Originally published in the Buffalo News, June 13, 2013 with the headline Search Through Time Turns Up Surprises. It has since been updated and expanded.
The proud new owners had been told that Grover Cleveland was a regular guest at their property. I helped them find the building permit for their address—dated 1915. Grover Cleveland died in 1908.
In my own family, we learned of a half-sibling whose existence was secret for 50 years. It was a shock to discover that I was the 4th of four daughters instead of the 3rd of three. We found our new sister and it has been a joy.
Not everyone is so fortunate. I know of genealogists being shunned by relatives after discovering inconvenient facts that toppled beloved family legends. For decades, the descendents of Thomas Jefferson indignantly rejected the story that he had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, until DNA evidence proved the Heming descendents right.
Our city faces a similar conflict over history. The professional historians who compiled the 2013 Historic Structures Report of the Michigan Street Baptist Church were unable to find any period evidence that the church served as a hiding place during Underground Railroad days, though it furthered the cause in other equally important ways. Providing concealment is not the only possible way to assist someone who is escaping from slavery, someone who could be hungry, thirsty, cold, or sick. The report rightly documents and emphasizes the church’s local and national significance, which dwarf this one claim.
I assisted with research for this report and my peer-reviewed article on the Underground Railroad in Buffalo is cited in it. About 2005, I started looking for eyewitness or period accounts confirming the church’s story, which first appeared in print in 1936, 70-plus years after the fact. Wouldn’t that be one of the greatest discoveries in Buffalo history? I also came up empty-handed.
George Weir, who was African-American, could read and write. Recent suggestions that oral legend is the only possible evidence of the church’s history underestimate the level of literacy in this community. Buffalo’s African-Americans first established literary societies in the 1830s.
George Weir felt safe publicizing his and Lansing’s efforts and full names. Indeed, the Provincial Freeman, a Canadian abolitionist newspaper published by Mary Ann Shadd Carey, the first African-American woman to publish a newspaper in North America, reported on Dec. 8, 1855, that the Fugitive Slave Law was “a dead letter” (not being enforced) in Buffalo.
George Weir took his guests to a public place, making no effort to conceal them.
Most importantly, George Weir’s father was Pastor George Weir, Sr., of the Vine Street AME Church, known today as Bethel AME. Why didn’t Weir use his father’s church? I believe that it was simply because the church lacked what his guests needed most: food, drink, and in the middle of a Buffalo winter: heat. In 1855, safe mechanical heating systems were not invented yet. Heat came from wood or coal stoves. Left unattended in an empty building, a burning stove not only wasted expensive fuel but might ignite your building.
Nothing in Weir’s letter disproves the Michigan Street Baptist Church’s hiding place story, but it does challenge almost everything we think we know about the Underground Railroad in Buffalo. History sometimes behaves in unpredictable ways.
Illustration of woman with camera courtesy of Pixabay
Or maybe you’re looking for an old picture of your playground, corner tavern, or favorite neighborhood deli. The first place to check is with your local library, museum, or historical society. Maybe it turns out that they have thousands of old pictures but they don’t have your house or your deli or your tavern. Why not? Isn’t that their job?
For an organization to provide an old photograph, five things need to happen, in this order:
Someone has to take a photograph of that person, place, thing, or event. Today, thanks to advanced cell phones, nearly all of us carry portable cameras everywhere we go. We can take unlimited numbers of instant, good-quality color pictures and videos without having to pay for film, developing, printing, sharing, or storage. Consider this thought experiment: even though photography is now free, what are all the things did you NOT take pictures of today? This may help you appreciate the pictures that our predecessors did not take, back when they were limited by cumbersome cameras, 12 to 36 exposures per roll of film, and the expense of developing and printing or hiring a professional photographer. There is no guarantee that someone with a camera was present to document any particular person, place, thing, or moment. Even newspapers and broadcast outlets, who have full-time photographers & videographers on staff, cannot be everywhere.
Someone has to save that photograph. And not discard it or lose it in a fire or a flood.
