The Neighborly Way: Buffalo’s West Village Historic District
By Melissa Sandor - Buffalo Spree Magazine - October 2003
This nation’s cities and villages used to be a model of civil life. We were the experts at creating the gathering-places, the very architecture, that set the stage for democracy: the Puritans built their villages around common greens; the livestock grazed there, but, more importantly, the village green was where news was proclaimed, and where neighbors chatted or argued over the issues of the day.
-Remarks by Vice President Al Gore at Brookings Institution (Washington, D.C. September 2, 1998)
Plant neighborhood and Christian-like accord.
-Shakespeare (The Life of King Henry V)
On a recent visit to Western New York, I reminisced about the summers I spent growing up in Kenmore. It was a generation before “play dates” and driving schedules, when neighbors spent temperate evenings visiting on their porches and in their backyards, and kids rode their bikes exploring their neighborhoods or swinging on the swings at the local playground. Times have changed, as we are often, uncomfortably, aware. But there are some neighborhoods where community members band together to create a community that is not only livable, but one that offers a rich texture of cooperation and fellowship for each of its residents. Buffalo’s West Village Historic District community is one.
The West Village Historic District is a twenty-two-acre enclave of streets located northeast of Niagara Street and south of West Tupper. It borders South Elmwood Avenue and includes Johnson Park, West Chippewa, Cary, Tracy, Carolina, and Georgia streets as well as Rabin Terrace and Prospect Avenue. Located within walking distance of downtown Buffalo and the Lake Erie waterfront, the West Village retains many of the original architectural details that characterize its history and add to its old world charm, including tree-lined streets, slate sidewalks and stone carriage steps.
Johnson Park is the center of the West Village, and offers ample, manicured green space for residents and business owners from the surrounding neighborhood to gather. Named for former Buffalo Mayor Ebenezer Johnson, this subdivision was built by Johnson in 1832, and by 1845 it had evolved into a trend-setting and fashionable residential area. A series of disastrous fires in the City of Buffalo at this time forced City officials to pass an 1850 law requiring all residential buildings in certain areas of density to be constructed of brick. As a result, 83% of the buildings on Johnson Park have maintained their original brick structure.
After Mayor Johnson passed away, the site of his “Cottage,” a twenty-four room Palladian Villa on the Park, became the site for the Female Academy of Buffalo, the first institute of higher learning for women in the country. In addition, Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1876 map of parkland in the city of Buffalo indicates that he redesigned the Johnson Park Green, and this design was eventually incorporated into his overall plan for the City. Today, Johnson Park is the oldest residential neighborhood in Buffalo, and one of the few communities in the nation to have achieved triple designation as an historic district under the City of Buffalo and New York State’s Landmark and Preservation Ordinance and the federal National Register of Historic Places.
Over the past few decades, the socio-economic challenges that plague urban neighborhoods across the northeast, as well as throughout the country, have affected the West Village Historic District as well. However, concerned and committed residents work to face these challenges including The Johnson Park Association and The Cary Street Association, both of which are leading, member-driven forces in the neighborhood’s sustainability Established in the mid-seventies, The Johnson Park Association is led by Association President Marilyn Rodgers, a financial professional who lives on the Park with her partner Anne Gareis. The Association is composed of racially and economically diverse individuals from a variety of professions including attorneys, marketing professionals, gardeners, architectural model makers, students, writers, and many more. In fact, it is the diversity of this membership that Rodgers credits with the Association’s great progress this past year. For example, since August, 2002, members have worked “countless hours,” as Rodgers points out, beautifying the Johnson Park Green and making it safe for residents and their friends and families. In particular, members of the Association have been working with Peter BonSey, an internationally renowned garden designer, most noted for his work on The Learning Channel’s highly successful show While You Were Out. A resident of Snyder, BonSey is contributing his time to help Johnson Park create “an Old English park—a large center that is then delineated by wrought iron posts and chains into highly accessible sections of greenery, and one that is in keeping with the architectural integrity of the neighborhood.” BonSey depicted the Association’s approach in revitalizing the park as “family-oriented and not about high tech gadgetry. The community is so open to the public and tries very hard to promote the involvement of residents and neighbors. I appreciate their approach very much and have felt welcomed by them in our work together.”
