At a recent baseball game in Delaware Park, far from
his home diamond in Riverside Park, a young man stood at the plate ready to hit.
It was a close and tense game between two Little League teams, and hordes of the
players' family and friends had come from different Buffalo neighborhoods to watch.
Quiet settled over the field and the boy readied himself for the pitch. As he
did a cry was heard from somewhere among the spectators: "C'mon Mike, hit the
ball! Show 'em what a Black Rock kid can do!"
The people of Black Rock, as well as those in Riverside and Grant-Amherst, have,
despite the changes that have caused the decline of their communities, always been
proud of their neighborhoods. A proud neighborhood, however, is not necessarily a
strong neighborhood. For what neighborhoods need above all is economic and political
power. Throughout most of their history, these three neighborhoods were strong. With
their own local economies, a deeply entrenched system of political power and a population
that stayed put for many years, Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst were vital
and significant neighborhoods within the larger city. Today they have lost much of
their economic and political leverage and are left with little more than their pride
and their memories.
What follows is the story of how these three neighborhoods acquired their strength
during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how they have lost it in our own
time. By understanding what has happened to Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst
we can learn not only about the history of these neighborhoods, but also what might
be done to improve them in the future.
While outsiders may think of Black Rock, Riverside
and Grant-Amherst as part and parcel of the same community, they are, for those who
live there anyway, three distinct neighborhoods, each with its own history and identity.
Referring to a map of Buffalo, Mary Ann Lotito, a life-long resident of Amherst Street,
says emphatically: "This is Black Rock. East of those railroad tracks at Amherst
and Tonawanda . . .now that is Grant-Amherst. And there, bordering the Niagara
River north of Hertel, there is Riverside." With a further hint of warning in
her voice, she adds: "Don't confuse them. We're each different."
Indeed, it is because each neighborhood has had separate and unique patterns of
development that today's residents continue to relate to them as special places,
almost as villages within Buffalo.
Black Rock was, in fact, a separate village until Buffalo forcibly annexed it
in 1854. Until then it had been a healthy and aggressive rival. With approximately
2,000 people each, they were of equal size. Like Buffalo, Black Rock too yearned
to win the high stakes competition over which town would be selected as the terminal
point of the Erie Canal. As the Canal neared completion in the early 1820's, the
rivalry between Black Rock and buffalo became bitter and intense. In the see-sawing
battle between the two towns that lasted over the next two years, both Black Rock
and Buffalo organized elaborate grassroot campaigns to influence the state.
Despite Black Rock's unsuccessful effort, the struggle became legendary in the
community. Indeed, if there is one fact that every contemporary resident of Black
Rock knows about Buffalo's history, it is that at some time - not everybody knows
exactly when - their community was a robust rival, equal in all respects to Buffalo.
Pointing to the hulk of an early 19th century Greek Revival church west of Niagara
Street on Breckenridge (now the offices of Stritt and Priebe Inc., a piping firm),
John Kreiger, whose family name first appeared as a resident of Black Rock in the
1850 census, says: "That was Commercial Street, the main drag in Black Rock.
That old church was the Black Rock Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1832. It's
one of the oldest still standing in Buffalo."
Kreiger also knows that at that time, the Village of Black Rock was divided into
two sections: the Upper Rock, centered at the intersection of Niagara and
Breckenridge (this despite the fact that the actual Black Rock was originally located
in the Niagara River at the foot of Albany Street) and the Lower Rock, now
the neighborhood of Black Rock, bounded by the Scajaquada Creek, the Niagara River,
Grant Street and Hertel Avenue.
While the Upper Rock section was quickly absorbed by the rapidly expanding City
of Buffalo, the Lower Rock - today's neighborhood - remained separate and apart.
This section did not begin to develop until 1825 when the construction of the Erie
Canal along the Niagara River required that a lock be built where the canal passed
Austin Street, then known as Lock Street.
The lock laid the foundations for the commercial development of the neighborhood.
As the canal boats waited in the lock for the water level to change, the ever-restless
entrepreneurs who made up a large proportion of America's urban population would
unload some of the produce on the boats. By selling some of the wheat, lumber, iron
and other raw material that moved down the canal, and by marshaling the power created
by the force of water that came streaming through the locks, he people of Black Rock
created a local, neighborhood-based economy.
