Already a widely known leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Buffalo in December, 1959.
In his role as Vice President of the National Baptist Sunday School and Training Union Congress, Dr. King came to Buffalo to help plan that organization’s annual national session, which was to be held in Memorial Auditorium and at UB in June, 1960.
Dr. King spoke with The Buffalo Evening News as well as with the people of Faith Baptist Church on his visit. Some of his remarks were reported in the Thursday, December 17, 1959 edition of The Buffalo Evening News.
Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Wednesday evening told The Buffalo Evening News:
“Today in the deep South there is a collision between two strong institutions — segregation and the public schools. When and where people must make a choice between the two, it is palpably clear what the choice will be.
“The example being set in certain other states, where integration was chosen over closed schools, is influencing the thinking of white leaders.”
The article went on to say, quoting Dr. King:
“There are dark areas and bright areas in the over-all segregation picture,” he said. “The dark portions are the concerted resistance of public officials and the bright portions are created by the rays of light coming from the outside, where we know we have the sympathy and moral support of many Americans.”
Addressing the congregation of Faith Baptist Church and expressing greetings from “behind the ‘cotton curtain’ of Alabama,” he said the bus boycott of December 1955 to December 1956 was successful and a long stride toward recognition of the Negroes’ rights. “We believed,” he said, “that it was better to walk in dignity than to ride in humiliation.”
In a spiritual message, Dr. King said:
“Man has forgotten God, though unconsciously, not intentionally. Right still is right and wrong still is wrong but we are faced with the dangerous thinking that the question of right or wrong is relative. “Everyone is trying to obey the ’11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Get Caught.’ We must re-discover that all reality hinges on moral foundations, every personality has dignity and worth, all men are created equal, all reality has spiritual control. “We must re-discover God and put Him at the center of our lives.'”
In the coming years, the State of New York will spend $30 million to downgrade the Scajaquada Expressway and another $6 million to study the idea of covering the Kensington Expressway from Best Street to Ferry Street.
When visiting Buffalo to discuss highlights of the 2016-17 budget, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was met with cheers, oohs and aahs as he announced the work on the 33 and the 198, calling the ruining of Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs “a mistake.”
“It was originally the Humboldt Parkway,” said Cuomo of the Kensington Expressway, “it was beautiful, and it was part of the Olmsted design. In the mid-’50s, we had a better idea, and it turned out not to be a better idea, which was to move vehicles in and out of Buffalo faster by building a highway.”
While it makes for great speeches, it’s difficult to boil the agonizing, slow, 25-year Humboldt Parkway destruction process and community debate into a single sentence, let alone just the word “mistake.”
The 1962 headline that ran with this photo reads, “The Kensington expressway cuts through the heart of the city.” (Buffalo News archives)
In much the same way that the debate over what should happen next with the Scajaquada and Kensington Expressways will likely rage for years, it was nearly a quarter-century of study, redesign, promises, running out of money, redesign and finding more money before Buffalo’s Kensington and Scajaquada expressways left the Humboldt Parkway a memory.
A political hot potato
From the time the expressways were proposed in 1946 to when the Kensington was finally completed in 1971, they were more than roads. The Kensington Expressway, especially, was one of those public works projects that seemed to take on a life of its own. Through 25 years, “the 33” was a political hot potato, a metaphor for Buffalo’s forward thinking and a metaphor for Buffalo’s inability to ever get anything done, something some people wanted and something some people hated all at the same time.
The building of the highway, especially in light of what was lost to build it, is almost universally considered a mistake. But how did we get here? What was that better idea Cuomo talked about? How were these scorched-earth highways allowed to happen?
It wasn’t, as is often portrayed, just a matter of wanting to transport people from downtown to suburbia “as quickly as possible.”
Map of the arterial highway system planned for Buffalo by the State Department of Transportation in 1946.
The state created the first plan for a series of arterial highways crisscrossing Buffalo in 1946. The idea was to connect all parts of the city with the Niagara and Ontario Thruways, which were already in the pipeline.
Most of these ideas died on the drawing board, but that 1946 plan set the wheels in motion for the Scajaquada and Kensington projects. None of these ideas was taken lightly — they were introduced as marvels of modern engineering that would be needed for the 300,000 cars that were expected to be filling Erie County’s roads by 1960.
That number was passed in 1953. In the same breath that engineers were still calling the proposed highway system “futuristic,” they were also saying that if these roads weren’t finished quickly, they’d very likely be outdated before they were completed.
Planners thought that, if the number of cars in Erie County grew from 218,000 in 1946 to 368,000 in 1957, then the number could approach 625,000 in 1967. (The 2015 number, by the way, is 695,000.)
Traffic was increasing at an exponential rate. More and more cars were moving without guidance or planning through streets that were, in the words of one disgusted motorist, designed and “built for the horse and buggy.”
“The future of Buffalo’s residential areas is at stake today,” said Buffalo Planning Commission Director H. Dale Bossert, in outlining why Buffalo needed these new highways. “Heavy volumes of traffic are spilling over into formerly quiet neighborhood streets. A child on his way to school no longer travels along a quiet street but a trafficway rushing with cars and trucks.”
In the late 1940s, the Main Street and Humboldt Parkway intersection, shortly before the destruction of the parkway connecting Delaware and Humboldt (now Martin Luther King) parks began, as the Humboldt portion of the intersection was sunken below grade to speed traffic through. (Buffalo News archives)
The roots of the Kensington Expressway were included in the 1946 plan as five separate highways, all meant to alleviate the traffic flowing through nearly every city neighborhood, combining into a single super highway providing a straight shot from downtown to the airport.
