Thursday, November 1, 2007

What it will take: how 4 governors can reshape the Great Lakes region

What It Will Take

There’s a new essay about Buffalo in a national opinion journal, in which the author says Buffalo can’t be saved even with new federal spending.

That’s the central point made by a Harvard economics professor named Edward L. Glaeser. Glaeser recently published a depressing article, “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back? Probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there,” in City Journal, Autumn 2007 ( Billions in federal dollars have gone down a rathole here, he says, and more billions shouldn’t come, because they wouldn’t work to fix Buffalo.

I agree that if federal funds come the way they’ve always come, nothing here will change.

But I’ve seen federal spending help distressed cities. And effective progressive policies—especially regionalism, farmland protection, downtown universities and cultural spending—all require lots of public money. I’ve seen the positive economic power of federal purchases from local companies, like Moog in East Aurora, that supply our national defense and keep the dollars circulating here at home. Federal financial support for basic-science research underpins the future of Hauptman-Woodward Institute and Roswell Park. And following that example, I’ve directed local government spending to boost economic activity. As deputy county executive for the past several years, I’ve used my influence to steer millions into architectural preservation, brownfields redevelopment, urban parks and bike paths, cultural support and centralized services—despite suburban politicians’ foolish insistence on gutting county budgets while propping up separate suburban police departments, highway operations and even E-911 call centers, even after we built a state-of-the-art dispatch center to handle those calls.

The return on investment of smart public money is measurable and positive. Yet it’s impossible not to agree that 50 years of federal handouts to Buffalo, especially federal handouts to dumb projects and to welfare spending, have failed to help this community recover from deindustrialization, racial isolation and sprawl.

That’s because federal spending and federal policy have never addressed deindustrialization, racial isolation and sprawl. What’s missing here—and missing in other Great Lakes urban regions—is the federal and state policy commitment that would make new federal money actually effective.

Four decades after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the apocalyptic fires that gutted Great Lakes downtowns, it’s time for federal and state government policy to awaken to the reality that we can’t afford, and will never be able to buy our way out of, further suburbanization. What’s needed in Buffalo is the rigorous regional land-use planning policy of Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa, which would best be achieved by regionalized or consolidated city-county government like in Toronto, Hamilton or Ottawa. What’s missing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and right here in New York State is the policy and practice that has been in place in the Province of Ontario since 2001.

A smart mix of pro-city policies and public investment could be just the ticket for Buffalo. It’s the same ticket that would work for other distressed Great Lakes cities as well, if and only if the land-use policy changes.

Dumb dollars into smart dollars

Glaeser is right about one thing. Mere public-works projects alone can’t thwart the power of the negative megatrends that have shaped the American cities of the Great Lakes. He didn’t name those forces, but I will—the globalization of labor, suburb-driven rather than regional land-use planning and, of course, racism.

Harvard’s Glaeser concludes that Buffalo should shrink to succeed. Glaeser doesn’t address land-use planning or racism, and certainly neither he nor anybody else on the Right would ever concede that three decades of pro-globalization American trade policy have left Great Lakes cities with the costs of deindustrialization without much re-industrialization. The only places re-industrialization seems to occur is in Congressional districts like US Representative John Murtha’s, south of Pittsburgh, where he uses hundreds of millions in earmarks to subsidize defense contractors who employ tens of thousands of workers who would otherwise be unemployed or in the Sunbelt.

Nobody in their right mind would want to cut the flow of federal money that subsidizes high-tech, defense-related jobs, like those at defense contractor Moog in East Aurora or at Astronics in Buffalo. Only dedicated ideologues and naives would advocate cutting off National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation grants to institute and university researchers.

But dollars for make-work projects? Glaeser is right: They don’t work.

That’s why I’m skeptical about spending $250 million on a retail complex in Buffalo’s inner harbor—even though saving the Commercial Slip, the Central Wharf and the Canal District was absolutely the right thing to do, because that’s our real heritage, and heritage sells. Retail needs density; retail doesn’t create density. We need policy, and investment, that creates density.

I actively opposed spending $250 million of public money on a proposed new convention center, because small-city convention centers are losers—but I actively supported spending more than $1 million of county money on the Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse, more than $3.5 million on the Darwin Martin House, millions more on other preservation and heritage projects, and about $6 million a year on cultural spending (which needs to become permanent, dedicated spending). Why? Because, frankly, quality sells. Putting more money into the Olmsted parks and parkways is good economics. Quality attracts and retains density.

Building our Buffalo brand on distinctive, high-quality attractions will take public money, and the public money will leverage private money. It already does on a ratio of about ten to one.

But it’ll take more than public money. It’ll take a fundamental change in public policy at both the federal and state level. Local elected officials alone cannot be tasked to change land-use policy. (Not that we shouldn’t try: We have empowered the planners, lawyers and engineers who report to me to lay out their best case for a county-wide planning body with real powers. Draft legislation that would create such a board is pending before the Erie County legislature.)

And even Glaeser, the anti-government writer, gets one part right when he says, “The hallmark of declining cities is having an excess of housing relative to demand. Econ 101 teaches us that any further increases in housing supply will just push prices down more.” The only thing he gets wrong is the word “cities”: Housing oversupply is the hallmark of declining metro areas. (Just ask the mayor of devastated, deindustrialized Youngstown, Ohio, who has decided to follow the prescription “shrink to survive.” Youngstown bulldozes derelict houses and creates green space rather than in-fill housing.)

So even if we have distinctive attractions, we’re doomed if nobody acts to stop the builders of subdivisions from increasing the housing supply beyond the market’s capacity to absorb it. Yet if state policy continues to be that town governments rather than a county planning board should do all the planning, that’s what will keep happening.

The Ontario solution

The answer for Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State may be sitting right in front of our Buffalo noses.

What the Province of Ontario figured out in the 1990s is that sprawling suburbanization costs too damned much. They figured out that high density is cheaper than low density. The per-person and per-area costs of roads, sewer systems, water systems, public safety, schools and utilities are lower where lots of people live together than in places where people are spread out all over the landscape.

The folks in Ontario also figured out that if the poor are isolated in urban centers, they cost everybody more and they stay poor. So the government of former Conservative Party Ontario Premiere Mike Harris chose another path—a path consistent with the “radical” anti-sprawl advocate David Rusk and endorsed by the Brookings Institution as well. Harris aggressively built on the consolidation or “amalgamation” policy of his Liberal and Conservative predecessors, and the result was that not only Toronto but also Ottawa and Hamilton all became regionalized governments—with regional land-use planning—by 2001.

Ontario remains just as chilly and gray in wintertime as Cleveland, Buffalo and Syracuse. Ontario continues to experience the “brain drain” as educated young people leave for warmer, drier places, though immigrants from across the planet arrive to replace them. But by having contained sprawl, the province preserved density in its cities and made the few precious acres of available farmland home to high-value-added agriculture (like wine grapes) rather than to suburban cul-de-sacs. Immigration continues, economic growth continues, industrialization continues, but it happens in a planful, sustainable manner that preserves open space and revitalizes urban centers.

The late Jane Jacobs of Toronto, who gained fame with her anti-suburbanization book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, pointed out an unanticipated benefit of new urban density in her last book. She noted that the economies of dense Ontario cities have become so robust that there is new, locally based manufacturing whose products substitute for imported manufactured goods. Urban density, in other words, has re-created conditions favorable to economic activity that globalization had previously destroyed.

In Ontario, it took a premiere of a province. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and New York, it’ll take governors.

Pittsburgh—our new hero?

There is an old industrial city with a troubled urban core, suburban sprawl, brain drain and a control board. What is its conversation these days, and what is the governor of its state doing?