By the late 1830s and early 1840s the canal towpath in Black Rock - at the foot
of Amherst, Austin and Hertel - had become a significant manufacturing center with
several flour mills, cooperages (barrel factories), and lumber mills. Remains of
this early period in Black Rock's history can still be found in an abandoned brick
factory at the foot of Austin Street and in the stone home on the southeast corner
of Dearborn and Amherst Streets.
The lack of adequate transportation reinforced Black Rock's isolation. Other than
the Buffalo-Niagara Falls Railroad, which began its run in the early 1850s, Black
Rock had no direct transportation connection with downtown Buffalo until the inception
of the Niagara Street streetcar line in the early 1890s. Because of this, Black Rock
developed as a self-sufficient entity, legally linked but physically separate from
the rest of Buffalo.
Very much like a medieval village, Black Rock had its own market, churches and
water supply. The unusually wide sidewalks visible today at the corner of Amherst
and Niagara are the remnants of Black Rock's middle 19th century public market. Churches
- the Dearborn Street Baptist, founded in 1839, the Dearborn Street Methodist, organized
in 1844, St. Francis Xavier,
formed in 1849, are among the oldest and most enduring in any section of today's
The Jubilee Springs, known today only
by the marker on Delaware Avenue, was the neighborhood's source of water.
In addition to its economic strength, its social cohesiveness, its strong sense
of its history and its physical separation, Black Rock also enjoyed and enormous
amount of political power. For Black Rock, like other neighborhoods in mid-19th century
Buffalo, was the beneficiary of a political system that gave a substantial amount
of political power to small geographic enclaves called "wards."
Far smaller than the current councilmanic districts, the boundaries of the wards
reflected an arbitrary combination of natural and man-made borders, ethnic settlement
patterns and the prevailing beliefs of the time that political boundaries should
reinforce the neighborhood segregation along race, ethnic and class lines that had
already been developed.
Throughout most of the 19th century each of buffalo's wards, like states in the
United States Senate, regardless of size, population or economic importance, sent
two alderman to the Common Council. With no city-wide representation and with a mayor
whose office (until the end of the 19th century at least) was virtually titular and
whose powers were highly circumscribed, the wards dominated the political decision-making
in the city. Black Rock was part of the 12th ward, the only part with any significant
settlement in the 19th century.
Thus, despite its relatively small population -- 1,400 in 1855, 1,700 in 1865,
2,200 in 1875, and 3,000 in 1895 -- Black Rock had a great deal of political clout
in the city at large.
As a result of this combination of factors, Black Rock, by the end of the 19th
century, had developed a community structure and outlook that was similar in many
respects to a small town. With its own economic base along the Erie Canal, a vibrant
small-store economy, a community social life rooted in the intricate and intimate
patterns of generations of neighboring, its own political and religious institutions,
its own community newspaper, "The International Gazette," its own businessmen's
group -- The Black Rock Businessmen's Association -- it is no wonder that this working-class
community also developed an intense feeling of neighborhood loyalty.
While Black Rock, like Grant - Amherst and Riverside, has always consisted of
working-class people who worked in the factories that surrounded these neighborhoods,
the community was never ethnically homogeneous. Indeed, what is so interesting about
the rich and compelling community that developed in Black Rock is that it appeared
among an ethnically diverse people.
While German Catholics continued to predominate among both immigrants and their
descendants, there was, throughout the 19th century, a healthy mixture of Irish,
Canadians, French, English and American born residents.
"We had everybody here," recalls a long-term resident of East Street.
Talking about the early 20th century, he says, "School 20 on Amherst was as
mixed as the United Nations. We were mostly German, that's true. But people forget
about how many Canadians we had. And French too."
There were, however, very few Poles in Black Rock.
They lived across the railroad tracks at Amherst and Tonawanda in the Grant-Amherst
Above all, It was the railroad the determined the development of the Grant-Amherst
district, the heart of which came to be Assumption Parish. There had always been
railroads crossing at the intersection of Tonawanda and Amherst. First, the Buffalo-Niagara
Falls, then the New York Central and the Grand Trunk between the United States and
Canada. The most significant for the development of the Assumption Parish was the
Belt Line. When completed in 1833, the Belt Line was a freight and passenger line
that circled the city, much like the expressway system does today.
