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May 2004

Part of what makes a city a city is building mass, and Buffalo is losing it

ama_main.jpgAdam Gropnik, reviewing two books on the recent history of Times Square in the March 22 New Yorker, makes the comment, "One of the things that make for vitality in any the trinity of big buildings, bright lights, and weird stores." (He also notes that "Dick Clark is a simulacrum, but he was born that way.") One thinks immediately of the AM&A's (upper left) building and the Erlanger Theater (lower left) as current, entirely gratuitous, demolition targets in downtown Buffalo. Losing these buildings will be bad for many reasons, among them that the proposed or speculative replacements will be smaller and urbanistically much worse. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo opposes both demolitions. (contact us if you agree and would like to help save them)

erlanger.jpgIn just the last few years downtown Buffalo has lost many large buildings, leaving yawning open spaces in the city fabric. Two 10-story-plus hotels on Delaware Avenue were demolished for parking lots across the street from each other, the Ford/Richmond Hotel at Cary Street and the Mars Hotel (a.k.a. Media Study Building) between Chippewa and Huron. Both sites are parking lots. The massive Victorian Pollack Printing/Niagara Marble complex on the east side of Main at Virginia was emregency-demo'd after an arson fire about 10 years ago. No apparent damage was visible at the time of demolition except for a small section on Washington Street constituting perhaps 1% of the structure, and that damage was due to the demolition machinery on-site. This raised suspicions of a "planned fire and demo" by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which conmtrolled the site. Today it is occupied by a corner parking lot and a one-story rough-faced cinder block structure with a few dark glass windows and long stretches of blank wall along Main Street. Such a building is actually suitable for nowhere, let alone across from the Allentown Preservation District. These buildings are most often found in low-level suburban industrial parks.

National register Tonawanda Armory sells for $71,000

pictures/tona_armoryThe Tonawanda 25th Seperate Company Armory, a magnificent battlemented Romanesque pile designed by Isaac Perry and completed in 1896 has been sold at auction to Amherst resident Mostafa Tanbakuchi. The closing is expected to occur this Friday, March 19, 2004. The city of Tonawanda had been offered the building by the state, which had rendered it surplus, for $1. The city turned it down, on the belief it could not afford the estimated $75,000 in annual utilities to run the building.

The building is a regional asset, and it is unfortunate few people outside the Tonawandas knew of the state offer to the city. A logical use would have been as a city hall and auditorium. The current city hall, an undistinguished 1950s building blocking views of the Niagara River along River Road, and its site could have been added to the regional parks inventory following removal of the building (perjhaps to atone for the sin of allowing an unmitigated Tops Market to be built on waterfront land nearby.

Mr. Tanbakuchi is asking for suggestions for the building at The city has no money to assist on the project. The building has a new roof and was assessed at $830,000. We'll post photos and other info as they become available.

Campaign looking for volunteers

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo always has some hands-on work to do related to various preservation and charcter development projects. Right now we could use volunteers for simple construction projects in the office and at Boathouse Park in North Tonawanda. You'd have to have your own tools. Call Tim at the office if you have carpentry skills: 884-3138. Also, we need help around the office and in the field on a set schedule for about 20 hours a week. You'd need a car. We pay expenses and eternal gratitude.

How to encourage "Third Places"

Having described some of the many benefits of third places, let me offer just a few personal observations:

• Third places work as I described in the preceding paragraphs only when they are local; and they work best when within walking distance of the people they serve.

• With very few exceptions, third places have been and remain local, independently owned, commercial establishments. Chain establishments run by large corporations can, at best, yield less hardy forms of third places, subject to the (cash) flow of distant owners.

• While third places often seem to depend on a mysterious chemistry, planners can help foster the conditions in which they might emerge. One way is by eliminating the policies prevalent in so many zoning codes of prohibiting commercial uses such as taverns, coffee houses, donut shops, and the like, from locating where people live. These policies don’t just discourage third places, they virtually prevent them. You can’t have a neighborhood tavern or neighborhood coffee house that’s not located in the neighborhood. Another way planners can help is by promoting walkable communities, where people, in fact, are able to easily make their way to their nearby “third place.”

[Ray Oldenburg is author of The Great Good Place (Paragon House 1989), and is chair of the Dept. of Sociology at the University of West Florida. Copyright Ray Oldenburg. Reprinted with permission.]

Ten reasons "Third Places" are important to individuals and communities

Third places serve many functions, important both to individuals and to the communities they live in:

1. Third places help unify neighborhoods. Where third places are absent we find that people often live in the same vicinity for years without ever getting to know one another. Indeed, the subdivision resident who knows three other families is something of a social gad-about. Before neighborhood taverns were banished to commercial strips, the average one drew about 80 percent of its trade from within a two-block radius. It served the same function as does the English “local” — creating community where there would otherwise be a regimentation of private dwellings with little interaction between households.

2. Third places also serve as “ports of entry” for visitors and newcomers to the neighborhood where directions and other information can easily be obtained. For new residents, they provide a means of getting acquainted quickly and learning where things are and how the neighborhood works.

One might have thought that the high rate of residential mobility in our society would have inspired planners to make provision for new residents to get acquainted quickly and easily. With almost a fifth of the population changing residence every year, would it not have made sense to create the means for newcomers to be easily assimilated? Instead, the typical residential district is notable for its absence of public places, offering instead of maze of frequently deserted streets.

