From his penchant for talking about grain elevators to the Buffalo pin on his lapel, Chris Hawley is one of the city’s most passionate ambassadors.
“As a city planner, I like being one of the many participants in the gradual reclamation of our city,” he says. “With this gradual reclamation that Buffalonians are now very familiar with, we’re telling a new story to the world.”
That story involves an explosion of art, hand-built bars hidden among former industrial hubs, and a wave of immigrants and refugees bringing new blood to neglected neighborhoods. Basically, it’s a world away from the tired old perception that the city “isn’t worth much beyond chicken wings, the Buffalo Bills, and snow.”
Hawley’s three-day itinerary features spots that have been “vacant for a generation or more and are now becoming special places again.” It honors classic Buffalo destinations alongside more recent spots that have added a whole new layer of character to the city.
Day One Agenda
• Get the lay of the land from the top of City Hall.
• Fuel up on carbs and coffee at Five Points Bakery.
• Explore the tranquil grounds and colorful mausoleums of Forest Lawn Cemetery.
• Drop in on a jam session at the Colored Musicians Club.
City Hall Observation Deck
What better way to get to know a new city than from a budget-friendly observation deck? You can access a free one via the 25th floor of Buffalo’s City Hall, a grand Art Deco building dedicated in 1932. But don’t rush straight to the elevator. Take a few moments to appreciate the friezes on the facade and the murals in the lobby, all of which provide an artistic time capsule of 1930s Buffalo’s grand industries, culture, and values. The murals also have delightful titles: One portraying the bonds between the United States and Canada reads, “Frontiers Unfettered by Any Frowning Fortress.”
After taking the elevator to floor 25, climb three flights of stairs, and you’ll get a grand view of the city’s layout. On a clear day, you may even spot some mist rising from Niagara Falls. Within the downtown skyline, look out for the twin Statues of Liberty that stand guard on the roof of the Liberty Building. One points to Chicago and one to New York, paying tribute to the might of both cities.
Five Points Bakery
From downtown, head north to Five Points Bakery, the heart of the revived neighborhood for which it’s named. There you’ll find an array of delicious organic breads, toast-based breakfasts, and coffee iced with frozen coffee cubes instead of plain old water.
Tucked in a corner spot beneath the stairs is a space for kids, with games, a mini library, and a puppet theater. The tables beside the front windows are designated laptop- and tablet-free, but upstairs, among calming greenery, creative types peck at their keyboards between sips of coffee.
Forest Lawn Cemetery
Forest Lawn unites peaceful, beautifully landscaped cemetery grounds with brightly lit, carpeted 1970s mausoleums. Walking into one such community mausoleum, Birchwood, you’ll see stained-glass feature windows, leather couches, ornate wrought-iron gates, and glassed-in shelves holding urns.Toward the top of one wall is the vault of the Honorable Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American woman in Congress, as well as the first African American to run for a major party in a presidential primary. The inscription on her headstone states her Congressional campaign slogan and the title of one of her books, “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Back outside, a stroll away, is a black headstone with a ghostly white portrait of an instantly recognizable funk star. It marks the grave of James Ambrose Johnson Jr., better known as Rick James. Other famed residents of Forest Lawn include U.S. President Millard Fillmore and notable civil rights activist, Mary Burnett Talbert.
Colored Musicians Club
At the corner of Broadway and Michigan Avenue are two sites integral to the African-American history of Buffalo. Black Americans built the red-brick Michigan Street Baptist Church in 1845 as a safe place for their community to worship. The church was a focus of Underground Railroad activity before the Civil War and, after the war, of civil rights activism.
Around the corner on Broadway is the Colored Musicians Club. Its story began in 1918, when a group of African-American musicians formed a social club after having their membership rejected at the white-only musicians’ union. By 1934, the club had found a permanent spot at 145 Broadway. To this day, it hosts Sunday night jazz concerts and jam sessions, as well as big bands every Monday and Thursday. A mural over the door pays tribute to the greats who have graced the place, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole.
Day Two Agenda
• Wander around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin House.
• Visit Hotel Henry, located in a former psychiatric hospital.
• Dine inside an artist’s fever dream at the Tabernacle.
• Catch a movie at the grand Art Deco North Park Theatre.
Darwin Martin House Complex
Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Prairie School stylings live on in Buffalo—at 125 Jewett Parkway, more precisely, where the Martin House Complex was built as a private residence in 1905. The low cantilevered roofs, horizontal orientation, and hundreds of panes of art glass make this a prime pilgrimage site for Frank Lloyd Wright fans. Businessman Darwin Martin and his family moved into the Martin House as soon as it was built, but they abandoned the complex following Martin’s death in 1935. The property deteriorated, changed hands a few times, got subdivided, and was partially demolished. Following a massive restoration and reconstruction effort that began in the late 1990s, the house opened to the public as a historic site and museum.
A guided tour will lead you through highlights of the home, weaving among Wright-designed furniture. Alone, you can walk through the long pergola that connects the main house to the conservatory. There, an indoor garden is watched over by Nike, winged goddess of victory. Or at least a stone statue of her, with impressively detailed folds sculpted into her diaphanous dress.
Hotel Henry/Richardson Olmsted Campus
The happy hour is hopping at the institution once known as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. After the hospital’s patients were transferred out in the 1970s, the grounds fell into disrepair. But a bold approach to adaptive reuse has brought the place back to life as the art-filled Hotel Henry and its 100 Acres restaurant. Hotel guests stay in revamped versions of the patient rooms, which line extra-wide hallways filled with local artists’ creations.