Someone has to ID that photograph. Ever inherit photos of long-dead ancestors and wonder who those people were because no one wrote names & dates on the back? Old photographs are useless without metadata, a word that means “information about information.” In the case of a photograph, metadata is everything you hope is written on the back: who, what, where, when. Unidentified photographs often end up in recycle bins or yard sales. They make delightful decor and art project fodder but they’re of little value to researchers, libraries, archives, or museums.
Someone has to donate that photograph. No matter how good a curator, archivist, or librarian is, they cannot find that one photo that exists only in a shoebox in someone’s closet and make them fork it over. Granted, some municipalities commissioned photographs of all properties in their jurisdiction for tax purposes. New York City did so. I know of no such effort at Buffalo City Hall. If your city or town government, with all of its logistical, labor, and funding advantages, did not attempt any mass photography projects like this, you can assume that a small library or historical organization, which might have few employees or an all-volunteer crew, also never accomplished it.
Someone has to catalog or inventory that photograph. There’s a saying among librarians, archivists & curators: ownership is not access. An organization has a dozen boxes of photos donated by Mr. Smith stacked in a storage room has an inaccessible collection. They cannot tell you if there’s a picture of your house in one of those boxes until someone goes through those boxes and compiles an inventory and maybe imposes some sort of order on them. Once the organizing and metadata labor (called processing, or more specifically, arrangement and description) is done, then they can consider digitizing a photographic collection. Which is a big topic for another time.
If these five steps have not occurred, then a repository cannot supply the old photo that you need. Here are some other picture research strategies to consider.
On the evening on August 31, 1924, shots rang out in front of 128 Durham Street, near Delavan and Grider in Buffalo. Moments later, Special Officer Edward C. Obertean lay mortally wounded; Klansman Thomas Austin was dead; and a Ku Klux Klan recruiter, or Kleagle, had a gunshot wound in the groin. Armed warfare had broken out in the streets in Buffalo. How had it gotten to this point?
It is easy to dismiss Buffalo as the poster child of urban decrepitude and dysfunction. It is also wrong. Mark Goldman resurrects Buffalo’s forgotten role on the cutting edge of the literary, artistic, and musical avant-garde. Here is how Buffalo, much to the envy of Boston, peacefully and successfully implemented a court-ordered school desegregation program. Here is how Buffalo, with diminishing resources and little outside help, saved some of America’s finest architectural treasures; and how Buffalo integrated one of its most desirable neighborhoods without rancor or white flight.
Author James Howard Kunstler, a noted critic of suburban sprawl, has argued that after decades of massive investment in suburban expansion, the result is places not worth caring about, not worth defending. In City on the Edge, Goldman shows us a city that, even after massive disinvestment, survives as an inspiring and magical place worth caring about and worth defending.
Goldman tells the story of a passionate and committed citizenry betrayed by inept if not corrupt leadership. On the one hand, City on the Edge is a painful history of desperate politicians who squandered scarce dollars on worthless if not damaging development, which resulted in sickeningly gleeful architectural and urban amputation. It is also homage to a city blessed like few others with engaged caretakers and activists, people who stay and fight to mend the city they love. Goldman’s final chapter is an anthem to the extraordinary sense of place that seizes the hearts and minds of those who are lucky enough to make Buffalo their home.
Goldman’s Buffalo is a city on the edge of rediscovery, renewal, and regeneration—if only its officials will respect the leadership, wisdom, and passion of its citizens. Read it and be prepared to discard your most cherished stereotypes.
Free Book Exchange, corner of Grant & Lafayette outside Sweetness_7 Café, Buffalo, NY, December 2011. Photo by author, (c)2011, all rights reserved. This essay was originally published at LinkedIn in May 2019. It has been lightly edited.
Because Little Free Library™ (LFL) is a trademarked brand, for the purposes of this article, I will call book boxes on posts Little Libraries (LLs).
Over the 2018 Labor Day weekend, I got the idea to do a Google map of LLs in Buffalo, which I later expanded to Erie County. Several LLs had appeared in my neighborhood and most were not registered with the international LFL organization, so they did not appear on the official LFL map. It was a fun holiday project that grew into an ongoing spatial record of LL activity.
