Delaware Park and the Buffalo Zoo: Parkside’s Biggest Pride & Biggest Battle

       By Steve Cichon
       steve@buffalostories.com
       @stevebuffalo

Parkside’s Biggest Battle: The Buffalo Zoo

For better or for worse, the histories of Parkside and the Buffalo Zoological Gardens have really been inseparable. From Elam Jewett’s care of the first two deer donated to the city in 1870,  to the arrival of Frank the Elephant in 1905, to the Depression-era WPA improvements that built the Zoo up and out, to the fight to keep the Zoo at Delaware Park, the Buffalo Zoo and Parkside have seen their fates intertwined since either has existed. 

Postcard, The Buffalo Zoo

By 1930, however, the zoo had seriously deteriorated. Nearly 20 years had passed since any improvements were funded by the city. Indignant citizens carried on letter campaigns to the newspapers and City Hall. The animals and the site had been suffering severe neglect. In 1931, the Zoological Society was organized, but the throes of the Great Depression made it impossible to raise money to improve the zoo.

It would take the New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt to refurbish the Zoo. Starting in 1935, $1.5 million dollars worth of federal WPA money was poured into a structural modernization project. Many murals and stone sculptures (below, 1946) were added to the grounds, and a gleaming new building was opened by 1938, but it was largely empty for lack of funding for new specimens.

WPA statuary at The Buffalo Zoo.

That changed under the directorship of Marlin Perkins. Later famous as the host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom from 1958- 1985, while in Buffalo, Perkins grew the popularity of the zoo, particularly through the training of some animals, like Eddie the Chimp, to perform for the crowds. Another $840,000 in WPA funds allowed for more work in 1939, and in 1942, the reptile house was opened.  Perkins left in a wage dispute in 1944.

Marlin Perkins (right) and Fred Meyer 1941, Zoo Photo

Still woefully under funded, the zoo installed concession stands and a train ride around the zoo in 1950 to help raise money for improvements. Cries about litter and a carnival-like atmosphere grew even louder when 21 people were injured when the miniature train toppled over in 1952.  To encourage people to drive to the zoo, The Parkside-Quarried Limestone Farmstead home was razed in 1950 to provide parking for the zoo.

Things had only gotten worse for the zoo, when, upon a tour of the facility in 1958, Mayor Frank Sedita declared Buffalo should either have a zoo to be proud of, or none at all. The grounds were closed to the public for 5 months, and $300,000 was spent in renovations. The new and improved zoo was opened to the public in March 1959. And despite over a million visitors to the Zoo in 1965-66, the opening of the Children’s Zoo in 1966, the opening of the giraffe house in 1967, and the first-ever concerted membership drive in 1969, funding continued to be a problem for the zoo.

After years of talk and hand wringing, April 1973 saw the first admission fees at the gates of the Buffalo Zoo. $1 for adults, 35 cents for children 6-16, under 6 were free. The budget surpassed $1 million for the first time in 1974.

So just as Parkside struggled through much of the second half of 20th century, so, too, did the Zoo. There were highlights and low lights along the way. Parkside joined the rest of Buffalo in catching “Koala Fever” when in summer 1987, Blinky Bill, the Australian Koala, was expected to attract more that 200,000 people to the Zoo and the neighborhood for the month he was on display.

But for the most part, as a community, Parksiders seemed more interested with the Zoo’s exterior maintenance than what was going on inside the cages.

In the spring of 1991, The Buffalo Zoo unveiled plans for a new Parkside/Russell entrance, an expansion of the elephant display, and an education department building, the back of which would face mostly Parkside Avenue.

As many residents saw it, the planned “improvements” would look like nothing more than a 160-foot long, 12 foot high, concrete wall facing into their neighborhood. After resistance from residents, the height was scaled down to 9 feet, and Zoo officials worked with the community to make the design more aesthetically pleasing to the surrounding community.

As this was being treated as the front page headline story in the Parkside News, inside the pages of the community newsletter was an editorial by Friends of Olmsted Parks, suggesting that as the zoo, and its original mandates grew, that it would perhaps be best for the zoo to find a “better location to fulfill its mission.”