The city is Pittsburgh, the conversation is city-county consolidation and the governor is actively engaged. No surprise: Ed Rendell used to be the mayor of Philadelphia, and he is a realist tinged with pessimism, who once wrote that the cards are so stacked against old cities that our best solutions may still come up short.

But that’s not stopping them in Pittsburgh. There is an active, multi-party, consultant-assisted discussion underway about how to achieve regional regeneration, and city-county consolidation is the centerpiece. The big foundations are involved. The universities are involved. It’s not just the lone crusading county executive of Allegheny County who is making the case, as it was here in Erie County during Joel Giambra’s term. It’s the whole leadership of the regional community.

It’s time Eliot Spitzer of New York, Ted Strickland of Ohio and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan got involved, too.

Rudy or Hillary—does it matter?

The good news is that, after decades of scholarly research pointing out that suburbanization and sprawl are costly, ecologically dangerous, socially toxic and wealth-destroying epiphenomena of fractured governance and home rule, there seems to be some momentum to bring Right and Left together.

Call it a harmonic convergence.

Liberal critics of sprawl and of the automobile culture may have found a way to make their case to real-estate developers—and to tight-fisted, anti-spending budget hawks of both the Right and the Left who distrust big spending projects and don’t want to fund them anyway.

So if a conservative, law-and-order Republican with a pro-city agenda is elected president, the logical pitch is this: Condition federal aid to cities, towns and counties on their compliance with a directive to plan for increased density, unified Homeland Security command, protection for Republican-voting farmers and special incentives for real-estate developers in designated urban zones, because that’s the only way to get the expensive poverty of the cities to stop costing suburbanites so much.

If a liberal Democrat with a pro-city agenda is elected president, the logical pitch is this: The first dollar of wastewater treatment money, highway money, Homeland Security money and housing support goes to zip codes that have had high poverty for two consecutive censuses, because they’ve been starved.

Looming state

deficit: an opportunity?

As for New York State, there is somewhere between $1.5 and $2 billion spent on general state assistance to towns and cities every year. Whenever millions of dollars are at stake, there is great power.

The governor has a great deal of leverage—and could say, in his next budget, that state aid is conditional rather than guaranteed. At present, the plan is for the state to continue to do what the state does—which is to put a little money into a few grant funds, invite applications, set up a review process and then dole it out.

What the governor could do is make state aid to cities and towns conditional upon a plan for compliance with a new regime of regionalism.

It would be far too radical today to demand that cities, counties and towns all consolidate into Ontario-style regional governments (although the Canadians managed to do so…). But surely the state could demand that town governments turn their planning over to a county-wide land-use planning body—not just mandate the tepid half-step of mandating that towns have master plans. (Towns have master plans: Their plan is to think inside their own boundaries and to grow their own individual tax bases, no matter that their “growth” consists of poaching from old urban centers.) The state could command that the Empire State Development Corporation take over all local industrial development agencies, and thus put destructive sprawl-enablers like the Amherst IDA and the Clarence IDA out of business—and if the governor’s appointee as head of Empire State Development enabled sprawl or poaching, the governor could fire his appointee, and thus act like the new sheriff in town. The state could command county-wide accounting, personnel management, assessment, tax collection and other so-called “back-office” functions. Next stop: conditioning state aid on producing, within one year, a plan for integrating policing, road maintenance, sewer districts and water districts with county-wide or regional governance.

The largest parts of the state budget are Medicaid and aid to schools, both over $40 billion each. Just $2 billion goes to cities, towns and counties, with about $800 million apiece going to cities and towns for various functions. Is it too much to expect that 10 percent of the money that goes to towns should be withheld until towns comply with a new regime of county-wide planning, so that town-enabled sprawl stops destroying the value of city real estate? How about ending the handouts to towns that want to buy their own IT systems rather than becoming clients of county IT systems, which in many cases may require only small upgrades to become ready to handle all local back-office functions?

In a word, how about a state budget that reflects a policy directive from on high?

Call it an “Ontario Conference”

Imagine if Governors Eliot Spitzer of New York, Ted Strickland of Ohio, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan were to join together on ending land-use policies that subsidize sprawl and destroy the Great Lakes cities. They could call it the Ontario Conference, in honor of the pioneers north of the border, whose policy innovations have been realized for seven years or more.

Governors acting together, rather than going it alone, could change the course of economic history. But they could also spark a tremendous political firestorm.

Because every racist in four states would have a field day.

African-American politicians could say that these governors are out to destroy the hard-won gains of all those mayors, council members and representatives who represent jurisdictions and districts whose electorates consist predominantly of visible minorities.

Suburban home-rule advocates—basically, every town supervisor, councilmember, highway super, receiver of taxes and police chief—would screech about the heavy hand of state government taking away personal liberty, threatening community integrity or even, if there is a malaprop-inclined student of Jimmy Carter among them, threatening suburban “ethnic purity.”

In other words, little politicians can all be expected to squeal about the prospective disappearance of their fiefdoms. (It has been my experience that each town board member, town supervisor, city councilmember or state representative believes that s/he is the next member of Congress, governor or senator. The act of achieving elective office is like crack to the narcissists who dominate the noble profession of public service: Addiction is instantaneous, and they all want more and more and more.)

But even here, Ontario policymakers and politicians figured out how to get it done. They used clever messaging, tight deadlines and transitional “assistance” (i.e., they made sure that loud-mouths got state jobs). These tricks were all used to overcome the fear-mongers, and the certainty of cuts in federal and state aid for noncompliance was driven home with messaging that the bigger government was saving taxpayers money, so shouldn’t the smaller government do the same?

I recently spoke to a veteran Ontario consultant, formerly a provincial government aide, who is helping the oil-rich province of Alberta convince newly rich Edmonton and its suburbs to do things together, stop sprawl and take advantage—this time—of the boom economy that has come from the “oil sands” of the north. Out west, just as in Ontario, it was the province that took the lead. The premiere said to the locals, here’s a deadline: Get your act together according to your own design, or we’ll withhold all your aid and then come in and impose a solution. The locals figured it out—and their first act was to do a regional land-use plan that focuses on the city. Actual consolidation of governments may or may not happen. But if the land-use planning prevents low-density development from spreading across the plain, and thus the devaluation of older and urban areas, then the major economic benefit may have been achieved by integrated planning alone.

Cities are the key

Right now, in Buffalo and Cleveland, in Toledo and Rochester and Syracuse, there are cities with “good bones”—institutions, infrastructure and housing stock—that are primed to become magnets for re-migration and re-investment. These urban regions have spent 50 years watching their urban cores hollow out and decline, with those Potemkin Village projects that Glaeser criticizes all over the landscape, and sprawling suburbs that have gobbled up farmland and that have made a few cul-de-sac developers (but precious few homeowners) rich.

Something could be about to happen here that could change all that—or at least to put a stop to the continued erosion of New York’s cities.

At a hearing on October 24 in Buffalo, the governor’s Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Effectiveness got an earful from the usual suspects—Joel Giambra, me, Voice Buffalo, the rapid-transit people and other folks who invest their hearts and their wallets alike in the future of this town, and who would never agree with Professor Graeser that Buffalo is too far gone to save.

The Spitzer Commission also heard from Byron Brown, Buffalo’s mayor, who said, in essence, that Buffalo city government should continue to go it alone, and that the government itself is very efficient and is doing everything right—just look at CitiStat—and did not address the questions of land-use, sprawl, deindustrialization, racial isolation and concentrated poverty inside the 42-square-mile boundary of the municipality.

But Governor Spitzer, who was not present, does not really have the luxury of ignoring those issues. The governor, who is currently constructing the New York State budget for 2008-2009, has a revenue shortfall, a problem with paying for court-mandated assistance to poor schools, an overwhelming rate of increase in Medicaid spending—and a budget deficit of between $4 billion and $7 billion.