In May 2019, the Elmwood Village Association asked if they could incorporate my LL addresses into their own map. I agreed on the grounds that I get credited, with a link back. BuffaloRising.com, in turn, ran a story on the two maps, including a screenshot and link to my map. Whereupon debate ensued in the comments. I decided to post a single response here, rather than exchange tit-for-tat with testy BuffaloRising readers.
LLs are a creative solution to the fact that in many places, book supply exceeds demand. There are more books than there are collectors or libraries or used bookstores or rummage sales who want or need them.
At the LLs I frequent, the selection is usually popular fiction and children’s books. Once everyone who is likely to read the latest bestseller has read the latest bestseller, thousands of surplus copies will be available. Their market value is negligible. Most fiction has a short shelf life and minimal lasting significance, research value, or long-term collectability. It makes sense to give these books away.
Most LLs are voluntarily erected at a private expense on private property. The vast majority of Buffalo LLs I mapped are on residential property, a front lawn adjacent to the sidewalk. If people installed them on the tree lawn between the sidewalk and street, which is public property, the City could legally remove them, though in the absence of safety or nuisance issues, I hope they would not bother.
While searching online for LL mentions in Buffalo, I learned of four organized LL campaigns. Two were led by neighborhood associations, which explains two of the clusters on my map. It would fall outside the geographic scope of their mission to install LLs anywhere other than the areas they serve.
At the moment, LLs are a popular lawn accessory, just as artificial ponds were the must-have garden feature 15 years ago. If I could map artificial ponds in Buffalo backyards, I imagine that the densest clusters of them would pretty much line up with the densest clusters of LLs. Both are markers of disposable income. The difference is that LLs are easier to maintain than pondlets and offer public rather than private enjoyment.
While LLs are charming, they are no help to anyone who needs to do meaningful research: school reading assignments, term papers, local history, family history, job-hunting, health & medicine, learning English, studying for your citizenship exam. They do not offer free computer and internet access, proprietary database access, personal how-do-I-find-X advice, computer training classes, story hours, maker spaces, book clubs, e-books, kids’ activities, copy machines, all the things offered by public libraries. LLs may offer random recreational reading but they do not provide professionallibrarians. I think most people understand this.
At this point I should mention Free Book Exchanges. They predate LLs and a few appeared here in Buffalo. In addition to the one I photographed in 2011, I recall another Free Book Exchange on Allen at Franklin. What I don’t recall is any opposition. The only difference between a Free Book Exchange and a Little Library is branding: LLs appropriate the library name and its dense web of associations.
Which brings us to the heart of the debate at BuffaloRising. Readers criticized LLs on the ground that they represent yet another maldistribution of resources and their existence might embolden funders to cut public library budgets. This fear is articulated in an essay that ran at CityLab in 2017:
“We submit that these data reinforce the notion that [Little Free Libraries] are examples of performative community enhancement, driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.”
“The journal article names one place where Little Free Library exchanges may have grown at the expense of the public library system. In September 2014, the mayor of tiny Vinton, Texas, announced plans to install five Little Free Library book-stops across town—while implementing a $50 fee for access to the El Paso Public Library system to balance state-imposed budget cuts.”
The authors accused LL owners of “virtue signaling,” which makes me wonder: if installing a free book box in your front yard is virtue signaling, then what is working in an actual library or serving on its board? Virtue broadcasting?
In any event, yes, there are bad actors who promote bad ideas. Like this author at Forbes magazine, who argued that it’d be cheaper to shut down public libraries and just give everyone Amazon digital services.
The backlash was loud and swift.
Another bad idea is that we don’t need public libraries now that we have the internet. This bad idea long predates the advent of LLs and will continue to rear its ugly head after the Little Library fad has peaked. Why this is a bad idea is the subject for another essay, but here is just one of many arguments.