Suddenly, whole new areas of the city, until then inaccessible, were open to settlement.
For the price of a nickel, people could leave older, inner-city neighborhoods and
by riding the Belt Line could move to Central Park or Grant-Amherst.
Industry, too, now guaranteed a way to receive and ship materials, took advantage
of the Belt Line and began to move away from the older, industrial areas near the
waterfront to those newer, outlying sections of Buffalo. Many local industries chose
the Amherst-Tonawanda intersection, and by the turn of the century this section,
just east of Black Rock, had become very heavily industrialized.
Some factories, like Pratt and Letchworth, had been there since the 1870's. Most
, however, came after the completion of the Belt Line. Within a 10-year period, Buffalo
Cooperative Stove, McKinnon Dash, Acme Steel, Hard Manufacturing and Standard Plaster
were among the large companies that were located at this prime site. By 1900 the
Belt Line had attracted still more industry: Fedders, Kittinger Furniture and Pierce-Arrow,
among the largest.
Offering jobs and direct transportation, the Grant-Amherst neighborhood grew quickly.
The largest group of settler consisted of Poles who, bursting out of their older
and overcrowded neighborhood in the East Side, began to settle in the Grant-Amherst
section. At first, these Polish settlers shared the neighborhood facilities of Black
Rock. But, the cool reception they received (Black Rock's newspaper, "The
International Gazette," said in referring to that growing number of Poles here
that, "In the sweet bye-bye they may be desirable acquisitions, but they are
not looked upon in that light now,") in addition to the long and dangerous journey
across the wide expanse of street level railroad tracks, discouraged communication
between the two neighborhoods.
Thus, in 1888, a group of Poles living in Grant-Amherst requested and received
permission from the Diocese to form their own church. In December 1888, Assumption
Church, a plain wood building on Amherst Street between German and Peter, was formally
With Assumption Church as a focal point, and with new homes and factory jobs as
lures, the number of Poles in Grant-Amherst grew rapidly. By the early 20th century
Assumption was, after St. Stanislaus, the largest Polish Parish in Buffalo.
But, ethnicity alone did not make this a separate neighborhood. The impassable
street-level railroad tracks were even more significant. "We didn't have a hook
and ladder company 'til 1912," says Stanley Kasinski, who joined Assumption
in 1906. "The closest one was on Amherst
and East across the tracks in
Black Rock. Now, these are all wood homes here, and fires were a real problem. Trouble
was, by the time the hook and ladders made it across those tracks, most of time it
was too late."
So, cut off from the older Black Rock section, the Poles in Assumption Parish
developed a self-sufficient community of their own. Indeed, it was not until the
railroad tracks were raised onto a viaduct in 1931 and an east-west bus was routed
on Amherst Street that there was substantial communication between the two neighborhoods.
Traditions of neighborhood separatism, long in the making, were not easily changed.
The large and sudden influx of Poles into Grant-Amherst -- there were approximately
1,000 here in 1900 and over 5,000 in 1915 -- led to the exodus of other residents.
With the exception of a small yet significant Hungarian Community (St. Elizabeth's
Hungarian Church on Grant Street was founded in 1907) the Grant-Amherst neighborhood,
with the Assumption Parish its primary focal point, had become a Polish Ghetto.
Most of those who left were moving to Riverside.
To turn-of-the-century downtown newspapers and to
the policy makers in City Hall, the area was known simply as "North Buffalo."
But, to the residents here and in Black Rock, it was always "Riverside."
These differences in neighborhood nomeclature - the name that residents use for a
place as opposed to the name used by outsiders - are an important aspect of a neighborhood's
identity. For a while the outsider's name of "North Buffalo" implies similarity
and extension of the rest of Buffalo, the name "Riverside" suggests something
vastly different - a place apart - quiet, peaceful, an almost bucolic and pre-urban
Indeed, that is pretty much the way Riverside was until the early years of the
20th century. During the last quarter of the 19th century, as Black Rock was becoming
increasingly industrialized, overrun by large factories owned by people from outside
the neighborhood, Riverside was left alone. It remained predominantly an area of
farms and several large exurban private homes, like that of William A. Bird, the
president of the Erie Savings Bank, who lived on a large estate located between Hertel
Avenue (then known as Bird Avenue) and Ontario Street.
