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Sean Kirst: Childhood memory of music lingers as Buffalo church is leveled

Lamont Perry couldn't simply let it pass. Last month, a contractor for the city leveled the old Salem Evangelical Reformed Church on Sherman Street, leaving just the bell tower as a kind of neighborhood monument.

If you look through the chain link fence that separates the sidewalk from the brick rubble, the lonesome tower is the only sign a church was ever there.

To Perry, 63, a computer technician with the Buffalo School District, this was a burial that deserved some kind of fitting eulogy. He moved fast last week along the fence, arms shooting toward phantom places above the broken stone.

"Here!" he said.

This was the spot of the side door that neighborhood children once ran through to get inside. If you turned left, he said, it took you downstairs for summer school or reading lessons or Bible school. If you turned right, you went upstairs, to the sanctuary.

Where there was a piano.

On a summer day on the East Side, near a lost church on an empty street, Lamont Perry gently touched a keyboard only he could see.

"Salem," he said softly, "was the start of it all."

He is a church organist and longtime teacher of church choirs, leader of the Brotha Perry Gospel Jazz Trio, a guy who won "best jazz organ" in the 2016 JazzBuffalo poll. He is also the loyal son of a father he was barely allowed to know, a man who died while Perry was still little, a skilled guitar player the child was basically forbidden to see once his mother met his stepfather.

"Everything I am," he said of his father, "every piece of it is him."

Whether it was genetics, whether it was childhood loyalty, Perry doesn't know. Whatever the reason, he loved music from the beginning of his earliest memories. He used to stretch rubber bands across a cigar box to create a makeshift guitar, or fill pop bottles with water and then tap them to play tunes.

A half-block from where he grew up, on Sycamore Street, was the legendary Governor's Inn. As a child, he'd sit on the curb and listen to the throbbing guitar of some of the greatest bluesmen in the nation, rich and aching music that came rolling out the door.

His home life was hard, often painful. Perry doesn't say much about his stepfather, except that the child had plenty of reason not to stay around the house. Yet his stepfather did surprise him once with a guitar, and Perry got busy teaching himself to play.

As for Salem, it had the piano, and the piano changed his life.

The old Salem Evangelical Reformed Church on Sherman Street, before demolition. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

The church was founded in 1873, in what was then a German enclave. The "new" building, the one that's now demolished, was constructed in 1908. By the time Perry moved into the neighborhood as a 4-year-old, the area was primarily African-American, with vestiges of the Polish and German fabric that had been there before.

The congregation, part of the United Church of Christ, opened its arms to nearby children, Perry said. His mother often sent him to Salem, where there was help with math and reading, where there were programs that kept boys and girls busy in the summer. He recalled how the church bought what had been an old German bar at the Sycamore Street corner and transformed it into a youth center.

By then, Perry knew what he was doing musically. He used to bring sheet music – Beatles songs published in The Buffalo Evening News – and do his best to figure them out on the piano at the church, and later on the organ.

He remembers how he had "Sunny" – a pop song by Bobby Hebb – stuck in his head. He'd sit at the keyboard and keep plucking the notes until he recognized the song. Sometimes, adults would walk in and tell him to go downstairs.

A lot of times, they pretended they didn't seen him – and let him play.

He paused, wistful, by a pile of rubble. The pastor was a "hippie minister," he said, a guy who was good to all the kids. Perry couldn't remember his name. Maybe, he wondered out loud, it was Brooks?

An SUV drove past. Behind the wheel was Nate Ray, a childhood friend who also attended youth programs at Salem. Perry called out to him. Ray hit the brakes. Perry asked for the name of that minister in the '60s whose wife, they both remembered, was also very kind. Ray grimaced, rubbed his forehead …

"Briggs!" he said. "It was Rev. Briggs!"

Ray nailed it. The minister they remembered was the Rev. Dr. William Briggs. He took over in 1968 after the death, all too young, of Rev. Raymond Case, who had already set a path of neighborhood outreach for the church.

Reached by telephone at his New Hampshire home, Briggs said Perry's use of the word "hippie" was pretty much straight-on – "I had long hair and all the trappings of the time" – but he said the most inspiring thing was the way Salem's congregants saw the community.

Instead of turning away from a changing neighborhood, they embraced it. Briggs didn't remember Perry specifically, but he recalled how the church served hundreds of neighborhood children through Head Start and other programs.

Susan Briggs taught at the old BUILD Academy, an alternative school. Her husband said Salem purchased the old Black Bear tavern, a few doors away. The church turned it into a bookstore, a community health center and a place where young musicians could perform.

They included one Lamont Perry, already the mainstay of a neighborhood band.

In an especially vivid image, Briggs recalled how 5-year-old "Lucky" Peterson – who was earning national attention by playing the blues as a kindergartner at the Governor's Inn – would show up for some programs as church. He was a jazz legend one minute, a typical little boy the next.

"I have a lot of memories about what was positive and good and beautiful in that community," said Briggs, 77, who later served in Rochester as state conference minister for the United Church of Christ. Now, from New Hampshire,  he is administrator of an aid program, Honduras Hope.

He said he left Salem in 1972, after a plan to build new housing on the entire block – a plan that would have meant demolishing the church, a building that Briggs said was already beginning to crumble – was turned down following emotional debate within the congregation.

Almost 50 years later, conscious of the suffering in that neighborhood, Briggs is left thinking about the could-have-beens.

"It's what makes all of this so ironic," Briggs said. "We had this package that would have put together vacant lots in that two-block area. The plan was to move the programs from the tavern into a new community center that would have provided outreach for the whole East Side."

It didn't fly. Salem closed a few years later, Briggs said, and many congregants shifted to the New Covenant United Church of Christ, on Clinton Street. The Salem building, later occupied by the Sunrise Church of Christ, is now dust.

James Comerford Jr., commissioner of permit and inspection services in Buffalo, said the demolition underlines a challenge with many empty city churches: Deterioration, combined with a lack of options for practical restoration, puts extraordinary civic landmarks at great risk.

The Salem property is owned by Mohammad Kabir, of Brooklyn. The bell tower was rescued on the urging of Stephen Karnath, executive director of Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services. He said his organization has a memo of understanding with Kabir to buy the lot for $1, if at some point Broadway-Fillmore puts together a new housing plan.

That's exactly what Briggs dreamed about, 50 years ago.

The bell tower retains symbolic power, Karnath said. It is "a way to reference the church," to recall all the decades when the building served as a focal point. Perry, for his part, remembers the way the church provided solace for a lonesome, worried child. He sees the demolition as all too emblematic in a neighborhood where a legion of boys and girls need exactly the same thing.

He went to Sherman Street last week to make sure that church got an appropriate goodbye. A half-century ago, he was a kid with a hunger to learn music, and Salem – and the kindness of those inside it – changed his life. It kills him to think that as motorists drive past, they see rubble and nothing more than another empty lot.

Perry, for his part, sees an open door.

"Please," he said. "For me, this was the beginning."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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