While it is true that LLs are concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods who do not lack for book access, the claim that LLs might inspire public library budget cuts has little merit. Garage sales have not put AmVets out of business. The Lexington Co-op has not closed down because of church & school bake sales. Annual neighborhood and park clean-up days do not inspire sanitation worker layoffs. Individuals taking in stray animals does not prompt anyone to defund the SPCA.
I suspect that had the Free Book Exchange name been widely adopted instead of Little Free Library™, no one would worry that they would inspire budget cuts to public libraries. Today’s debate is an unintended consequence of appropriating the library brand.
If you want to see more LLs in low-income neighborhoods, then by all means find someone who is willing to host one on their property–a family, church, business, or nonprofit. If you initiate or underwrite the installation of one, adopt it for the long haul and commit to keeping it stocked. Discard and replace books that are worn, damaged, or sit for weeks unclaimed.
Just don’t argue that Little Libraries are bad and there should be more of them.
Originally published at my LinkedIn page in December 2019, then reprinted by BuffaloRising.com with the title “Buffalo’s Newest Urban Legend” at both sites. Reproduced here with edits and updates. Article about 1863 fire added in January 2022. Image of Buffalo City Hall courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The assertion first came to my attention in 2018 in the comment section at a popular Buffalo website. Then some folks expressed it to me in person. We may be witnessing the birth of a brand new urban legend in Buffalo, specifically:
“City Hall had a fire and all of the records were destroyed.”
We were talking about doing Buffalo house research when this claim was conveyed to me. My informants then, and those who have expressed it since then, can never say who told them this.
Let’s start at the beginning. For over a decade now, the City of Buffalo has made available online a free searchable property database, which they call the Online Assessment Roll System (OARS).
If you spend much time poking around in OARS, you notice a curious pattern: the majority of houses apparently went up in 1900! Statistically speaking, this just isn’t likely. Buffalo wasn’t built in a year. What’s up with that chronic 1900 build date?
Enter the Fire Theory. Maybe it goes something like this: If that 1900 build date is the wrong information, it must be because City Hall doesn’t have the right information. If City Hall doesn’t have the right information, it must be because records were lost or destroyed. If the records were destroyed, there must have been a fire.
The first one was in 1863. “None of the city records, however were destroyed in the [City Clerk’s] department. We understand that some papers in the Auditor’s and Comptroller’s office were consumed.” The Assessor’s office, where tax records are kept, was not damaged.
Here it is the only other fire in a Buffalo government building that I could find:
If you have a Newspapers.com subscription, you can now search the full text of Buffalo newspapers from 1811-1923. You will find lots of articles about city hall & courthouse fires in other cities and states, which suggests that when something like this does happen, it makes national news.
Had a major City Hall fire happened here, it would have had front page headlines. It would have been reported in other cities. It would have been an ongoing story as the scope of damage was assessed, salvage and clean-up began, repair budgets were approved, and so on. A record-destroying catastrophe would be common knowledge, like the fact that Buffalo was burned during the War of 1812. Now that we have a growing selection of digitized newspapers, this kind of claim is more easily proved or disproved.
Second flaw with the Fire Theory: A quick perusal of the records housed in the City of Buffalo Inactive Records Center (this link doesn’t list all of them, just the most in-demand) shows an intact collection of 19th and 20th century records, including tax records dating back to 1814. Had there been a record-destroying fire, surely those tax records would have been lost.
We have two centuries of city records with no chronological gaps. Government websites are usually quite forthcoming about disaster-related record losses, such as this example from Virginia. There is even a page that alerts genealogists to burned counties, none of which have been reported in New York State.
Let’s go back to the mystery of the chronic 1900 build date. At the risk of launching a new and only slightly improved urban legend, here is a hypothesis of my own.
Remember the name of the property database? Online Assessment Roll System. Its purpose is to ensure that the City is taxing property owners legally, correctly, and transparently. It was not designed to be a house history database.
Right here is where I am going to go out on my own theoretical limb because I have never worked in a tax assessors’ office or in City Hall. For the purposes of tax collection, I imagine that there are certain things that they absolutely must get right: for example, the dimensions of the parcel, the location of the parcel, the correct name and address of the owner, the current assessment. The build date in this database is like your house paint color: it does not materially affect your assessment.