Rodgers cites the importance of opening up the neighborhood to people who are not residents of the Park, but who truly make a difference in their small community. She cites making friends with local public workers such as policeman and sanitation workers as vital in the Association’s efforts to improve the quality of life in the West Village Historic District. She explains, “We offer them a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, especially during the winter months. And we always make sure to stop and say hello. It’s the kind of community we want to create in Johnson Park—one that cares about the people who live and work here each day.”
In addition, Johnson Park has developed a variety of public programs for neighborhood residents and the public including the “Walk With Me” program, which provides information on the architectural, social, and economic history of Johnson Park, and the “Neighborhood Relief Program” which grants assistance to neighbors who are in need of emergency financial assistance. Each year a number of houses on Johnson Park, as well as throughout the West Village, participate in Buffalo’s Annual Garden Walk.
The Johnson Park Association held a spectacular “Arts in the Park: Back to our Roots Day” on August 31 in conjunction with The New Phoenix Theatre On the Park and Spot Coffee. This day-long event offered a family festival of arts activities and games including an architectural and historical tour of Buffalo’s first park and a performance by the African American Cultural Center Drum and Dance Troupe.
When asked about this resurgence in the community’s interest in the Park, as well as the Association’s success, Rodgers explains, “The Johnson Park Association has used this simple equation: we have utilized Kellig’s “Broken Windows” theory along with Giuliani’s “Sweat the Small Stuff” and added common sense principles, foresight and responsibility to all that is around us as well as for future generations. This combination will create the renaissance of Buffalo.”
A West Village compatriot of Johnson Park is the Cary Street Association. Established in 1984, members of this group have worked steadfastly with public representatives and private individuals to assist in the quality of life issues affecting the West Village Historic District. Association President Laird Robertson emphasizes Cary Street’s work with City of Buffalo and agency officials to develop a common agreement on the design and/or reuse of buildings in the area. In addition, members have initiated discussions with area business owners, including those on West Chippewa Street, about neighborhood noise pollution and waste disposal. Robertson has characterized these discussions as “crucial” in making the West Village a desirable place to live for people from all walks of life including business professionals, blue collar workers, professors, and artists etc. as he explains, “The people who live on Cary Street come from all backgrounds—some have to get up at 6:00 a.m. to start their day, some work from home, others work well into the evening. It was just a matter of letting area business owners know that our community is a place where people come for entertainment, and it is also a place where people live. It has been tremendous for us to cooperate with business owners on the standard of living we want to promote. I think it’s worked out for everyone.”
One particular example of the Association’s work is their cooperation with AIDS Community Services on the successful renovation of their new historic headquarters at 200 South Elmwood Avenue, an 1854 Italianate Victorian next to the Roanoke Hotel, where ACS resides currently. Robertson describes the Association’s focus: “When the Association was first formed, we were dealing with aesthetic and design issues, and the way that people saw their own property. However, as we’ve grown, we’ve begun working on larger issues that affect the sustainability of this community—education, responsible use of energy, environmental design—these are the sorts of things that make our community an ideal place to live. We also work together to help each other out, snow blowing each other’s driveways and the street...We want to stay connected as a community as we work to change Elmwood Avenue back in to an avenue and not just a thoroughfare to reach the suburbs. We believe that this will help revitalize the tremendous infra-structure that exists in downtown Buffalo.”
In addition to the work that Johnson Park and Cary Street are accomplishing in their own vicinities, these associations also collaborate with one another and offer a place for individuals who reside on the additional streets in the West Village to gather and work towards the continued sustainability of this historic community with the newest effort to attain residential parking for the Village area.
Tonawanda native Melissa Sandor is a fiction writer and consultant living in New York.