3. Third places are “sorting” areas. While third places serve to promote the habit of association generally, they are also the places in which those with special interests find one another. In third places, amateur musicians, target-shooting enthusiasts, poetry lovers, fishermen, scuba divers, etc., get introduced and find local outlets for their interests. Here is provided the basis of whatever kind and degree of local culture will emerge. In the modern subdivision, “local” culture is provided by television.

4. Third places can bring youth and adults into association with one another. In soda fountains, diners, family taverns, produce markets, and the like, children of prewar days “hung out” with adults and learned a lot from them. Sadly, as time spent with parents has declined for the nation’s children, so has the time spent with other adults. Between 1965 and 1985, the amount of time parents spent with their children declined by almost half. Meanwhile, those children were increasingly being raised in neighborhoods where contact with other adults was reduced to almost nothing because of the lack of places where they might spend time together.

5. Third places help care for the neighborhood. The people who operate third places are often “public characters,” as described by noted social observer Jane Jacobs. They seem to know everybody in the neighborhood; they keep an eye on the local kids and what they’re up to; they do favors for local customers; and they keep regulars up-to-date on all variety of local matters. Third places also serve as gathering spots when emergencies or disasters occur. People want, and need, to be with other people in these situations — to help and support each other, and to decide on courses of action.

6. Third places foster political debate. From the colonial inn to the old country store, from the neighborhood tavern to the soda fountain, third places have historically served as forums for political debate and discussion. It should surprise no one that political literacy is low in this country; that people don’t know who serves in the President’s cabinet, or who their local legislators are. This kind of information matters to us more when we put it to use by conversing, arguing, and debating with each other. We can better test and refine our opinions by interacting with others, not by simply listening to the pronouncements of television commentators.

7. Third places help reduce the cost of living. Where people meet regularly to relax and enjoy one another’s company, natural support groups or “mutual aid” societies tend to form. As we take our relaxation with people, we grow to like them and, as we come to like them, we are inclined to “do for them.” Third places are also easy places to collect time-saving, labor-saving, and money-saving advice — sometimes without even asking!

8. Third places are entertaining. And the entertainment is provided by the people themselves. The sustaining activity is conversation which is variously passionate and light-hearted, serious and witty, informative and silly. In the course of it, people become very near and dear to one another such that continuity
is assured.

Television offers the principal form of entertainment today. Yet how many of us, having “surfed” through the available channels two or three times and been bored by it all, wouldn’t like to walk down to the corner and have a cold one (or a hot cup of coffee or tea) with friends and neighbors? Ah, but there’s nothing on the corner, nor in walking distance at all, to easily go to.

9. Third places give the gift of friendship. Not the singular, lifelong “best” friendship necessarily, but the tonic of friends met in numbers. The great boon to friendship is that which is often called “neutral ground” and third places represent the best of it. On neutral ground people avoid the obligations of both guest and host and simply enjoy the company. They come and go without making arrangements or excuses; they may leave the very moment it suits them to do so. It is a very easy form of human association.

When friends meet in numbers, as opposed to “one-on-one,” there is a festive spirit and laughter is frequent. There is an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging that no single friend, no matter how close, can provide.

10. Third places are important for retired people. They provide the means for keeping in touch with others and continuing to enjoy the life of the community. “Only in America,” it seems, do millions of retired people make a final migration away from the cities and towns where they worked and knew people.

“Sun Cities” did not come into vogue until retirees confronted the prospect of trying to find a life in the boring suburbs from which work had provided the only means of regular escape. The young and the active need the elderly and the contributions they have always made to community. But the elderly also need community, and need it more acutely.

Can we save our vanishing "Third Places, repositories and fonts of community culture?

By Ray Oldenburg

Most residential areas built since World War II have been designed to protect people from community rather than connect them to it. Virtually all means of meeting and getting to know one’s neighbors have been eliminated. An electronically operated garage door out front and a privacy fence out back afford near-total protection from those who, in former days,would have been neighbors.

Here and there one sees evidence of people struggling against the anti-community character of the postwar suburban landscape. A rare vacant lot attracts dog-owners who, near day’s end, time their visits so as to maximize contact with others. The animals “doing their business” constitutes a social high point in their owners’ day.

Beneath a shade tree by a convenience store one sees working men drinking a beer which they may not consume inside, and enjoying the company of other men for which there is no provision inside. Elsewhere, men and women build a meager social life around visits to a laundromat, a most unlikely place, and yet many laundromat owners add amenities so as to capitalize on people’s frustrated need for affiliation.

Such embers of human association signal the flaw in much of today’s residential land use pattern — all space is used up and there’s no provision for a community life. What should be local is remote, and because it is remote it serves no community at all.

What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably — a “place on the corner,” real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.

Why shovel-ready sites are the death of us and how to stop them

By James Howard Kuntsler
Our system of property taxes may be the single most insidious, pathogenic factor contributing to the geography of nowhere. It is almost impossible to discuss. It involves numbers and formulae resembling mathematics, from which many otherwise healthy adults shrink in tearful bewilderment. It implies the confiscation of one's earning and chattels (i.e., one's security and well-being), which provokes a mindless terror that no mere talk can overcome. The impenetrable jargon of economists does not make it any more inviting -- they don't call it the dismal science for nothing. So, we complain about taxes, and vote for candidates who promise vaguely to make them lower (and are eternally disappointed by them), but we leave the details to presumed experts because taxes are too painful and baffling to think about. This being said, I will undertake to discuss the undiscussable.

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