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Mural mania sweeps Buffalo as neighborhoods look to rebrand

Amid Buffalo's broader public art renaissance, neighborhoods across the city are embracing murals – from simple way-finding signs to abstract compositions – as a way to reassert their historic identities and rebrand themselves in a changing city.

The Old First Ward, a tight-knit neighborhood between the Buffalo River and I-190, now boasts its own mural by Vinny Alejandro. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Take the Old First Ward, one of Buffalo's oldest and proudest neighborhoods, which occupies about 20 square blocks between the Buffalo River and I-190. Its boundaries have long been obscure to outsiders but fiercely guarded by insiders, which is exactly how many residents preferred it.

But over the last decade, as newcomers to the OFW have begun to open craft breweries, repair rundown warehouses and launch small-batch kombucha operations, that protective attitude has begun to soften.

The latest sign of the identity shift underway in the First Ward? A new mural by Buffalo artist Vinny Alejandro at 491 South Park Ave., bearing the name of the neighborhood, a trio of shamrocks and the logo of his sponsor, Cellino Plumbing.

Here are some others:

  • In addition to his Old First Ward piece, Alejandro recently completed murals bearing the names of Larkinville, Seneca-Babcock and Kaisertown in their respective neighborhoods. Another is planned for Lovejoy.
  • On Hertel Avenue, an explosion of neighborhood-based murals in the last two years, including a new one based on the North Buffalo streetscape on the 1200 block of Hertel, embodies the increasing vitality and spirit of that neighborhood.
  • On Buffalo's East Side, neighborhood-centric murals have arisen at the historic Broadway-Fillmore intersection, near Torn Space Theater's home on Fillmore Avenue, in the rising Northland Corridor along East Delavan Street and along East Ferry Street, where the popular "Freedom Wall" mural now stands.

The mural-mania sweeping Buffalo neighborhoods, from South Buffalo to University Heights, represents two defining Buffalo attitudes: A deep pride in the city's historic neighborhoods and a new desire to connect that pride to the city's resurgence.

"How many historical markers can you put up around the city?" Alejandro said. "Everything seems like a marker that shows what used to be here, but it's kind of cool to put up something that shows where you are now."

A matter of pride

In the Old First Ward, even neighborhood stalwarts are coming around to the power of public art.

"Ten years ago, Old First Ward people were a little more stubborn and rugged. They didn't like any new people coming in," said Bryan Kirchmyer, head brewer at Old First Ward Brewing Company. "There was a big difference: This is the Old First Ward and two blocks down the street, that's the Valley."

Now that the neighborhood is on its way back, he said, residents' pride in the resurgence of their home base is palpable.

"People are proud and want to talk about it." Because of the mural, he added, "It's good because you can say, 'Hey, this is the Ward. We're proud to be here.' And new people coming know exactly where they are."

In Kaisertown, where Alejandro's '50s-themed mural at 184 Clinton St. occupies the west-facing wall of Nancy's salon, the addition of the first new piece of public art to the streetscape in recent memory is offering glimmers of hope.

Rosemary Rushok, who has lived in Kaisertown for 45 years, said she's watched the neighborhood deteriorate as the number of owner-occupied properties decreased. While the mural isn't likely to mark a major turnaround, she suggested, it lends a new sense of vitality to an otherwise downtrodden block.

"I think it looks cute," she said.

The community-based "Welcome Wall" piece by Keir Johnson and Ernel Martinez spells out the word "welcome" in 13 languages. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

New identities

The same is true for the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, where the Albright-Knox Art Gallery-sponsored project known as "The Welcome Wall" went up last summer at 751 Fillmore Ave.

The piece, by Keir Johnson and Ernel Martinez, spells out "welcome" in 13 languages spoken by the residents of this uncommonly diverse neighborhood.

Eric Jones, the public art projects coordinator at the Albright-Knox, said that many Buffalo neighborhoods are taking ownership of even of the abstract mural projects that are part of the gallery's public art partnership with Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

"As more and more of this work pops up, it does become a marker or identifier socially that people embrace, because they see more people coming into the neighborhood," he said during a break from helping to install a new mural by Polish artist Otecki at 617 Fillmore Ave. "Even if they don't have the words to describe their feeling, they can use art as a backdrop."

Polish artist Wojceich Kolacz, known as Otecki, paints a mural at 617 Fillmore Ave., with the help of Albright-Knox staffer Eric Jones. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Jones said the profusion of new murals, whether grassroots efforts like Alejandro's series of murals or the Albright-Knox's more ambitious curated program, is causing "everyone to re-imagine what their identity is across the City of Buffalo."

On Hertel Avenue, a dense and endlessly revitalizing strip of local businesses, a crop of neighborhood-centric murals have appeared in the last few years. These include artist Bunnie Reiss' "Magic Buffalo" on Joe's Deli at 1322 Hertel Ave.; Rory Allen's tribute to Gord Downie at 1669 Hertel; Chuck Tingley and Matthew Grote's recently completed "weego" piece at 1503 Hertel; and Mario Zucca's Buffalo street map illustration at 1297 Hertel.

'We Are Together'

Farther west, at 1260 Hertel Ave., a team from the Buffalo design firm White Bicycle is finishing the process of installing "We Are Here," a piece based on the North Buffalo streetscape.

The piece, like a combination of a street map and a stained glass window, will eventually spell out "we" in stark yellow letters – a word meant to symbolize the collective identity of diverse North Buffalo neighborhood in which the piece stands.

"We Are Here," a mural in progress on Hertel Avenue, is meant to serve as a symbol of North Buffalo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

On a recent afternoon, Michelle Frazier sat on her porch on Commonwealth Avenue casting a curious glance at the piece. After the significance of the street grid and the message were explained, she cracked a smile.

"I think this'll help the community," she said.

James Doherty has been watching the mural materialize through the window of Jam Records, a Hertel Avenue used vinyl shop he opened last summer. He said every neighborhood deserves a piece of street art that says something about its culture and heritage.

"I'm all about it. I love street art," Doherty said. "I think with how much diversity Buffalo has, without alienating anyone, it can enrich the heritage" of any neighborhood, he said.

As summer public art season hits its stride, with countless art projects large and small in communities across the area, many more community-based mural projects are sure to materialize.

With that, many artists, curators and citizens hope, Buffalo's image will keep changing for the better.

"As Buffalo starts redeveloping its identity of being more than just snow and bad weather, or being a very depressed area, seeds are being planted in these areas that highly deserve some rejuvenation," said Jones, of the Albright-Knox. "They're only contributing to the greater story."

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