In 1951, the new Main/Humboldt underpass was already being created to help ease the congestion and traffic flow on city streets. The Scajaquada Parkway Expressway was meant to start at Delaware Avenue and run to the new Ontario Thruway (I-190.) Humboldt Parkway was being extended from Agassiz Circle to Delaware Avenue through the park, connecting the new expressway with the expedited traffic coming through the Main/Humboldt interchange.
When it appeared in The News in 1951, the title of this photo was, simply, “Progress!” This marked the beginning of the piece-by-piece loss of Humboldt Parkway. Months earlier, the construction area was filled with two lines of trees and a bridal path. (Buffalo News archives)
A 1953 brochure outlining state plans for the highway were derided as “an over-enthusiastic engineer’s dream,” especially with the additional intersection in the middle with the Scajaquada Parkway expressway. The Kensington, the Scajaquada and the widening of Delaware Avenue from the park to Kenmore were thought to be enough to create better moving traffic around the north, east and west parts of the city.
It was clear that most Buffalonians and Western New Yorkers wanted to see the expressway built — though many had reservations. Some didn’t think it was physically possible; others just thought it was too big and too expense and that it seemed implausible that all the state, county and city forces that needed to come together would actually do so.
While there was protest of the building of the expressways — particularly from those who stood to lose their homes, businesses and neighborhoods — far more complaints came from those upset over perceived dragging of feet on a project that was seen by editorial staffs at both The News and the Courier-Express as important to the future of the city and the region.
“Modern highway access to Buffalo’s modernized airport will be assured,” said planner Bossert. “In addition to these advantages for normal traffic, the Kensington Expressway offers an unparalleled opportunity for Civil Defense evacuation and assistance. Planning for dispersal from the northern part of Buffalo reveals the extreme urgency of this project.”
Yes, Cold War-era Civil Defense preparedness was one of the reasons in favor of the Kensington. The need was there, said Major General Edwin Zeigler, Erie County’s Director of Civil Defense, to move people out of the city quickly in the event of an enemy attack.
At one public hearing, he testified that a June 1954 mock test showed that under then-established escape routes, about 230,000 Buffalonians would have died in an attack. With a good dispersal plan along high-speed highways, the number of dead in a potential attack could be dropped as low as 49,000.
In the 1950s, Buffalo was lagging behind other metropolitan areas in New York State and big cities across the country in terms of having a system of arterial highways with good traffic patterns to encourage the better flow of people in and out of the city.
Nearly eight years after it was proposed, the city and state weren’t even close to agreeing to how to start the Kensington project, although most seemed to agree something needed to be done. “You can only put so many fish in a bowl,” Buffalo Mayor Steven Pankow said in 1954, in urging agreement on the Kensington.
As more cars clogged the streets and Buffalo faced losing state and federal funding for road and highway building, years of inaction, more than possible destruction, were on the minds of civic leaders.
Newspaper editorial department writers opined “prompt action on Kensington Expressway plan is necessary.” The Chamber of Commerce hoped that “any objections to letting the State start right away with construction can be resolved quickly in the best interests of Buffalo as a whole.”
It was envisioned that the Kensington Expressway would carry more traffic than all of the city’s radial streets combined, and would fix the traffic problems that had been plaguing the city for decades.
“This important project would be a major step forward in alleviating the traffic blight that has diseased our neighborhood communities,” said City Plannning Director Russell Tryon in 1954.
He further went on to say that he thought the construction of the expressway might help keep people in the city, rather than literally drive them to suburbia. “If we make Buffalo a better place in which to live, the people will stay and not move out.”
Tryon added, “Unless something is done to alleviate the traffic blight in the neighborhood communities, the situation will grow so much worse that it won’t worth living in Buffalo anymore.”
‘Let’s not study anymore. Let’s move.’
The Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, Charles Fichtner, called the Kensington a “golden opportunity” and said letting the opportunity to build it with outside money slide would be “a little short of civic treason,” adding that Buffalo is at “threshold of great and unlimited future progress. This is no time to make little plans. This is no time to think in small terms. We should want to do big things and think big things.”
Sisters Hospital, top left, Delaware Park and the Scajaquada Expressway, Thursday, July 10, 2014. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)
“Let’s not study anymore,” he pleaded. “Let’s move.”
By 1954, when it became clear that neighborhoods in the Fruit Belt and along Humboldt Parkway would be the first targeted by the wrecker’s ball, many people who had lived there for generations spoke out — but their voices were marginalized by planners and the press.
A brief article about a community meeting on the project said that of about 200 people there, most of whom were slated to lose their homes, there was “an angry minority of homeowners in the Kensington section” who were looking to stand in the way of progress.
One homeowner argued that it wasn’t fair for the city and state to remove them from homes which they’ve occupied for years, contending it would impose a tremendous hardship on elderly people who didn’t follow the younger generation into the suburbs. Still others expressed the fear that the expressway, when completed, would encourage more Buffalonians to move out of the city because it would provide them with a high-speed route to their work in the city. A few contended the expressway would form another “barrier” dividing the Kensington section into two distinct parts.
State Public Works Engineer William Gallancy compared the building of the Expressway to a major surgical procedure: “Painful, but necessary for survival.”
Some questioned that notion. In a letter to the editor signed WHY, a Kensington area resident opines, “Our traffic situation is serious, but surely, with all the top engineers of the country to consult, a better plan could be devised. Why put a speedway through the middle of a heavy populated area? Will there be a ‘pedestrian under-pass at each street, or will people have to walk blocks to get across the highway? What’s wrong with a subway or an elevated, along one of our wider streets? Let’s fix the streets we already have.”
