Exploring the Social Design Narratives of Buffalo, New York

Posted on: August 17th, 2011 by Guest Writer

(Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Written by David Rose

The City of Buffalo and the Eastern Great Lakes region, as a whole, bears a wealth of history that spans well beyond great architecture and landscape design. At every corner there is a story that is sown deep into local, national and international memory. Robert Shibley, the Dean of Architecture & Planning at SUNY Buffalo, suggests that in order to be familiar with the city one must learn the story of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s system of parkways, Joseph Ellicott’s radial grid and the diverse functionality of the water throughout the city’s history. The narratives that frame the architecture and design features of Buffalo have great depth, building a legacy that has immensely contributed to the development of the city. If we commit to a holistic understanding of these stories then we may find ourselves getting through to Buffalo “for real.”  

Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, home to an underground railroad station before the Civil War. (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Consider, for instance, the social implications of Fredrick Law Olmsted's abolitionist disposition as we peruse his masterfully created system of parkways throughout the city. Olmsted, who took to the southern United States just prior to the Civil War and reported on slave life in the ‘Cotton Kingdom’, calling on President Lincoln to stop the spread of slavery out west, was a social designer. His conceptualization of ‘The Parade’ in Buffalo, now Martin Luther King Park, took into account the celebratory culture of German immigrants that resided in close proximity to its locale.

We may also draw connections between Joseph Ellicott's radial grid street plan, his Quaker heritage and familial ties with Benjamin Banneker, a man of African descent who was commissioned by the Ellicott family to survey the nations capital. Joseph Ellicott’s radial grid plan was inspired by the outlay of Paris in the same manner as his brother Andrew and Benjamin Banneker’s workings for Washington DC.  The intent was to bring communities of people together. I am sure that Olmsted and Ellicott believed that they were laying the groundwork for what would be the city’s social conscious, by design.

Finally the water was the key element in producing the city’s hydropower and industry. It existed long before Olmsted, Ellicott, Sullivan, Richardson, Wright and countless other place makers in Buffalo developed their crafts.  The water sustained the livelihood of American natives for centuries, being used most notably as a vessel that brought fugitive slaves to freedom. It is such socio-architectural underpinnings that aid in preserving the past while cultivating a social meaning for those who are often left at the periphery of the preservation movement.

Buffalo developers and numerous preservation supporters are beginning to take to the task of cultivating a new social trajectory for historically marginalized groups. This means jobs for the men and women of low-income families as well as telling the stories (and saving the places) of Native Americans, immigrants, and the descendants of the American slave. In this way Buffalo is steadily developing into a place where all hands are on deck regarding preservation.

Much of what I know about the city, and its history, I’ve learned through speaking with individuals who have an intimate understanding of old places as not mere representations of the past, but with value at present. I have no doubt that the upcoming National Preservation Conference will offer insightful discourse and takeaways for conference attendees and the Buffalo community.

So, as you take in all of the exciting conference activities, it may behoove you to wander a bit while in Buffalo. Stroll through Forest Lawn Cemetery, partake in the events at the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, and visit Bertie Hall on the Canadian waterfront; and, at the end of the day, be sure to make room for a good Buffalo style meal (and I’m not talking about wings). This is the culture that helps bring life to the amazing structures that we intend to preserve for generations to come—engage in it and you will understand the function of this city’s great architecture.

David Rose is working towards a Masters in Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Design; he currently holds a BA from SUNY Buffalo in Urban and Public Policy Studies. Mr. Rose was selected as a Diversity Scholar for the 2009 and 2010 National Preservation Conferences. Find him on twitter at @SirDavidRose.

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Guest Writer

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