Thursday, March 14, 2013

First Ward Marches Forward

"The story of the Old First Ward is not finished; it remains to be written by future generations.”
-Timothy Bohen, Against the Grain

As a Buffalo gateway—as well as home to one of the city’s two St. Patrick’s Day parades—it’s hard to believe that any area resident would have no idea how to find the riverfront enclave known as the 
Old First Ward. But, during his five years of work on his first book Against the Grain, Buffalo author Timothy Bohen regularly encountered such confusion.

“When I mentioned (my book’s topic) to people who didn’t have roots in the Ward, their first question was always, ‘Where exactly is the First Ward?”

A passing survey of the aforementioned individuals may yield Ward knowledge results of “Irish,” “grain elevators” or “free Sabres parking.” But these people have never walked down O’Connell Avenue or Mackinaw Street; they’ve never found Sunday mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help or a can of Genny Double Bock at Cook’s. They haven’t inhaled a Mazurek’s pastry heart or split a Carbone’s chicken finger pizza. And, unless they’re the masochistic type, they’ve never toured the neighborhood at a plodding, wind-restricted shuffle during the annual emerald slog known as the 
Shamrock Run.

But Bohen didn’t enter into half a decade cataloging the Ward’s historical relevance for Against the Grain because he knew it’d be a hot read. He did it because, initially, he was unfamiliar with the origins of his Irish surname (Bohane). But, the deeper he dug into the neighborhood of his ancestors, the more certain he was that the neighborhood’s story needed to be told to those unaware of its tremendous international significance.

“The story of wanting to know more about the First Ward started to overtake my concerns about the spelling of my last name,” said Bohen, nursing a Guinness under a Shane MacGowan 
serenade last month inside Gene McCarthy’s Tavern, a Ward institution. “I didn’t get answers on the spelling until several years after starting this journey.”

It’s proved a journey worth taking. Over the 258 pages of Bohen’s stirring march through Ward history, he takes readers through an exhausting amount of significant institutions, individuals and achievements, ones fueled by an immigrant population entrusted with managing lucrative waterfront commerce and building a lakefront city into a national economic power. 

Against the Grain author Timothy Bohen
“A lot of the treasures that we have in Buffalo—whether architecture treasures or some of the other identifiable features—came from the wealth generated in the First Ward,” said Bohen. “Many of Delaware Avenue’s fortunes were made from the First Ward and the waterfront, and without its role in the region’s history, this region would be radically different.”
As would the rest of the country. Grain elevators now used for inventive art festivals and prospective rock-climbing venues once housed the bulk of America’s grain. Ward residents walked down streets like Hamburg, Alabama and Vincennes to find shovels and fill Lake Erie vessels, ones tasked with shipping this essential ingredient across the country.

“This area played an integral part in not only feeding this country, but feeding the world,” said Bohen. “Being on the eastern end of Lake Erie, it was responsible for handling grain that was later made into cereal or dough for pizzas in New York City. It was all done right here in the First Ward, whether it was the milling of the grain or its shipment.”

But this information is just a piece of the First Ward’s significance to the region and, in particular, its Irish Americans. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the neighborhood once housed one of America’s top five Irish immigrant populations, earning the constant guidance of Catholic leader John Timon, and earning Buffalo visits from such Irish independence advocates as Eamon DeValera and, more recently, Gerry Adams. On their trips into Western New York, they found the Ward, backdrop of the Labor Strike of 1899, violent and deadly railroad strikes of 1877 and 1892, and land once home to Michael Quinn’s Tavern, which hosted planning stages of the infamous Fenian raid on Canada in 1866. Also, the first Buffalo St. Patrick’s Day Parade? In the First Ward, and organized by tavern owner Quinn.

“I don’t think locals or people across the country have any idea of how important of an Irish center this once was,” said Bohen. “It was always on a short list of cities that Irish independence leaders would visit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

When they’d visit, they traveled the same streets of historical figures who once called the First Ward home. Go one way and they’d find residences of Bishop Timon and the Sisters of Mercy, both essential shepherds of the community; go another and they’d find addresses belonging to Michael Shea and D’Arcy McGee, both namesakes of two current downtown entertainment venues. Boxing legend Jimmy Slattery prepped for eventual Madison Square Garden bouts on Ward streets; mayoral legend Jimmy Griffin rehearsed for years of Buffalo political scrapes inside now shuttered bars like Leahy's. And, raised in a house on Michigan Street, World War hero and O.S.S. founder Major General William Donovan grew up to be arguably the most significant Buffalonian ever, a fact Bohen is quick to note.

“What’s mind-boggling to me is the lack of honor (Buffalo has) paid to General William Donovan,” he said. “There was the Donovan State Building now being converted to One Canalside, so that’s gone. Then, there was talk about having his name on the new federal courthouse, but that didn’t come to fruition. This is a character that, in any other city would have a bridge or turnpike named after him. There would at least be a major monument in his honor. Historically, he’s the most important Buffalonian to come out of the 20th century.”

And maybe there will soon be proper respect shown to all the events and individuals that made the Old First Ward worthy of Bohen’s engaging and illuminating offering. Maybe there will soon be long-overdue attention paid to the neighborhood’s historical relevance—and the devoted residents who’ve kept it alive—by those who don’t know nearly enough about either. Renaming the Ohio Street Bridge the General William Donovan Bridge would be a start, and moving the city’s Irish Famine Memorial (soon to be made more clandestine by Ellicott Development’s mammoth Carlo project) to the Ward would be another. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s planned $11 million complete street conversion of Ohio Street—which will connect Canalside to the Outer Harbor—provides the opportunity for a litany of historical markers, as well as for eventually naming the reconstructed thoroughfare for the most significant modern First Ward resident, Peg Overdorf.

“She’s probably done more over the past two decades for the Ward and the Valley than anyone,” said Bohen. “She’s got a lot of help behind her, but she’s the one with the vision and dogged spirit that ultimately gets things done.”

Overdorf’s devoted vision now welcomes First Ward visitors off Michigan with Riverfest Park, and lures kayakers through the Buffalo River’s Elevator Alley to Mutual Riverfront Park and the Waterfront Memories and More Museum. Aided by the tireless efforts of loyal neighborhood residents, the momentum continues. Two weeks ago, over 5,600 Under-Armored lunatics descended on the Ward to conquer the terrain (five miles) and temperatures (mid-20s) of the Shamrock Run, now in its 34th year. The Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association Boathouse has plans for a new facility near the Ohio Basin Inlet; riverfront housing has been discussed for the collapsed Erie Freight House; the Ohio and Michigan Street bridges have plans to be illuminated; and uniting historical signage for Buffalo’s Industrial Heritage Trail is on the way. And, don’t forget about this Saturday’s parade. With more than 100 marching units scheduled to find South Park Avenue, it plans to be the largest St. Patrick’s installment since the event was resurrected 20 years ago.

All these developments join the interest in Bohen’s work as reasons to believe the Ward’s days of inadequate appreciation are approaching a thankful end.

“When I started this project, I didn’t see all of the synergy and development happening in the First Ward. In the year I finished the project, I found two new parks, the museum, and even a focus (from the ECHDC) on lighting up the city’s grain elevators. None of this has anything to do with my book, but if the history detailed in my book leads to future historical endeavors, then that will be a great thing.”

(Author's note: This report was finished while listening to "Streams of Whiskey" by The Pogues)