Hamlin Park - Table of Contents    .................     Hamlin Family - Table of Contents

Buffalo's Historic Neighborhoods: Hamlin Park
by Mark Goldman

Reprinted with permission from Buffalo Spree - July/August 2000
None of the illustrations are original to the Spree article

1896 map - Source: U. of Texas
Shows Driving Park and uncovered Scajaquada Creek

Click on map for larger size

The late 1950's and early 60's were devastating times in the life of American cities. Downtowns crumbled and neighborhoods collapsed as the culture of the country shifted its attention, energy, and resources away from the city to the suburbs.

Bounded by Jefferson Avenue in the west, Main in the north, Humboldt Parkway in the east, and Ferry in the south, Hamlin Park developed during the first twenty five years of the 19th century as a textbook zone of emergence.

The evidence of this transition is particularly obvious in downtown Buffalo as well as in some of our urban neighborhoods. Many of Buffalo's neighborhoods -- streets like Lexington, Highland, and Cleveland in Buffalo's Delaware District -- kept their integrity, remaining the home turf of Buffalo gentry during this traumatic period. It was in the second generation immigrant neighborhoods -- "zones of emergence" sociologists call them -- the places in between the old neighborhoods and the new suburbs, where upwardly mobile immigrants and their children had moved to during the first thirty years of the 20th century, where the changes were most cruelly felt.

The South Bronx and Bed-Stuy in New York; Avalon in Baltimore; Roxbury in Boston; and old Buffalo neighborhoods in the Italian West Side and the Polish, German, and Jewish East Side experienced massive upheaval, creating a divide in our society along class lines that shows no signs of narrowing.

Changes occurred in Hamlin Park, a large triangle of a neighborhood located in the heart of Buffalo. But the changes that occurred here were different. Bounded by Jefferson Avenue in the west, Main in the north, Humboldt Parkway in the east, and Ferry in the south, Hamlin Park developed during the first twenty five years of the 19th century as a textbook zone of emergence.

In a sense, it was an inner-city suburb, developed specifically and expressly for upwardly mobile immigrants and their children who, upon moving into Hamlin Park, could proudly proclaim their status as members of a new middle class. By the late 1950's and early 60's, Hamlin Park had changed. A transition had occurred as middle-class African-Americans moved in and in the process created the best and the nicest African-American neighborhood in Buffalo.

International Industrial Fair, Main Exhibition Building, 1888 - Hamlin Park Builder: Henry Smith

A forgotten predecessor to the Pan-American Exposition, this fair features industrial exhibits and all kinds of entertainments. The Exposition Grounds, a parcel bordered at present by Humboldt Parkway, E. Ferry, Dupont, and Lonsdale Streets, and Northland, was originally built by Chauncey Hamlin in 1868 as the Buffalo Driving Park, When "driving" meant carriages, not automobiles. Scajaquada Creek, not yet hidden under East Buffalo, traversed the northeast corner of the grounds. By 1903, the parcel was subdivided into residential streets and lots,becoming the neighborhood known as Hamlin Park, and the Scajaquada was buried in miles of underground tunnels.

- Source: Victorian Buffalo, by Cynthia Van Ness

Cicero Hamlin
The story of this most interesting neighborhood is well worth the telling. Named after Victorian horse racing aficionado Cicero Hamlin, the area was one of the nation's premier trotting tracks from the time Hamlin opened it in 1858 to the end of the century Race days at Hamlin's Driving Park [see map near top of page] were festive events. At one of them, billed and widely promoted by Hamlin as the "Kentucky Derby of the North," 40,000 people descended on the park. Following the extravaganza, throngs of people walked across Frederick Law Olmsted's grand Humboldt Parkway to The Parade for three cent pints of beer and hours of music played by The Turnverein band. Olmsted's final plan for the City's park system paid homage to Hamlin's Park. For it was here, at the north-eastern end of the Driving Park, near Agassiz Circle, that Humboldt Parkway arched elegantly on its gentle flow southward and eastward from Forest Lawn to The Parade.

August Hager
A few people lived in the area, mostly in brick farm houses. One, built in the 1850's, still stands on Hedley Place. The area's most prominent resident of the area during the latter part of the century was August Hager, a German immigrant. Hager, the proprietor of one of the city's most successful furniture factories, owned a large dairy farm located at the intersection of Hager and Delavan. Hager was fascinated by landscaping and horticulture, and on his land he built a large greenhouse visited by many, including the great Olmsted himself. Indeed, Hager's interest and knowledge was such that in 1887 he was chosen Parks Commissioner of Buffalo, a job he held for thirteen years during a critical period of park development. Hager's influence as a landscape designer is still strongly felt in the Hamlin Park neighborhood today. Upon retiring from the Parks Department, Hager returned to his farm.