The people who advise Spitzer are probably so shell-shocked by Troopergate and the driver’s license controversy that they’ll be loathe to send the boss into battle with every single municipal official in each of the more than 4,000 little governments in New York State.

But that begs the question:

If New York State is so stuck in political distraction that it will eschew any move toward regional planning or Canadian-style consolidation, then is continued, city-destroying sprawl and wasteful localism (still) the official policy of New York State?

Is it New York State’s considered opinion that inequity and decline are the twin policy goals for Great Lakes urban regions?

Is nouveau Jim Crow, urban abandonment and farm-gobbling sprawl the three-headed legacy of the Baby Boomers who now control politics, business, finance and the media?

The cruel fact is that choosing a change of course is, as the much-maligned theorist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, no guarantee of popularity:

“There is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, while those who expect to be benefited by the new will be but lukewarm defenders.”

What policy-makers do today will have impact for decades to come. The refreshingly long-range thinking of UB’s John Simpson, who plans for the year 2020, should stimulate our state leadership to think similarly. The question they ask today, in Albany, should at least be this: When my second term is up in 2014, do I want Buffalo to look like Hamilton or Toronto or Ottawa, or do I want an “I told you so” from Professor Glaeser?

Bruce Fisher is Deputy Erie County Executive, and a rower.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Saving the slave Daniel -- and Buffalo's Erie Canal heritage


Choosing an Identity

On August 18, 1851, at the terminus of the Erie Canal in Buffalo, a cook on a Lake Erie steamboat docked there was attacked by a group of men wielding the power of a new federal law.

A slave-catcher named Benjamin Rust, accompanied by a federal marshal and two Buffalo police officers, grabbed the cook, a former slave named Daniel Davis, intending to take him back to his former owner in Kentucky. Davis resisted. Rust hit Davis on the head with a piece of wood, whereupon Davis fell backwards down the steps into the steamboat’s hold, directly onto his hot cook-stove, which seared his flesh. Rust and the officers then dragged the badly injured Davis out of the boat, off the wharf and up Commercial Street to Main Street about where the Aud is today, to the office of the US Commissioner, and then on to the courthouse on Lafayette Square. At the hearing, in the presence of Mayor James Wadsworth of Buffalo, this cook was found, by a commissioner appointed under the federal statute known as the Fugitive Slave Act, to be the legal property of the Kentucky slave-owner. As the proceedings adjourned and the court emptied onto Main Street, Mayor Wadsworth and the sheriff personally led Buffalo’s police force against a mixed-race crowd of citizens that had assembled not just to protest Daniel Davis’s capture, but to liberate him from a forced return to enslavement, as well.

(Luckily for Daniel Davis, he wasn’t turned over to slave-catcher Rust; instead, Davis was put in Buffalo’s jail, and Rust was charged with assault. Bizarrely, the very commissioner who had just found that Davis was a Kentuckian’s property donated $25 to help secure Davis’s freedom. Meanwhile, the slave-catcher was jailed on $1,000 bail.)

This case became an electrifying cause. Over the ensuing two weeks, until a dramatic resolution on August 31, 1851, Buffalo became a hot political, journalistic and legal battleground over what was then known in the press as the case of “the slave Daniel.”

Daniel Davis lost his freedom, and would eventually regain it, on a piece of real estate that is currently scheduled to become open to the public as a historic site in October 2007—unless New York State once again changes its plan for what has been known, since 1825, as the Canal District.

The Daniel Davis case, and its connection to Buffalo harbor, offers a window on an extraordinary and unique aspect of Buffalo history that hardly anyone has ever read about anywhere except in original documents—namely, Buffalo’s inner harbor and its pivotal role in the Underground Railroad, in immigration, in the politics of abolition and in the advancement of democracy not only in America but around the world.

The now-obscure case of “the slave Daniel” was a flashpoint for American politics when it occurred. Its resolution played a long-neglected role in ending the career of Millard Fillmore. The confrontation in Buffalo undermined the legitimacy of the Whig Party, and the New York politicians who advocated for Daniel Davis—especially governor, then senator, then Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet member William Seward—created a national politics that would no longer tolerate Millard Fillmore’s doomed compromise whereby some people in the United States could live as citizens while others lived as slaves.

The case of “the slave Daniel” lit this town on fire in the last half of August, 1851.

In churches, in newspapers, in mass meetings and in courtrooms, Buffalo’s obscure citizens and community leaders alike declaimed about the meaning of the word “freedom” and to whom it applied. Speakers spoke ex tempore and from texts as well as to what had and what had not been intended by the men who, not even 70 years earlier, had written the United States Constitution and its first 10 amendments.

Newspaper editors from the three Buffalo English-language dailies blistered each other and made no pretense to objectivity as they published commentaries, and some acknowledged facts, on the principal actions and personalities in the conflict. The famous former slave and anti-slavery advocate Frederick Douglass followed the case from Rochester, and reported on it in his own paper, the Liberator. The New York City papers published items about the case. Preachers and sermonizers in Buffalo, Rochester and Cleveland spoke and wrote about the case. Lawyers contended both in Buffalo and in the Federal District Court in Auburn, New York, near Syracuse, over whether Daniel Davis was going to have a chance to live as a free citizen in a non-slave state, or whether he had been doomed by Millard Fillmore’s law to return to bondage south of the Ohio River.

For two weeks, people wondered whether Daniel Davis’s case, should he lose, would mean that slavery would become, in effect, legal even in states like New York, where it had been illegal for decades. (A mile west across the Niagara River in Canada, slavery had been illegal since 1806, when Parliament had banned it in all British possessions.) Members of Buffalo’s 900-odd African-American residents held meetings in which they vowed to resist being made to leave their American homes.

The case of “the slave Daniel” was the first real test of the Fugitive Slave Act, which had been signed into law by a president from New York—a president from Buffalo.

Today, at the restored terminus of the Erie Canal, there is a fence around the very area where this drama of 1851 played out. You can walk up to the chain-link fence and see the limestone blocks that line the Commercial Slip, where the Buckeye State was anchored on the day that Daniel Davis was seized. You can see the ruined foundations of buildings that had been in existence on that day. You can see what’s left of the cobblestone streets that were in use then, including Commercial Street. There’s a replica “bowstring” bridge that has been erected and that crosses the re-watered Commercial Slip. On the west side of the Commercial Slip, there’s a new building that houses the indoor exhibits of the Naval and Serviceman’s Park; the building looks like, has the shape of and the dimensions of, buildings that were in existence in the mid 19th century, when Buffalo was the major port of the Great Lakes and Buffalo Harbor saw dozens of ships a day sail or steam in with lumber, grain, coal and passengers, and sail or steam out with manufactured items, flour, livestock and European immigrants bound for the North American interior that Buffalo’s harbor and the Erie Canal had helped open.

Until a few months ago, many people believed that the fight to preserve that intersection of Buffalo Harbor and the Erie Canal had been lengthy, bitter and victorious. After years of grassroots lobbying by preservationists who were opposed to a New York State agency’s plan to pave over the site of the original Commercial Slip, newly elected County Executive Joel Giambra joined with them and authored a new memorandum of understanding that ended the lawsuits, ended the acrimony and got the restoration of three of the critical historic elements of the Canal District into active restoration.

By October 2007, the re-watered Commercial Slip in its original site, with its “bowstring” Water Street bridge, plus a re-built Central Wharf and a restored historic street pattern are all scheduled for completion.

That’s because of the agreement of 2000.