The stunning building, constructed in 1870, was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. It housed a psychiatric hospital that followed the Kirkbride Plan, a layout that aimed to improve patients’ mental health by grouping them according to severity and ensuring they had access to nature. The idea was that the longer patients stayed, the healthier they became, and the closer they got to walking out the front doors and back to their families.
To stroll the floors of Hotel Henry is to get a sense of how patients spent their lives. Much of the original architecture and design has been preserved, and the hotel’s fearless embrace of its history is both unusual and admirable.
To get to the Tabernacle, walk past the black-and-white-striped columns, through the blue door, and into the old phone booth. That’s if you can manage not to get distracted by the artwork covering the interior walls and ceiling, which includes angels, symbols of peace, and a more gender-balanced take on Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”
The Tabernacle is a bar and restaurant that manages to be both relaxing and visually chaotic. The hand-painted murals, all done by line cook turned artist Jeremy Twiss, vary wildly in color, style, and concept, showing influences from ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and Eastern spirituality. They’ll certainly spark conversation over drinks and dinner.
North Park Theatre and Pastry by Camille
A recent renovation has brought back the glory days of North Park Theatre. The movie house opened in 1920, welcoming visitors with stained-glass windows and mythology-themed Art Nouveau murals. The illuminated marquee, a striking sight after dark, was added in 1941. Over the decades, these decorative elements receded, a result of being either worn down or covered up. But a 21st-century revamp brightened the place again, making it the top spot in town to see a film.
For movie-time treats, head next door to Pastry by Camille to pick up a rainbow of macarons and some decadent chocolate truffles. You might see Camille, the young Frenchman who runs the joint and its sister spot downtown.
Day Three Agenda
• See the once-bustling, now-quiet Buffalo Central Terminal.
• Tuck into Ethiopian injera at West Side Bazaar.
• Score a Buffalo souvenir at Oxford Pennant.
• Watch the sunset amid grain elevators at Silo City.
Buffalo Central Terminal
In the 1930s and ’40s, passengers poured forth at Buffalo Central Terminal, arriving on trains from places like New York, Toronto, and Chicago. They filled up the lunch counters at the glamorous concourse restaurant and got their shoes shined beneath the soaring arches at the northern end. The station acted as a bookend to Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal and had the same lead architect in Alfred T. Fellheimer.
By the 1950s, cars and planes had made a serious dent in train passenger numbers. Services were scaled back until 1979, when the last train departed and Buffalo Central Terminal closed for good. Since 1997, the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation has been raising funds and fixing up the building, little by little. Now, the concourse is open to the public a few times a month for concerts, tours, and train shows. The annual highlight is Dyngus Day, a traditional Polish fertility festival on Easter Monday. But if you’re not there on one of those days, the building itself is still worth the trip.
The terminal is on the eastern side of the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, which bears the most visible scars of Buffalo’s population drop. It lost 87 percent of its residents after 1950. But in the past 10 years, an influx of immigrants, particularly Bangladeshi and Burmese families, has had a revitalizing effect. “If it weren’t for immigrants and refugees, Buffalo would still be sinking fast,” Hawley says. “Instead, our population has stabilized. We are not growing yet, as a city or as a region. But the precipitous fall that we’ve seen since 1950 due to suburbanization and deindustrialization has stopped. And the only reason for that is the immigrant and refugee population.”
West Side Bazaar
To get a fuller—and tastier—sense of how immigrants and refugees are enhancing Buffalo, plan to have lunch at West Side Bazaar, a small-business incubator that unites individual food and craft stalls under one roof. The owners hail from such countries as South Sudan, Burma, and Rwanda. Once there, you can feast on dishes like Zelalem Gemmeda’s Ethiopian injera with cabbage, spicy lentils, potatoes, and beets. Originally from Ethiopia, Gemmeda came to Buffalo via Yemen, where she lived in a refugee camp, then spent a dozen years working at a restaurant. Her sister back in Ethiopia still sends her spices to incorporate into her West Side Bazaar recipes.
On the craft side, there are stallholders from Rwanda, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burma. One is run by Nadeen Youssef, who has fled two wars: one in Iraq, the other in Syria. Youssef makes macrame wall hangings, jewelry, and plant holders, and teaches macrame classes regularly.
For a sunny souvenir of your time in Buffalo, head to Oxford Pennant on Main Street. Inspired by the aesthetics of sleepaway camp and sports memorabilia stores, owners Dave Horesh and Brett Mikoll opened the store in 2013. Its colorful, vintage-inspired pennants, camp flags, patches, and pins are fun and cheerful without tipping over into twee.
The wares’ slogans cover American hometown pride (“Let’s go Buffalo”), motivation (“You’ll think of something”), and sentiments (“It’s cool to be kind”). Just walking into the place is a mood-enhancing experience—a jumbo-sized pennant on the wall reads, “It’s good to have you with us even if it’s just for the day.”
Silo City and Duende
Silo City bills itself as “just your average, everyday historic grain elevator complex that doubles as a music venue, theater backdrop, poetry site, and industrial film location.” And that it is. Located on a southern bank of the Buffalo River, Silo City offers a second skyline of towering grain elevators—the largest collection of them anywhere in the world.
Standing at the center of these silent industrial giants is Duende, a bar that stealthily occupies the complex’s former administration building. Duende is a Spanish word favored by poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. It’s a bit tricky to translate, but it is essentially the state of heightened emotion, expression, and buoyancy of spirit that accompanies soulful art and performance. It’s a fitting word. There’s something special about taking a seat at Duende’s bar, which was hand built entirely out of materials salvaged from the surrounding silos, or having a sunset drink in the back garden, in the shadow of a grain elevator. This is where old Buffalo meets new Buffalo.
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