“Kensington area residents are definitely opposed to the Expressway as presently planned,” said Councilman at Large Peter Frey — one of the few city leaders to take up the plight of those who’d lose their homes to the Kensington. “They are willing and ready for any traffic relief, providing it does not blight the area and cause them to lose their homes, which represent their life savings. They do not feel that they ‘should have to suffer the consequences’ to bring suburbanites into downtown Buffalo. I agree with them in this respect.”
Years of feet-dragging end
By early 1957, the state was getting ready to displace 600 families from their homes to begin construction. Any family displaced by the expressway was given priority in in the newly built Kensington Heights public housing project on Fillmore Avenue, but it wasn’t always as orderly as moving from the path of the expressway to a nice new apartment.
Progress of the building of the first leg of the Kensington Expressway in 1959. The Museum of Science is to the right. (Buffalo News archives)
One “battling grandma” made the front page of the paper, after sending Gov. Averill Harriman a letter denouncing the state’s “dillydallying” on the Kensington project. Mrs. Edmund Jakubiak owned a building in the path of the expressway that the state promised to buy, so all her tenants left, and she herself bought a new place on the promise of a forthcoming state check. When no check appeared, the state’s “shenanigans” left her owing money and having to apply for a loan for her new home.
Jakubiak became a minor folk hero around her soon-to-be-demolished Best Street neighborhood, as she made sure every penny owed her was paid in full.
She wasn’t the only one to leave before the state was ready to begin construction, and those who left their not-long-for-this world homes and businesses left them vacant — and open to criminals. “Lawless elements,” it was claimed, “are congregating and endangering lives and property in and around houses taken over by the state” for the Kensington Expressway.
Homes are dismantled
On Dec. 16, 1957, the dismantling of homes and businesses along Cherry and Peach streets began, with demolition starting in January 1958 — 12 years after the project was announced. Many applauded this development, as the first section of land for the highway, from Michigan and Cherry to Humboldt and Landon, was cleared by August 1958.
Many of those who weren’t slated to lose their homes ended up losing the aesthetic of their communities, especially those living along Humboldt Parkway.
Buffalo School teacher Cornelia Metz lived at 936 Humboldt and wrote about her worst fears in a letter to the editor.
“It is not generally known that the beautiful trees on Humboldt Parkway will fall victim to ‘progress’ when the Kensington Expressway is constructed. Only a complete materialist could ride the mile-and-a-half of this street without being thrilled by its beauty.
“Must those who are in a hurry to go to their suburban homes be given more consideration than those who live in and pay taxes in the city? Granted that something must be done to expedite traffic, but must that be at the expense of our trees?”
Entreaties like Metz’s were met with a tone bordering on mocking by city developer Russell Tryon, who wrote about problems in building the expressway in the Courier-Express. “One opponent devoted considerable time to the harm which would be done to Humboldt Parkway by the proposed improvement, such as increased traffic and the loss of lovely trees on one of the city’s most attractive parkways. Answer — unfortunately, except for the trees in the Center Mall, the esthetic qualities of the parkway already have been largely destroyed by heavy traffic.”
Shortly thereafter, the tree-lined median in front of Metz’s home was replaced with a high-speed expressway.
That was 1958. The stretch of the Kensington between the Scajaquada Expressway and the Buffalo Airport was built over the next decade.
Above: a 1938 airborne view with UB’s South Campus in the foreground and Bailey Avenue to the left and Kensington High School to the upper left. Below: A 1966 airborne image shows Kensington High School and Bailey Avenue as the expressway is being built.
In 1968, when the original plans were completed and downtown Buffalo was connected to the Buffalo airport, a problem remained: As engineers had predicted as early as the 1940s, the expressways could still be obsolete by the time they were finished.
This caused one last flurry of road building and the final trees of Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway to be felled.
Expressway sinks into place
The “Hourglass” portion of the Kensington moved traffic off the subterranean blown-out expressway onto Humboldt Parkway. Traffic clogged going toward downtown in the afternoon and toward Cheektowaga in the morning. Twenty years of planning and building, and the road still didn’t alleviate traffic. Worse yet, that small stretch saw the most accidents — and the most fatal accidents — than anywhere else along the highway.
The Courier-Express noticed the dwindling number of trees. “One of the most impressive archways of trees in Buffalo is rapidly disappearing to the tune of rasping power saws along the ‘bottleneck’ section of the Kensington Expressway. The biting teeth of the saws undo in minutes what it took 90 years for nature to accomplish. Many of the 300 trees that are to be felled are stately elms that were planted by the city around 1880,” was written in July 1968, “but then motorists snagged in rush-hour traffic jams in the section, less than one mile between East Delavan Avenue and Northampton Street, might be soothed by trees in summer green.”
By the end of 1968, the trees were gone. Thousands of tons of rock and earth were moved to sink the final grade-level portion of the expressway.
The hourglass portion of the Kensington Expressway, nearing completion, in 1970. (Buffalo News archives)
So, mistake? Sure. But a bit more complicated than that.
After the war, people wanted to leave the worn city behind, in favor of bright, clean, shiny new suburbs. And what better way to get people to the suburbs than 4 and 6 lane divided highways.
The original thought was enthusiastic, but, as later admitted, misguided. Planners said when the population along the Niagara Frontier reaches 1.5 million, 2 million, 3 million… the people spread all over Western New York will want to get Downtown quickly for the best entertainment, for the glitziest shopping, for the finest restaurants, and, of course, to work.
