June 18, 2018
Buffalo. The very word conjures up visions of snow drifts and shuttered factories, but the reality is much different. Today, Buffalo is a city on the rise and the rich history of this city by the lake is playing a starring role in its renaissance. Today’s guest, Jessie Fisher, is leading the city-wide preservation group charged with identifying, protecting and promoting that heritage. Fortunately, you won’t need your snow shovels for this interview. It’s June and it’s a fine time to talk about all things Buffalo on this week’s PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Buffalo. The very word conjures up visions of snowdrifts and shuttered factories, but the reality is much different. Today, Buffalo is a city on the rise and the rich history of the city by the lake is playing a starring role in its renaissance. Today’s guest, Jessie Fisher, is leading the city-wide preservation group charged with identifying, protecting, and promoting that heritage. Fortunately, you won’t need your snow shovels for this interview. It’s June and it’s a fine time to talk about all things Buffalo on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Meagan Baco] Jessie Fisher brings a wide background to her role as the executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. An urban planner with a Master’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle, Jessie has worked as a historic preservation and neighborhood planning consultant. She’s owned and developed at-risk and abandoned buildings and served as the director of planning at the Buffalo Niagara River Keeper. These experiences have all combined to give her a unique sense of how promoting the region’s heritage can unlock a brighter, more equitable, and more sustainable future. Hi, Jessie. Welcome to PreserveCast.
[Jessie Fisher] Hi, Megan. Thanks. I’m excited to be here.
[MB] My name is Meagan Baco. I am pinch-hitting for your usual host, Nick Redding, of PreserveCast. Nick and I both happen to be from Buffalo, so I was happy to be able to chat with you, Jessie. There are so many good things happening in Buffalo because of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, because a lot of grassroots have been working for so long, you can hear the Buffalo pride in my voice right now. So can you tell us a little bit about what Preservation Buffalo Niagara is up to in Buffalo these days?
[JF] Sure. Well, PBN, as we are affectionately known around town, is actually an interesting hybrid organization because typically you’ll have statewide organizations like Preservation Maryland and then you’ll have more city-based organizations and PBN actually serves the seven counties of Western New York, so we’re sort of a hybrid regional organization. We have a wonderful statewide partner in The Preservation League of New York State, and then we have all sorts of really wonderful historic commissions and other kind of grassroots groups that we work with across the region, but we really try to be that umbrella organization.
We’re also a small organization. There’s four of us here. So really our goal is to empower folks who are closer to the ground in their neighborhoods and in their communities so that they have all the tools that they need. So they have the benefits of this region-wide historic preservation group. But that really, they’re taking control of their communities and their heritage and they’re the ones who are really setting their own agendas, and we’re providing technical assistance, and helping with funding, and all those kinds of things.
Probably the most exciting that we just recently finished up are the first neighborhood-based historic district in the City of Buffalo in almost twenty years. So the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, which is a really interesting historic part of our City of Buffalo here has finally gotten the historic district recognition that it deserves. That was a really intensive, uphill battle and we’re really thankful that it’s finally come to pass. The Buffalo Common Council has approved it and the mayor has signed and we officially have a Broadway-Fillmore historic district in Buffalo. So we’re really excited about that here.
[MB] Well, congratulations, and thank you for doing that. Again, as a Buffalonian, I know that generations of my family has spent time in that area, and lived there, and certainly visits, and continues to go to the Broadway Market and places like that. So can you describe a little bit about how that project came to be? Especially thinking about what are the tools or what are the challenges that vocal organizations in Buffalo, in Rochester, in Syracuse, and the other cities that you serve, other cities that could be called Rust Belt or Legacy cities? What are some of the challenges that are facing areas like that specifically?
[JF] Yeah. Just to clarify, Rochester actually has their own preservation organization, the Landmark Society of Western New York, and Syracuse does as well. We’re the western-most counties of western New York. So Buffalo’s really the largest city, and then we also serve the cities of Jamestown and Orleans, as well as the smaller villages like Alleghany, and Lewiston, and Williamsville, and East Aurora, and places like that. So we are a little bit west of Rochester and then continuing on down through the southern tier.
But yeah, we sort of say that in our neck of the woods, it’s sort of the best of times and the worst of times for historic preservation. There has been a real recognition of what preservation can do in terms of boosting economies. And so we have seen an uptick, especially of developer-driven projects happening in western New York. New York state has a statewide historic tax credit of twenty percent. So when you combine that with the federal tax credit, a lot of our developers have really figured out how to make that work for them. So when you see larger daylit factory projects or some things like that, a lot of those are really being done by the private sector. I don’t even worry about those types of buildings very much anymore because they’re the right scale, they’re the right size. We’re seeing a lot of recognition of that by developers, and they’re really stepping up to the plate and making those things happen in a way that we just weren’t twenty years ago. They were regarded as eyesores and other things. But there really has been an increased recognition. And with that, other places are realizing that, you have these sort of very authentic places. These places based on heritage, they are attracting in younger folks. Those are the neighborhoods that are growing in western New York, and so to the extent that we’ve been able to really kind of create a preservation-based economy in some neighborhoods and in some communities. Really seeing places thrive and grow in a way that we just haven’t in this region in several decades. So that’s a really exciting thing to see.