On October 26, 2000, sensing the political opportunity, Governor George Pataki re-enacted his predecessor DeWitt Clinton’s “wedding of the waters” by scooping up a pail of Buffalo Harbor water to take to New York Harbor and symbolically join the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, just as Governor Clinton had done 175 years before. The governor also formally endorsed the “history-based” project to restore the Commercial Slip and the historic street pattern of the Canal District, and to rebuild the Central Wharf—the 400-foot-long wooden walkway that had stretched along the north bank of the Buffalo River from the middle of the 19th century well into the 20th.

Tim Tielman and Sue McCartney, then leaders of the Preservation Coalition of Buffalo and Erie County, had been among the most dogged and vocal of the opponents to what had been called the Horizons Waterfront Commission plan to ignore the unique historical structures—including a brothel, boarding house, saloon and sometime sanctuary for escaped slaves known as Dug’s Dive—whose ruins adjoin the Commercial Slip.

Emeritus Professor of History Monroe Fordham of Buffalo State College filed an affidavit in that lawsuit, in which he said, “I believe this site should be preserved and developed, and not destroyed and buried for the sake of a bogus Canal-period replica.”

Scot Fisher, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit to prevent New York State from failing to do an adequate historic as well as archaeological review, had gone to the 2000 Allentown Art Festival and then on to meetings all over Western New York, where he spearheaded the campaign that gathered over 14,000 signatures on petitions to “Save Don’t Pave” the terminus of the original Erie Canal.

In the spring and summer of 2000, columnist Donn Esmonde in the Buffalo News wrote repeatedly about the significance of the acreage around the inner harbor and specifically about the Commercial Slip, the Central Wharf and the historic remains of the old Canal District.

October 26, 2000 saw a community consensus as has rarely been achieved here. Politicians of both parties actually joined with preservationists to herald an agreement that would give the community a 12-acre site that no other community, no other city, no other country had any claim to.

In a subsequent party held in November 2000, Tielman and the Preservation Coalition awarded “Battle Stars,” little star-shaped gold pins, to public officials, citizen activists, newspaper columnists and even to teenaged kids who had carried signs—and on one occasion, shovels, when, on a Saturday morning, hundreds had demonstrated, shouting to state officials, “You dig the canal or we will.”

That was in 2000. For the past seven years, work has been proceeding. Complicated re-routing of storm-sewer pipes and of the massive Hamburg Drain has been undertaken so that the Commercial Slip, which now has water in it, could be re-watered. The once-buried streets have been unearthed. Foundations of old buildings have been exposed, perhaps even of Dug’s Dive itself.

It’s a significant historic site. More immigrants came through Buffalo Harbor, traveling by canal-boat, train, wagon, horseback or foot here to light out for the Great Lakes regions of Canada and the United States and beyond, than came through Ellis Island. Many of them debarked right there in that 12-acre Canal District. The Underground Railroad, like the Erie Canal, had its terminus in Buffalo Harbor. Between the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War, at least 40,000 Africans and African-Americans saw their liberation when they looked from Buffalo Harbor to see the Niagara River and Canada beyond. This site is where the first grain elevator was erected, a device that transformed the agricultural economy of North America and subsequently of the other continents as well. The Canal District, and specifically the intersection of the Commercial Slip and Buffalo Harbor, was the very place where America’s continental economic power was forged.

And because of the agreement of 2000, the restoration of the historic elements of the site is scheduled to be complete in October 2007. All the results of petitioning, agitating, litigation and, subsequently, the work of state and county agencies, is due to be opened to the public before the 182nd anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal, upcoming on October 26, 2007.

But in 2006, a new state agency—the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation—put forward a different plan for the site. The new agency’s proposal, which has been revised several times since its initial formulation, would leave the re-watered Commercial Slip and bowstring bridge in place, but would turn over the historic street pattern—including the streets themselves and the remnant building foundations—to a proposed new retail development, which has pledged to include a museum element in or next to its retail space.

So far in 2007, there has not yet been a legal fight over whether the current master plan (based on the 2000 memorandum of understanding, and upon which all the environmental reviews have been conducted) is going to remain the plan or not.

But if the 2006 plan is to go forward, then the 2000 master plan—which currently has the force of law—will have to be altered. New environmental impact reviews would have to be undertaken. New public hearings would have to occur. Preservationists have already announced that they would once again turn out in force to support the 2000 master plan, and would turn to the courts if necessary.

What’s undeniable is that, since 2000, when the broad community consensus was reached, there has been only intermittent publicity about the 2000 master plan. The 2006 plan has a Web site, animated computer graphics, paid spokesmen and a large staff to advance it.

The Empire State Development Corporation, a New York State government entity, has been quietly (and some say far too slowly) building out the elements of the 2000 master plan, the one that is scheduled for completion in October 2007. But unlike the state, county and donor-funded Darwin Martin House restoration, where each increment of restoration has been accompanied by press conferences, cocktail parties and speeches, plus a groaning bookshelf of flyers, brochures, pamphlets and books, plus a PBS special, and ongoing tours and merchandise sales and out-of-market newspaper stories, there has been just an occasional TV piece about the Commercial Slip and the Canal District. Neither Tim Tielman, Sue McCartney, Scot Fisher nor any of the 14,000 signatories to the “Save Don’t Pave” petition have been invited to any press events or cocktail parties, and there haven’t been the public relations events or publications or promotions that the Darwin Martin House, the Roycroft complex, Graycliff or the Fontana Boathouse have all occasioned, notwithstanding the expenditure of $41 million of New York State and Erie County funds in the project. County Executive Giambra asked the new Erie Canal Habor Development Commission, which is advocating the 2006 plan, to include a representative of the preservation community, but his request was tabled without action.

The Buffalo that Daniel Davis found in 1851 was a very busy city, especially at the intersection of the Erie Canal and Buffalo Harbor.

Buffalo in 1851 was a city of about 43,000 people, including 556 African-Americans. It occupied an area that today is bounded by North Street on the north (Black Rock was annexed in 1853, but Delaware Park only came about after the Civil War) and Bailey Avenue on the east. There were farmsteads adjacent to the new railroad yard in the area of Buffalo, above the Buffalo River, that had for a brief time (1790 to 1838) been the Buffalo Creek Indian Reservation. South of the Buffalo River, there were a few thousand people living near the confluence of Cazenovia Creek and Buffalo Creek, many of them Irish immigrants who had come beginning in 1825, when a largely Irish labor-force had set the blocks of limestone for the Erie Canal. The action in Buffalo in 1851 was downtown, near the Central Wharf.

On the day that the steam-powered, 132-foot boat Buckeye State pulled into Buffalo Harbor with Daniel Davis and a dozen crew, and then docked at the Commercial Slip at the foot of Commercial Street, there were at least two dozen other freighters and passenger ships in the harbor. (In the shipping season, between two and 20 lake boats arrived daily.) If you were to walk the length of Central Wharf along the Buffalo River waterfront from the mouth of the Buffalo River, over the Water Street bridge, past Commercial Street to Prime Street, you would have been able to see a network of canals—including the “Grand Canal,” the Erie Canal, that Governor DeWitt Clinton had inaugurated 26 years earlier at the place where the Commercial Slip intersects the harbor—carrying dozens of shallow-drafting, mule-towed canal boats. The towpath, itself now under the New York State Thruway, ran along the calm portion of the Niagara River to Squaw Island, where the channel becomes the Black Rock Canal, up to Day’s Slip, used by rowers of the West Side Rowing Club. The original limestone blocks set in 1825 still line the east bank of the Black Rock Canal. Back in 1999, when a UB historian warned that weather exposure could cause the old limestone blocks that had been buried in the Canal District to “blast apart,” many oarsmen and oarswomen had a good laugh, because from April to November, every year since West Side was founded in 1912, nobody has ever seen a block of 400-million-year-old canal limestone explode.