“Suburban traffic,” it was written in the 1946 report The New York State Thruway and Arterial Routes in the Buffalo Urban Area, “must be given high consideration in the logical treatment of any conditions in the city.”
There was very little resistance to this idea to prepare Buffalo for the bold new future. The Parkside neighborhood was at the center of the plan that would turn Buffalo into the 20 minute city it continues to be.
There was a much different aesthetic in the days before six lanes of highway made an abrupt incision in the landscape. Parkside’s southerly border was and is Humboldt Parkway, but the pre-1960 Humboldt Parkway was a far cry from what it is today.
street was designed by Olmsted to connect The Park (Delaware Park) to the
Parade (later Humboldt Park, now Martin Luther King Park) in such a way
that one could travel from one to the other without feeling like they left a
park at all. Once, eight rows of stately
trees stood on the 200-foot wide median between the two sides of the divided
At Delaware Park, Humboldt Parkway ended at Agassiz Circle, with the grand entrance to Park. The Parkway continued with the grace-fully curved, two-lane Scajaquada Parkway. Young people would often pull off the road to “park” under the statue of David, or toboggan in the winter.
Mrs. Martha Lang, who lived on Crescent Avenue for over 50 years, remembered vividly her mother’s home on Humboldt Parkway in the 1940s.
Speaking with the Parkside News in 1990, she called Humboldt’s tree-shaded median “a place for lovers to stroll, kids to play, to sit on your front porch and watch the passing scene.” She lamented its loss, and said the whole character of the area changed when the Scajaquada Expressway took its place.
In 1953, with the north/south 190 already in place, planners released plans for a series of 5 east/west highways to bisect the city and increase the ability for traffic to move in and out of downtown, with no waiting in heavy city traffic.
One of the proposals seemed like a fait accompli. Unlike the others, which cut through neighborhoods, this cut through land described by planners as “vacant.”
Four years later, in 1957, that “vacant” land that was the middle of Delaware Park became home to a high speed thoroughfare. The Scajaquada Creek Expressway opened as a widened, jersey-barriered and guard-railed 50 mile-an-hour version of the sleepy, winding 15 mile-an-hour path which once stood in the same place.
To meet up with the planned Kensington Expressway, The Scaja-quada Ex-pressway was extend-ed past the footprint of the old Scajaquada Parkway, right through the beginning of Humboldt Parkway to about Delevan Avenue. Humboldt Parkway was at grade level with Main Street.
The blasting that took place to sink the roadway to 20 feet below grade, and expose the walls of Onondaga limestone, rattled picture frames off of walls throughout the neighborhood, just as the blasting out of the Beltline did 50 years before, and blasting out of the MetroRail would 30 years later.
Kensington and Scajaquada Expressways were built, Agassiz Circle, once the
stately, grand entrance to Delaware Park, all but disappeared. No longer a parkway divided by grass and
trees, Humboldt Parkway became two parallel one way streets separated by six
lanes of blown out-sunken in asphalted expressway. The city encroachment that
Olmsted designed Parkside to eliminate was here.
But believe or not, it really could have been worse. In his 1983 book High Hopes, Mark Goldman outlines a 1958 proposal for another expressway, thankfully never built, called the Delaware Park Shortway. It would have “taken a large chunk of Delaware Park meadow and built there yet another divided highway, across the park and parallel to the Scajaquada.”
Aside from the new Scajaquada Expressway going through the middle of it, The Delaware Park Meadow went through some other changes as well. The golf course was laid out around the turn of the century, and fully constructed in 1930.
The Park Superintendent’s house, “The Farmstead,” built in 1875, was torn down in 1950 to make way for the current Zoo parking lot. And the stone garden– a quarried-out area behind the Parkside Lodge at Florence, filled with plants and flowers– was filled in to make way for a par 3 golf hole after a child was found dead in the pond at the bottom of the pit.
But it wasn’t just politicians and city planners who changed the Parkside landscape in the 1950s and 60s. Mother Nature, too, landed a body blow to the trees of the neighborhood, when Dutch Elm disease struck.
Over 10,000 trees died of Dutch Elm disease in the City of Buffalo, many hundreds in Parkside. Up until the early 1960s, every street in the neighborhood was covered with a canopy of elm branches. By the mid 1960s, it became clear that the battle to save the trees was a losing one.
In the earliest days of the Parkside Community Association, one of its major concerns was the dying trees. The first item in the April, 1966 newsletter for the group dealt with the trees, and seemed to be grasping at straws.
YOUR ELMS — It is evident that we are losing the fight against Dutch Elm
disease. The chemical Bidrin which offered hope a year ago has not proved
itself and is now not being used.
only safe and effective treatment is the special DDT spray which must be used
before the leaves unfold in the spring. Davey Tree Experts and United Tree
Surgeons are among the firms under “Tree Service” in the yellow pages
which are known to offer this service. Spraying equipment, however, is limited
and there are not many days left which are clear and calm enough to apply the
NOW is the time to order this service if you want to SAVE YOUR ELMS.
But not even the later-found-to-be carcinogenic DDT was enough to stop the spread of the disease. It was well into the ‘80s and ‘90s before a concerted city-initiated effort would begin to replace the hundreds of trees that had fallen to the blight, and changed the character of the neighborhood forever.
Despite the fact that suburban flight had begun, most who grew up in Parkside in the 50s and 60s describe it as a Leave It to Beaver, idyllic place to live and grow up.
“We left our doors unlocked. Break-ins were unheard of. It seemed every other house had kids our age. There were always pickup games in the street…Football, baseball… and even though we used a tennis ball we still broke a few windows. It wouldn’t be unusual to get 20 boys together to play football or tag in someone’s backyard.”
