As late as the 1940s, newspaper stories written about Buffalo’s Italian population were painted with wild strokes of exotic color.
“Off in a section of the city where the rays of the sun, on a bright day, glisten down upon dilapidated housetops and seek their way into narrow streets and by-ways with which the place abounds, are colonized a people in whose native land the skies are the fairest and bluest, and where the very breezes are filled with invigorating fragrance.” – The opening paragraph of “The Italian Colony in Buffalo,” The Buffalo Courier, 1898
Sprinkled throughout 50 years’ worth of these newspaper accountings of how and why Italians came to and flourished in Buffalo, are the facts – and the colorful descriptions – which make up this story.
A handful of Genoese were the first Italians to make Buffalo their home.
When Luigi Chiesa set up his home and birdcage store at Elm and Broadway in the mid-1840s, he didn’t know any English, and there wasn’t anyone in town who knew any Italian. But he quickly became a Buffalo backer.
“Chiesa became a self-appointed immigration agent for Uncle Sam,” reported the Buffalo Express in 1901, “and in his letters to friends in Italy were importunings to this great country, ‘God’s Country.’ ”
His name means “church” in Italian, so not long after arriving in Buffalo, he became well-known among longtime city residents as Louis Church. But to the slowly trickling in numbers of Italians, he was still Luigi and his home was the first hub of Buffalo’s Italian community.
John Roffo was among the first Italians to settle in the neighborhood that would come to be known as Little Italy near today’s Canalside. After arriving in 1847, he was a wine merchant and grocer on Canal Street, then opened a tavern on Erie Street.
Louis Onetto, who owned a macaroni manufacturing works on Broadway near Michigan for more than 50 years, came to Buffalo in 1866.
Those early sons of Italy were northern Genoese, but in the decades to come, the massive numbers came from southern Italian places like Sicily and Naples.
“The Sicilians far outnumber the other Italians in Buffalo,” reported The Express. “They are the dark-skinned, raven-haired, black-eyed Italians who are most numerous on Buffalo’s streets. They are the manufacturers of macaroni, the fruit hucksters, and the bootblacks.”
“The Italian Moses who led the Sicilians to the promised land of Buffalo was Frank Baroni,” reported The Express. He came to Buffalo from Valledolmo, Sicily, in 1882 and immediately wrote home encouraging people to find their way to Buffalo.
“The great majority of the Italian colony,” reported The Express in 1908, “are of the peasant and laboring class.” But not all.
Among the first 42 to heed Baroni’s call from Sicily was a destitute boy, Charles Borzilleri. Eventually, he was the first Italian to graduate from UB Medical School and became prominent not only in the Italian community but in Buffalo at large. He founded Columbus Hospital on Niagara Street and also spent several terms as the president of the Erie County Medical Society.
Those Italians moving to Buffalo settled in one of the oldest parts of Buffalo, displacing the Irish enclave near the Erie Canal and Buffalo Harbor around Canal Street and the Terrace. What was the center of this neighborhood is today covered by the Marine Drive Apartments near Canalside.
“Hemming in on one side by the water’s edge, and intersected on the other by the ponderous traffic of a steam railway, the locality offers few inducements to those who would establish homes within the boundary lines of Buffalo,” reported The Courier in 1898.
That’s why through the 1890s, more Italians began moving onto the other side of the canal as well, into what we would now describe as the West Side.
Long before City Hall was built, St. Anthony’s Church – now in the shadow of City Hall, was the primary place of worship for Buffalo’s Italian population. Italians began to move in from what is now City Hall north to what is now the Peace Bridge.
Right at the center of that newly Italian area was Front Avenue, which would be renamed Busti Avenue in honor of Buffalo’s first celebrated Italian in 1930.
It was the third attempt to name a street after Paulo Busti, an agent for the Holland Land Company. Like many of Holland’s executives, his name appeared as a street name on maps of early Buffalo. The original Busti Avenue was re-christened Genesee Street. The streets now known as Upper and Lower Terrace streets were once known as Busti Terrace, before Busti’s name was dropped off the map for a second time.
