Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Neighborhood Destruction

Matthew Shoen
Associate Architectural Historian 
May 24, 2017

A few weeks ago Preservation Studios, along with the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force, came together to discuss the history of the Fruit Belt neighborhood. This old residential part of the city has been settled since the 1840s and was an important part of the Great German East Side, Buffalo's second major ethnic neighborhood (Following the Irish Old First Ward). The Fruit Belt was improved in the 1870s with the completion of the Parade and the Humboldt Parkway. These beautifully landscaped spaces were created by Frederic Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux two of America's premier landscape architects. The presence of such nice amenities and the Fruit Belt's proximity to work opportunities in the East Side or Downtown Buffalo helped Germans living in the Fruit Belt resist the call of the suburbs that swept through the rest of the city. Unfortunately, Urban Renewal programs instituted by the city caused significant harm to the Fruit Belt and its residents. Like our last piece, this blog will be heavy on photography. The destruction of the Fruit Belt was well documented as a sign of progress for the city, despite the fact that this progress came at the cost of homes, businesses, thousands of residents, and the much beloved Humboldt Parkway. 

The destruction of the Fruit Belt affected the German residents who were the area's historic population, however it had a more dramatic impact on African Americans who moved into the neighborhood after they were forcibly evicted from their homes during the destruction of the Ellicott District in the early 1950s.1 Thousands of African Americans were rendered homeless by Urban Renewal that demolished their homes in the Ellicott District and replaced the buildings with low income housing projects. With no other option, African Americans sought out housing in neighborhoods like Hamlin Park, Masten Park, and the Fruit Belt. Here they were greeted by predatory landlords and the city's attempt to modernize itself and make downtown more accessible, the Kensington Expressway. 

People have written at length about the Kensington Expressway and the catastrophic impact it had on Buffalo's East Side. Organizations like the Restore Our Community Coalition ( have done a fantastic job documenting the destruction of Humboldt Parkway, but I want to draw your attention south to the Fruit Belt where much of the residential destruction necessary to build the Kensington Expressway occurred. 

Property destruction between Rose and Mulberry Streets.

To build the Kensington Expressway, over 500 buildings were destroyed, many of which were demolished in a 1.8 mile section of Buffalo between Michigan Avenue and Utica Street. The majority of the buildings destroyed were homes, however German saloons, brick factories, and a sheet metal factory were also destroyed, depriving the neighborhood of local industry, commerce, and recreation. 

The Kensington Expressway was announced in 1954 and work on the expressway began in 1957. In those three years properties around Cherry Street deteriorated as owners stopped investing in their upkeep, knowing the buildings were doomed. Rats also began to multiply in abandoned buildings, and became a prevalent issue in the community. 

The Kensington Expressway encouraged Germans to leave the Fruit Belt and became a major eyesore for the African Americans who moved into the newly vacated homes of the Fruit Belt's German residents. The expressway soon became more than an aesthetic issue. After its completion, the Kensington Expressway became a moat separating the Fruit Belt from the East Side, and the East Side from the rest of Buffalo. 

During its construction however the expressway was a morass of construction equipment, mud, and closed streets. Residents who drove to work were never sure if their streets would be open when they came back or if construction equipment had ripped up the road surface. Parents had to be vigilant with small children around the construction site and at least one man died (from cardiac arrest) after he fell down the banks of the expressway construction site. The mud, noise, and traffic issues made the Kensington Expressway one of of the worst aspects of living in the Fruit Belt in the 1950s and the expressway has continued to be an eyesore and a major health hazard. 

The destruction of so many beautiful buildings in the Fruit Belt was seen as progress for the city of Buffalo. The loss was viewed as necessary, a step forward by a community trying to remain vibrant in the modern world. We should take the Kensington Expressway as a warning from the past, and never engage in destructive programs like this ever again. Collectively we need to lay a critical eye across all projects that ask us to demolish the buildings that give our city character. While the Fruit Belt continues to be an active neighborhood, there is no way to ignore the Expressway's presence and the ghosts of all the properties and families who were pushed out to build it. 

Inspector at the temporary bridge across Lemon Street.

Early work on the Kensington Expressway's below grade sections near the Fruit Belt.

1. The destruction of the Ellicott District will be covered further in future blog posts. 

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