Wait, what? How are PBS’s Sanditon series, now in its 3rd and final season, and Black history in Buffalo connected? In the episode that aired on March 26, 2023, Arthur Parker invites American soprano Elizabeth Greenhorn to perform in Sanditon, a fictional fishing village turned resort town, for the King, who ends up giving his regrets. She decides to go on stage anyway, and we learn that she is African-American.
This character is based on real-life American soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born into slavery in Mississippi around 1820 and began her career in 1851. When you’re writing fiction like Sanditon, which is set around 1817, you may use artistic license.
Greenfield made her stage debut in Buffalo at Townsend Hall, corner of Main & Swan, on October 22, 1851. At this time, she was nicknamed The Black Swan, a name that followed her for the rest of her musical career.
Buffalo Daily Republic, October 18, 1851, Page 3
Her repertoire consisted of opera and classical composers, defying the expectations of white audiences of the day, who assumed that such music was beyond the capacity of Black performers.
After her debut, Greenfield performed in Rochester, Lockport, Utica, Albany, Troy, Boston, Columbus, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto, Syracuse, Brattleboro, and other North American cities. In 1853, she went on tour in Europe and on May 10, 1854, sang for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. She was the first African-American to perform before British royalty.
After calling Buffalo home at the beginning of her career, Greenfield settled in Philadelphia, where she operated a music studio and died in 1876.
Originally published in the Buffalo News, September 20, 2000 p. B-2. It has since been edited. Illustration from PowerThesaurus.org.
My fellow residents of the City of Good Neighbors have probably had this experience many times over. We are somewhere in Western New York where we have occasion to meet new people. Upon learning where we happily live, work, play, shop, and worship, the suburbanite unthinkingly offers some subtle or blatant variation on “Is that neighborhood safe?” or “I heard that’s a sketchy area.”
When this happens, these tempting responses whiz through my head.
Tell them what they want to hear: “Yes, it’s dreadfully dangerous. But I’m basically stupid and lazy, so I just keep risking my life and my kids’ lives by living there every day.”
Gently turn it back on them: “I just couldn’t see sending my kids to schools with those violent suburban and rural teenage boys.” Funny how school shooting sprees never take place at so-called inner city public schools.
Not so gently turn it back on them: “Oh, not to worry. Your kids and their friends buy their drugs in other places.” As arrests and overdoses often illustrate, plenty of dealers have suburban addresses and clienteles.
Express gratitude for their concern: “How kind of you to ask! We certainly are struggling with absentee landlords, inept code enforcement, and speeding drivers. Since you seem concerned about the health of my neighborhood, why don’t you move in and join the block club? There are lots of charming, affordable houses and we’d appreciate the help.”
Assign responsibility: “Interesting that you should mention it. I’ve done some research, and as far as I can tell, it was a terrific neighborhood until your ancestors abandoned it for the suburbs.”
Unmask the covert racism: “Do you think it is a bad neighborhood because you see Black and brown faces?”
Promote communalism: “Yes, every place has its troubles, but me moving to your town won’t improve your town or this city, whereas me staying here and working with my neighbors is making a big difference.”
Shame them: “Funny how certain grown men and women quake on the rare occasions when they drive through city neighborhoods, but expect vulnerable elders and children to live there 24/7 without complaining.”
Exaggerate their worst stereotypes: “Oh, it’s not so bad! We have nice matching tactical flak jackets, we roll up the bulletproof windows in the Escalade and take Rocky, our bodyguard, and Fang, our Doberman, with us whenever we leave the house. We crank up the radio so we’re not bothered by the gunfire; our landscaper comes by once a week to pick up the used condoms, hypodermic needles, and shell casings from the front yard; and Ashley is earning Scout badges by training the rats to do tricks.”
OK, I’ve had my fun. It’s time to get serious. I know people who assume that that cities are inherently deadly aren’t trying to be clueless and rude.
Nevertheless, the question insults every city resident on the receiving end of it. For now, I answer it by citing Buffalo’s falling crime rate and rising property values. I talk about the wonderful amenities in my quiet, peaceful, historic, community-minded, pedestrian-centered neighborhood.
But I’m putting urbophobes on notice: Your civic manners need work and my patience wears thin.
Map of racial distribution on the Niagara Frontier, 2010, based on U.S. Census figures. Each dot is 25 people. Blue = Black; Red = White.I do not have a more current version of this map.Courtesy of Wikiwand.com.