Things began to take a change with the passage of the Hertel Avenue Sewer Bill
in 1888. Just as is true in contemporary suburbia, sewer construction and real estate
development proceeded concurrently. In 1890, for example, one of several real estate
companies working in the area -- the North Park Land Company -- bought 30 acres of
land in the vicinity of Riverside Park (then known as Germania Park), subdivided
it, built two-family homes on the building lots and sold them to incoming homeowners.
The area grew steadily and by 1900 there were close to 2,000 people in Riverside
The roots of the contemporary community were already firmly planted. Although
settled and primarily by people from Black Rock and by non-Polish exiles from Grant-Amherst,
Riverside was not modeled after these two older neighborhoods. It was, in fact consciously
created according to different notions of what a community should be. Unlike Black
Rock and Grant-Amherst -- their narrow, perpendicular streets set in a landscape
of heavy industry -- Riverside, with its long, sweeping streets, the panoramic views
of the Niagara, the grassy expanse of Riverside Park (like Delaware, designed by
Frederick Law Olmsted) was a working class suburban retreat within the city.
The differences between Riverside and the older neighborhoods in Buffalo were
not only physical. Certainly, its homes were newer, its streets cleaner and its air
free from industrial waste. But the people who came to live here were also different.
Although still largely blue collar workers, the people of Riverside, unlike those
in Black Rock and Assumption Parish, were overwhelmingly American-born. This, compounded
with the area's more recent development, gave Riverside the ambiance and the image
of success - the feeling of prosperity and newness.
Lillian Strom, whose family had lived in Black Rock since the end of War of 1812,
moved to Riverside in the 1920s. She recalls that "there were no factories here
then. From where we live now (on Crowley Street) you could see clear over to the
Niagara River. Cornelius Creek, all filled in now where Grant Street runs, was our
favorite fishing place. Boy . . . it was new all right. New and undeveloped"
Oddly enough, it was the Depression years of the 1930s and the war years that
followed that were the high points in the history of Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst.
For it was during this 15-year period, when mobility was severely limited -- first
by economic hardship and then later by wartime shortages of building materials which
prevented the development of new suburban communities -- that life in these neighborhoods
Even during the Depression, local shopping districts, drawing to a large extent
on a captive population group, thrived. Within the immediate vicinity of Ontario
and Tonawanda Streets, for example, was Robert Franke's Market, Richardson's Hardware,
Sully's Art and Gift Shop, Sam Ruffino's barbershop, the Riverside Diner, Thompson's
Funeral Parlor, Rowland's Department Store, Grant's, Woolworth's, Kresge's.
Not only shopping, but entertainment, too, was neighborhood-based. Herbert Strom,
whose family goes far into early 19th century Black Rock and early 20th century Riverside,
remembers "weaving our way through Saturday night crowds on Tonawanda Street"
on his way to the Riverside Theater and Murtaugh's Soda Bar.
Neighborhood life was equally compelling in Black Rock and Assumption Parish during
the 1930s and early forties. Few people moved away, the population was stable and
local businesses, despite the hard times of the Depression, held their own.
Black Rock, Grant-Amherst and Riverside, it seemed, were here to stay.
Federal policies Hurt Neighborhoods
The end of the war, however, signaled the beginning
of the end for all of these old, solid and stable neighborhoods. Indeed, not only
these places but neighborhoods throughout urban America were devastated by the general
prosperity that characterized postwar America. During these years, the unprecedented
purchase of new automobiles and homes led to the complete erosion of city neighborhoods
that had taken so long to create.
