This image shows a section of the Lower West Side, Buffalo, NY, demolished in 1966, as it appeared in the mid 1950s. The view is taken from City Hall. School #73 where my Mother and her sisters attended in the 1930s-40s is in the middle ground. My father grew up in the red-roofed house closest to the dark-colored warehouse in the center of the image.
Through the 1930s and 40s my mother’s uncle, uncle Russel, ran a newsstand in the lobby of Columbus Hospital on Niagara Street, a few blocks north of where demolition of the Shoreline Apartments is going on today. The hospital no longer stands. The neighborhood it once served no longer stands, either.
When I was ten, whole city blocks of Buffalo’s lower West Side, including the homes of my grandparents and our extended family, were razed for what was ballyhooed by city government and echoed by the press as urban renewal. The upheaval was a milestone in my boyhood.
In “Creating Neighborhood in Postwar Buffalo, New York: Transformations of the West Side, 1950-1980,” Caitlin Boyle Moriarty discusses the Waterfront Renewal Project that had resulted in the erasure of the neighborhood I knew as a boy. Project planning had been announced in 1958 so that by the time homes were razed in 1966, most homeowners had stopped investing in maintenance and improvements.
Many didn’t wait for their homes to be condemned. Some, like my mother’s family, had already moved to larger or newer homes in other parts of the city; others, like my Uncle Len, struck out for the suburbs. A good number of properties that had previously been occupied by their owners were rented out, typically to newer immigrants. “Thus, it became a ‘slum’ in the public imagination,” Moriarty writes, even though “the designation of the area as ‘blighted’ was more a political maneuver for redevelopment than an accurate portrayal of neighborhood conditions.” My grandparents didn’t want to move. I witnessed vociferous arguments between the younger generation of my father and the generation of my grandmother. In the end the conclusion was, quite literally, “You can’t fight City Hall.”
Soon the families became involved in the excitement of moving to new homes, an excitement that masked somewhat the loss of the mesh of community values and history which demolition would entail. I remember seeing drawings in the paper depicting the modernist 20th-century structures that would replace a portion of the old neighborhood, and I was filled with civic pride despite myself. Moriarty includes a pair of aerial photographs from the map library at the University at Buffalo. One shows the area of dense housing south of Virginia Street and west of Niagara as it stood in early 1966. The other shows the interrupted street grid, the snaking Lake Shore complex, and newly built expressway ramps as they appeared from over the same area in 1978.
The Shoreline Apartments, at the time they were erected at such cost in 1971, represented the “new,” the “future.” The humble homes of my grand parents’ neighborhood were erased as the old and irrelevant. The current demolition of those once futuristic apartments is strong evidence that they should not have been put there in the first place and that the urban renewal practices of the 1960s were a big mistake.