Which is it? Below are some segregation rankings, with screen captures and links back to each article. I decided to compile them because of encountering some very victim-blamey rhetoric that sounded like Buffalo wouldn’t have been targeted if it wasn’t so segregated. As if we deserved to be punished for our sins.
Please note that I am not a demographer or statistician. I am not qualified to judge the methodology behind these rankings or declare which one is correct. For one thing, some appear to be counting the population strictly within the city limits of Buffalo, while others count the population in the larger Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area. Some rely on outdated 2010 census figures; some rely on 2020 figures.
These rankings are presented in the hopes that someone who does have demographic and statistical expertise will be inspired to offer some knowledgeable analysis. And to urge everyone to cite their sources when making claims about segregation in Buffalo. Did I miss a ranking that differs from the ones below? Let me know.
Following these disparate findings, keep scrolling for some observations about what is missing from them.
Brown University’s American Communities Project has census figures from 1980 to 2020 in tables that you can refine and sort. The column on the right has the 2020 ranking. Using their Black/white dissimilarity (segregation) index for the 200 largest cities in the US, their 2020 figures put Buffalo at 159th least segregated or 41st most segregated. Least dissimilar/least segregated cities are at the top of the list, so I counted up from the bottom (most dissimilar/most segregated). I am not sure that I filtered or sorted these figures correctly, so please let me know if I made an error.
The shooter allegedly targeted Tops on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo after Googling the Blackest zip codes in New York State and finding 14208. I thought I would Google the whitest zip codes in New York State and the US. Here is what I found.
Did Anyone Notice Anything Odd About These Two Sets of Figures?
When you search for Most Segregated Cities, you get a few sets of city names and rankings, as shown above.
When you search for Whitest Cities, you get an entirely different set of city names. Hialeah and Laredo are apparently the whitest cities in America but do not appear on any Most Segregated rankings.
Why is is that the American cities, towns, and suburbs who have most successfully blocked, repelled, or chased out people of color; Black, Hispanic, or Asian, do not appear on any Most Segregated lists? Apparently, all you need to do to satisfy demographers that your virtually all-white community is not segregated is to make sure that your tiny number of Black or brown households are in different census tracts or zip codes.
Meanwhile, Buffalo, which is 47.1% white, 35.2% Black, and 12.2% Hispanic, is stigmatized as segregated. We are a city that, in spite of our failures and inequities, has a better record of striving for equality, justice, and multicultural democracy than any all-white community.
If we agree that place is a factor in this shooting, then segregation in Conklin, not Buffalo, is responsible. Conklin, not Buffalo, is where everyone should start their May 14 essays and examinations of racism and white supremacy. Our whitest cities and towns are long overdue for some moral scrutiny.
Anyone up for crowdsourcing Buffalo-area place names? By which I mean neighborhood nicknames such as Elmwood Village or The Hooks, and names of features on the landscape. At this time, I am not thinking of street names or building names, which could be separate projects unto themselves.
Here’s a Google sheet that I set up for anyone to add to. Notice there are two tabs: one for the City of Buffalo and another for Erie County, for those with village or town-specific knowledge.
Landscape features such as creeks, canals, or hills
Entire city nicknames, such as Queen City or New Amsterdam
Names of real estate developments, such Nye Park
Parks that aren’t there anymore or changed names
Picnic groves. So often in Buffalo newspapers I see so-and-so’s grove as the location for an event, with no address. It was assumed that readers knew where it was.
Some data entry suggestions to maximize the value of the spreadsheet:
In the location column, use contemporary street/road names.
Please cite your sources. If you find a source online, pasting in the URL is excellent but insufficient. The link you found today may be invalid or paywalled a few years from now. Please add enough info (author, title, date, page number, etc.) that a future researcher can seek out for the source if the link is 404.
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? Read more about it:
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.
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.
Parks officials were mortified at the malfeasance. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Lafayette Square was cracking and crumbling only six years after its erection in 1882 during the city’s semi-centennial year. A structural review was undertaken, revealing careless workmanship throughout the foundation of the monument. The core of rubble and mortar was inadequate to the task of supporting the granite shaft and statuary, which topped out at 85′. A copper box meant to serve as a time capsule was not found in its intended chamber, but three feet lower, embedded like just another foundation stone. It had been cracked under the pressure and its contents destroyed by water seepage.