Buffalo in August 1851 was bigger than Chicago, bigger than Milwaukee, bigger than Cleveland, and it was also a city hot with political friction over how, or whether, to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

The heat had been building for months, and not just among abolitionists and the small African-American community.

In 1848, there had been a series of democratic rebellions or “revolutions” in Europe. Tens of thousands of French, German, Hungarian and other opponents of the monarchies had found refuge and political liberty in New York—and in Buffalo.

On Saint John’s Day, June 24, 1851, a crowd of around 3,000 German immigrants gathered at a private grove between Delaware and Main, just south of Forest Lawn cemetery. They came out to hear August Thieme, a member of a short-lived parliament, speak about the universal rights of man, democracy, and freedom for the oppressed.

Later in 1851, 20,000 people—almost half the city’s population—massed in downtown Buffalo when the revolutionary Lajos Kossuth came to town. Kossuth had led Hungary’s failed rebellion against the Austrian monarchy in 1848. Kossuth was lionized in the American press, welcomed by huge crowds in New York City and wherever else in the United States he went to deliver his message about self-determination, democracy and the universal rights of man.

And there was Buffalo’s Liberty Pole, a tall structure erected to commemorate American independence. From the top of Buffalo’s Liberty Pole, in the summer of 1851, flew the flags of France, Germany, Hungary and the United States.

So for the whole summer leading up to the case of “the slave Daniel,” Buffalo politics and Buffalo civic life and Buffalo parties and gatherings and picnics were all engaged in questions of human freedom, human rights and with the question that the “accidental” President, Buffalo’s own Millard Fillmore, had tried to answer with an equivocation.

Here was the question: Should slavery be legal in America, or should it be made illegal, as it was in Canada?

Buffalo was never going to escape this struggle. Whereas the political activists of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and the other large cities could argue about what the authors of the Constitution had meant when they’d failed to explicitly outlaw slavery yet had written “all men are created equal,” Buffalo was on the hard edge of experience, because thousands of people fled to Buffalo so that they could get free—and thousands of Africans and African-Americans came to Buffalo Harbor on the last stop on their voyage to freedom in Canada. Long before Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law in October 1850, the entire length of the Niagara River on the American shore was well established as the region of the Underground Railroad’s last stations. The Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, were the nucleus of the movement here, a movement that made white rural farmers in Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara and other counties into “conductors” of African escapees from enslavement.

And as Daniel Davis would learn, the Canal District was the precise spot in Buffalo where the fight for freedom had to be won, or lost.

While Federal District Judge Conkling deliberated Davis’s writ of habeas corpus, Davis’s assailant Benjamin Rust was found guilty of assault and fined $50. He paid and he left.

Meanwhile, the Commercial Advertiser newspaper, Buffalo’s staunchly pro-Democratic paper, published a letter that was about as believable as the UB professor’s assertion that blocks of Erie Canal limestone would explode if unearthed by restoring the Canal District.

The author of the letter, allegedly Daniel Davis and addressed “To the Colored Population of Buffalo,” claimed that Davis wanted to return to slavery in Kentucky. “We are about as well off in Kentucky as you are here…We have plenty to eat and to wear, and are not so badly worked—this everybody knows who has been in Kentucky,” the alleged Davis wrote on August 28, 1851, 10 days after he was beaten, captured and jailed.

From papers in New York City, Rochester, Buffalo and Cleveland, the denunciations were fast and furious. Not only was the premise of the letter judged to be absurd; the Buffalo Express opined, in very derogatory terms, that an illiterate escaped slave would never be able to write such prose.

Three days later, the federal judge writing from Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman’s hometown of Auburn, New York, decided that there was no legal basis on which to deprive Daniel Davis of his freedom.

So Davis, accompanied by his lawyers and a group of his supporters, both African-American and white, left the jail, walked down Commercial Street to the Commercial Slip and the Central Wharf, where he boarded the Buckeye State, gathered up his belongings and immediately left for Canada. For freedom.

“There are thousands more stories from the Canal District, and they’re just waiting to be told,” said a preservationist involved in the activism of 2000.

Back in 2000, when the community consensus resulted in the restoration plan that is soon to be completed, experts and citizen activists alike agreed.

“Buffalo’s Inner Harbor needs something special that will distinguish it from all the other cities which have waterfronts,” wrote then Mayor Masiello’s Inner Harbor Task Force of John Conlin, Tony Fryer, David Gerber and Barbara Kelly. “The western terminus of the Erie Canal, one of the most important locations in American history, is indeed something special,” they said.

Cornell University’s Michael Tomlan was emphatic that historians’ and preservationists’ concern “…goes well beyond simply the slips, but includes several building foundations, streets [and] sidewalks,” and advocated restoring the whole district as an “urban landscape in need of rehabilitation, and not simply as an archaeological site.”

All this was settled in 2000. The question now, as Buffalo marks the 156th anniversary of Daniel Davis’s liberation at the Commercial Slip on August 31, and the 182nd anniversary of the Erie Canal on October 26th, 2007, is simple: Will plans for the historic Canal District change again?

And if they do, will a modern-day federal district court judge end up deciding the outcome?

Bruce Fisher is deputy county executive for Erie County and a rower.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Choosing icons: rescuing Wright and the Calasanctius mural

Cover Story

Choosing Icons

As Frank Lloyd Wright emerged from the car parked under the porte-cochere, Father Vercek hurried out to greet him. The architect was pointing his cane and shaking it at the long awkward shed-roof lean-to addition across the front of the house. “Who did this? Who made these changes? This is not my work,” he sputtered, visibly upset at the mutilation of his dramatic concept. How would Leonardo DaVinci have reacted if he had been presented with a repainted Mona Lisa without the smile?

As Father Varcek recalled the incident, he then explained to Wright that they were a religious order and needed a chapel, to which Wright responded in apparent resignation, “Well, I guess, if you need it.”

John Conlin, Graycliff Conservancy newsletter, August 2000

This is a Frank Lloyd Wright story of Buffalo. The great architect came back to visit one of his early works and was enraged that it hadn’t been kept precisely as he’d designed it. Seeing the Graycliff estate near Buffalo as an old man of 91, a few months before his death, Wright was annoyed. We do not know how Wright felt about seeing an empty lot where his Larkin Company warehouse had stood, or how he felt at seeing the partial demolition, by neglect, of his other Buffalo work.

Wright’s relationship with the Larkin Company, his design of houses for Larkin president Darwin D. Martin, and his design of the company’s headquarters itself, have been studied intensively because Wright’s Buffalo oeuvre is the most significant, and most influential, of his early career. Wright’s own diary entries and public statements about his work here indicate the intensity of his attachment to the Martin family. We know that that relationship endured, that the lives of patron and of artist interlaced. It was more than 20 years after Wright completed the Martin home in Buffalo that he designed Graycliff for Martin’s wife, Isabel. She needed light in this, her summer retreat, so Wright built her a place into which all the sky and sun of the great expanse of the lake shore could enter. So when Wright visited Buffalo in 1958, over 30 years after he’d designed the place, and saw that a religious order had altered one of the triumphs of his early days, he lost his temper.

The priests of the Piarist order had built their chapel into the house at Graycliff such that the roof-line, the famous cantilevered line, was, the preservationists now say, “mutilated.” Wright calmed when told that what those priests had done was for a spiritual purpose, and indeed that their tenancy at Graycliff had prevented the place from falling entirely to ruin or even to demolition. Altered, yes. Turned from a summer retreat to a year-round residence, yes. Preserved, imperfectly, yes, but preserved nonetheless. When, in 1999, 40 years after Wright’s death, a group of architectural preservationists bought Graycliff from the Piarists, the preservationists, being preservationists, decided early on to remove the Piarists’ chapel, and to demolish the Piarists’ dormitory. The Graycliff Conservancy’s goal, naturally, was to return the estate to Wright’s original design.