But each of those 20 boys was white. The streets of Parkside were populated almost entirely, with only rare exception, by whites. “It’s not like there were fights in the streets, but when black kids rode their bikes through the neighborhood it was noticed. It was still a pretty lily white neighborhood.”
Most kids knew that it wasn’t smart to travel outside of your own neighborhood by yourself at that time. Long glares from the kids of the strange neighborhood you were visiting was likely the best treatment you could expect. But in Parkside, it was painfully obvious that if you were black and passing through, you didn’t belong.
As a man who later fought vigorously to bring the races together in Parkside and in Buffalo as a whole, Jack Anthony graphically remembers the somewhat unusual sight of black children as he grew up in Parkside in the 1940s.
“Sometimes we’d see black kids in the park, on their ‘nigger bikes.’ That’s what we called them. Some of the black kids had these bikes with a couple of horns, a couple of headlights, all jazzed up. We never thought white kids would do that. And we hated those kids, and we hated those bikes,” remembered Anthony.
Racial differences and problems weren’t the only under bubbling current. Ethnic and religious bigotry was also more widely socially acceptable. Anthony recalls his high school experience, just north of the Parkside neighborhood.
When I was a freshman at Bennett (early 1950s), we had race riots. It was Jewish kids and non-Jewish kids… There were no blacks there then, so it was, as we used to say then, white kids being up Jewish kids, and vice versa. Isn’t that sick?
One of the ministers from Central (Presbyterian Church at Main and Jewett), a rabbi, and a priest all came to an assembly talking to us all about being better citizens. I can remember a bunch of friends leaving a “Hi-Y” High School YMCA meeting and head up to Hertel to find a bunch of “kikes” to beat up.
That was the mentality. But by the end of my four years at Bennett, relations between the Jewish kids and non-Jewish kids had greatly improved. One of my best friends, a Jewish kid, got beaten up pretty badly. I often wondered whether it was my other friend and his crew who may have done it.
But by the early 1960’s, the situation was changing.
“Urban Renewal” projects, like the building of the Kensington Expressway, were destroying the neighborhoods inhabited by middle-class upwardly mobile black families. Displaced, many were attempting to make Parkside and other predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods their home.
Some unscrupulous businessman played on the fears of whites that their neighborhood was “going black.” The result in many Buffalo neighborhoods, including Parkside, was red-lining and blockbusting.
Redlining is an effort on the part of people in the banking and insurance industries to increase the price of, or deny services based on geographic location.
Blockbusting was a scheme involving real estate agents putting families under pressure to sell their homes “before the neighborhood goes bad.” Both were an effort to destroy neighborhoods by buying cheap, selling high, and playing on the fears of people living in a changing city and changing society while reaping profits.
In 1963, four black families lived in Parkside. At least one real estate agent began calling their neighbors, speaking vaguely of perspective buyers, and the fact that they should sell while they can. Panic reigned, and several people, affiliated with a neighboring church, pooled resources to buy a house from underneath a black family looking to move into the area.
In May 1963, a community meeting was held at St. Mark Church to discuss all manner of topics affecting the neighborhood. After a long discussion of a proposed North Buffalo Ice Rink, lifelong Parkside resident Jack Anthony asked the group’s thoughts on black families moving into the area. Discussion was immediately cut off, and the topic deemed “too controversial.”
Flabbergasted, Anthony and Richard Griffin organized a community meeting to discuss race in Parkside. At the time, the neighborhood was very diverse in almost every way: A mix of all ages, religions, educational backgrounds, and economic conditions. Anthony and Griffin agreed that while it hadn’t yet, racial diversity should also come to Parkside in a way that it didn’t around the rest of the city.
The Parkside Community Association (PCA) was formed, and on July 1, 1963, an 8 page outline of what the group stood for was distributed around the neighborhood. An excerpt from that original PCA Newsletter follows:
feel there is a real need for this to maintain and improve our wonderful
area…. (At our first meeting), a very frank and fruitful discussion occurred.
It was agreed that no useful purpose would be served by an extended argument
over the integration of this particular part of the city. Integration present
and future is a fact. Four Negro families presently own or occupy homes. More
persons of a minority race will no doubt purchase homes in the near future.
This is their right as it should be any person’s right to reside where he
chooses. No one is opposed to anyone residing in our community because of his
race or religion.
What the group wants for this neighborhood is to make it the best possible place to live — to raise our families, to obtain an education, to grow intellectually, spiritually, and physically. We want good neighbors regardless of color. We want all to stay and continue to live where we live. We want to attract persons of all ages, religions, races, education, economic abilities, etc to move our fine community.
We want to preserve the area’s residential character. We are proud of our public and parochial schools and of our well kept houses, trees, lawns, shrubs, and yards. We like to live in the City of Buffalo among its fine families and with the urban conveniences we enjoy. We think that no area offers as much housing for a reasonable price as the property which we are fortunate to own. We desire not only to preserve these values but to improve our particular community so that it is a model of responsible urban life.
While interested in more than just open housing, the PCA had to move quickly to counter-act the unscrupulous real estate agents and others looking to profit from the fears of others.
Scare tactics were used to try to get people to sell, rumors of neighbors selling their homes spread had spread like wildfire. The PCA stepped up to stop the illegal division of single family homes into multiple units, which helped stem sales. They also drummed out real estate agents and others using unethical practices for their own gain at the cost of the neighborhood.
The likable and outgoing personalities of Griffin and Anthony helped them bring neighbors aboard and their activity in St. Mark and Central Presbyterian churches respectively helped bring those institutions and the clergy at those two institutions, in line with the process.
