Maybe I should start with an explanation why did I go to Buffalo in the first place.
When I was visiting Toronto, Ottawa and surroundings in 2018 I decided to dash across the border to visit the US as I do like visiting that country (as anyone reading this blog might have guessed by now). Buffalo was conveniently located and allowed me to make a loop between Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo and back to Toronto.
But convenient location wasn’t the sole reason. I’m interested in the changes this region of the US, the famous (or rather infamous) “rust belt”, is facing. I had visited Detroit a few years earlier and I was curious how Buffalo compares with that more well-known metropolis. Especially after watching a video a few months earlier, which I randomly found on the internet, highlighting some positive changes and signs of revival in the city.
I crossed the border at the Thousands Island Border Crossing before heading via I-81, Oswego and some local roads (where I even got lost) towards Batavia where I stopped for a night.
Next morning I headed straight to Buffalo. My first stop was the disused Buffalo Central Terminal which served as the city’s main railway station between 1929 and 1979, before being abandoned. I had read about it earlier and really wanted to see it. To get there I had to drive through some rather rough looking neighbourhoods but during the day the area wasn’t feeling too unsafe. It was actually sad rather than dangerous. Lots of empty plots, once filled with houses, and Polish street names which highlighted the immigrant background of many past inhabitants of the area. The surviving housing looked rather poor and neglected.
The impressive terminal building really dominates the area. It is so big that it was in fact always too large for the city’s needs, even when 200 trains a day used it. The 17 stories tall office tower, with clocks on all four corners, resembles a tower of some Gothic cathedral more than a railway facility and dominates the rest of this vast brick-clad building. Unfortunately it is not in a great shape and it was closed during my visit. It is currently owned by the non-profit preservation group called Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. They occasionally open it for special events and try to collect money for renovation and reuse of this beautiful Art Deco structure. But I could still wonder around (ignoring some “no trespassing” signs) and take some nice photographs. I do hope they will eventually find good use for this building and it will be brought to life again.
From the Central Terminal I drove towards the Broadway Market. I was curious abou the Polish connections in Buffalo and I had heard that there were some Polish oriented shops and restaurants there. On my way I stopped to photograph at least two grand churches which were built in the heyday of the area, when it was populated by a vibrant immigrant population, including many Poles. Now these churches feel way too big for this area, especially in the middle of the week when their surroundings are basically deserted.
But there was a bit of life in the market, which was a bit surreal. I’m used to the vibrant Polish community in London. The difference with Buffalo is that the “Poles” there are mostly of the second or third generation but they try to keep some traditions and tastes alive. I actually ate decent pierogi at one of the stands and had a chat with some of the folks working there. Some of them have never been to Poland and didn’t speak any Polish. But the gift shop at the market had a better selection of Poland-related gadgets (including an impressive variety of T-shirts) than I have seen in many Polish gift shops, including at the airports I use in Poland. It was bizarre to say the least.
From the market I drove to the industrial areas along the Buffalo River, where it enters Lake Erie. What I wanted to see were the numerous grain silos which tower over the locality. Some are still working facilities, most are abandoned but some are creatively reused, for example the River Works complex, with restaurants, a brewery and leisure facilities. Then there is the Silo City, a collection of three huge former silo complexes which are now kind of abandoned but used for art projects, filming locations and tours. Unfortunately the tours had to be booked in advance so I could only look from the outside before a guard (looking more like an American hobo than a security personnel) politely but firmly sent me away. Those industrial areas, with all the silos are fascinating and a photographer’s dream. I could spend more time wandering around.
Anyway, after all this it was time to head to downtown to see how the core of Buffalo really feels. I checked myself into hotel, left the car securely parked there and went for a proper photo exploration.
Downtown Buffalo is actually quite pleasant and has a lot of interesting architecture. But there is only one place where one can start a visit, the Buffalo City Hall. This fantastic Art Deco skyscraper has 32 floors and it was constructed between 1929 and 1931. It might well be one of the most impressive municipal buildings in the world. Its façade is adorned with plenty of symbolic decorations and fantastic details highlighting industry, agriculture and history, depicting workers, farmers and pioneers. And the interior looks like something straight from a Batman movie set, with even more elaborate details. I loved it. On the top floor there is a free viewing platform accessible to visitors during the building opening hours. It offers an amazing panorama of the downtown, the harbour, the silos, lake and the surrounding areas, including all the way to Canada. It is good idea to head there first to get a good spatial orientation of the city.
On my way down, while checking my phone, I realized one can also visit the Common Council Chamber. I asked at the reception and they told me the relevant floor and recommended just trying if the doors were open. They were, and there was absolutely nobody inside. The chamber is as splendid as the rest of the building, full of symbols and decorations and with the impressive decorative stain glass skylight in the ceiling. It looks better than many state capitols or even some countries’ parliament buildings. But I felt it was enough of interiors. As the weather was glorious, it was time to head back outside.
In front of the City Hall there is the circular Niagara Square which is surrounded by some other important buildings, like the brutalist Buffalo City Court or the Art Deco United States Courthouse. In the middle of the square stands a monument commemorating president William McKinley who was assassinated on the steps of the city hall in 1901. A short distance away is yet another square, the Lafayette Squre. This one is dominated by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorating “those who laid down their lives in the war to maintain the union for the cause of their country and of mankind“, as the plaque says. Many cities and towns in the North of the US have similiar monuments remembering soldiers fighting on the Union side of the American Civil War.
There are quite a lot of interesting buildings from the beginning of 20th century all over the downtown. Banks, departments stores, offices etc. It is all quite nice. It definitely felt better than one could expect reading stories about the decline of the rust belt. One of the most interesting buildings located on the Main Street is the neoclassical, Beaux–Arts style, branch of Buffalo Savings Bank. With its dome covered in gold it looks more like a temple than a bank. Not far away is located yet another historic skyscraper, the Electric Tower, a striking octagonal 14-storey structure clad in white terracotta and topped by a large lantern. I could list many more architectural wonders but it would make this little piece way too long. If you are interested in architecture from the golden period of growth in America, Buffalo is a great place to see many examples.
I continued my walk north. Eventually I left downtown and entered Allentown, a district located around a mile from the City Hall. It is a nice neighbourhood with a little bit of bohemian or even hipster vibe. Don’t worry it is not London, NYC or San Fran, it is all still unpretentious and actually quite pleasant, a place offering independent restaurants and a few galleries. All mixed with nice residential properties and leafy streets. I had a very late lunch there before heading back towards downtown and the lake.
Let’s not forget that Buffalo is located on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. The last part of the day I spent exploring the partially regenerated waterfront. Now, this being America, one hast to navigate areas under unsightly elevated roads from the 60s (here the Buffalo Skyway) but once on the lake the area is actually very nice. The glorious weather definitely helped the perception too. A popular attraction in this part of town is the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park where you can see ships (including a cruiser, USS Little Rock) and other military equipment. However tempting such things normally are for me, it was getting late so I skipped the military park and just had a stroll along the waterfront. I also spotted two small but intriguing memorials. One was the Irish Famine Memorial and the other highlighted Polish contribution in the WWII. This reminds you that America truly is nation of immigrants and Buffalo was hub for many of them.
In the early evening the area is a perfect place to admire the sunset and relax. There are restaurants and bars but I decided to call it a day and went back to my hotel. The following day it was time to head back to Canada and continue my trip. Toronto was awaiting for my first visit in well over 10 years.