Infrastructure Roads Urban Planning

The tragedy of East Buffalo

Kensington Expressway, Buffalo

Just two blocks away from the Jefferson Avenue Tops supermarket is Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway.

The high-speed roadway, built with New York State funding, was built in the late 1950s to connect Downtown Buffalo with the New York State Thruway and the airport. The highway went through Buffalo’s East Side, historically Polish-American neighbourhoods that were becoming home to working-class and middle-class African-American families.

Ironically, a parkway system planned by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted beginning in the 1860s helped highway planners 90 years later route their new highway. Olmsted had planned large park spaces throughout the city, with wide, treed parkways connecting the spaces together. Delaware Park, to the north, was the largest of these green spaces. In 1901, it was the site for the Pan-American Exposition (which became infamous as the location of the assassination of President William McKinley), while Humboldt Park, on the city’s east side, became a popular neighbourhood gathering place. Humboldt Parkway connected these two parks with a wide, gentle curve.

Part of the Olmsted Parks and Parkways plan, Buffalo. Humboldt Parkway curves southeast from Delaware Park near the top of the map.

Of course, city planners of the day, who were guided by the “City Beautiful” movement, never conceived of a time when automobiles would present a new challenge to urban places. From the opening of the Erie Canal in the 1830s to the exploitation of cheap, renewable hydro-electric power at nearby Niagara Falls in the 1890s and early 1900s, Buffalo was going to be a jewel of the Great Lakes, and it needed skyscrapers and public spaces to match its optimism and ambition.

Humboldt Parkway in 1953, with a wide, treed median on the right (The Buffalo History Museum)

By the 1950s, Buffalo’s growth had plateaued, and the city started losing population to the suburbs, as white middle class families took advantage of generous federal mortgage incentives, and the automobile made suburban living easy. Redlining — a practice in which banks and federal mortgage underwriters graded neighbourhoods based on their physical and socioeconomic statuses — made mortgages in “declining” or “hazardous” areas difficult or impossible to get. These resulting grades discouraged investment in the housing stock and made it especially difficult for Black families to purchase homes. Racism and xenophobia was embedded in the system: areas that Eastern European immigrants were seen to be “infiltrating” were typically marked as “definitely declining” and areas settled by Black households were marked as “hazardous.”

In Buffalo, a 1937 redlining map reflected the segregation that would define the city to this day: most of the city east of Main Street was classified as “definitely declining” or “hazardous.” Houses facing Humboldt Parkway were marked as “still desirable” as it is “a small area which maintains its desirability because of location on both sides of an attractive parkway.” That parkway would disappear 20 years later.

Though the Niagara branch of the New York State Thruway connected Downtown Buffalo to Niagara Falls, the main Thruway, and Canadian border crossings, mostly following rail corridors, city leaders felt that without additional urban highways, Buffalo would lose investment and that more residents and employers would leave the city for the suburbs.

In 1954, City Planning Director Russell Tryon declared that the new ring highway “would be a major step forward in alleviating the traffic blight that has diseased our neighborhood communities” while believing that highway construction might help keep people in the city, rather than literally drive them to suburbia. “If we make Buffalo a better place in which to live, the people will stay and not move out.”

The Scajaquada Expressway through Delaware Park

To build the new highway, planners looked for the paths of least resistance: Olmsted’s parkway system and redlined neighbourhoods where properties could be bought up cheap. None of the parkways on Buffalo’s West Side (which was, and remains, mostly white and middle class) would be sacrificed, but the Humboldt Parkway, on the East Side, would be. The Scajaquada Expressway, across the city’s north side, ran right through the signature Delaware Park. The Kensington Expressway — New York State Route 33 — required the demolition of hundreds of homes. Many displaced residents moved into public housing towers on Fillmore Avenue — which were later abandoned and demolished.

The abandoned Kensington Heights public housing buildings on Fillmore Avenue in 2010

The highway only helped to destroy Buffalo’s urban fabric and contributed to the economic and population decline in the East End.

Buffalo was not alone. In Detroit, Interstates 75 and 375 were routed right along Hastings Street, the commercial and cultural hub for the Motor City’s Black community. In Baltimore, Interstate 70 was to go right downtown through the city’s West Side. The section through a Black neighborhood was built, but the western extension through Baltimore’s western suburbs was never completed, leaving behind a scar known as the “Highway to Nowhere.”

Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere

In Buffalo, the East Side community struggled for decades to get a full-service supermarket after A&P left in the 1960s after the new highway was built. It finally landed Tops Friendly Markets on the A&P site in 2003. This grocery store — the only one serving over 100,000 residents in Buffalo’s East End — became the site of Buffalo’s worst mass shooting, in which a white teenager targeted Black shoppers. The closure of that store only compounds the tragedy as fresh and affordable food has become, once again, even harder to access.

Now, New York State is planning for the removal of several urban highways built through Black neighbourhoods, including Interstate 81 through Syracuse, the remainder of Rochester’s Inner Belt, and Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway. Reconnecting Buffalo’s East Side and investing in great public spaces could be a positive first step to living up to being “The City of Good Neighbors.”

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