A 1930 breakdown said that there were about 20,000 Buffalonians who had been born in Italy, and another 45,000 who had at least one Italian-born parent, making Italians Buffalo’s third most numerous foreign-born residents, behind Germans and Poles.
Buffalo’s Italian community celebrated when, in 1958, the first one of their own was elected mayor. Frank A. Sedita – who grew up in the neighborhood behind City Hall, doing the jobs typical of grammar school-age Italian boys like shoeshine boy and newspaper hawker – was elected to three terms as Buffalo’s mayor.
Not only is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church gone, but so are the two streets where it was located and the entire surrounding neighborhood.
Consecrated at Fly and LeCouteulx streets in 1906, it was built for the most Italian immigrant families of the Canal District, also known as “The Hooks.” It was reputed to be not only the toughest neighborhood in the city, but one of the toughest in the world.
From the Buffalo Evening News in 1903:
The extent to which vice flourishes at the Canal street region, or the infected district, as it is called, is pointedly shown in a large wall chart just issued by the Christian Homestead Association, which is doing mission work in that district.
Staff Captain Cox of the Salvation Army, who has been in the slums in all the large cities in the world, says the district is the worst he ever saw, with the single exception of a street in Bombay. The chart shows the location of 108 saloons, 19 free theater saloons, 75 houses of ill-fame and 75 second-hand clothing stores, barber shops, restaurants and other legitimate places. It is issued for the purpose of bringing forcibly to the attention of the people of Buffalo the iniquity of that district, and to get them interested in the work of the Rescue Mission, which is maintained entirely by subscriptions.
Despite the world around them, the people of the church were devoted. The parish’s annual July feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was an elaborate celebration covered by the newspapers every year.
From The Buffalo Morning Express in 1914:
The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel closed last night in Buffalo’s Little Italy with the bursting of bomb-like firecrackers, the flash of roman candles, and the flight of many paper balloons.
The brick fronts of the tenements in Fly, Le Coutleulx, Dante, Peacock and Evans Streets were illuminated by red fire cups burning at the curb.
The entire section was out in the streets and about the church at Fly and Le Coutleulx Streets in holiday attire.
In the 1920s, there were a thousand families in the parish, but the neighborhood – mostly made up of rickety tenement buildings – was fading. An explosion on New Year’s Day 1936 called more attention to the impoverished plight of those living in the Dante Place neighborhood, as the area was known after Canal Street was renamed to honor the Italian poet in 1909.
New name, same problems. A headline from The Buffalo Times in 1919.There were fewer than 50 families in the parish when the church and the surrounding neighborhood was swallowed up to build the Marine Drive Apartments around 1950.
Buffalo’s position as one of America’s largest and most sophisticated cities was strikingly on display with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The City of Light. Advanced transportation. The most modern manufacturing ideas put into practice. Many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution were on display for the world to take in and enjoy in Buffalo.
But behind that picture of a flourishing city was an undeniable underbelly: Thousands of Buffalonians had no running water in their homes or access to bathing facilities.
It was universally acknowledged as a growing problem, but one without a clear solution.
“A great number of Buffalonians do not feel the need of public baths in the summer months,” wrote the Buffalo Courier in 1895, “because there are many much frequented bathing places along the lake and river fronts and along the numerous creeks in Buffalo.”
Buffalo, it was written, didn’t need bathing facilities, because people bathed in lakes, rivers, and creeks.
A day at the beach was more than just a day of sunshine and relaxation—it was a matter of hygiene. Resort beaches south of the city, places like Wanakah, Idlewood and Bennett Beach, were appropriate for women and children, but men and older boys would bathe wherever they could.
The foot of Court and Georgia streets — which once led from the West Side to the banks of Lake Erie — were popular spots, as were Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street.
One man was arrested trying to wash up in the Johnson Park fountain. “The Polish Boys,” wrote The Courier, frequented a bathing hole along Buffalo Creek near South Ogden and the railroad bridge of the Jammerthal area— now the northern East Side of Buffalo. One still-open quarrying area is along Amherst Street as it approaches Bailey Avenue coming from Main Street.