He then subdivided his land into carefully planned, landscaped, and intimate streets which he named "Daisy," "Pansy," Viola," and "Pleasant." Hager laid out other streets too: Hedley, Eastwood, Hughes, Blaine, Meech, and Oakgrove. These winding and beautifully landscaped streets, like the avenues planned by Olmsted, remain wonderful oases in the midst of our city. Hager himself lived in a large home on Delavan and what is now Hager Street. When his mansion burned in 1890, Hager sold the lot to the Lutheran Church Home, which built the building it still occupies today.

John J. Cook
Following Cicero Hamlin's death in 1905, Hamlin's racing park lay dormant. After several fires and years of neglect, this three hundred acre chunk of scruffy and largely vacant land on the border of Olmsted's magnificent Delaware park lay empty and unused until 1912, when it was bought by Toronto-based real estate developer John J. Cook. (Cook was not alone. Between 1912 and 1915, over 1500 acres of land in Buffalo worth two million dollars were bought by Canadian real estate developers.)

Deeply influenced by Olmsted and City Beautiful planning ideas, Cook hoped to replicate in Hamlin Park the work that Olmsted had done in the Parkside area. Following the completion of Delaware Park, Olmsted laid out the sweeping avenues of Parkside in curvilinear English style. Seeing how quickly this area was developing as a fine, new, and highly desirable residential neighborhood, Cook adapted the same strategies on a more modest scale in Hamlin Park.

John Cook had a keen understanding of the needs and wants of a rapidly expanding middle class and, like William Levitt, who forty years later filled the demand for post-War housing in Levittown, Cook tailored his product to the middle class homebuyer of early twentieth century Buffalo.

Named after Victorian horse racing aficionado Cicero Hamlin, the area was one of the nation's premier trotting tracks from the time Hamlin opened it in 1858 to the end of the century Race days at Hamlin's Driving Park were festive events. At one of them, billed and widely promoted by Hamlin as the "Kentucky Derby of the North," 40,000 people descended on the park.

For small down payments and easy monthly terms, Cook made homes available and affordable to a group of people who had never before been homeowners. The typical purchaser of a Cook home was a first or second generation German or Jewish immigrant. Cook gave these first time homeowners what they wanted and what they could afford. The lots were smaller than in Parkside, cheaper and, because he built them as two-family homes, they were, Cook said, "moneymakers." He told the Buffalo Express in 1912: "This style of house, it has been found, has become much in demand as an ideal form of investment. With a small payment down a man can secure title to one of these places. He may live in one flat and rent the other. The revenue derived will provide for the payment of carrying charges and by good management will give a margin for payments of principal."

Cook also knew that his home-owners, emerging as they were from teeming first generation immigrant neighborhoods, wanted a safe, controlled, quiet and planned community. Unlike the overcrowded, dense, older, downtown ethnic neighborhoods that the residents of Hamlin Park were leaving -- escaping, really -- Hamlin Park, like Levittown two generations later, and like Celebration today, was meant to be a tidy and controlled, peaceful and disciplined community. Ten years before the advent of zoning, Cook achieved this in his planned development in Hamlin Park by imposing strict restrictions on commercial use, uniform lot size, and the requirement that buyers not subdivide their lots.

Developers like Cook not only market fantasies - they create them, too. In the architecture that he selected for Hamlin Park, Cook, like Levitt and Disney, created a new domestic imagery while simultaneously catering to an old one. The styles Cook chose for the houses within this subdivision posed no threats to the acceptable, middle class architectural ideals of the day. Indeed, they conformed perfectly to them and in the process reinforced the architectural image of middle class domesticity for subsequent generations. Solid and somewhat stodgy, oriented around front porches and fenced-in backyards, these homes -- some in the Four Square style, some in the Homestead style and some in The Bungalow style -- all sent, although in somewhat different ways, the same message of middle-class domesticity, stability, and respectability. Lest anybody had any remaining doubts about Hamlin Park, the imprimatur of respectability was conferred still further on this neighborhood in 1912 when Canisius, the college of choice for Buffalo's upwardly mobile Catholic immigrants, chose the fringes of the Hamlin Park neighborhood for its new Main Street location. Still more acceptability and respectability arrived in the neighborhood fifteen years later when Sears, Roebuck built a department store at the corner of Main and Jefferson. This quintessential middle-class American commercial institution was installed cozily beside Hamlin Park, the quintessential middle-class American neighborhood.

1920's - German-Americans and Jewish Americans
In the meantime, it was during the boom years of the 1920's, a time of unprecedented expansion of the urban middle class, that Hamlin Park's neighborhood really grew as thousands of new home owners moved in. German-Americans and Jewish Americans in particular, long cramped in older, more commercial neighborhoods on the East Side, found the suburban-like qualities of Hamlin Park irresistible. On the quiet, tree-lined streets laid out a generation earlier by August Hager and John Cook -- Goulding, Butler, Brunswick, Hamlin, Meech, Donaldson, and the others -- these people planted new roots.

1950's Expressways
But neighborhoods don't last long in American cities. While Hamlin Park survived the Depression and World War II intact, the events of the late 1950's and early 60's almost killed it. Particularly when New York State and the City of Buffalo decided to build the Kensington Expressway on the site of Olmsted's Humboldt Parkway.