But Wright’s was not the only art on the site.

The Piarist priests had acquired Graycliff in 1951. By that time, the estate had already passed from the Martin family. The Piarists knew what they were getting: a summer home designed by a famous architect, a structure lacking a ready purchaser other than themselves, a structure in need of some change in order to make it winter-habitable. They also knew their own mission.

The Piarists are a teaching order whose founder was a 17th-century Spaniard named Josef Calasanz. In Latin, Calasanz is Calasanctius. Calasanctius is the name the order has given to many of the schools it has founded, including their school, now closed, in Buffalo.

The bare fact of this story is that in 1967, the Piarists commissioned a work of art to commemorate their order’s 350th anniversary. The art was a mural, a sgrafitto, depicting St. Joseph Calasanctius and the abandoned children whom he saved from the streets of Rome, where Calasanctius and his fellow priests had gathered them up, housed them and educated them, just as the “red priest” Antonio Vivaldi would so famously later do for the abandoned girls of Venice. Calasanz the Spanish nobleman had created a free school for the poor, and founded an order, the Scholae Pio, to carry on that mission.

For almost four centuries now, the priests of the Piarist order have continued that work. It is an order less famous than the Jesuits or the Franciscans, yet withal an order that had become over that time a very large educational presence in Europe. There are or were Piarist schools in Spain, Ireland, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Romania, but most especially in Hungary. At Graycliff, the Piarists had established their home in North America. For them, with this haven in the United States, with their successful school in nearby Buffalo, and because of the peace so many of them had found after decades of war and of calamitous anti-Catholic oppression and displacement in Europe, this Graycliff estate was a new beginning—a place to celebrate their own survival, surely, and the survival of their Calasanctius mission.

There were Poles and Spaniards among them, but most of the Piarists of Graycliff were Hungarians. Most had come to America after World War Two. Some came in 1956, having been made refugees after the Soviet Union’s military forces had brutally suppressed a popular uprising against Hungary’s communist government. All the Piarists were teachers; some were more. Their roster included a mathematician, theologians, and a psychologist, all of whom had been educated in Rome, Berlin and in the universities of the old Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. They were of necessity linguists and translators. A few had taught at the ancient university at Koloszvar, the city that had been capitol of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s Transylvania province but that had, since 1918, been in Romania. (The Hungarians had called the town Koloszvar for about 900 years. The German-speakers, or Saxons, of that area had called it Klausenburg for about 500 years. The Romanians, to whom the Treaty of Trianon had given the area in 1918, call it Cluj-Napoca).

In 1967, these émigrés commissioned a Polish-born muralist named Jozef Slawinski to put his sgrafitto technique to commemorating Calasanctius. Slawinski created a 12-by-18-foot mural a foot thick consisting of layers of black, white, yellow and red concrete. The sgrafitto technique, like fresco, requires quick work by the artist to reveal the image before the material sets.

For the ensuing 30 years, the Calasanctius mural hung on the east face of the dormitory even as the Piarist presence there dwindled. By 1999, all but two of the Piarists had died or had left for the Piarist’s other American school, in Devon, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.

When the Graycliff Conservancy took possession of the estate in 1999, the preservationists wanted the dormitory demolished and the mural removed. There was, in the minds of the preservationists, no competition between the master architect Wright’s design and the new structures built by an obscure group of central Europeans whose brief presence had recently ended.

There was the issue, the lingering problem, of what to do with the mural. The Conservancy wanted the dormitory gone, but did not want to burden itself with the task of raising funds to cope with the unwanted mural, too. It took four years, until 2003, to raise enough money to remove the Piarists’ mural from the dormitory, which was then demolished. It took almost two more years to relocate the mural. (The engineers who did the job were the same ones who’d moved the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.) The mural is now on the campus of Buffalo State College.

By the time it was unveiled in its new setting, it had become known as “the Slawinski mural” rather than “the Calasanctius mural” or “the Piarist mural.” The keynote speakers at the installation event were the president of the college, the county executive whose money had conserved and moved it, and the president of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, who introduced the artist’s widow, Wanda Slawinska. There were no Piarists present. There was no Hungarian spoken. And although much effort had been invested, fruitlessly, in identifying them, none of the original benefactors or patrons of the Piarists were named, because their names had been worn away by the elements.

Graycliff had been the Piarists’ headquarters in the United States. They came to use it mainly as a place of rest, meditation and religious study, and as a retirement home for priests who could no longer teach a full schedule at the Calasanctius school. Within a few miles of Graycliff along the Lake Erie shore, four other Catholic organizations own retreat houses, also formerly the estates of wealthy Buffalo families.

The estate, called Graycliff because of the 60-foot shale cliff on which it is perched, was built as a summer place for Darwin Martin’s wife, Isabel. She wanted light, as much as possible, because of her failing eyes, so Wright designed enormous windows, including the first “picture window,” to catch the light from the broad expanse of lake and sky at cliff’s edge. Darwin Martin was introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright by Martin’s brother, who, while living in Chicago, had come to know Wright’s work in neighboring Oak Park. Frank Lloyd Wright and Darwin Martin would have an extraordinary, enduring and productive relationship, starting with Martin’s commission of the handsome but unimposing Barton House in Buffalo in 1903. Wright’s masterwork in Buffalo was Darwin Martin’s house, commissioned in 1905 and built over the next two years for the extraordinary sum of $175,000 and many, many further adjustments. The Darwin Martin House, now in the final stages of a restoration that was begun in the 1980s, is mentioned in the same terms as the Guggenheim Museum, Fallingwater, the Johnson Company headquarters, Taliesin, and the Prairie Style (of which it is an exemplar) in the vocabulary of Wright’s work. Graycliff, built in 1927, deserves but has not yet had the level of scholarly attention afforded other Wright structures; it is a handsome place, but not the overwhelming design presence or the artistic assertion of the Darwin Martin House.

The Piarists knew what they had at Graycliff. But in the early 1950s, this small province of a teaching order consisted of, if not penniless refugees, men who had taken a vow of poverty—and men who had been dispossessed of both their community’s holdings and of their mission in their homelands. They had come to Buffalo to further their mission.

That mission, that part of it concerning teaching, included their explicit effort to inculcate in their students an appreciation for art, not limited to religious art. Their school, when they had raised enough funds to open it, was an American version of a European lyceum or an English “public” school. It was nondenominational. It was racially integrated and religiously diverse, attended by Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Muslims. The Piarists were also men of their time, which is to say, educated men of a previous age who found themselves situated in a city with universities, colleges, diverse and significant architecture and, in the early 1960s, a set of vigorous institutions that were demonstrating progressive thinking and growth.

They saw a Buffalo we would see again. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Buffalo was a place of remarkable energy, especially in the immediate neighborhood of the Piarists’ school. There was a brand-new college campus in the city only a few blocks away, and next to it, there was a brand-new addition to its famous art gallery. In the city center was a brand-new central library and a brand-new county office building for the just-reformed regional government. There were plans for a massive expansion of the University of Buffalo, which had just gone from being an isolated private school to being a part of the massive public system of the Empire State under the new patrician governor, Nelson Rockefeller. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, experimental hovercraft were tested in Buffalo’s harbor; engineers for Bell Aerospace and other defense contractors designed and tested rocket equipment in and near the laboratories where only a few years before they had designed and tested the first jet engines. Buffalo was a border community and a large Great Lakes port on the newly-completed Saint Lawrence Seaway, and plans had been drawn up for a new international airport. Buffalo was a major center for manufacturing and metals fabrication. With its large cultural institutions, its diverse and growing economy, its diverse and growing population, Buffalo in the late 1950s had the sophistication and the prospects for growth of a major regional capitol. The Piarists were very rational in choosing Buffalo as the North American nexus for their international brotherhood.