At the same time, we are definitely experiencing, continue to experience some of – as you alluded to the Rust Belt cities – this legacy disinvestment has been a hard hurdle to overcome, and especially in communities that really used demolition as a tool over the last couple of decades is really challenging to try and recreate places that have been lost and try to knit that fabric back together. There’s been a lot of… It still continues, especially in our smaller commercial mixed-use buildings that don’t quite have the same profit margins as those bigger buildings. We see folks who struggle to be able to put a roof on the building, and so we’re losing buildings every day through kind of continuing demolition by neglect because those neighborhoods or those communities aren’t sort of in the path of this new-found prosperity or they aren’t in the hip neighborhoods or the buildings themselves are sort of smaller and can’t take advantage of the tax credits as readily. So we’re sort of – there’s a little bit of cultural whiplash here. We go from really exciting projects that we’re celebrating to buildings that we know are probably going to be demolished in the next week or so because they’ve just been abandoned and allowed to decay for that long. So there’s sort of a sense of schizophrenia here to a certain extent.
[MB] That is an interesting way to describe legacy cities and I might use it. I’ve also heard kind of this idea of rebranding Rust Belt to legacy city. I’ve heard about the “Fresh Belt” because of the access to the Great Lakes. The history of this place has played so much of a role of the factories and the transportation throughout this entire region that just kind of taking a look at it now you can see those kind of shining examples of where preservation has completely changed a neighborhood. I also wonder if you can tell us more about how when you address something at the neighborhood level – so if it’s a local district or you’re providing that homeowners tax credit – how that helps building by building, and smaller by smaller, and inch by inch, how that will help rebuild the city?
[JF] Yeah. That’s actually my favorite work is working directly in the neighborhoods themselves. So we have a great staff here and we’re all always excited to get out into the neighborhoods and into those smaller communities because that’s where you see those “aha” moments in people. The places that maybe they had taken for granted or didn’t realize that anyone else found as special as they did, they just thought they loved it because it was home, they didn’t realize it actually had significance. So when you go and start to talk about the National Register, and you start to talk about tax credits, or you start to talk about a local historic district people will get really excited and they want to tell their stories. And I always think of it as sort of taking control of your own narrative of your neighborhood, right? We can give people a lot of tools and help them do research, and all that’s great because we’re opening you up to incentive-based programs and doing things like this. But what you really see from people is just an excitement that they didn’t realize quite the depth and richness of the history of their community, perhaps. Or maybe they did on an intuitive level but they didn’t realize that anyone else would be interested in that history, and so folks get really excited and really want to participate.
The other side of that coin sometimes in some neighborhoods, too, because we are a poorer region. The City of Buffalo generally ranks pretty high on the list of poorer communities in the United States and we do have a pretty wide income disparity. So sometimes we see concerns that folks have and they really have these stereotypes in their minds of only rich people can afford preservation and that by creating a district or doing something like that, that it’s going to cost them more to live in their homes or that they won’t be able to afford to live in their homes. So we really want those folks to be able to participate in historic preservation to get the story of their neighborhood told and to be able to access the incentives that do exist. So we do spend a lot of time, as I know a lot of preservation non-profits do, in overcoming those types of stereotypes and those types of concerns on the part of people. But when you do then emerge with a historic district like Broadway-Fillmore, it’s a really wonderfully rewarding experience.
[MB] You start to celebrate the listing, it’s a new reason for people to look at something anew that they may have been walking past or driving past for years, and decades, and generations. I had a mentor, actually, when I was working in Buffalo who would say, “Fish don’t know there’s water because they’re swimming in it.” And you might know who I’m talking about out; but looking at it with fresh ideas and, certainly, the innovations that your organization has brought and I know that you have a conference coming up. So anybody who’s working in a Rust Belt or Legacy or really any city can learn from. Can you tell us a little bit about that conference?
[JF] Yeah, so this conference is the third in this series of conferences. It’s the Legacy City’s Preservation Conference, and it has traditionally been hosted by the Preservation Rightsizing Network as well as the American Assembly out of Columbia University. And then the first conference was in Cleveland, and Cleveland State University helped host that conference as well as some of the really wonderful nonprofits and the SHPO in Ohio. And then the second conference was in Detroit. And this will be the third conference, and it’s here in Buffalo. So it really is a conference geared towards those Rust Belt Right-Sizing cities. And really it’s a chance to come together for those of us who are from these regions that do have this sort of best of both worlds – or the sort of two sides of the same coin experience, right? We have these amazing architectural legacies but we are challenged with disinvestment and a lot of times the population decline and the challenges that come to holding onto your architectural history when you have population decline.