In 1895, Buffalo’s two public baths—one at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, one at the foot of Porter Avenue – were “small box-like arrangements,” more or less “dilapidated, dirty, and disgraceful” sheds.
Street urchins and pickpockets would use the places, it was said, but no respectable boy or man would be seen there—where a nickel would provide use of a locker and a pair of “bathing pants.”
“Buffalo is deplorably, disgracefully deficient in public baths,” wrote the Courier. Especially during winter months, when bathing alternatives were needed, working men couldn’t afford the luxury of the widely available $1 Turkish baths.
City leaders took the health crisis and turned it into one of the nation’s first public welfare programs.
Buffalo Health Commissioner Wende called the bath houses in two of Buffalo’s most crowded tenement areas a long time in coming.
“While the luxury and benefit of public baths have reached their highest stage in Europe, it remained for Buffalo, an American city, in competing for the supremacy in the realization of the conditions desired by a cultured public, to establish a bath where the indigent, the fatigued, and the unclean could find shelter and care without money and without price.”
In 1897, a brick structure was built on the Terrace as a sanitary bathing facility for the men of Buffalo, particularly the mostly Irish immigrants of the First Ward and the Italian immigrants of The Hooks.
Soap and towels were provided to bathers free of charge. The facility was the first free, open bath house anywhere in the country, and put Buffalo on the cutting edge of health and sanitation.
In 1901, a second public bath house was built on Buffalo’s East Side at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street.
This larger building had separate bathing facilities and waiting rooms for both men and women. While there were bathtubs for women and infants, men were offered showers. The idea of showering was brand new — so new, in fact, that a 1901 article in The Buffalo Express explained how a shower works.
“The bather stands erect in the shower, and the water falls down upon him. There is a depression in the floor, with perforations which carry away the water that has fallen.”
The interior of the shower area had stalls separated by wrought iron. Water was heated to approximately 100 degrees, and bathers were allowed 20 minutes in the showering and adjoining dressing rooms.
The buildings’ rules were written on the walls in English, Polish, Italian and German. They read:
No swearing or obscene language
No intoxicated person allowed in the building
Walls, furniture, and property must not be defaced or injured
Soiled clothing must be taken away by the bather
Towels must be returned to the keeper or matron
No bather may occupy an apartment longer than 20 minutes
There were also laundry facilities for underclothes to help further improve sanitation.
Dr. Wende said the free services, with more than 394,000 baths taken in the first four years, cost Buffalo taxpayers 3 cents per person per year, with most of that cost going toward the purchase of soap.
Well into the 1950s, these two bath houses, along with two more at Grant and Amherst and 249 William St., remained in demand providing as many as a million baths a year.
One slight modification was made as time went on — a new rule prevented singing in the showers.
“If we let people sing in our 52 showers,” said the keeper of Bath House No. 2 Stanley Molik, “we’d be in trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.
Today, it’s the latest, greatest Buffalo hangout: Canalside. Selfies with SharkGirl and Tim Horton, curling, riding ice bikes, and soaking up sun in colorful Adirondack chairs are all exciting new parts of what it means to be a Buffalonian in 2016.
While many say the rebirth of the inner harbor area is a long time in coming, it’s at least the fourth or fifth time the area has been “reborn” since Buffalo’s first non-native residents built huts along the northern shore of Little Buffalo Creek. That creek was excavated to form the Commercial Slip and Erie Canal terminus, which was filled in so the Aud could be built on it. Then the Aud was torn down and replaced with the Canalside skating rink.
From the canal, to railroads, to grain storage, to manufacturing and industry, most of what made Buffalo an important place during the city’s first hundred years happened within sight of modern day Canalside.
It was from the area we now know as Canalside that Buffalo grew into a village, then a city. Through the second half of the 1700s, the place was wilderness, with a scattering of huts from French and, later, British explorers and traders. The Senecas also built a longhouse in the area near what we now call Buffalo’s inner harbor.
Cornelius Winne, one of the first European settlers to come to this area, built the first permanent house by Western standards in 1789 near where the I-190 goes over Washington Street.
