A Series of Ethnic Villages
A Piece of the Banner
A Series of Ethnic Villages
It is a place that exists more in the minds of those who live there than anywhere else. You won't ever see the designation for it on any map reference. But you will hear it referred to daily in a thousand conversations. Ask any of its residents where they live, and the name will spring immediately to their lips, even when they are far from home. South Buffalo is as real and as separate a community as any city, town or village in New York State. The small community of South Buffalo, a very distinct portion of the larger city of Buffalo, lies just south of the Buffalo River, on the shores of Lake Erie. The lake, river and other physical barriers make it as much an island as any sea-surrounded atoll in the far Pacific. It is a neighborhood where the fifth generation of the Martin clan begins its saga. South Buffalo, though it was a universe unto itself for us, is but a small part of a once grand city that had grown up on the western terminus of the Erie Canal, the gateway to the American West. Through its portals had passed waves of the future of America, from the canal’s opening in 1826 through end of the 1800’s. Railroads had by then taken the canal’s place as an easy and cheap means of intercontinental transport for both people and cargo.
The Native American Senecas, Iroquois and French traders camped here before it was the far frontier of a new America. Later, the Erie Canal helped funnel the new country’s westward expansion through Buffalo, a wild and bawdy frontier town. The brothels on Canal Street were without number then. In the saloons, unscrupulous barkeeps were apt to slip the unwary patron a “mickey-finn” in his beer (knock out drops). The unfortunate and unconscious pilgrim would then be fleeced of his poke and dropped into the Buffalo River through a trap door in the back room. It was a rough and ready existence where the ruthless and the cunning prospered.
Great, tall-masted sailing ships, with spider-webbed rigging and fluttering sheets of billowing canvass, plied the harbor and added more cargo and sailors to the already bustling tumult of the canal district. The heart of Buffalo, since its first settlement, has always been its waterfront. It was here that the canal boats, lake freighters and railroads merged into a commercial center that gave rise to the modern-day city. During the shipping season today, at the Erie Basin Marina on Buffalo’s waterfront, you can often watch the massive bulk of a lake freighter glide by the nautical eminence of The USS Sullivans,The USS Little Rock, and The USS Croaker. The battleships and submarine, moored at the Naval and Servicemen’s Park, are floating memorials and naval monuments to the bravery of another age. The scenic walkway here runs along the Buffalo River and looks across the river to the 19th century eminence of the China Lighthouse at the U.S. Coast Guard Base. The newly developed commercial canal slip and meeting area highlight the nautical past of the area. Old Emmanuel Martin had first stepped ashore on these sailing slips. He and a diverse stream of other immigrants would add greatly to the rich cultural mix of an emerging Buffalo.
Looking out at the lake from here on a windy day you can feel and see the undulating Lake Erie rollers as they swell and crash over the cap rocks of the offshore break wall, in a spume of frothy spray. The mesmerizing rhythm helps the mind drift back to a time before there was a City of Buffalo.
The crumbling grain elevators, on and around Kelly Island, are towering cylindrical reminders of a time in the 19th century when Buffalo was second only to Chicago for grain storage, beef production and rail yards. The grain merchants hired the immigrant Irish in droves for the dusty and dangerous job of scooping and unloading the grain. The new Americans, with their lilting brogue and hickory backhoes (wooden shovels), scooped up and unloaded the mountains of grain from the waiting freighters.
The eclectic architecture all around the area is the pride of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richardson, White and other visionaries who were building a new America. The Delaware Avenue mansions stood as great gilded retreats for the privileged, symbols of Buffalo’s newly found commercial wealth.
The Pan-American Exhibition of 1901 was a wonder of the modern world. President McKinley was shot down here and later died from complications of an infection. Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated shortly afterwards in the Wilcox Mansion on Delaware Avenue. Author Jack London spent time in our county jail and Mark Twain was a newspaper editor here in the 1840’s. U.S. presidents Grover Cleveland and Millard Fillmore hailed from Buffalo. It was a time when the city was a commercial and industrial colossus.
The great open heart of Canada lies a few yards across the Niagara River. From the headland of the upper terrace, the mind’s ear can still hear the ancient echo of booming cannons from Forts Niagara, George and Erie. The thundering cannon still ring in our collective consciousness. The remembered and acrid smell of burning timber reminds us of the time during the War of 1812 when the British and Indians burned the new village of Buffalo to the ground. We have seen and weathered much in this town.
Buffalo is a series of small villages, linked loosely together in a confederation that gives the city color and life. Buffalo has the vibrancy of New York City and the laid-back charm of the mid-west. Chicken wings, beef on weck, Bocce’s pizza and any kind of beer attract the faithful in great shuddering throngs. Our baseball and football stadia reflect the emergence of the rowdy working class to the pursuit of leisure. The games have the clash and ring of the Roman arena. Only in Buffalo we are more passionate about the contests.
Scatterings of taverns in the ethnic neighborhoods are dimly lit havens where bankers and bums can rub elbows in a confraternity of the befuddled. The saloons themselves are a smoky archipelago of warmth and companionship in an often-difficult environment. Wielding the grain boat scooper's shovel all day, and bitterly resenting the fat bellied foreman barking the orders, was something that needed a bit of easing at day's end. The icy froth and beaded sweat of a tall schuper of beer was both long anticipated and much appreciated. Several hours later, most of the lads made it to their homes as best they were able. Sure, it was a hard evening spent discussing the events of the day. And herself, left waiting at home, was often ill amused by the condition in which the lad arrived at the kitchen door. The jokes didn't seem as funny at 3 a.m. As we grew older, we could see the mark of the “creature” on some of the luckless souls. They were headed down into the abyss, God love them.
Hard drinking was a problem that we all had seen close up in the larger families. We tried to be tolerant of their illness, but the condition sat like the mark of Cain upon the poor lads. Each of the unfortunate souls knew, in his own heart, that he was doomed.
Buffalo is a great ethnic swirl of color and diversity. But, beneath the sophisticated patina of the Theater District, art galleries and museums however, beats the remembered heart of a sprawling frontier town, lusty with life. In that respect, little has changed in Buffalo.
We are children of the weather here. The snow and the wind often roar across the waterfront and then just as suddenly, are gone. It is like sharing sleeping quarters with a ten-thousand pound elephant. You soon grow sensitive to its need to toss and turn. Coping with the weather in Buffalo shapes and defines the mental toughness of our character. We are a city of immigrants that struggled much to get here and liked what we found.
Joseph Xavier Martin