My initial guess was that 1900 was the default date used by the database designers because it was close enough for taxation purposes. But Jacqueline Hovey offered an even better hypothesis: The Year 1900 Problem.
If there was no fire that destroyed these records, then why didn’t they just skip the 1900 default date and plug in the right dates instead? Here is where I venture even further out on my theoretical limb. I think this is because building records aren’t in the Assessor’s office. They’re in the Permits & Inspections Department. In hard copy, they may not be all that portable. Establishing the build date for every address in Buffalo probably requires a manual search. Not the best use of tax department staff for an inessential field in a big database.
Since OARS is not reliable when it comes to build dates, then how do you determine when your Buffalo house was built? Leaving the realm of hypothesis, we now return to the factual world.
The best and often only source is Buffalo Common Council Proceedings, some of which are online. Council Proceedings date back to 1832, when Buffalo was incorporated as a city. Every week, when Council convened to deliberate on the public’s business, they also officially approved the building permits applied for that week. Even in 1832, the City required and issued building permits, though the scope of work requiring a permit has no doubt greatly expanded since then.
The permits were then listed and published in the Proceedings, one volume for each year. The volumes that are not digitized can be found in hard copy in various libraries. The oldest editions are available only on microfilm. Here is what a typical permit listing looks like.
I’ve also watched the urban legend morph in real time to Well, actually, I heard it was a flood. Fair enough, but the burden of proof is still on you. Search newspapers and Common Council Proceedings and get back to me when you have the date of the flood and a description of the damage.
Because this essay relies heavily on guesswork, I welcome comments and corrections from anyone with first-hand experience working on OARS.
This essay originally appeared as a My View column in The Buffalo Newson Feb. 5, 2013 and has since been edited and expanded. Image shows elderly couple walking in street due to unplowed sidewalks. One of them is pushing the other in a wheelchair. Photo taken by author on Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY, January 2020, all rights reserved.
When I moved to Buffalo 20 years ago, I was shocked to discover that the city does not plow sidewalks. How could that be, in a place that gets so much snow?
I grew up in Rochester, where sidewalks were and still are plowed at public expense. Rochester has 37 square miles; Buffalo has 42. Its population is 210,855; ours is 261,025. Rochester’s economy has declined as much as Buffalo’s, yet its government continues to provide sidewalk plowing while ours pleads poverty.
In Buffalo, property owners are required by law to clear sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses. We are expected get out and shovel to show the world that we are truly the City of Good Neighbors. If we don’t, it must be because we are antisocial lazybones who deserve their annual scolding from The Buffalo News. This popular sentiment reflects idealism about who we wish we were more than realism about how to reliably clear sidewalks. This law is a failure.
When I walk my 1.5 mile route to work, let us say for the sake of argument that I pass 250 houses and businesses. For me to have a fully cleared path, all 250 must shovel, sweep, snowblow and/or salt to the same standard after each and every snowfall. What level of compliance constitutes success? Eighty percent? Meaning that for every five addresses, four are shoveled, so I have to detour into the street for only 20 percent of my route? How about frequency of shoveling? If owners shovel their sidewalk after four out of five fresh snowfalls, is that satisfactory?
Let’s say that Buffalo’s 15 percent vacancy rate, the highest in the state, is reflected in my route and 15 percent of the addresses I pass are vacant or demolished. Who shall we ticket for impassable sidewalks in front of abandoned lots and buildings? Who is responsible for clearing the sidewalks fronting city-owned parking lots? These are purposely situated near commercial corridors that depend on foot traffic. The city, which is now our single largest land owner, does not obey its own shoveling laws.
Next, let us factor in everything that interferes with adjacent-owner sidewalk clearance: physical limitations, out-of-town travel, lack of awareness, absentee landlords, too many other responsibilities and, most egregiously, snowplow operators who clear streets and driveways by dumping snow onto sidewalks.
