Thursday, September 5, 2013

The History of Hamlin Park Part VI: Post WWII Transformation and Changing Demographics

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I've decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.

The residents of Hamlin Park were not the only Americans seeking an idyllic living situation. Buffalo experienced a great deal of change in the years leading up to and immediately after World War II, spurred by the push of residents towards residential developments similar to Hamlin Park located even further from the city center. The initial growth of inner-ring suburbs in Kenmore, Tonawanda, and Amherst in the 1920s had been spurred on by Buffalo’s streetcar system, with dense residential neighborhoods emerging on Buffalo’s outskirts. The development of the automobile further accelerated this growth.

1935 Buffalo Streetcar Map
1935 Streetcar System in Buffalo
The population of Amherst doubled between 1920 and 1930, from a total of 6,286 to 13,181, and the trend toward suburbanization dramatically altered the character of the formerly farming-based community. To accommodate the increasing automobile traffic, many of Amherst’s roads were widened and connected. For instance, Maple Road, which was little more than a dirt path between farms during most of the nineteenth century, became a two-lane highway connecting Millersport and Transit Road. Sheridan Drive was a similar byproduct of the need for better, wider roads for automobiles. By 1936, Amherst led Erie County with the most miles of road, necessary to accommodate the significant number of workers who commuted into Buffalo. 

Crosstown Boulevard
Crosstown Boulevard (Sheridan Drive) before development ramped up and it was widened
Despite severe economic hardship during the Great Depression, Amherst and the surrounding neighborhoods grew quickly. The expanse of industry brought on by the start of the Second World War helped Amherst and Buffalo make economic strides out of Depression. In the post-war environment, industrial cities like Buffalo prospered, and the burgeoning of the middle class continued through the late 1940s and early 1950s. By 1956, Amherst’s population was 42,000, and the expansion of strip malls and shopping plazas provided not only food and other amenities, but lowered the tax burden on residents.

1930 Dominant Races by Census Tract
1930 Racial demographic map. Hamlin Park falls in census tract 32 and 33. The yellow designation indicates there was no one dominant race, but rather a fair mix of several at that time
Even as the surrounding suburbs expanded dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s, Buffalo itself continued to grow. During World War II, companies in Buffalo held war contracts amounting to approximately five billion dollars, the fifth largest in the country.  As a result of this investment, jobs were plentiful in the city, enough so that the Department of Labor declared Buffalo a labor shortage area. This surplus of employment opportunities attracted migrants from across the country, including a significant number of African Americans from southern states. This was part of a national trend, known as the “Great Migration,” in which thousands of African Americans, mainly from rural areas, relocated to northern industrial cities.  Between 1940 and 1950, Buffalo’s African American population doubled, from approximately 18,000 to almost 37,000. This trend continued after the war, as an average of ten African Americans per day migrated to the city.

The influx of African Americans into Buffalo during a relatively short period of time sparked major demographic changes in the city. Prior to the war, most of Buffalo’s African American population lived in the Ellicott District, a large swath of the East Side located between downtown and the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. As the new African American migrants arrived, most moved into the Ellicott district. Pullman Porters and other upscale and semi-skilled black laborers lived in developments such as Willert Park, a federally funded housing development in the Ellicott District built in 1938-1939 specifically for African Americans.   During the war, the pressing need for housing had prompted an addition to Willert Park, but demand continued to outstrip supply.  By 1951, Buffalo was reporting severe cases of overcrowding, high rents, and neighborhood blight in the Ellicott District.  The housing shortage in Ellicott pressed African Americans to migrate into nearby residential areas, like the longstanding ethnic German “Fruit Belt,” and other neighborhoods, from which white ethnic residents began to move to the suburbs.

1950 Non-white population by Census Tract
Jumping to the 1950 racial demographic map, the African American population begins to move into the Hamlin Park neighborhood in a big way

White residents, aided by federal policies such as the GI bill and FHA housing loans, enjoyed more residential choices than their African American neighbors. The general pattern of white residents leaving the city and African Americans moving into the vacated homes and neighborhoods has been called, “white flight,” though the reasons for this pattern are complex and contested.  Whether the motivation was financial, incentivized by Federal Programs, or racial, escaping the growing African American presence in the city, the suburban growth was fueled by the migration of white families out of Buffalo. In the case of the East Side, much of the German and Polish communities pushed eastward, past Broadway Fillmore and even Kaisertown, to the growing suburb of Cheektowaga.

For middle-class African American families, the exodus of ethnic whites from the East Side created an opportunity for them to escape the growing poverty of the Ellicott District. Commenting on the transition of neighborhoods with increasing African American presences, the Rev. Kenneth Bowen, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said in 1956, “the movement of second-generation middle-class Negroes from the Ellicott district to the Cold Springs and the Humboldt Park section has been steady, smooth and successful, devoid of friction.”  As more and more ethnic whites moved to the suburbs, it became easier for African Americans to move into new neighborhoods, including Hamlin Park, without risk of conflict.

1960 Non-white population by census tract
By 1960, African Americans make up the majority of Hamlin Park residents

African American families began moving into Hamlin Park in a two broad waves. The earlier group consisted of families that had been established in the Ellicott District for generations and left when that area became overcrowded with migrants during and shortly after World War II.  A second surge of African Americans into Hamlin Park occurred after the Buffalo Common Council announced plans for the demolition of the Ellicott District in 1955 due to its blighted conditions as part of a larger Urban Renewal program in the city.  While demolition did not take place until 1958, the announcement discouraged continued investment in homes and other buildings that faced imminent destruction.

Demographic information from the city of Buffalo documents the influx of African Americans to the area after World War II. Between 1940 and 1970, census tracts 32, 33 and 52, which cover the district area, experienced net population declines but had significant percentages of new residents and increasing numbers of African Americans. Between 1940 and 1950, tracts 32 and 33 had a net loss in population, though in the last year of that decade, 7.5-10.9 percent of the population in tract 33 were “newcomers.” In this early stage of postwar population transformations, large numbers of white residents moved out of the area, leaving vacancies to be filled by residents of more crowded areas, such as the predominately African American Ellicott District southeast of downtown. The following decade shows a similar pattern, in which there was a net loss of population but a significant percentage of newcomers. Between 1950 and 1960, tracts 32 and 33 fell into the highest category of 56 percent or more new residents, and tract 52 (which includes the northern section of Hamlin Park) was only one category lower, with 46-55.9 percent newcomers. The surrounding tracts, particularly to the south, saw a more significant loss of population, tallying -15 percent or more, and lower numbers of newcomers. This directly reflects the effects of the Ellicott renewal project, which displaced over 2,000 families from the area between 1958 and 1961.  By 1960, over 70 percent of residents in tracts 32 and 33 and 5 to 24.9 percent of residents in tract 52 were nonwhite. 

Though Hamlin Park saw a dramatic demographic shift in the 1950s, the middle-class status of the African American families moving into the neighborhood helped stifle the issues plaguing the community to their south. Throughout the city and the country as a whole, officials pursued large-scale and often unsuccessful Urban Renewal programs like the one that demolished the entirety of the Ellicott District.

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