The Parks Department annual report for 1890 was candid:
The plans, the specifications, the superintendence, and the masonry — all exhibit, or imply, gross ignorance or carelessness. It is really a disgrace to our civilization that so prominent a structure, designed to stand as a memento of our patriotism to all generations, should be built so insecurely that it must be taken down within six years of its erection.
The monument was designed by George Keller, a Hartford, Connecticut architect. It was erected by the Mount Waldo Granite Company of Bangor, Maine.
McDonnell and Sons
When a contract was let to repair the foundation, however, it went to a local mortuary monument company, McDonnell & Sons. In rebuilding the foundation, McDonnell & Sons altered the open stepped base of the monument, creating a tight walkway around the shaft by eliminating some of the base and walling in what remained, forming stairs at each point of the compass, an arrangement which survives today.
In 1889, when McDonnell and Sons rescued the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, it was a relative newcomer to the Buffalo scene, having opened their Buffalo office only five years earlier.
McDonnell & Sons was founded in 1857 in granite-rich Quincy, Massachusetts by Patrick McDonnell, an Irish immigrant once employed as a stonecutter in the local quarries. Patrick retired in 1881, handing the reins to his son John Quincy McDonnell. In 1884 John moved with his wife and seven children to Buffalo in order to open a branch office, which came to be located at 858 Main Street, between Allen and Virginia streets Another son stayed in Quincy to manage the family’s business there.
The old McDonnell office still stands. The structure’s elaborate granite facade served as a promotion for the company’s products. An arched pediment is surmounted by finials in the shape of funerary urns. Supporting it are polished pilasters with rough-faced florets. An early company advertisement describes the façade as being “the handsomest in the United States — a recognized work of art that attracts the attention of every passer-by and excites admiring comment from all.”
As originally built only 16′ on a side and one-story tall, the showroom quickly proved inadequate for the growing company. A second story was added, and the building was extended in stages to fill the entire length of the 100′ deep lot, assuming its final elongated form by World War I. Window openings puncture the north wall at frequent intervals, washing the interior with shadowless, even light.
Significantly, the later expansion of the building — and the company as a whole — was overseen by John McDonnell’s widow Emily, John having died prematurely in 1894. After her husband’s death, Emily did something bold for a middle class, middle-aged Victorian widow with dependent children: She bought out her brother-in-law Thomas’s interest in the company.
By 1900, McDonnell & Sons had two additional local branches, another two in central New York, one in Connecticut, and one in Indianapolis. Emily served as company president until her death in 1926. In a circa 1926 company brochure, McDonnell & Sons claimed to be the largest granite firm, by sales, in the country. Emily’s obituary in the Courier-Express described her as a nationally-known businesswoman.
While tiny as a building, when read as a grave marker — itself a sign — the granite façade must have struck many as grand indeed. (In simultaneously serving as shelter and sign, McDonnell & Sons predated Robert Venturi’s building-as-sign, “Decorated Shed” coinage by 80 years).
Wealthy shoe merchant John Blocher went to McDonnell & Sons with his plans for an extravagant memorial to his son Nelson, who died shortly after the Main Street showroom opened. Other notable Forest Lawn commissions include the Philip Becker monument, the Volunteer Firemen’s monument, and the imposing Main Street entrance arch.
Other area projects include the Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry monument in Front Park, soldiers’ monuments in Springville and LeRoy, Hamburg’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, the Father Hennepin Memorial in Niagara Falls, NY, and the Laura Secord Memorial in Queenston. Company brochures also boasted of commissions for public memorials throughout the U.S. and Canada.
At some point in the 1940s, with Emily’s son James in charge, McDonnell & Sons moved out of 858 Main and into a comparatively plain brick building further north on Main Street. James died in 1951, the last family member to head the operation. In 1968, after 84 years in Buffalo and 111 years after its founding in Quincy, McDonnell & Sons vanished from the Buffalo Polk Directory, the annual “City Directory” of households and businesses.
The old headquarters building was continuously occupied until 1978. It is now vacant. The city acquired the building last year in a tax forfeiture. The building is structurally sound, but needs new mechanical systems, roof work, and windows to bring it up to current city codes — work estimated at $150,000.
This monument of a building — some neighbors call it the Mausoleum Building — is more than a pretty face, as finely cut and polished as the day it opened 112 years ago. It represents a telling slice of Buffalo’s architectural, social, and women’s history.