The federal government played no small role in the unraveling of American neighborhood
life. Indeed, it was government policy, as implemented by the Federal Housing Authority
and the Veterans Administration, that encouraged the massive exodus of residents
from Black Rock, Riverside, Grant-Amherst and neighborhoods like it throughout the
By guaranteeing millions of dollars of low interest, long-term mortgages to millions
of purchasers of new homes (by funding only the purchase of new homes it became virtually
impossible to purchase a home in the city under these federal programs, as most of
the housing stock there had already been built), and by developing a system of tax
incentives that encouraged the construction of new commercial and industrial facilities,
the federal government created the northern suburbs.
When the federal and state governments added highways to their list of subsidized
programs, there was little that the city neighborhoods could do to stem the loss
of people and business to the suburbs. Unable to compete with the suburban beneficiaries
of the government largeness, American urban neighborhoods entered a long period of
Nothing better illustrates the decline of neighborhood life in the northwestern
section of Buffalo than the construction of the New York State Thruway.
Planned in the late 1940s, the Niagara Extension of the Thruway was begun in the
early 1950s. When plans for the Thruway were made public in the late 1940s, it was
immediately obvious that the state planned to build the highway adjacent to the Niagara
River. This would rob the citizens of Black Rock and Riverside of their Towpath,
the oldest and most popular recreational spot in the area.
The canal Towpath had long been the site of several hunting and fishing clubs
whose history extended back into the 19th century. There was the Oak Tree Fishing
Club, the Riverside Hunting and Fishing Club, the Turkey Point Club and the Parkside
Most famous of all were the George Washington Fishing and Hunting Club and Mutz's
Tavern and Boat Rental ... Working with local representatives, the members of these
clubs, as well as over 100 people who lived alongside the Towpath overlooking the
Niagara River, fought desperately and unsuccessfully to save it.
It could easily have been saved without jeopardizing the Thruway, argues "Chick"
Houck, a long time member of the Washington Club and a fisherman on the Niagara River
since the early 1930s.
"The land is still there - that walkway along the river in front of Ontario
Street," says Houck. "They haven't done a thing to it. It's like the urban
renewal. We could have kept all those buildings except the state and the city didn't
want them. I think they thought it wouldn't look pretty or something, to have all
those wooden buildings there as people whizzed by on the Thruway in their cars."
The residents of Black Rock and Riverside lost more than the shorefront when the
Thruway was built. They also saw the destruction of most of Riverside Park. The construction
of the Thruway along the waterfront at street-level resulted in the demolition of
the park's magnificent, terraced, two-story casino, two large swimming pools surrounded
by landscaped, grassy slopes, and a bandstand, the site of community dances and celebrations
for over 50 years.
The citizens of the area made alternative proposals for the Thruway. Some suggested
that it be built underground. Others above ground. Transportation planners, however,
would hear none of it. The Thruway was built in the worst of all possible places.
The city lost its shoreline. Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst mourned their
Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst also lost many people during these years.
While their populations have not declined as rapidly as inner-city neighborhoods
(Black Rock has lost about 12% of its population every census year since 1950, Grant-Amherst
over 20% and Riverside, whose population continued to grow until 1960, now, too,
has begun to lose population at about 105 per decade), the loss has been significant.
It has been large enough to result in diminished political power.
In 1961, following a four-year-term as the Democratic
councilman from the North District (that is, Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst),
Victor Manz, disenchanted with what he felt was the boss-controlled administration
of Mayor Frank Sedita, challenged Sedita in that year's Democratic Party, promptly
entered the mayoral race as an independent. The Democrats, now split between Manz
and Sedita, divided votes between them, permitting the election of the Republican
candidate, Chester Kowal.
Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst, unfortunately, paid for what was regarded
as Victor Manz's party disloyalty. Although there is no evidence to prove it and
Victor Manz, now a judge on the Erie County Family Court, himself questions it, there
is a large body of opinion that swears that as punishment for Manz's brazen challenge
of the Democratic incumbent, his district, whose solid support had made his challenge
of Sedita possible, was irreparably partitioned.
By councilmanic legislation strongly supported by Sedita and the Erie County Democratic
Party, the German-American Black Rock section was broken
off and joined by the predominantly Italian-American Niagara District.
The polish working-class Grant-Amherst community was served and artificially grafted
onto the "Silk Stocking" Delaware district.
St. Florian's Parish, another Polish parish in the Grant-Amherst area, was separated
from Assumption Parish and placed in the new North District along with Riverside
and the Hertel Avenue section.
