seneca Street, with a property that was historic and in a neighborhood I thought was soon to be emerging."
Rocco Termini has developed more than a half-dozen properties downtown, but in recent years has created new housing north and west of the city.
"It's becoming more and more difficult to find something downtown," Termini said. "If you do, the prices have gone ridiculous and the numbers just don't make sense anymore. So we keep going farther and farther out, which is a good thing.
"Now you're seeing development on Niagara Street, you are going to see it on Michigan, you're seeing it in South Buffalo and North Buffalo and Black Rock," Termini said. "If we didn't have the shortage downtown you would never have seen the peripheral development that's spreading the development out."
Investment from South Buffalonians is also making a difference.
Peter Scarcello Jr., John Otto and Gino Gatti, as Hook & Ladder Development, have spent several million dollars to buy and renovate dozens of properties in the neighborhood where two of them grew up.
They want to see Seneca Street – which was also where prominent and often large families lived, among them the Keanes, the Lewises, the Mahoneys, the Curtins, the Harts and the McCarthys – come back.
"This is an opportunity for everyone to really dig in and bring this corridor back to life," Scarcello has said.
The developers plan to convert St. John's Evangelist Church on Seneca Street into residential and commercial space. They're also planning to turn the former South Park United Presbyterian Church and school building on McKinley Parkway into residences.
Malls drained downtown
Seneca Street’s decline began in the late 1960s.
The growth of chain stores and suburban malls – particularly Seneca Mall – took a toll on Seneca Street’s vibrancy.
The loss of jobs at Bethlehem Steel, Buffalo Color, Republic Steel and Buffalo China also helped doom South Buffalo’s fortunes.
“This was emblematic of what happened in urban America, particularly in the Northeast in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with the out-migration to the first-ring suburbs, and retail following,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, who grew up in the area. Schneider is getting help from Higgins and South District Council Member Christopher Scanlon with his project.
Talk to South Buffalonians over the age of 50, and fond memories of Seneca Street pour out.
For Nick Malacaro, it was watching the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” at the movie theater, and “the Elvis movies – all of them.”
Or sitting on the stools along the horseshoe-shaped counter at Woolworth’s.
“At the soda bar, they had the metal container where they put the cup in there, and you got the pop out of that,” Malacaro said. “Then I’d go look at the toys and the model airplanes.”
Kevin Lewis recalled the shoe and clothing stores his family would take him into.
“They used to have parking meters on the street,” he said, almost incredulously.
Lewis remembers when the wrecking ball knocked down the beloved movie theater.
“It was a shame to see that thing go,” Lewis said. “And then they turned it into a parking lot.”
For Rush, the 80-year-old bartender, working at the theater still brings feelings of pride.
“I was an usher there, and they had to get a special uniform to fit me,” said Rush, who worked there as a youth.
Higgins recalls the neon lights that glistened on the 60-foot-tall sign and three-sided marquee above the movie theater’s entrance.
“The beautiful marquee, when lit up, gave you a sense of warmth and excitement,” he said.
Saturday matinees were packed with kids, including a young Higgins, who remembers watching horror movies on the silver screen.
“Usually nostalgia lives in the heart and soul, but that nostalgia is beginning to manifest itself again along the Seneca Street corridor, and particularly at the Seneca Shea’s location,” he said.
“Both substantially and symbolically, this is the biggest redevelopment on Seneca Street since the 1970s.”