Nevertheless, since we’ve decided that owner shoveling is the ideal way to clear sidewalks, then why don’t we sell our street plows and lay off snowplow drivers to save on taxes, and require owners to clear streets, too?
We do not burden individuals in this way because one household failing to shovel would impede all drivers and all emergency vehicles. We plow our streets at public expense to provide safe, consistent, and equitable access for all. We also recognize that streets are public, not private property, and must be maintained at public expense.
Here’s the kicker: so are sidewalks. “My” sidewalk does not belong to me at all. Pedestrians deserve the same safe, consistent, and equitable access to public right-of-ways as vehicles. Automobiles spend over 90% of the time parked, meaning that 90% of the time, we are pedestrians instead of drivers. City budgets should reflect this reality. The present situation is an equal protection violation: Buffalo taxpayers inside of motor vehicles are entitled to right-of-ways cleared at public expense, while Buffalo taxpayers outside of motor vehicles are subject to penalties if they fail to maintain public property.
So tax me. Please! Then tax me some more to pay for sidewalk plowing in low-income neighborhoods.
Most architecturally-aware Buffalonians know how the Darwin Martin-Frank Lloyd Wright friendship led to commissions for the now-demolished Larkin Administration building and homes for the top Larkin Company officers. Demolished portions of the Martin House complex are being rebuilt as the site undergoes a complete restoration. Martin also commissioned Wright’s only cemetery monument, the Blue Sky Mausoleum, which was constructed in Forest Lawn in 2004, decades after the passing of the Martins.
Additional executions of unbuilt Wright designs are underway in Buffalo. James and Mary Ann Sandoro of the Buffalo Transportation-Pierce Arrow Museum are constructing Wright’s Tydol gas station, originally designed for Buffalo in the 1920s, on Michigan Avenue. Fundraising is underway to put up Wright’s ca. 1905 Yahara boathouse, originally designed for Madison, WI, on the Niagara River near Porter Avenue.
Some scholars argue that these new constructions should not be considered genuine Wright creations because the architect is not present to make the many major and minor adjustments necessary to transform two-dimensional intentions into three-dimensional structures. New sites, new building codes, new construction materials, and new techniques present challenges to authenticity. So let’s concede the point, call these projects Re-Wrights, and lead the world in posthumous Re-Wrighting.
Here is the next candidate for Re-Wrighting Buffalo. In 1904, the Larkin Company, known for a corporate culture of benevolent paternalism, commissioned Wright to design rowhouses for its workers. This was a progressive response to overcrowding and slum conditions in industrial Buffalo, decades before the advent of public housing. The rowhouses were probably planned for the vicinity of the Larkin factory complex on Seneca Street. Further research is needed to determine how and why Larkin decided to provide company housing, if a site was ever selected, why they were never built, and what materials Wright had in mind.
Wright designed little with which to compare them. Apparently the only Wright rowhouses ever to be built are the Roloson apartments in Chicago, which date to 1894 and have a Tudor-style steeply-pitched gable facades and Louis Sullivan-inspired ornament above the windows.
The Larkin Rowhouse design was first published in 1910 in Germany in the famous Wasmuth Portfolio, the publication that established Wright’s reputation in Europe. At that time, the client was identified as Mr. E.C. Waller of Chicago. In 1942, Henry-Russell Hitchcock determined that the client was actually the Larkin Company and praised the design as an early prototype for European worker housing and US defense housing. Hitchcock’s attribution appears to be uncontested, probably because the design shows such strong affinities with the Larkin building and the Buffalo prairie houses, most notably in the prominent vertical piers segmenting the façade, the low-pitched roof with deep overhangs, and horizontal bands of windows.
The Larkin Rowhouse plans survive today in the archives of Taliesin West, awaiting a licensing agreement with a visionary builder. Buffalo has all too many “shovel ready” sites and a growing downtown housing market. Let’s build the rowhouses for everyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be a Larkin company executive.
The widely-accepted story of W.E.B. DuBois’ venue choice for the inaugural meeting of the Niagara Movement cites racial discrimination as the cause. Recent research by local scholars, however, suggests that this was not the case after all.