Three decades later, Buffalo’s future was secured when it was decided that the Erie Canal would terminate at Buffalo Harbor. The canal was a modern marvel in transportation and communication that tied the eastern United States to the frontier lands of the west, and its end point was where Buffalonians now spend the winters curling.
The canal brought ships, and ships brought business — and sailors. As one of the country’s busiest ports, the area near the canal was also one of the county’s most rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, as demonstrated by one of the maps recently restored by the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.
Known as “the Infected District,” “the Hooks”or just Canal Street, the area was a hotbed for licentious behavior, especially among visiting sailors. The red dots on the map show the location of “houses of ill-fame.” The Christian ministry that created the map, in hopes of drawing attention to the problems of the area, counted 75 houses of prostitution and 108 “thriving” saloons in the relatively small area now covered by the Marine Drive Apartments, the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park, and the Liberty Hound Restaurant.
A 1903 piece in The Buffalo Evening News described the district and the map in detail.
“The extent to which vice flourishes at the Canal street region, or the infected district, as it is called, is pointedly shown in a large wall chart just issued by the Christian Homestead Association, which is doing mission work in that district.
“Staff Captain Cox of the Salvation Army, who has been in the slums in all the large cities in the world, says the district is the worst he ever saw, with the single exception of a street in Bombay. The chart shows the location of 108 saloons, 19 free theater saloons, 75 houses of ill-fame and 75 second-hand clothing stores, barber shops, restaurants and other legitimate places. It is issued for the purpose of bringing forcibly to the attention of the people of Buffalo the iniquity of that district, and to get them interested in the work of the Rescue Mission, which is maintained entirely by subscriptions.”
Part of what was so shocking about the drunkenness and debauchery of Canal Street is that it was freely participated in by both men and women. The steely females of Buffalo’s waterfront weren’t just arrested for prostitution — they were often found in the drunk tank and were accused of knifings, assaults and even the occasional murder.
The Canal Street area was also a place of extreme poverty. Interspersed among the gin mills and cathouses were the crumbling tenement homes teeming with first-generation Italian immigrants. The 19th Ward, of which this area was a part, had Buffalo’s highest concentration of tenement housing at the turn of the 20th century. Italians, more that any other nationality, lived in tenement structures in 1893, when Buffalo had about 9,000 people living in such conditions, where poor sanitation helped breed illnesses like cholera.
That 1893 study of tenement houses citywide made note of the poor sanitation on Canal Street, where the water closets and toilets for an entire block of homes “were too filthy for use.” Families were routinely living and sleeping in single rooms smaller than 10 feet by 10 feet.
A tenement on Canal Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)
The language in talking about these places was strong, particularly where the welfare of children were concerned. Buffalo’s more landed and wealthy class looked upon the living conditions of Buffalo’s poorest with much hand-wringing.
“Hundreds of children living in tenements in the infected district play around the cess-pool of iniquity and degrading vice, and where all that is vile and loathsome accumulates to contaminate or destroy decency and innocence we can hardly expect youth to walk in the path of purity, sobriety, and virtue.”
While “The Charity Organization Society” clearly means to describe the living conditions in the slums, another article in The News in 1896 shows antipathy for the people as well their living conditions. The author is explaining “nicknames for different nationalities found in Buffalo.” Today, we’d call them slurs, but 110 years ago, they just wanted to be sure that readers were using the words properly.
“The Italians, besides the generic name of Dagos, have no general name of their own. All are Dagos to the outsiders. However, the Sicilians, here as elsewhere, are called ‘Ginneys.’ Just why, no one seems to know. The ‘Ginneys’ are the people who are generally blotting out ‘The Hooks,’ and the tenements about Peacock and Canal Streets are inhabited almost entirely by ‘The Ginneys.’
“The ‘Dagos’ proper are the better class of Italians, and they are chiefly found in the neighborhood of lower Court Street and the adjacent territory.”
Canal Street as a civic center
While today’s Canalside was once home to aristocratic Buffalo’s least favorite immigrant neighborhood, it was also home to one of the city’s great sources of civic pride for more than a century.