The writers pointed to the on-going strife over the construction project as an example of how the zoo might be out growing the neighborhood and the park. This was the first mention of a topic that would divide the Parkside Community as the 1990s wore on.

The neighborhood’s oldest institution would become its most controversial. Parkside’s mettle was tested, when, in 1997, Zoo officials began talk of moving the Zoo from the only home it’s ever known in Parkside, to a more open, expansive space near Buffalo’s waterfront in the Old First Ward.

The featured topic at the PCA annual meeting, November 18, 1997, at School 54, was to discuss “the new zoo initiative, and the potential uses for the city-owned space currently occupied by the zoo.”

Something needed to be done with the aging zoo. As reported in the Parkside News, “The decision of the zoo’s board to directors to pursue building a new zoo elsewhere in the city, presumably on the waterfront, has been widely reported. The zoo faces the probability of losing its accreditation without major investments to modernize animal habitats and make other mandated changes.

“(Zoo Director Tom) Garlock explained…. Space limitations at the existing site, both for modernizing existing habitats and increasing parking space; and a lack of funding sources for zoo renovation also played a role in the board’s decision to pursue a new site.”

Many residents were angered by the Zoo Board’s later admission that they never seriously considered staying in Delaware Park. In a February, 1998 letter to Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, PCA President George Stock wrote regarding the plans to move the Zoo:

“We have been disappointed and a bit mystified by the seeming lack of interest on the city’s part concerning this dramatic development in our neighborhood, which poses the most significant challenge to Parkside’s stability in recent history.

“While divided over whether the Zoo should stay or move, our residents are of one mind on the necessity for the city to begin working with our neighborhood now to address the implications of the situation.

“The Zoo’s departure would have a stunning impact on our neighborhood… (R)esidents express a sense of deep personal loss, and in some cases, anger, at the Zoo’s determination to move. It has been a stalwart, albeit at times controversial, anchor in Parkside for nearly a century. Its departure, no matter what takes its place, would be traumatic and difficult for this stable and prosperous neighborhood.”

Numerous meetings were held between residents, the Zoo, and city officials. Mayor Masiello had created a Zoo-Re-Use task force. Many neighbors felt their world turned upside down as they had barely been able to celebrate the progress being made in revitalizing the Darwin Martin House, as they began another uphill fight to save another neighborhood landmark.

It was a grassroots effort built up over decades that helped save the Martin House. Any efforts to keep the Zoo put would have to gain critical mass in a much more expedient fashion. A half-dozen neighbors sitting in a Woodward Avenue living room were struck with an inspiration, some money was quickly collected from the group, and The Committee to Keep the Zoo in Delaware Park was born.

The committee spread hundreds of lawn signs reading Improve, Don’t Move. They only counted one “lonely” “New Zoo Now” sign in Parkside. Janice Barber and Joel Rose wrote in the Parkside News, the disparity “stand(s) as a silent testament to the sentiment of most Parkside residents.”

“Improve Don’t Move the Zoo” signs filled Parkside lawns in the late 90s.

The signs became a phenomenon, and spread around the region like wild fire. Clarence, Elma, Niagara County; one was hard pressed to find a community where there wasn’t a home showing support for keeping the Zoo in the space place where it had entertained and educated since 1875.

As the debate intensified, there were several reports of mass theft of “Improve Don’t Move” signs. One witness told of three men in a black pickup truck stripping several blocks of Crescent and Summit Avenues of the signs in the early morning hours of a single day. A week later, other blocks of Crescent and Woodward were hit.

Meanwhile, Zoo officials were doing what they thought would be in the best interest of the animals. They thought a new facility would help re-ignite their fundraising, which had fallen off dramatically, making refurbishing the aging Parkside campus exceedingly difficult.

Zoo President Thomas Garlock publicly stated on numerous occasions that he felt it was the selfish desire of home owners to protect property values, and not the best interest of the animals, motivating those fighting to move the zoo to a property more than three times the size of the Parkside facility (80 acres vs. 24 acres).