Jack Anthony has, over the years, related this story with the original language in tact to underline the types of people he would come against.
Pastor Dr. James Carroll listened to one angry congregant at Central Presbyterian. “The first time a nigger comes into this church and sits down next to me, I’m leaving.” Rev. Carroll was quick to reply, very calmly, “Let me shake your hand now then, because I’m not coming out of the pulpit to say goodbye to you when that happens.”
It was under conditions such as these that the Mesiahs were among those first four black families to own a home in Parkside. Frank Mesiah, later to become an original PCA Board Member, and President of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP, was interviewed by Ruth Lampe for an article that appeared in the September 1988 issue of The Parkside News.
In 1961…(The Mesiahs) forced to leave their Humboldt-Delevan home because of the construction of the Kensington Expressway…. When Frank told a real estate agent in a telephone conversation that he was a policeman and teacher, he immediately assumed he was white and made an appointment to show him homes in North Buffalo.
But when he appeared at the office, the agent went into a panic and, after much double talk, he ended up never showing Frank any homes. Finally, a black realtor helped them find a new home on Crescent Avenue…
recalls experiencing some hostility from some residents and tells of a few
parents who wouldn’t let the Mesiah daughters play at their houses. But he also
remembers that those people’s children would sneak down to play at the
Mesiah’s. He can also laugh now, remembering people offering him shoveling jobs
while he was shoveling snow outside of his new home, or people asking is wife,
“Is the lady of the house in?”, when she answered the door.
also admits he felt somewhat suspicious when “all of the sudden this
neighborhood organization comes up to ‘preserve the neighborhood’.” But
after meeting with Dick Griffin and Jack Anthony, he was convinced of their
sincerity and developed confidence in them. He came to understand they were
reacting to talk that predominantly black areas didn’t get proper garbage
pick-up, different things were allowed to happen to the houses, and absentee
landlords increased. “PCA wanted to be sure that things like that didn’t
Mesiah himself would spearhead efforts to eradicate blockbusting from the neighborhood. The November, 1967 Parkside Newsletter read, “Mr. Mesiah reported on a contact with Genesee Realty Co. with respect to a certain notice sent. The representative of the Genesee Realty said that they would desist from sending these in our community. The 1965 PCA Report to members included this piece of information:
Real Estate: Three of the officers of the Association recently met with a real estate agent whose company was alleged to have called two residents of a street in our area where a house has been purchased by a Negro.
The agent was most cooperative in questioning his staff, and although he was convinced that no salesman in his office made the calls, he assured us that none will ever be made from his office under such conditions.
If any resident is ever contacted by a real estate salesman who urges sale because of non-white neighbors, get the agent’s name and address. Contact Jack Anthony or Dick Griffin with this information so that appropriate legal action may be initiated by the Association against such a salesman, in this way we will continue to let it be known that our area is not available for blockbusting.
But of course, not everyone felt this way. One resident remembers, “Parkside was a white neighborhood, and there were plenty of people who wanted to keep it that way. While it may have not been a plank in the PCA, one of the reasons for the growth of the group was the hope that it would help keep Parkside white. Now that may have been a misunderstanding, but that’s how many people thought.”
“It was a common thing to hear in the neighborhood; when someone was selling, ‘You’re selling to the whites, right?’ and when white people moved in, ‘Glad you moved in.’ It wasn’t screaming racism, but it was understood that we should want to keep the area white.
Right in the front of many people’s minds is what happened in the Central Park Plaza area (just across Main Street.) It was once a nice, working class neighborhood, then, seemingly over night, ‘it went, you know…'”
But, all and all, an even-handed approach made Parkside a continued desirable area for people of all races; not an accomplishment that most city neighborhoods could boast of, even as time wore on.
Many leaders of the WNY African-American community, either by deed or office, have made Parkside home over the ensuing years. Frank Mesiah and his family have lived on Crescent since 1961. Longtime Deputy Speaker of the New York State Assembly Arthur O. Eve, Jr. raised his five children on Jewett Parkway.
Two racial trailblazers in the world of athletics have also called Parkside home. Willie Evans, the UB Football star halfback, who was denied the right to play in the 1958 Tangerine Bowl because of his race, lived in Parkside for over 30 years. Jim Thorpe, the first black man to ever lead a PGA Major when he took the lead of the 1981 US Open, lived on Parkside Avenue for most of the 1980s, and could often be seen hitting golf balls in Delaware Park.
School Integration: Parkside School #54
the desire and goal of many in the neighborhood that families with the means to
buy a home in Parkside, regardless of their race, should be allowed to live
freely and be a welcome part of the community. But home life was only one part
of the clash between the races in Buffalo in the 1960s and 70s.
“White flight” was caused in many areas of the city when the racial balance at public schools in the neighborhood changed in a matter of a year or two. Once again, this situation presented itself in Parkside at School 54, which has stood on Main Street since 1895.
Just as the Parkside Community Association fought blockbusting, it also worked to make schools racially balanced. When the association was formed, 2 of its original 5 goals dealt directly with maintaining and building upon the success of the school. 54 was already enjoying a rebirth of sorts. As the PCA was founded in 1963, plans were already in the works for a new school to be built. A PCA newsletter from January, 1964, includes a building update, and an update on the group’s early lobbying efforts.
Demolition work has been completed at the new site
of School 54… The Board of Education (has abandoned) the voluntary student
transfer plan because it was not in the best interests of maintaining racial
balance at the school.