Buffalo News archives
Buffalo’s Liberty Pole was erected in the wake of a nationalistic fervor following Buffalo’s role in Canadian attempts to throw off the yoke of the British monarchy in 1837’s Upper Canada Rebellion. Canadian freedom fighter William Lyon Mackenzie convinced many Buffalonians to help, including the owner of the steamer Caroline, which was ferrying supplies to Mackenzie’s holed-up spot on an island in the Niagara River. British forces captured the ship and set it on fire, letting it crash over Niagara Falls. An American crew member was killed.
The next year, men of Buffalo and Black Rock gathered to celebrate their liberty — and built a Liberty Pole to celebrate freedom from the British. The pole was topped with a menacing gold eagle facing Toronto and the British Canadians with whom they’d been embroiled.
For the next 100 years, the Liberty Pole at Main and Terrace was perhaps Buffalo’s best-known meeting place, on an open square near what was, for most of that time, Buffalo’s rail hub as well as the busy lake port.
You don’t have to reach far back to find memories of Canalside as a port, either. Generations of Buffalonians caught the Crystal Beach Boat at the foot of Main Street, though their view of the Canalside area was dramatically different from the one we have today. For years, as they left the Americana or the Canadiana, they could look up Main Street and watch what was truly Buffalo’s main business thoroughfare disappear into the horizon.
Today, the Skyway, the I-190, and the gargantuan Marine Midland Tower complex divides the “waterfront” from the rest of the city. But that’s a relatively new delineation. (Buffalo Stories archives)
The Infected District disappears
In 1939, construction began on the mammoth Memorial Auditorium at one end of Dante Place, wiping out a series of what were considered tired old buildings with a fresh new structure that was intended to reflect Buffalo’s future. It was the beginning of the end for the the colorful neighborhood that had been known as Dante Place, Canal Street, the Hooks, and the Infected District.
This photo shows the area just before the Memorial Auditorium was built. The Liberty Pole is there, along with the columned Lehigh Valley Terminal, which was torn down in 1960 to make way for the Donovan Office Building. That building is now the remodeled headquarters of Phillips Lytle and a Courtyard by Marriott hotel. Toward the upper right of the photo, you can see the rounded roofs of the train sheds visible in far off in the background of the Liberty Pole photo above.
Buffalo News archives
While the Depression-era public works building of the Aud helped spell the end of one of Buffalo’s great neighborhoods, it also helped bring a feeling of new life to the city. In fact, in much the same way the slow demolition of the Aud in 2009 seemed to spark excitement and hope for something new at the waters’ edge, the slow building of Buffalo’s new “convention center” had the same effect 70 years earlier.
A 1950 view of the Hooks from the roof of Memorial Auditorium, just before the neighborhood was wiped away to make room for the Marine Drive Apartments. (Buffalo News archives)
“As if overnight the terrace is coming back to life,” News reporter Nat Gorham wrote in 1939. At the beginning and end of its usefulness as a building, the waterfront’s Memorial Auditorium helped coalesce Buffalo’s dreams and hopes for the city. Just as we watched with anticipation as the Aud came down, the people of Depression-era Buffalo watched with anticipation as the building went up.
A relatively new Memorial Auditorium (marked 4), before the bulldozing of the Dante Place neighborhood (just above the Aud in the photo), and before the building of the Skyway and the New York State Thruway’s Niagara Extension. (Buffalo News archives)
In 1970, the Aud again played a part in what was new and exciting in Buffalo, bringing thousands of fans to Canalside as the home of the NHL’s Sabres and the NBA’s Braves. A facelift for the building and surrounding area brought modern lighting to the streets, and the orange level of seating had been added to the building by 1973.
Nearly 30 years later, the Aud closed, and in 2009 it was demolished. That cleared the way for what we know today as Canalside.
For 50 years, people all over the city bemoaned the fact that there was “nothing going on” at Buffalo’s waterfront. The somethings-new every few years did little to jump-start the imaginations of Western New Yorkers or make any real progress at the water’s edge.
The waterfront as it looked for many years in recent history. (Buffalo News archives)
But ever since settlers came to Buffalo’s waterfront in the 1700s, there has been flux and shifting for the land closest to the Buffalo Harbor. It all coalesces in more excitement for Buffalo and its waterfront than has been seen in generations.