Though he later admitted the comment was “curt and off the cuff,” Garlock did little to soothe things over with the anti-moving crowd when he was widely quoted as saying, “The only animals the people in the Parkside neighborhood are concerned about are the homo sapiens.”

In fall 1998, The Zoo Board voted to move forward with plans to secure $160 million in funding for a new Zoo and aquarium on Buffalo’s waterfront, three blocks from then-Marine Midland Arena. Wide public opinion, gauged through polls, calls, and letters, prompted officials to seek government funding on all levels for the project.

The issue was much bigger than just the neighborhood, and made some strange bedfellows. Some Parksiders who’d spent 16 years fighting with Jimmy Griffin as Mayor, suddenly found him as an ally in the Move the Zoo debate.

Griffin was upset at the proposal’s reliance on public money, and thought the waterfront deserved better, telling reporters, “I know we’ve always had an awful lot of wildlife down in the First Ward, and I was part of it,” Griffin laughed. “But this is outrageous.”

But the region as a whole was split. A Business First poll conducted by Goldhaber Research in August/September 1998 showed that 43% of Western New York residents wanted to see the Zoo move, and 43% wanted to see the Zoo renovate the existing facility.

The neighborhood and the PCA galvanized in opposition to the Zoo’s Board’s plans to not only move, but its plans to seek millions in public funding to build the new, $250 million zoo.

Despite Zoo officials insistence that the move was a “done deal,” the thousands of “Improve, Don’t Move The Zoo” lawn signs, and the spirit behind them helped keep the venerable institution at its Parkside home.

Of all the opinions that were offered over the year-and-a-half battle, the most important one, however, came from someone who’d never been to the Zoo, and only to Parkside once or twice. New York Governor George Pataki was reluctant to provide any funding for the waterfront project, and within days, both candidates for Erie County Executive, Joel Giambra and Dennis Gorski made clear they couldn’t support the project without the financial support of the Governor.

A long 18 months of gut-wrenching neighborhood controversy ended when Zoo Directors voted in September 1999 to remain at the Parkside location.  The whole affair was akin to a Civil War in the neighborhood, and many neighbors still maintain icy relationships after tempers flared and tactics were challenged as the question of moving the zoo boiled. 

Garlock quit the Zoo, and he was replaced in September 2000 with Donna Fernandes. Her ability to spearhead the raising of a record $24 million for improving the Buffalo Zoo was no doubt made easier, ironically, by her predecessor’s very public failure in trying to move the facility.

After the decision to improve was made, millions of dollars worth of renovations were realized, with much expected in the future. Now one of the more popular attractions, the Sea Lion Exhibit opened in 2005, proving the Zoo didn’t have to be moved, and could be improved.  The exhibit also welcomed one of the neighborhood’s more verbose residents to the area. The loud and joyful barks of Smokey the Sea Lion resonate throughout the neighborhood, and are the sounds that many Parksiders fall asleep to with their windows open summer evenings.

Delaware Park: Again a Source of Pride

When Frederick Law Olmsted designed The Park, replete with The Meadow, it wasn’t too long thereafter that The Deer Paddock was added, soon to become the Zoo. And almost since the beginning, there’s been tension between the Park and the Zoo. 

Buffalo Zoo entrance, 1990s.

A 1978 Zoo masterplan called for a 500 car parking lot in the middle of the Delaware Park Meadow. Outraged residents spoke up, but the Zoo still insisted upon (and received) a new entrance along Ring Road, complete with snack bar and gift shop looking out over the ball diamonds and rugby fields the planners had earlier hoped to pave over.

Mark Goldman writes in his 1983 book High Hope:, The Rise and Fall of Buffalo, NY that “the city went along with the zoo, and this once safe and quiet park area has become traffic-clogged, dangerous, and unsightly. Thus, Delaware Park remains fair game for road happy planners and a car crazed public.”

As late as 2000, in the wake of the Move the Zoo controversy, once it was decided the Zoo would stay put, a plan was floated to expand the Zoo’s footprint into the area of the park between Ring Road and Parkside Avenue, replacing the basketball courts and tot lot with parking. The plan was quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t just Zoo interests that impeded residents from using the park to its fullest, poor planning, or battling interests often left park users less than satisfied. Through the years, a lack of sanitation and gardening, battles between golfers trying to play through the baseball outfields, and outfielders dodging sliced tee shots, and the ever increasing presence of the automobile left many to wonder whether it was worth visiting the park.

