The note arrived on a small card, holding a sticker with the image of a Dalmatian, which was a clue about the writer. Charlotte “Sunny” Davis was executive director of the SPCA Serving Erie County years ago, though she said she rarely offers a public take these days on civic brouhahas.
Still, Davis felt compelled to write after she saw my request last month for thoughts from readers on the future of the Skyway – the towering 66-year-old waterfront highway bridge facing potential demolition behind arguments it is an obstructive blight – and the memorable thing about her message was this:
At 91, Davis – who wants to save the Skyway – offered a thought, in capsule form, that was a prevalent theme of much of the passionate back-and-forth correspondence, which ran about 75% in favor of keeping the bridge.
The subject of whether to keep or do away with the Skyway ignites fierce yes-or-no emotion in Western New York, Kirst says.
“Let’s not make another mistake,” she wrote, “such as the locations of the University of Buffalo and the Bills stadium, plus Routes 198 and 33, plus closing Main Street to traffic, to name a few!”
In a phone conversation, she said she has no tolerance for expressways that ravage neighborhoods. She witnessed how the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways created lasting wounds, and she hopes a new federal emphasis on highways, their condition and their civic aftermath might lead to knitting together severed communities in Buffalo.
Yet she sees the Skyway as a distinct situation. She believes there are elements of sweeping beauty to the bridge, built at a great height to allow ships to pass underneath. That feeling, in some form, was shared by most of the readers who responded – including Mitch Flynn, founder of the “Ride for Roswell.”
In what was hands-down the most imaginative reply, he wrote an entire song to the tune of “My Way,” with these climactic lines:
Let’s see it through, let’s keep our view
Let’s keep the Skyway
Other readers, such as David Fiegl, hardly perceive the concrete and steel expanse as, well, quite so musical. He was among readers who support demolishing the bridge, while others advocate keeping a piece of it as a recreational "CloudWalk."
Fiegl recently moved from the Southtowns to an apartment in the newly reopened Seneca One tower, with a sweeping view of the waterfront. He said the kind of vista embodied by Canalside will keep expanding if freed from a major constraint.
The plan calls for re-creating the historic Canal District by bringing back a neighborhood with small-scale apartments and other structures.
“That area is so beautiful except for one thing: All the support pilings for the Skyway,” he said.
William Graebner, a writer, film reviewer, professor emeritus at SUNY Fredonia and proponent of saving the Skyway, made a simple request: In 2007, he wrote what he called a "cultural biography" of the bridge, its genesis and its context – and he hopes readers will seek out that piece, which he maintains offers knowledge that will affect how you see the Skyway, wherever you come down in the debate.
One of the swiftest reactions to my column arrived on Twitter, where Glen Graham – a biology teacher at Cleveland Hill and head coach of the football and boys track and field teams – quickly posted several photos of the old Humboldt Parkway, a magnificent part of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision that was destroyed by the Kensington.
Graham paused from one of the strangest transitions of his high school career – switching almost overnight from coaching spring football to track, due to the pandemic – to recall how his parents were married in the sunroom of an uncle’s house later wiped out by Route 33.
The ironworkers who helped build the Skyway in the 1950s were in the crosshairs of the unpredictable winds of Lake Erie. Now, the families of those who lost their lives during the bridge’s construction are looking for a permanent tribute to
“I have memories of that beautiful parkway,” he said, “and it’s a shame what they did.”
Graham teaches environmental science, and he uses the Scajaquada and Kensington as vivid examples for his students of how thoughtless public construction harms cascading generations – illustrated by the way too many children of color in Buffalo, in neighborhoods bisected by expressway construction, grow up breathing fumes from the nearby flood of traffic.
Of the Skyway, Graham said: “I’d love to see them get rid of it.” Still, he hopes remedies for the damage of Routes 198 and 33 will receive equally swift priority behind several new initiatives – such as a $15 billion “Reconnecting Communities Act” proposed by New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and a newly reframed focus on transforming the Scajaquada corridor from the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council.
“I love this city, and it’s encouraging to see the positives that are happening, but it can’t grow strong unless we face up to these mistakes from the past,” Graham said.
