North and South Buffalo. The East and West Sides. But how many neighborhoods can you name that don’t fit any of those descriptions?
From the biggest geographical sections, to the dozens of micro-neighborhoods and hundreds of great intersections, each little bit of Buffalo has it’s own unique story, and many of those stories are right here.
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When I was a general assignment reporter, I always loved the angle that when something big happens, anything that anyone is doing becomes a story. “How did you ride out the storm?” “How did you celebrate the big win?” “Where were you when the tornado hit?”
No matter what your answer is…it’s part of the larger story and worth celebrating. As a researcher and historian who combs through other writers’ and journalists’ archived works to re-tell their stories in the light of present day life, I love finding those little bits of everyday life set against the backdrop of big stories.
That’s why these ladies watching TV at a City of Tonawanda department store is my favorite image from the lunar landing. A million people are telling Neil Armstrong’s story– But we here care just as much about what was going on in the Twin-Ton Department store as he was making that giant leap.
Watching TV rarely gets you on the front page of the paper, but it seems appropriate that it did for the staff at Jenss Twin-Ton Department store 50 years ago next week.
That man would step foot on the moon is an unimaginable, superlative, epoch-defining feat in human history. But that more than half a billion would watch it happen live on their television sets made it a definitive moment in a broadcast television industry that was barely 20 years old at the time.
Gathered around the TV “to catch a few glimpses of the Apollo 11 events” were Mrs. James Tait, Margaret Robinson, Marian Feldt, Jack Dautch, Grace Hughes, Dorothy Wiegand, Rose Sugden and Rose Ann Fiala.
By the time of the 1969 moon landing, Jenss Twin-Ton’s future was already in doubt as city fathers in the Tonawandas were looking to expand already present Urban Renewal efforts to include the store at Main and Niagara.
Founded in 1877 as Zuckmaier Bros., the department store was sold in 1946 and became Twin-Ton in 1946. Jenss Twin-Ton closed in 1976 when the building was bulldozed as urban renewal caught up. Plans for the department store to rebuild on the site never materialized and the Tonawandas’ only downtown department store was gone for good.
“A sea of humanity floods Allentown” read the headline in the Courier-Express as the 1969 edition of the Allentown Art Festival set new attendance records topping 250,000 people.
With 500 exhibitors, the 1969 show was the first where Allen Street was closed to vehicular traffic.
“The crowds were remarkable patient and didn’t seem to mind the surging mass of humanity on all the sidewalks and streets in the area,” wrote Courier reporter Deborah Williams. “It is truly an event for all tastes and ages.”
Through the 1850s, the numbers of German immigrants living along Broadway east of Jefferson Street rapidly increased to the point where it became the largest enclave of German citizens in Buffalo.
The Catholics among them built a small brick church in 1858 at Broadway and Emslie at the spot where St. Ann’s grammar school was eventually built. That small church was quickly outgrown, and plans were developed to build what would be one of Buffalo’s grandest churches at the time.
The Buffalo Commercial called the cornerstone laying of the current church in 1878 “one of the most extensive and imposing demonstrations of our Catholic fellow citizens ever seen in Buffalo.”
Mayor Solomon Scheu spoke in English, briefly addressing at least 20,000 uniformed men who had paraded from downtown to the foundation of the new church. A Jesuit priest addressed the crowd in German. He told these immigrants in their native tongue that they had plenty to be proud of as they made new lives in Western New York.
“It is not many years since a number of German Catholics settled on this place, the forerunners of that numerous class of sober and industrious citizens which today forms so large a proportion of the real wealth and prosperity of Buffalo.”
Bishop Stephen V. Ryan also made brief remarks, which were followed by the clergy in the group retiring to the hall at St. Ann’s School, “where a substantial German supper was disposed of in a hearty manner, and quite a toast was drunk to the new church of St. Ann.”
Because the pastor refused to go into debt to pay for the new church, the new building took eight years to complete. Hippier of New York created the plans for the Gothic building, which were carried out with modifications and supervision of Brother Halfmann, a Jesuit brother and architect.