Deeply etched in the historical consciousness of Hamlin Park is the tragedy of Humboldt Parkway, destroyed by state and city planning officials during this period of misguided "urban renewal". No one who remembers or who has even heard about the serene beauty of Humboldt Parkway can understand how public officials charged with protecting the public trust could have conceived and then executed a plan that was so devastating in impact and scale.

A Bicycle Race at the International Fair, 1888 - Hamlin Park

The International Industrial Fair opens on Sept. 4, 1888, with sporting contests, concerts, livestock shows, carriage races, art displays, and manufacturing exhibits, drawing up to 30,000 visitors per day. Bicycles are a high-tech novelty in the 1880s. Eclipsed in modern memory by the Pan American Exposition, the success of this fair may have inspired ambitious Buffalonians to plan a bigger one for 1901.

- Source: Victorian Buffalo, by Cynthia Van Ness

Humboldt Parkway, was as beautiful but much bigger than Chapin Parkway. Because it was lined with churches, synagogues, centers of community activity as well as homes, it played a more significant role in the daily dynamic of neighborhood life. Families lived on the streets of Hamlin Park, and they played, picnicked, and just plain hung out under the large and lush trees of Humboldt Parkway

In the post-war boom years, when cars and suburbs changed forever the way we live, highway building in Buffalo, as in cities throughout the country, was all the rage. No place was spared, not the Niagara Riverfront, not Delaware Park, and certainly not the neighborhoods. Few people questioned, let alone protested when, in the early 1950's, the Buffalo shoreline of the Niagara River, one of the world's most breathtaking waterfront vistas, was chosen as the site of the Niagara Extension of the New York State Thruway.

Even less was said in the mid-50's when the State built the Scajaquada Creek Expressway, a four-lane, grade-level highway that cut through the heart of Delaware Park and the exclusive residential neighborhood that surrounds it.

But because it was built through the heart of a dense residential neighborhood, the Humboldt Expressway had a far greater impact on the social geography of Buffalo than either the Scajaquada or the Niagara Extension.

Some people tried to block the destruction of Humboldt Parkway, among them Dr. Lydia Wright and her husband Dr. Frank Evans. They had moved to their home on Hamlin Road -- where they still live -- in 1954, a time when middle-class African-American families were moving into the neighborhood in growing numbers. Barely had this new generation of middle-class Buffalonians planted their roots here, however, when talk of the construction of the highway began. There was little, however, that they and their band of neighborhood activists could do to counter the prevailing wisdom, and in 1958 construction began.

Meanwhile, the population of Hamlin Park was changing as a growing number of the immigrant families who had moved here in the 1920's now began to move out. They were replaced by a well established African-American middle class consisting of teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, steel workers, ministers, and politicians who remain the heart and soul of the neighborhood, embodying its strength in the present and its hopes for the future.

While it is clear that the construction of the Kensington Expressway altered forever the quality of life in Hamlin Park, the residents of this neighborhood have been quite successful in turning their backs on the highway that hems it in on the east. The Expressway has not altered or affected beautiful streets like Hughes, Blaine, Hedly, and

With a small payment down a man can secure title to one of these places. He may live in one flat and rent the other. The revenue derived will provide for the payment of carrying charges and by good management will give a margin for payments of principal.

Meech, north of Delavan, nor has it marred the tranquil peace and stability of Viola Park, Pansy, Daisy, and Regina, south of it. Donaldson, Hamlin, and Brunswick, too, each with their own vigilant block clubs and garden clubs, continue much the same as they always have, as a strong and solid neighborhood for the middle-classes of this city.

So while Hamlin Park has seen much change, it has also seen much continuity. The community functions today as Cook, Hager, and Olmsted envisioned it: a neighborhood for middle class people in search of a decent home and a better future for their families.

Hamlin Park has every reason to be optimistic about its future. While many middle-class African-Americans have moved to the suburbs, many have chosen to stay in the city. And many of these have chosen to live in Hamlin Park. For it has all of the ingredients of a healthy and successful community. Hamlin Park is very well organized. Under the large and influential umbrella of the Hamlin Park Community and Taxpayers Association, active since the mid-1960's in community affairs, Hamlin Park, with block clubs on every street, is a power to be reckoned with in City and County Hall.

Hamlin Park also benefits greatly by the presence in the neighborhood of Canisius College. While this relationship is sometimes touchy, Canisius has come to play a very positive and constructive role in the life of this neighborhood.

In addition, a growing group of local business owners, men and women entrepreneurs, are committed to and ambitious for the neighborhood. Hamlin Park still possesses in abundance what has made it since the early years of the twentieth century one of the great neighborhoods of Buffalo. It is these attributes˝beautiful, tree-line streets, lined with the a large number of architecturally interesting and significant homes -- that led this neighborhood to the recognition it so well deserves: the designation in 1999 of Hamlin Park as an "Historic District," the largest African-American community in the nation to be so cited.

About the author: Mark Goldman is a Buffalo businessman, activist, and author.
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