So it’s a great conference. It’s going to be really exciting. We have folks from academics who’ve been studying these kinds of things for forty years and publishing academic journals to grassroots folks on the ground in, for instance, the City of Niagara Falls who are coming up with new ways to deal with zombie properties and new ways to get folks living in houses that have previously been abandoned. So this conference is exciting because it runs the gamut from high-level policy implications to “What can I as a grassroots person on the ground in my neighborhood do?” So it’s really wonderfully action-oriented I think is why a lot of us like it. You’ll go to the conference, and you’ll come home with twelve ideas to implement in your city or in your community, and you’ll probably come home with about ten brand new best friends because it’s all those kinds of people who think about these things all day long just like you do.
[MB] You would have sold me except for that I’m already registered so… [laughter]. So tell us where it’s going to be and the date… and where [people] can get more information.
[JF] Yeah, so it’s July 11th through the 14th with just a couple of events on the 11th, and really the keynote is the evening of. July 12th. And then most of the conference sessions are on July 13th, which is a Friday because who doesn’t want to do a huge challenging conference on Friday the 13th, right? And it will be right in downtown Buffalo. We will get out into some of Buffalo’s neighborhoods on Saturday [July] 14th. We’ll do a number of tours through all kinds of different neighborhoods and Buffalo really… Buffalo, if you know about it architecturally, it’s sort of famous for “We have the collection of the American masters,” right? We have buildings by Richardson. We have buildings by Sullivan. We have buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. We run that American masters gamut. But what I think people […] come to Buffalo for those things, I think the reason people fall in love with Buffalo is for our neighborhoods, and each one is so unique and so varied.
So on Saturday the 14th we’ll get folks out into the neighborhoods and do a number of tours, which will be really exciting. But the majority of the conference will actually happen in downtown Buffalo, and you can get more information about registering and about where to stay on our website, which is BFLORegenerated.com or you can search “regenerated legacy cities 2018,” and the website should pop up for you there. But that will give you all the details including all of speakers and all of the panels that we have planned, and then where you can stay, and how you can get here.
[MB] Very good folks. So you heard it all there. You mentioned some of the highlights of Buffalo’s architecture. And of course, there’s Frank Lloyd Wright, and Sullivan, and Richardson that you mentioned. Personally, I love some of the mid-century buildings downtown and the Albright-Knox edition. If you could –
[MB] Just because I’m personally interested, what’s kind of the perception – if preservation has been a challenge to get folks to think about architecture differently. Are people looking at mid-century buildings in Buffalo differently?
[JF] You know, we actually are planning next year – because this year’s been a bit busy – on hosting just a locally-based, but a local symposium on mid-century modernism because I think that has been something that we haven’t thought about a lot in Buffalo. And we, actually, do have – as you mentioned, the Allbright-Knox is a great example. One of my personal favorites is actually a public housing project that was built in the 1930s called Willert Park. And when the Museum of Modern Art put out in the 1940s its guide to modern architecture in the Northeast states, Willert Park was listed in there. And it’s really an unbelievably, lovely space, and we’re hoping that the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority will decide to save, and restore, and allow people to live there again because it’s empty right now. So I think folks in Buffalo haven’t had a huge amount of experience in looking at or talking about modern architecture. We can’t associate historic preservation with more of Victorian styles or Italianate styles, that Richardson Romanesque – it’s kind of a big deal here. So we really actually do want to spend some time in the upcoming year exploring our modernist buildings because we do have some truly just wonderful examples, and they aren’t getting the recognition maybe in people’s heads that they deserve. So that’s actually something that’s upcoming on our plate, and we’ll invite you, Meagan, to Buffalo to come and participate with us.
[MB] I am so happy to hear that you and Preservation Buffalo Niagara are already even continuing to the next challenge. You’re not even done with – and can you ever be? You’re already looking ahead of this, and this is why people learn a lot from Buffalo. They fall in love with Buffalo. In closing, what building do you love most in Buffalo?
[JF] That’s a hard one.
[JF] I guess I would have to say that the trite answer is always your house, right? I’m lucky to live in a 120-year old house that my husband and I have been restoring for almost twenty years now. Someday it will be done. And we got married in the living room so, of course, that’s special. I think for me there’s a building that we actually rescued from the wrecking ball. It’s almost directly in the center of the city. The corner of Main and Ferry. I think it’s a three-story, fairly simple, mixed-use, turn-of-the-century building, but it holds the corner that’s a really important corner, and most of the buildings around it have been completely demolished, and this one was on its way. It had a big hole in the roof, and we didn’t know what the heck we were going to do with it but we bought it anyway because we couldn’t stand the thought of it being torn down, and put a new roof on immediately. And it is now the site of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, and they do advocacy around fair housing in the city of Buffalo. They also have eight low-income apartments in the building, and it’s right around the corner of my house. And it feels good to have both saved the building, but also put it back into use for the city in something that really promotes equity and well-being for everybody. So I think that would have to be my favorite.
[MB] Knowing that building, knowing the impact, and the anchor that it’s become on that corner, thank you. And thank you for joining us on PreserveCast. We’re signing off.
[JF] Thanks, Meagan.
You don’t need to open a history book to find us. Available online from iTunes, the Google Play Store as well as our website PreserveCast.org. From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
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Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s podcast was produced and engineered by Rich Grouser. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!