The Jesuits leased a quarry in Lockport and all the stone was harvested and cut by members of the order.
The prosperous German community continued to grow, as did the parish. When St. Ann celebrated it’s 50th anniversary, it was the largest German Catholic parish in the country. There were 1,900 children at the parish grammar school at the time. St. Ann’s Commercial School, a business-oriented school for girls, eventually evolved into Bishop McMahon High School.
During that golden anniversary year of 1908, it was a matter of pride in being the largest German parish, but German pride would take a hit over the next decade. World War I brought an end to many of the traditional events and societies tied to Prussian heritage.
The German language as an integral part of parish life waned for that reason as well as the growing Polish community pushing into St. Ann’s parish from Broadway and Fillmore Avenue, and by World War II, St. Ann’s was as much a Polish parish as it was German.
The decades after World War II saw those German and Polish families leave the East Side, and the new predominately African-American families moving in were not looking for a Catholic church as a spiritual home. By the time the church was marked for closure, most of the parishioners who lived in the neighborhood were African immigrants.
Both neighborhood pressures as well as external larger issues within the Catholic Church, such as the dwindling numbers of priests, put targets on St. Ann’s for closure. A very vocal and energetic group of parishioners and supporters rallied for decades to keep the church open, but in 2011, a decision was made that the church was to be stripped of religious artifacts and put up for sale, and that decision went back and forth several times with appeals to the Vatican.
A final decision came from Rome in 2017.
“Now that the Vatican has ruled, the decision to close the church is final,” Bishop Malone said in a statement at the time. “We will do all that we can, within the confines of safety and feasibility, to remove all sacred and artistically significant artifacts.
“We hope to save the most significant elements of the Shrine of St. Ann for relocation,” he added. “We will announce its new home in the diocese in the coming months.”
If you’re visiting the City of Tonawanda these days, taking a nice ride from, say, Gateway Harbor – the home of Canal Fest and summertime concerts – over to Old Man River for a hot dog and an ice cream, you might not realize the trip includes passage through what was once one of Western New York’s most infamous red light districts.
The area that’s now home to a Tops Market and the police station was once known as “Goose Island,” a small man-made island formed when the Erie Canal cut off a triangle of land from the rest of the city bounded on the other sides by Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River.
It’s no surprise that Tonawanda’s expansive lumber industry eventually made use of the island, but initially it was developed with residences for more well-to-do Tonawandans.
Tonawanda Mayor Christ S. Warren was born on Goose Island in 1879, when the Tonawandas were the world’s largest freshwater lumber port. As a boy, he helped his grandfather operate a grocery store which catered to the canalers.
“Many a morning I got up at 3 o’clock to drive a team and a covered wagon to the Buffalo market for supplies,” an 81-year-old Warren remembered in a 1960 interview.
But times changed. There were several destructive fires there in the early 1890s. In 1899, speculators bought up much of Goose Island as it was named as a possible site for a series of docks for lumber and grain ships – but those docks were ultimately built on Buffalo’s Squaw Island.
Whether it was a direct result of that crazed land buying gone bust or not, over the next 20 years, Goose Island became known as a “notorious district,” made up of “disorderly houses.”
“Goose Island has had a shady reputation for years,” reported the Buffalo Times, “and had come to be well-known throughout this section of the country because of the escapades credited to many persons visiting it.”
The infamous area was commonly referenced in divorce proceedings of the time. Mrs. Lumley was granted a divorce after her husband was fingered as “one of three boon fellows” joined by “buxom women companions” at a “wild party” on Goose Island in 1925.
It was around the same time that Erie County Sheriff Frank A. Tyler called the conditions on Goose Island “downright immoral,” and threatened that if Tonawanda Police wouldn’t clean up the place, he’d send deputies to “remove this stigma from Erie County.”
After a late night visit to the district Tyler told the Buffalo Courier, “I have positive evidence that women are soliciting openly in the streets.” He went on to quote letters from parents who said their sons and daughters were “ruined” by visits to the district.