The new (current) school would open in 1965, built on the property that was once Hagner’s Dairy. The former building stood to the left of the current one; the site where School 54 stood from 1895-1964 now serves as the school’s parking lot.
In 1958, Matthew Duggan became principal at School 54, still housed in the old building. Mr. Duggan’s leadership through some rough times, and the strong participation of parents and the community, helped keep School 54 a “showcase school” while many of the city’s other schools deteriorated through the 1960s and beyond.
But making sure that new building remained one of the city’s finest schools was no small task. Many Parksiders, both parents, and PCA members, lobbied City Hall and Albany to gain better funding for the school, and to help maintain racial balance at the school.
A 1962 survey of Buffalo schools by the NAACP sets the scene. 17 Buffalo Public schools are listed as “Negro schools,” with at least 60% of its pupils black. 14 of those 17 had at least 90% black students. There were 47 “White schools,” with 19 having 100% white enrollment, and 28 more having 95%-99% white pupils.
Only 16 schools were listed as “integrated,” and 11 of those schools had an African-American enrollment of less than 20%. Parkside’s School 54 was one of only 5 schools in the city where blacks and whites approached even numbers. In 1958, 11% of students were black. 39% of students were black in 1960. By 1964, the number had grown to 54%.
came about through a number of different factors. The school was a part of an
early desegregation trial, where parents in one east side neighborhood were
given the option of having their children bussed to the more academically solid
School 54, rather than walking to their own neighborhood elementary school.
Many parents chose this option, and the number of African-American children
attending school in Parkside grew.
In a vacuum, the experiment might have been a success. But just as some families succumbed to the blockbusting attempts by scrupulous real estate salesmen, some saw the increased black enrollment at 54 as a threat to their children’s education and placed their kids in the neighborhood Catholic parochial school at St. Mark’s at Woodward and Amherst. In 1953, there were 40 1st graders at St Mark’s. A decade later, in 1964, the number had more than doubled to 88.
There was hope, however, in the construction of the new school. The dilapidated, outdated classic 1890s school house had been a worn-out collection of hodge-podge additions and classrooms literally created from closets for years. The bright new plant promised a pleasant atmosphere for learning, and plus a wonderful school yard and playground.
In May, 1965, letter to parents of school aged kids; the Parkside Community Association outlined the hope for a new school with a sense of hope and optimism. Schools Committee Chairman Saul Touster wrote, “It is our expectation… That there will be a migration of students from… St. Marks into School 54, especially in the lower grades.”
The tone was decidedly different in a letter Touster wrote to State Education Commissioner James Allen from the Community Association a month earlier:
(T)his school, instead of being considered a
positively integrated school, must now be considered a school whose racial imbalance
threatens to make it a de facto segregated school. The inclusion of an optional
area for the school’s district has had the effect of concentrating upon School
54 the pressure for integrated education for the negro community. It is in no
one’s interest that a school be pressured until it “topples over.” If
balance cannot be maintained here at a school where community reception of
integration has been so positive and community interest continues to be so
willing, then the larger problems will become hopeless of solution.
While there were parallels to be drawn between housing integration in the Parkside Neighborhood, and the school integration in School 54, there were, however, some key differences as well.
Michael Riester, who’d grow up to be a historian, social worker, and President of the Parkside Community Association, was in the mid 1960s, a kid on West Oakwood Place and a pupil at School 54. “It was a neighborhood school. The majority of the kids were from the neighborhood, from both sides of Main Street, and both white and black.”
But when Riester was in 5th grade, in 1966, things changed. There was a fire at School 17, on Delevan Avenue near Main Street. 130 mostly poor, and all black students were “temporarily transferred” to 54. The addition of these children pushed the ratio of black students to almost 80%, a statistic that the PCA knew only added fuel to the fire that blockbusters were trying to create.
“It seemingly happened overnight,” Riester recalls.”(School 54) went from a neighborhood school, to a school that integrated kids from very different economic situations and cultural situations. You had poor black kids coming from the Fruit Belt, coming to 54 with kids from the neighborhood who were privileged. It was violent, a very difficult time. The tension in the school and in the classroom was racially charged. These kids were very angry. Now, I understand why they were angry; why they were frustrated. I’m not sure I did then.”
It was in this atmosphere that some long established Parkside families moved to the suburbs, and many who didn’t move, considered options other than Buffalo Public Schools for the education of their children. Among that second group: The Riesters.
“There was a boy who was a few years ahead of me, who lived on Crescent, who was stabbed at the corner of West Oakwood and Main, so badly he was hospitalized. My mother seriously thought about pulling me out and putting me in a parochial school. I remember her saying we could get you into St Joes or Holy Spirit. But I wound up staying at 54 until 7th grade.”
“It was a foreign environment for me, certainly, and for many kids who lived in the neighborhood. It increased our fear of the unknown; the violence that we experienced, that I experienced, did not help me understand what the black experience was, and it was very frightening.”
back, Riester knows. “These kids had nothing, and they were being thrown
in with these wealthy white kids, who didn’t know what it was like to show up
at school hungry. The teachers must have understood, but were overwhelmed.
“When school was let
out you would have fights. It was primarily, from what I remember, was black
against white. I was beat up at least twice. What was ironic, it happened two
blocks away from my home. I lived two blocks from school and couldn’t make it
home some days. It increased the fear of Main Street.
“It was a strange time. For the hour after school let out, you knew you were going to get beaten up if you didn’t run home. But then, within two hours, your neighborhood returned. I don’t even know if our parents really realized the extent of what was going on in school and right afterwards.
