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Urban Renewal Redux: A Wall Rises in Buffalo

Buffalo, like so many American cities, still has wounds and physical defects dating from the Urban Renewal era. Massive demolition programs claimed thousands of irreplaceable buildings. Many sites are vacant to this day (camouflaged, if you will, by parking lots). When new structures were built, they were often built with ignorance and disregard for how humans behaved and cities succeed. Thus, in Buffalo, we erected buildings with long stretches of blank walls, which suppressed sidewalk activity and destroyed the contiguity which made walking useful and pleasant. Jane Jacobs, in Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) pointed this out. That did not stop us from constructing the Central Library (1962) with solid walls on Clinton, Oak, William and Broadway; Main Place Mall (1969) with a 900-foot blank wall on Pearl Street, the convention center (1978) which killed everything around it on Franklin, Genesee, and Mohawk streets with hundreds of feet of implacable brutality, and just about every parking garage you want to mention. That is a lot of dead zone to overcome.

Cities the world over are tearing out expressways, replacing Brutalist compounds with engaging structures opening onto public sidewalks, even "daylighting" lost rivers and canals. Buffalo's first big opportunity to correct the mistakes of 1960s urbanism in Buffalo is the old Marine Midland Center (1972). We are on the verge of blowing it.

The Buffalo Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the Zoning Board of Appeals all approved a massive wall of concrete panels that is 12 feet high on the corner of Seneca and Pearl streets, and over 20 feet high on Washington Street. The wall, and related structures at Main and Seneca streets, are almost finished. And it is a horror to behold. Should we let this mistake last for the next 50 years?


Selling Urban Renewal to Children of All Ages

First page of architect-author-illustrator Yen Liang's 1958 book The Skyscraper. Jane Jacobs saw this as the very picture of urban health, equity, and functionality. Author Yen Liang saw it as a menace to health and property values that had to be destroyed in order to build a new, clean, and ordered city

Trigger warning: this article contains soul-crushing depictions of the American City.

Look at images of street scenes any American City around 1900.

Look at that city today, and you are likely to see a selection of glorious masonry architecture intermixed with glammy office buildings (in larger cities) and gray crusted-over wounds inflicted 60 years ago, during the Urban Renewal era of the late 1950s and 1960s. Swaths of open-air automobile storage, wide, smooth roads with speeding cars, narrowed unkempt sidewalks, scattered blank-walled drugstores and drive-thru fast food joints (here's looking at you, Tonawanda, Newark (NY), and Rome), and plain-old infertile precincts where the bomb craters have been filled in and ill-conceived Brutalist replacement retail and concrete nooses of loop roads render suicide redundant (sorry, Ogdensburg, Amsterdam, and um...)

How could something so bad, that seems to us so pre-destined to failure and infertility have happened? Did our leaders lose their minds? Where was the resistance? Why didn't Jane Jacobs (Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961) prevail?


The cover of Yen Liang's The Skyscraper was an austere abstraction. The dust jacket was more family friendly.

Some answers can be found in The Skyscraper, a forgotten children's book published in 1958. To come across it 60 years after it made its way through the bookstores, school libraries, and the minds of "children of all ages (Saturday Review)," is to understand what it is to be led, with certitude and conviction, by blinded acolytes of the urban-industrial complex. Consider the case of Yen Liang (1908-2000) architect, author/illustrator. Ivy League education (Penn, Cornell, MIT, and Harvard) . One of the original six Taleisin Fellows of Frank Lloyd Wright. Employed by Harrison and Abramowitz, masters of Corporate Modernism, from 1946 through retirement a quarter-century later. Liang gulped down the Kool-Aid by the galvanized tubload.

Today, even while the novel coronavirus is among us, this image could depict a healthy, vacation-worthy urban area anywhere on the globe. The book's caption describes Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona, Rome, and countless other places. To Modernists like Wallace Harrison and Yen Liang, this depicted an urban slum ripe for clearance
Contrary to Skyscraper's message, children did have a place to play to a public place, albeit under the watchful eyes of a basement-dwelling victim/perp. Some of America's most desired residential real estate is in rehabilitated neighborhoods like this in Brooklyn today, appreciated by preservationists like Clem Labine, who founded Old House Journal in a Brooklyn brownstone
The Urban-Industrial Complex gets down to business: White men with calculators and t-squares planning the city of tomorrow while a lone woman takes notes.
The simplistic insight of Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse (1922) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City (1934) that stacking human habitations in vertical towers would free up land for open space became blinding, and planners, architects, and civic leaders blinded, to the social and economic consequences.
To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs: Demolition was sold as necessary precondition of "cleaning up" cities. In truth, it was an epic of squandering human capital and public treasure. The new laws which made all this possible remain today, suppressing the re-appearence of the traditional city.
The vision of towers in parks and plazas, according to architectural historian Vincent Scully, "came to ream out the traditional density of the town and destroy its streets." No humans are visible, nor are the highways, cars, strip malls, and parking lots which the vision also required. Author Yin Liang was soon hard at work on the South Mall in Albany, a project which forced over 9,000 people from their homes and destroyed hundreds of small businesses and thousands of housing units, and replaced them with towers on platforms over a parking connected to interstate highways
The Skyscraper is evidence of the dangers of public intoxication with Corbu’s Ville Radieuse, Wright’s Broadacre City, and Wallace Harrison’s UN and X-City proposal of 1946 (years later served up refried as Albany's South Mall, which author Yen Liang worked on). To achieve the proper setting for the simple sculptural masses of the modern office tower and residential tower, whole sections of cities were torn down. A reporter in 1960's Buffalo writing about the transformation was so overwhelmed by the number of buildings coming down that he could not enumerate them—everywhere he turned downtown, blocks were coming down, were down, or were being condemned. Between them, the Ellicott and Waterfront urban renewal areas alone ground down the homes of almost 10,000 people. In their place, towers and highways and parking lots. It is a legacy which hobbles Buffalo still.