How best to take that step generated dozens upon dozens of readers responses. Here are a few excerpts from a full archive that can be viewed at buffalonews.com:
“I grew up in Buffalo, but live in Texas (under protest) ... I find the uproar over the Skyway a distraction from the glaring mistakes and damage done by the Kensington and Scajaquada. Restoring Humboldt Parkway, reuniting the neighborhoods and transforming the stagnant Scajaquada into a beautiful linear park connecting the Olmsted’s should easily top the agenda before attacking or defending a roadway that has stood the test of time and has done minimal damage …"
– James Campbell
“The Skyway is an obsolete highway that takes up valuable waterfront land that could be better used. Just like the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, there's no reason Buffalo needs an expressway near the waterfront, when there's an alternative highway (I-90) inland.”
– Jeff Dahlberg
"I am in support of keeping part of the Skyway as part of a large hiking/biking/park, preserving the glorious panorama it offers. Equally important is the restoration of areas like the First Ward in the process."
– Brigitte Wagner-Ott
Mona Jeanne Easter won the contest to name the waterfront bridge. “This was a big deal to us,” said her son, Wally Easter II, who rode with his mother in the opening motorcade in 1955.
"I challenge anyone to get in their car and (compare) both drives (on the Thruway or Skyway) … One takes us first eastward, through the back of suburbs with nary a naturally desirable view anywhere. Then we curve back westward and head into the city from behind. It’s a horrible bore. The other takes us along the lake and then, on a sweeping and beautiful rise, it presents both our gorgeous Lake Erie (especially at sunset) to our left, and the magnificence of the city ahead of us.”
– Peter Palmisano
"Some have said the Skyway is ugly; some say the opposite. I would guess there were those who, in 1950, said Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building was ugly. In retrospect, was that a valid reason for tearing it down?"
– William Faught
"I love everything about the Skyway. I love its name and it is a beautiful piece of art, worth saving. Its sweeping curve gives drivers the most unobstructed, beautiful view of Lake Erie. It would be shameful to change it at all ... Let the land stay quiet in this crazy time and focus on mending the horror of the Kensington and Scajaquada."
– Susan Gurney
"It is difficult to believe anyone could think that Skyway traffic could be diverted to a 40 mile per hour boulevard through South Buffalo. It seems to me that those type of suggestions always come from people who don’t use the Skyway and don’t really realize the impact such a strategy would have on Southtowns commuters."
– Richard Wachowiak
"The Skyway is unique to Buffalo. Once gone, it can't be replaced. It is not a barrier – I can walk under it! It provides shade at Canalside. I would like pedestrian access to get up high to view the city and the lake. Perhaps close it to traffic on weekends."
– Carol Fortman
"Over the last almost 50 years I have seldom worried about my husband's round trip into his Buffalo office from Hamburg. It's not just a safe and efficient way to get into the city but it is also free. That is a difference-maker for some people. Plus, there is that view! Where else would we be able to embrace all that is Buffalo in a single turn of the head?"
– Linda Priselac
"From a distance the Skyway is a beautiful structure. Rather than complete removal I very much favor the CloudWalk, which preserves the sweeping curve for viewing and recreation purposes with substantial cost saving by only removing the downtown portion that negatively impacts Canalside … I believe the first priority for the city should be rerouting I-190, where it cuts off several miles of river waterfront from the city. Riverside would truly be Riverside again …"
– F. James Ginnane
"I find it stunning that there is any discussion regarding spending $600 million for tearing down the Skyway, a perfectly good bridge that offers the most beautiful views of any road in New York State … I would, however, favor restoring the Parkway and replacing the Scajaquada Expressway that ruined a nice neighborhood."
– Thomas Metzen
"There are some that are opposed to the Skyway being transformed. I am not one of those. What a marvelous idea to provide access to the fantastic views that the bridge has to offer by turning it into a pedestrian walkway with green space, shops and restaurants ... It would join neighborhoods the same way as reverting the Kensington Expressway back into a parkway."
– Bill Lovern
You will find just about every imaginable viewpoint on the issue in this collection of responses.
"One late summer day when leaving work on the outbound Skyway two bikers with out-of-state plates were right in front of me. At the top of the Skyway one of them took both hands off his bike and spread his arms out in front of him. I initially thought 'great place to show off, clown' but then realized this was his physical manifestation of awe in seeing beautiful Lake Erie open up in front of him as he crested the Skyway. It reminded me that the view, which I had taken for granted having seen it every day for years, is awe inspiring – especially if you’ve never seen it before. Would be a shame to lose it."
– Gregory Krull
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at email@example.com.