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‘Tour de Neglect’ reveals huge challenges, incremental progress on Buffalo’s East Side

Gusto, 10 May 2014

On Saturday morning, under a cool and cloudy sky, two dozen bicyclists set out
at a leisurely pace from the newly restored Hotel Lafayette in the heart of
downtown and into what activist and tour leader David Torke called the “oceanic
devastation” of Buffalo's battered East Side.
The group dodged potholes
on traffic-free streets as they rolled past overgrown vacant lots and shuttered
churches with plywood windows, through forgotten alleyways and into some of the
most traumatized census tracts in the eastern United States.

This was the latest in a series of the periodic bike excursions Torke calls the
“Tour de Neglect,” a modest attempt to bring more attention to the manifold
problems and massive potential of the city's largest and most-ignored
neighborhood. In just five stops in the span of two hours, the tour sketched an
accurate portrait of a complex place that is one of the city's greatest shames,
responsibilities and opportunities.

The tour made its way from downtown
to the closed St.
church on Broadway and Emslie Street, then to the worse-off Sacred
Heart Cathedral, where dusty piles of bright red seat-cushions sat piled in the
middle of the crumbling structure like an accidental art installation, evoking
the presence of the former congregation. That “zombie church,” as Torke called
it, sits on a census tract that has lost 89 percent of its population since

From there, the tour ambled through glimmering Larkinville
– the area's flagship revitalization project – and into the Larkin Powerhouse, a
massive coal-burning operation that once powered the entire Larkin industrial
complex but is now under the threat of demolition. After a stop at the grand and
dilapidated Central Terminal, the tour concluded with a look at the Wilson
Street Farm, another hopeful sign in a section of the city where hope has long
been in short supply.

During an unscheduled tour stop at the Common Roots
Farm on Peckham and Coit streets, Torke reflected on a pair of workers he'd just
seen removing what he said was asbestos siding from a nearby house slated for
demolition with no masks or signs to warn neighborhood residents of the

“Those are demolition contractors illegally removing the
asbestos prior to the demolition and just throwing it in their pickup truck to
dump it somewhere,” Torke said. “It happens all the time. It wouldn't happen in
the Elmwood Village, but over here where their eyes and ears are just caught up
in the miasma of life over here, people don't care about that sort of stuff.
They care about other things. They care about surviving.”

It's probably
overstating it to say that neighborhood residents don't care about a neighbor
illegally removing carcinogenic siding, but Torke's point stands: The East Side
is a different universe than where most of us live.

In the shared
imagination of Buffalovers who have been fully seduced by the comfy narrative of
revival and redevelopment that has taken hold in the city over the past decade,
the East Side is an inconvenient snag. To others less invested in the city
itself, it's merely a place you shouldn't drive through.

But Torke's tour
– without touching on the complicated dynamics of race and poverty that helped
reduce the neighborhood to this state and that no amount of urban planning or
progressive development will solve – served the vital purpose of adding new
dimensions to the simplistic understanding many Western New Yorkers have of
“that place” on the other side of Main Street.

“The West Side is
certainly the big story right now, and all the progress on the West Side and
Elmwood Village and downtown are things to celebrate, but we also have to
remember that there's this other amazing neighborhood, which takes up most of
the area of the city, which is still neglected,” said Chris Hawley, a
co-organizer of the tour and a Buffalo city planner. “There is as much charm and
potential and possibility in the East Side as there is in the West Side. I think
folks are starting to recognize that now, and it's only a matter of time before
the interest that is generated in a few neighborhoods becomes extended to the
East Side.”

The riders on Saturday's tour were a mix of urban advocates,
architects, artists, teachers and photographers driven to participate by an
innate curiosity about the city. Mary Rockwell, who teaches urban development at
Nichols School, came to collect ideas that she'll use in her classes. Artist
Mickey Harmon, who rides his bike to Larkinville and the Central Terminal, came
to get a fuller sense of the pockmarked neighborhoods that lie between and
around those destinations.

As activists and developers talk about
extending the revitalization of Buffalo's West Side and downtown eastward, a lot
of unanswered questions remain. It was tough, for instance, to ignore the fact
that Saturday's exploratory tour group was made up largely of white faces. Most
of the conversation focused on buildings; there was very little talk about the
East Side's current residents, many of whom could be negatively impacted by the
kinds of development strategies now being enacted or proposed.

Even so,
Torke's work over the past decade to bring attention to the architectural
wonders of the neighborhood and shame on the property owners now blithely
presiding over its further decline is indispensable in fostering a broader
understanding of the city among its own citizens.

For those interested in
taking the tour, an outgrowth of the “Jane's Walks” urban tours that happen
annually in more than 100 cities around the world, another is planned for 12:30
p.m. June 7 as part of the Congress for the New Urbanism's Buffalo conference.
More information can be found at