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My View: Seeing a better future for the Central Terminal and East Side

By Elizabeth Giles

Inspired by Sean Kirst’s call for Central Terminal memories in a recent issue of The Buffalo News, I thought I’d share my much later, much less poignant memories – but with an eye to the future.

My Central Terminal story begins in the mid-1970s, when the building was well into its final years of service as a train station. My sister and I played in the vast open spaces of the concourse and the waiting room full of empty wooden benches while waiting for our Amtrak train to Amsterdam, N.Y., a few times a year to visit our grandmother.

We were generally shy, well-behaved kids, but there was no one there to be embarrassed to run around in front of, shrieking to test the echo resonance and watching the startled pigeons flutter by overhead. The train was almost always late, so we’d open the one-pound bag of M&Ms we’d brought along for the trip, playing guess-the-color-win-the-M&M to pass the time. Then we’d dash off in a sugar-fueled relay. Central Terminal was a massive, spooky, but as yet unspoiled funhouse, beckoning to be explored.

Of course, it was more than that. I would grow up to appreciate that it was a cultural treasure that no one in power at the time either cared about or knew how to save when the place became too unwieldy to maintain only for railroad business. Adaptive reuse of historic structures was a little-known concept back then. And who could foresee the coming climate-change crisis that would cause us to rethink our overreliance on cars and air travel?

Almost 50 years later, the terminal has already survived its worst days. Once stripped of its valuables and allowed to deteriorate, it has been rescued, stabilized and slowly improved by the non-profit that now owns it, with the help and support of many passionate advocates in Western New York. Public events at Central Terminal are well-attended. Saturday’s East Side Festival, concluding with a concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, may be the most spectacular yet.

Although the public overwhelmingly supported restoring Amtrak service to the terminal a few years back, and lost out (at least for the time being) to downtown, there is reason for optimism.

Found by a Harvard study to be one of the top two climate resilient cities in the nation, Buffalo is poised to regain population; not only do we have precious water resources, but abundant legacy rail infrastructure that could be repurposed for 21st century, low-carbon transportation needs. Situated at the epicenter of that rail infrastructure, ready to serve freight lines, local and regional commuters, and even high-speed rail between New York City and Toronto, is our spectacular Central Terminal, the state’s western “bookend” counterpart to Manhattan’s Grand Central Station.

Developers and community activists, alike, are already investing in Central Terminal’s surrounding East Side neighborhoods, not only to restore architectural treasures of the past, but to tap into a long underappreciated geographical and human potential to become something better than it ever was.

I cite another Sean Kirst Buffalo News piece, this time a front-page commentary celebrating the complete and recently inconceivable turn-around of Buffalo’s once “scary, dirty” waterfront into a destination for jubilant crowds:

“ [This transformation] proves what imagination can do in places where we might otherwise not see it coming, a kind of energy that we all hope will move even heavier boulders in this region.”

Boulders like the revival of Buffalo Central Terminal and the long-suffering but history-rich and evermore culturally rich East Side.

Elizabeth Giles remembers playing in the Central Terminal and sees hope for its renewal.

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