Black Rock, Riverside, and Grant-Amherst, politically intact since 1854, had always
been drastically gerrymandered. Always regarded politically as one of the strongest
areas in the city, these three neighborhoods were now critically wounded as each
became the forgotten section of three larger councilmanic districts.
The stakes of this little game of political revenge were very high. More was lost
than Victor Manz's political base.
Three whole neighborhoods had lost their political voice.
Despite the short-sighted federal and state policies
that have subsidized the development of the suburbs, despite the continued population
loss that had affected them since the late 1940s, despite bitter political infighting
that has punished them, there is still hope for the future of Black Rock, Riverside,
It is based primarily on two foundations. One is the deep sense of loyalty and
commitment that, after all these years, continues to exist in these three neighborhoods.
"Sure, we've lost a lot of people," says one long-term resident of Dearborn
Street. "But there are a heck of a lot of people - not only here but in Riverside
and Assumption, too, that have been here for decades. They may not be young and they
may not be rich, but they're here and they love their neighborhood."
Perhaps still more significant is the general sense that the high cost of new
housing, combined with the increasing cost of gasoline, has finally put an end to
the devastating effects of suburbanization that have so badly undercut the ability
of the city neighborhoods to survive.
Bruce Garber, the executive director of the Black Rock-Riverside Neighborhood
Housing Services, the most successful housing rehabilitation program yet in the City
of Buffalo, not only senses the change -- he cites figures to prove it.
People are definitely moving back - there's no question about it," he says.
"Young people who grew up in the area, who after they got married and rented
apartments in Tonawanda, are starting to buy homes in the old neighborhood. School
51 is good, local bankers are very cooperative and much of the housing stock is sound
and comparatively low-cost. More important still," continues Garber, "people
want to feel part of the neighbor hood -- identify with their turf. You can do that
in black Rock, in Riverside or in Assumption Parish. People feel at home here."
Dan Quider, the councilman for the North District (who, incidentally, desperately
wants to see the three neighborhoods rejoined in one powerful councilmanic district),
is particularly upbeat about the area.
"We've been killed in the last several years," he says. "On River
Road alone, we've lost hundreds and hundreds of jobs, as companies like Western Electric,
Semet-Solvay, American Standard on Rano Street, to name but a few, have just picked
up and walked away. We're trying to regroup. It's difficult, but it can be done."
Quider talks optimistically about the master plan for the area. It calls for a
comprehensive program of improved public services, housing rehabilitation, recreational
improvements along the riverfront and in Riverside Park, and a long-term program
of economic development that would retain existing businesses, expand others, and
attract still more.
Driving through the streets of Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst and talking
to any number of residents confirms the optimism of these professional neighborhood
"Listen," says one resident of Framer Street in Black Rock who spends
most his spare time working on his 85-year-old-home, "with the price of a house
in the suburbs so high, where am I going to go? You don't have think I'd like a little
more space? A driveway for my car? A bigger back yard for even an above ground swimming
pool? But it's out of the question right now. So I"m painting and fixing up
here. Might as well make the best of a lousy situation." People are beginning
to think twice about moving out of the old neighborhood. And, others are beginning
to think about moving in.
While there is hope here, the obstacles to improvement are great and the prospects
for success far from promising. The national economy could well continue to decline.
There could a reversal of the recent changes in federal policies that have benefited
the neighborhoods. New discount department stores could still be built that would
knock the bottom out of the best efforts at neighborhood commercial revitalization.
Blacks, now leaving the Ellicott and Masten districts in droves, might as well move
into Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst, provoking an unknown reaction in these
traditional enclaves of white working-working class ethnicity.
These neighborhoods are, in short, highly vulnerable to events beyond their control.
They may never succeed in recapturing the economic and political strength they once
enjoyed. But, they can recapture some of it. And, they are trying.
Christine Eber, the creative and organizing force behind the impressive Black
Rock-Riverside Community Calendar that was published in 1979, is convinced that if
any places can come back, Black Rock, Riverside and Grant-Amherst can. "The
people here love these places. With the right policies, some decent economic breaks
and some more neighborhood political power, they will make it. I know they will