Much of the 1980s was spent with Parksiders debating the merits of vehicular traffic on Meadow Road (the “Ring Road” in Delaware Park.) At one point, one could circumnavigate the entire park via automobile, and many did so with little regard to the safety of those making use of the park.

While the open road made the ball diamonds, golf course, and soccer fields more accessible, it also encouraged use of the park as a cut through. It was a hotly debated topic in Parkside, with some saying cutting off park traffic will clog neighborhood streets, and others wishing autos to be banned nearly completely from the park. Resident David Gerber lamented the condition of Delaware Park in a March/April 1988 op-ed piece in The Parkside News:

Our various attachments to the park have deepened the sadness many of us have felt, especially over the last five or so years, over problems that seem to pervade Delaware Park. Automobiles compete with bike riders, bike racers, runners, walkers, wheel chair exercisers, and even the occasional big wheel driver for use of the traffic laden Ring Road. Golf, soccer, and baseball vie for the same space, each menacing in different ways to the others. Volleyball can only be played along the frequently flooded bridal path. There seems no longer to be a place to sit and have a picnic or simply enjoy the open space, grass and trees.

There isn’t enough room for parking, and the Zoo threatens from time-to-time to grab what room there is. The Park doesn’t seem safe for family recreation. It’s growing less enticing for everyone, a victim of its own attractiveness, and of a fierce competition for space that seems to have no rules but the survival of the strongest.

After years of public debate, Acting Parks Commissioner Stan Buczkowski favored a plan closing Ring Road to traffic, saying it was the only way to calm traffic, especially with only two police officers assigned to the entire city parks system at the time. By fall of 1990, Buczkowski oversaw the installation of the permanent barriers on Ring Road at the Middlesex Road entrance. Traffic almost immediately dropped to a trickle.

Often throughout the 135 year history of Buffalo’s parks, tough economic times have left the public spaces in desperate need of repairs and attention. However, through budget crises of the 1990s and 2000s that left the City of Buffalo and Erie County under the fiscal screws of two separate Fiscal Control Authorities, Buffalo’s Parks actually came out ahead. The result was an historic agreement with the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

Guided by the original plans of Frederick Law Olmsted for an “urban landscape that integrates the city, providing common ground and connectivity among the neighborhoods,” the conservancy has fought for respect for the parks. Heavily involved in the push to have speed reduced on the Scajaquada Expressway, the most noticeable difference in Delaware Park for most Parksiders since Olmsted’s taking it over– The beautiful gardens that have replaced the dried out mud patches along the park’s borders with the community.

It’s a Renaissance that has certainly been noticed by longtime residents of the Parkside area. George Zornick, who grew up on Russell Avenue in the 1960s and 70s, now lives on Parkside Avenue directly across from the Park. He greatly appreciates the difference.

“The park is so much better kept now; so much more beautiful. Back when the city owned it, they mowed the grass and that was about it; the golf course was ragged. I don’t want to say it was scattered with litter, but it’s not like today with the zone gardeners and everything is so nice and manicured.”

Though at press time of this work the future of the agreement between the Olmsted Conservancy and the City of Buffalo remains unclear, the Olmsted folks remain committed to dozens of $1 million-plus projects around Delaware Park over the next 20 years, including an $80.3 million casino restoration, a $10.2 million Hoyt lake restoration/renovation, a $908,000 renovation of the meadow area, a $4.09 million renovation of baseball diamonds, a $954,000 Parkside Lodge restoration, and a $9.47 million reconstruction of Ring Road.

Perhaps the biggest plans to help recapture the original essence of Frederick Law Olmsted involve the Conservancy’s leadership on plans to down grade the Scajaquada Expressway back into a parkway over the next 2 decades, at an estimated cost of $33.7 million.

This page is an excerpt from The Complete History of Parkside by Steve Cichon

The full text of the book is now online. 

The original 174-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

©2009, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

 

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.