“I don’t think anyone would challenge the statement that integration at School 54 wasn’t a well thought-out process for any of the kids, for white kids and black kids.”
One of the early concrete victories of the Association came after years of work by folks like PCA Board members Saul Touster, Richard Griffin, Jim Barry, and Jack Anthony. In 1967, the State Education department awarded a $100,000 grant for 54 to develop a “superior program at the school to encourage families not to move out of the district.” Those funds were used to cut class size, hire additional staff, provide enrichment and remediation programs, and pay for a preschool program for 4 year olds.
These programs were enough to make many Parkside families consider School 54 for their children. After a decade-high of 85 kindergarteners at St Mark’s School in 1965, only 65 kindergarteners signed up for the 1968-69 school year.
But with the late 1960s questions of race and integration were no longer just the fodder of letters and public meetings. The frustrations of the African-American community were boiling over onto the streets, shocking and worrying some of the most ardent supporters of racial harmony and equality in Parkside.
Again, Mike Riester shares his memories. “I can remember sitting with other neighbors on my porch listening to gunfire, because the (infamous June/July, 1967) riots had come up as far as Jefferson and Delevan, only a few blocks to the south and east. Across from the Health Sciences Building at Canisius, there was a gun store, and the rioters had taken over the gun store. I can remember hearing the shotguns. The blasts. That was really frightening.
“My grandmother was at Sisters Hospital during the time. My father walked up to the hospital to visit her (from our home on West Oakwood Place near Crescent Avenue), and I can remember my mother being worried that he’d be attacked. That’s the fear. That’s how charged those times were.
“When Martin Luther King was assassinated (in 1968), we were let out of school early because they feared violence. I remember being told, ‘Run home. Now Michael, run home.’ That’s the environment we were in.”
The world was changing, too. Riester recalls that Main Street was becoming a place you didn’t want to go, and it was also about the time a child was abducted from his Jewett Parkway yard, and later found dead in Delaware Park. “I can remember my parents telling me, ‘You’re not to go to the park anymore.’ We couldn’t go to the park unless we were in a large group. We couldn’t go to the zoo anymore, even though it was free. It was the overall loss of innocence. It was like Camelot came crashing down. And it was happening all over the country, and it hit Parkside, too.
“That’s not to say we weren’t kids. We played outside all day and all night, until the street lights came on. But we were instilled with a little fear of some things. But it was a very normal childhood. There were black kids, and Asian kids, and white kids, but we all were neighborhood kids, and that was the important thing.
“All things told, I think Parkside handled integration very well. I remember when the first black family moved on my street, West Oakwood. Dr. Champion and his family. I became friends with the kids right off the bat.
“We obviously knew there was a difference in the color of our skin, but there I was in their home as often as they played on my porch. I don’t remember any racial thoughts among us kids; I’m sure we worked it out in our own children’s way. I remember adults saying things, but because integration was a gradual process in Parkside, it was easier. Many of the families who moved to Parkside in the 60s, both black and white, are still here.”
“What was key was many of the families who moved into Parkside, the black families, were really no different from the white families socially and economically, culturally. I never remember any fights or violence happening in the neighborhood. It happened at school, but not in the neighborhood.”
In 1976, Federal Judge John T. Curtin accused city leaders of “creating, maintaining, permitting, condoning, and perpetuating racially segregated schools in the City of Buffalo,” and therefore ordered desegregation. School 54 was, as far as federal guidelines were concerned at this point, a segregated school with nearly 70% black enrollment.
A headline in the Buffalo Evening News at the time said Struggle for Stability At School 54 Watched As a Cameo of Hope. Many Parkside residents, lead by PTA (and later PCA) President Ruth Lampe, fought vehemently to keep the school integrated. Ruth and her husband David sent their two boys to the school.
Lampe spent many hours fighting rumors and misconceptions about 54 and Buffalo Public Schools in general. Many of her Parkside neighbors recall Lampe’s “won’t take no for an answer” tactics in insuring that they send their children to the neighborhood public school, and not one of the area parochial schools.
Meetings and open discussions on the issues facing 54 were lead by Board of Education Member Florence Baugh, Delaware Common Councilman Harlan Swift, and the co-Chairmen of the Citizens’ Council on Human Relations, Frank Mesiah and Norman Goldfarb.
Mirroring the strong PTA of the 1920s, a similar group in the 70s and 80s pushed forward an agenda that helped keep School 54 at the top of the class. Parkside residents Shirley Blickensderfer, Elva Radice, Marquerita Bell, Eileen Wagner, Chet Brodnicki, Jo Faber, Nancy Keech, Pat Schuder, Lori Lynch and numerous others were among those making sure the school received the parental, financial, political support it needed.
The story of School 54 could have easily been different without the legion of people interested in a strong school, and the strong in-school leadership of Principal Matthew Duggan and Sal Criscione (and their reciprocating concern for the neighborhood of which the school was a part). It is the school, in so many ways, that helped keep Parkside from slipping into the problems facing so man other fine city neighborhoods.
In 1980, School 54 became an Early Childhood Learning Center Magnet School, teaching grades Pre-K through 2. The school currently bears the name “Dr. George E. Blackman School of Excellence Early Childhood Center #54,” named in honor of the one-time Buffalo School Board President who spoke up fiercely for the type of teaching done at the school, whose current mission statement reads:
To create a
school environment in which all children can learn. Our mission is to deliver
instruction which is developmental, challenging, and success oriented.
As of 2009, the school is slated for massive renovation in Phase 4 of the Buffalo Schools on-going $1 billion reconstruction project.
This page is an excerpt from
The Complete History of Parkside
by Steve Cichon