Despite “more than 20 houses of ill-repute operating with two to four women attached to each house,” Goose Island hotel owner Philip Perew said he’d been living on the island for years and saw no problems with conditions there.
“Everybody knows what Goose Island is for,” said Perew, who lived on Sweeney Street.
“A survey of Goose Island yesterday by a reporter revealed there are two streets in which nearly every house contains two or three women wearing gaudy dresses and having highly painted faces,” reported the Buffalo Courier. “The women make no secret of their business and laugh at reports of the impending cleanup.”
Aside from the vice, “the free flow of intoxicating liquor” was also a problem there during the height of Prohibition. In some quarters, Goose Island was known as “the wettest spot in New York State.” A Buffalo man was arrested in 1925 driving a truck with 30 barrels of beer on River Road. Often that beer didn’t make it too far– plant operators on “the island” had a difficult time keeping employees sober. As many as 500 people a night were visiting the Goose Island “resorts.”
The drinking and prostitution both were open secrets. That lead to the 1936 arrest and trial of a sheriff’s deputy accused of trying to extort money from Perew and other “Goose Island resort operators.”
Tighter policing through the 1930s saw the decline of the area as a prostitution center, as arrest rosters showed people with nicknames like “Tiger Lilly” and “Tony the Wop.” The filling in of the canal along Niagara Street during that decade also reconnected the island to the rest of the city.
Urban renewal efforts of the 1960s further wiped any remnants of Goose Island off the map. Planners bragged efforts in a 45-acre parcel downtown, where all the wooden frame buildings – many dating back to the 1860s – were to be replaced with modern brick and concrete structures.
“When the project is completed in January 1968,” predicted Urban Renewal Perry A. Wilson, “Tonawanda will be one of the most modern and beautiful cities in Western New York.”
With that work, the old Goose Island – and years of illicit history in the City of Tonawanda – was plowed under.
Though the following was written during one of the earlier crackdowns that didn’t quite last, this 1918 reflection in the Buffalo Times sums up the end of Goose Island well.
“The passing of the island as a ‘red light district’ with painted women thus marks the elimination of a spot that for a long time has been a thorn in the side of respectable residents of Tonawanda.”
His name was forever etched into the consciousness of Western New York when the Niagara Frontier Better Roads commission suggested boulevard bearing his name cut through the farm lands of Cheektowaga to provide a direct route to Lancaster and Alden in 1924.
County crews built George Urban Boulevard between Pine Ridge and Transit roads at a cost of $625,000.
By the time the road was completed the following year, the name George Urban had been one of the leading names in Buffalo’s milling industry for more than 80 years.
In 1846, George Urban Sr. purchased land at the corner of Genesee and Oak streets, setting up a wholesale flour business. By 1881, George Urban Jr. had taken over the family business and opened Buffalo’s first roller flour mill across Oak Street from the original store. The state-of-the-art technology allowed for a much finer flour to be produced, making their Liberty Brand flour sought after for fine baking across the northeast.
“The Urbans have been associated with the milling industry since away back in the days when Buffalo was of no account, and they have helped materially in the city’s up-growth,” wrote the Sunday Morning News.
Demand grew, and so did the factory — at a much larger works along the Beltline Railway at Urban and Kehr streets on Buffalo’s East Side. That mill and packaging plant opened in 1903 to much fanfare and expectation in Buffalo.
The millworks was the largest yet manifestation of the harnessing of the electrical power generated at Niagara Falls.
“Nowhere is the art of making perfect flour better demonstrated than at the company’s plant,” said a 1910 company profile. “There the power of Niagara Falls, for hundreds upon hundreds of centuries unbridled, is put to practical use turning out the wherewithal to feed the nation. It turns the wheels which, with superhuman strength and almost human intelligence, change the wheat into the finest flour than can be found anywhere.”
George Urban Jr. was also very active in local politics. It was at an 1883 clam roast at Urban’s Pine Ridge Road estate that Buffalo Brewer Gerhard Lang made a toast to the party’s guest of honor — former Buffalo mayor and then-current New York Governor Grover Cleveland was introduced as “the next President of the United States.” The toast proved true — Cleveland was elected to the White House in 1884.