The Piarists were persons, too, of course, beyond their membership in their order. They were immigrant veterans of the horrific recent history of central Europe that had been, in their individual childhoods, a peaceful place of family, homeland, native language and, in the Dual Monarchy, a peaceful and diverse empire encompassing territory from present-day Austria to the Russian border, and from southern Poland to the Adriatic Sea. Latin, French and German were their languages of scholarship; English, their medium for teaching and business in this new place; but Hungarian and Polish were their languages of identity. The surest dimension of their collective identity was that they were men of the 20th century, men who had known the brutal reality of having been born in a big empire, once a collection of small nations, that had been smashed to pieces when they were boys.

Safely here, they, being mainly Hungarian, welcomed refugees from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. They built the dormitory at Graycliff for refugees, which is to say, persons who had fled for their lives. They themselves and the new refugees of 1956 had left everything material, houses and furniture and musical instruments, of course; farms, title to lands, naturally; but even diplomas, credentials—the indices of individual personality and achievement. Among them were younger men who had fought Central Asian conscripts of the Soviet forces that had thrust into ancient Budapest as other Central Asians had centuries earlier. (The historic alliance of Catholic Poles and Catholic Hungarians was forged, notwithstanding the mutual unintelligibility of their languages, in their wars of survival against invasion by the Mongols and by the Turks. Poles and Hungarians regarded themselves as the defenders of Christian Europe, and so they were.) These Budapest boys who came to live at Graycliff had fought the new invaders from the East heroically, tragically, without guns. They had faced the Russian tanks of 1956 with homemade gasoline bombs. They had thrown bricks at them. They had set up burning barricades. And they had lost, and they had fled, on foot, to Austria, to Yugoslavia, and eventually, to North America, to Graycliff. There are stories of the priests hosting young men who would slip back and forth into nearby Canada in the 1960s, men who would go back to Europe to harass the Communists in their homeland. At Graycliff, there is access to the beach from the main house down a now decrepit iron staircase tower, which ends on the beach at a low concrete structure which houses a ruined diesel winch for a boat-hoist. The beach below the cliff narrows and widens with the seasons; there was no harbor there, nor lighthouse, but the landform itself is a beacon, because the iron staircase tower to Graycliff is but a few hundred yards from the half-mile-wide gap in the shale cliffs where Eighteenmile Creek empties into Lake Erie. From there, it is just 15 miles across Lake Erie to Canada. Small boats make the crossing routinely.

The Piarists were casualties of the war as well as of the post-war Communist government. So was their countryman, the revered but now forgotten Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty, whom the Piarists hosted at Graycliff and at their school in Buffalo in 1971. It is now not much recalled, if at all, how much of a symbol of the Cold War the late Cardinal Mindszenty was. Mindszenty, the bishop of the ancient Hungarian royal city of Esztergom, where Mathias had accepted Christianity in the year 1000, had become archbishop and then cardinal and thus a representative of the pope. His leadership of the Catholics of Catholic Hungary is extensively credited with having kept the Hungarian government of the 1930s and 1940s from murdering ethnic and religious minorities.

The Catholic Church in Hungary (unlike the Catholic Church in the former province of Slovakia, now the Slovak Republic, just to the north) was not allied with Nazi Germany, though the government of Hungary was. And even though it had promulgated an anti-Semitic quota for university admissions after World War One, the Hungarian government had refused to kill Jewish Hungarians. Indeed, until the cataclysmic change of its government in 1944, the Kingdom of Hungary, ruled by its aging regent Admiral Horthy, maintained much of its historic religious and ethnic diversity.

But the cataclysm came. A new, aggressively pro-Nazi government took over in May 1944. It reorganized the local police authorities all across the country according to Nazi protocols. In that month of May 1944, the Hungarian state itself started deporting the Jews of Hungary. Between May and July of 1944, 435,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Six months later, the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement took power and started the killing on home soil. When the Arrow Cross fascists came in, they jailed the Cardinal of Hungary, Joseph Mindszenty, in part because Mindszenty and his church protested the deportation and murder of Hungarian Jews.

The Arrow Cross suppressed the Catholic Church, and rounded up the Jews of Budapest, and killed them—except for those who were saved by some truly heroic gentiles who put their lives on the line for strangers. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was one of those gentiles. So was the Hungarian Tibor Baranski, later recognized as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Veshem in Israel. So was another Hungarian, Dr. Clara Ambrus, recognized as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Veshem in 2006.

Tibor Baranski and Clara Ambrus and her husband, Dr. Julian Ambrus, came to Buffalo after World War Two. When Cardinal Mindszenty came to visit Buffalo after his release by the Hungarian Communists in 1971, among the people who greeted him were Tibor Baranski and Dr. Clara Ambrus—for both Baranski and Ambrus were friends of, neighbors of, and supporters of the Piarist priests of Graycliff. The Baranski and Ambrus children attended the Piarists’ school, named for St. Joseph Calasanctius, here in Buffalo.

The founder of the Piarist order had been canonized for having given sanctuary and educational uplift to orphans in Rome. In Buffalo, rescue and relief in this peaceful refuge was the experience of those Hungarians, Jew and gentiles alike, who came together to support the Calasanctius mission.

Jozef Slawinski’s work is of the same era and dimension as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s. It is public, its scale is large, its subject matter is heroic, and it is aggressively political. The simplicity of Slawinski’s composition is deceptive: it seems to indicate naivete or primitivism. But to recall the artist’s education in pre-war Poland, and to reflect on the rapid onset of overwhelming change forced by currents in politics and in the arts in that place and at that time, is to begin to recognize his assertions. The icons of Orthodoxy are reflected in this work. Slawinski employed the planar and heroic didacticism of the Byzantine imperial style, rather than the fleshy and rounded and muscle-detailing Soviet imperial style, and in that choice of style is a political assertion. It makes a certain sense in the context of Polish art that is not so apparent this far west of where Orthodox Russia so dominated, so forcefully and repeatedly dominated, Slawinski’s Catholic Poland. This struggle is there at the forefront of, and not lurking behind, the ostensible focus of the works.

Critics and art historians have had difficulty with Slawinski. To recognize the contrast between Socialist realism and its naturalism, versus the abstract and iconic presentation that Slawinski chose, is to recognize that the politics of his imagery actually becomes the subject. A local museum curator characterized Slawinski’s work as “immigrant art,” which is a sort of polite accusation of naïveté. The comment reveals, however, both a class bias and an uninformed, ahistorical consciousness.

Slawinski demonstrated his technical competence at naturalism elsewhere in his work, so the Calasanctius mural, in context, is not a naïve work, but an assertion of something else. Slawinski’s austere formality looks like mid-20th-century realism made magical, or made simple. Slawinski’s other work at first glance seems like so much of the soft American version of Socialist Realism, the kind commissioned by the Depression-era Works Project Administration. Indeed, the public spaces in which it is shown—the main lobby of the Erie County Medical Center on Grider Street; the post office and a school in the northwestern Buffalo neighborhood of Riverside, and now outside of the Butler Library on the Buffalo State College campus—are consistent with that ethic. Public space, public art, simple stuff.