It was 30 years ago this month that the Walden Galleria opened. The date also marked an acceleration of the final decline of a handful of Western New York’s long-standing retail areas including a handful of older, smaller shopping malls and shopping on Main Street downtown.
Buffalo’s longtime local retail giants, such as AM&A’s, Sibley’s/Hengerer’s, the Sample, and LL Berger pulled out of other venues and paid much higher rents at the Galleria. Within three years, AM&A’s was the last local retail giant still standing. When AM&A’s closed in 1995, it also marked the end of the department store era on Main Street downtown.
West Seneca’s Seneca Mall was hit hard with opening of the Walden Galleria. Already on shaky ground with the opening of the McKinley Mall in 1985, Sibley’s/Hengerer’s, the Sample, Kleinhans and JC Penney all closed their Seneca Mall locations within a year of Walden Galleria’s opening.
These photos are from October 1990, with the mall’s future uncertain. After several years as little more than an indoor track for mall walkers, Seneca Mall closed in 1994. The mall buildings were demolished, and Tops Markets and Kmart opened on the site. The Kmart store closed in early 2019.
On Delaware Avenue just south of North Street, Temple Beth Zion was “the first Reform Judaism temple in the East.”
The Medina brownstone synagogue – boasting North America’s largest wooden dome – was built in 1890, a Byzantine structure with Romanesque details.
It was a landmark on Delaware Avenue until a massive fire swept through the building on Oct. 4, 1961.
Buffalo Firefighter Joseph Oehler was commended for risking his life to save the congregation’s Torah scrolls, but that was about all that could be saved.
The fire that started in an area that had been under renovation burned fast and hot. Despite the work of 135 firefighters using 35 pieces of apparatus, the building’s wooden dome fell within an hour of the flames having been noticed.
The congregation’s current modern temple, north of the location of the previous temple, was completed in 1967.
Baseball’s National League — one of two leagues that make up modern Major League Baseball — was founded in 1876.
Three years later, Buffalo joined the National League, playing at Riverside Park on Buffalo’s West Side.
The park was bounded by West Avenue, Vermont Street, Rhode Island Street and Fargo Avenue. The park was small, and other teams complained that it gave the Buffalo club an advantage.
The homerun wasn’t as universally well-thought-of in the early days of the game, and some felt Buffalo’s team was a lesser squad for taking advantage of the short fences.
“The day the snow goes,” wrote a Syracuse newspaper in 1879, “the Buffalo nine will commence practicing the knack of knocking the ball over the fence of the corral they call a ballpark.”
It was in part those home runs that helped ignite excitement in Buffalo over the new sport.
“Everyone else is talking base ball, and why shouldn’t we?” asked the Buffalo Express in 1881, after the Buffaloes defeated the Chicago team that wouldn’t officially be renamed “the Cubs” for another 26 years. “Three successive defeats of the champions by the Buffalo team make a ‘base ball’ event of quite enough note to set all tongues wagging.”
Six seasons of Bisons baseball, including five seasons in the National League, were played in the park. Over the next decade, pieces of the lot where the ballpark once stood were sold off to developers, and Buffalo baseball moved to the first Olympic Park at the northeast corner of Summer and Richmond.
When that new ballpark opened, the Buffalo Commercial bragged that “The Buffaloes … had the best base ball grounds in the country.”
The grand opening of the Walden Galleria was 30 years ago this week, May 1, 1989, which means it’s been at least three decades since you had a draft beer or fish fry at the Leonard Post Jr. VFW Post at its longtime home at 2000 Walden Ave.
The cornerstone was laid for the building in 1960 and it was open for business the following year. For the next 28 years, it was the home of the post named in honor and memory of PFC Leonard Post, a Cheektowaga resident who was killed during the invasion of Normandy in 1944.
As the new mall opened as the new neighbor to the Sheraton Hotel, the new VFW post opened about a mile east on Walden Avenue, where it’s been ever since.