But the politics aren’t socialist and secular. The politics of Slawinski’s images are fundamentally different. Slawinski’s subjects are subversive of secularism. The hospital mural is a filiopietistic hymn of praise to the Polish immigrant community of Buffalo and Western New York and thus is most precisely “immigrant art”; but moreso, the Buffalo Polonia triptych is a documentary of Catholicism, as if to say, it’s the faith that endures, and through the faith the nation. The West Hertel School mural is of the heroes of the War of 1812, as the commission had commanded, but there in the background, precursors of all the mundane activity in the foreground, are the Jesuits and Recollets. This is historically correct, because it was they, the missionaries, who in 1679 were the first Europeans to penetrate the interior of North America, via the Niagara River passage only a mile from that school. But it is also a political and a spiritual assertion as well: the Church and its soldiers are the background. Looking at Slawinski’s private work for the Franciscans, politics and religion are interwoven: Mary is being crowned a queen of a medieval nation in one work, the Polish king Mieszko is being baptized in another; both of these monarchs see their conversion on the edge of the realms of Roman and Byzantine Christianity, which is the political borderland and the cultural border-region that was Slawinski’s native realm. The late Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz spent his political and artistic life navigating these currents; he wrote essays about the “nationhood” of Catholicism, and about the transcendent religiosity of a Polish national identity that existed without benefit of a nation-state. The complexity of identity is made further complicated by overlapping claims of—what do we call them, Catholic ethnic groups? Catholic nations? Catholic peoples?—to the same historical heroes. Stefan Batory, for one: a hero to the Poles, a prince of Transylvania, the elected king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth…complexity that is impenetrable and obsolete to Americans was formative to minds shaped in Central Europe in the days when Czeslaw Milosz, the Piarist priests of Graycliff and Jozef Slawinski were young. The borders have changed, the vocabulary has been lost.

But the narrative of the image survives. The Calasanctius mural is of the Catholic priest who began free education, education as liberation and empowerment of the poor, but of course not the kind of socialist or revolutionary empowerment that was the subject of the other muralists of the mid 20th century. The central figure in the Calasanctius mural is the teacher. The women are iconic Magdalenes visiting from Byzantine frescoes. The doubting men of Rome look like senators of great political stature and power, but they are marginalized and dwarfed by the presence of the humble saint, whose work and subject and focus is Christ-like, and thus noble. These tensions reveal Slawinski as thus an emphatically political artist. His politics are the politics of John Paul II—the pro-labor, pro-Solidarity subversive from Krakow who understood the power of the Soviet empire, and who undermined it with his own.

Most of the rest of Slawinski’s art is not available for public view except on the Web site of the Polish Arts Club. The largest collection of his work is confined within the Franciscan residence midway between Buffalo and Graycliff.

One work that is publicly accessible is a smaller work, a bas-relief plaque in hammered copper like a dark icon (the artist’s reference to the structure of Eastern images is dramatic). This piece is hidden in an ill-lit recess of the lobby of Buffalo’s City Hall. It is Slawinski’s memorial to the Katyn massacre.

Katyn is a name known to Poles. Katyn was once known to the world, in the way that My Lai, Rwanda, Ground Zero and other geographies of horror and outrage are known to the world. Katyn is the name of a forest in eastern Poland in which 15,000 Polish army officers were slaughtered by Stalin’s secret police.

Slawinski’s plaque is a grim, dignified work of mourning for a monstrous crime. In metal like an icon, it is a dark negation of any possibility that that crime can be forgiven. In hammered copper, it is a reversal of the iconic Russian vocabulary of religious art, in which the painting of the face of the Virgin, or of a saint, is surrounded by the protective strength and richness of the metal. Here, the image of the horror is on the metal itself: The only paint is a small field of red above the central figure, red for the Polish flag.

Slawinski’s mural of Saint Joseph Calasanctius was unveiled by dignitaries on a November morning in Buffalo in 2005. The artist’s widow and about 60 other people attended the event. The president of the college spoke. The executive director of the Graycliff Conservancy spoke. So did the leader of the Polish Arts Club, a not-for-profit entity that had lobbied and solicited contributions for the conservation effort from various local foundations. The main donor was Erie County, whose executive, Joel Giambra, read a text that made reference to the history and significance of the mural, its commission and its subject:

Madame President, thank you for your courage and foresight in offering this mural a permanent home on your campus.

This mural is about courage.

This mural is about a revolution in human history.

We are standing today on a piece of public land that is dedicated to a revolutionary concept called public education.

The roots of that concept are in Rome—in the 17th century—almost 400 years ago.

This mural is a portrait of a young man from Spain, a man of noble birth. His special mission was saving the abandoned children of the streets of Rome. Joseph Calasanctius could have been an American because he believed in the revolutionary concept—the idea that even abandoned children could be educated just like the children of the aristocracy.

The religious order which he founded stayed in Italy. That order went to Poland. It went to Hungary, and to Spain, to South America, even to India. And then they came to Buffalo.

The story of their presence here is for others to tell.

But their concept of freedom is their gift, and our legacy—and their idea of freedom was education.

How fitting, then—that this revolutionary ideal would find a home in Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo is, after all, the home of a great revolutionary movement.

Buffalo is the home of the Underground Railroad.

Buffalo is the place that opened all of free America to immigrants like my ancestors who came here for freedom and opportunity.

Just as today, kids from every corner of the world come to Buffalo State College for freedom and opportunity the Buffalo way—the Calasanctius way—through education.

So this is exactly the right place for this mural.

Because here is where we can make the connection across generations, across continents, across the span of history—a connection with a concept.

The community reaction was appropriate: Aficionados applauded, employees of the college congratulated Wanda Slawinska, and the media made of it a small story.

The challenge remaining, now that the mural has been conserved, is in giving it a context.

Graycliff is now in its third phase of restoration. It is a remarkable success story in which a great many people have had a hand. Graycliff restoration will cost less than $5 million because the ongoing occupation by the Piarists between 1951 and 1999 kept the building alive, albeit imperfectly. The Darwin Martin House restoration will cost 10 times as much, maybe more, including a new visitor center, because the structure was so damaged by abandonment, partial demolition and the abuse of neighborhood kids.

But there are few remaining who can still speak to the connection between Buffalo and the great historic continuity of Catholic faith, struggle, scholarship and community, of which, for a brief 40 years, the Piarists were a part. Graycliff was a refuge for Isabel Martin, whose husband Darwin Martin made commercial and architectural history as a brilliant businessman and an enlightened patron of art and architecture. A brotherhood of priests from a rich historic tradition came to Graycliff, turned it into a refuge for themselves and for young people who fought against oppression 50 years ago, when they defended the fragile civilization of the West against monstrous despotism, as had their ancestors.

This is a hard story to tell. Mention a small nation in central Europe and most Americans think of anti-Semitism, and of the cruel and mindless wars of long ago. And besides, even the Cold War is over. Teenagers do not know even approximately what Communism was—not even approximately. The Piarist priests of Buffalo are no more. Their students have moved away. The elder Tibor Baranski is dead. The younger Tibor Baranski is an attorney practicing in Beijing. Even the refugees to whom the Piarists gave refuge have moved on. The dormitory that housed them has been knocked down. A search of the database of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library in 2007 reveals no—zero—results for “Calasanctius,” “Piarist,” “Father Gerencser” or “Scholae Pio” in authors, titles, subjects or even keywords in any of the holdings.

The only physical evidence of the Piarists’ former presence in Buffalo is an incongruous piece of what looks like religious art standing in an alcove behind the library of a public college. But it is a handsome work. It is powerful, even there in its curious new context. It is sheltered from the aggressions of the Great Lakes climate, which is snowy in winter, but surpassingly clement in summer, when the lake-breeze moderates the heat of even the hottest summer days, which is when people from the city spend as much time as they can on the beaches, or at their summer homes perched on the shale cliffs above, enjoying the light.