Downtown has been the nucleus of Buffalo since its foundation; over two centuries later, it retains its central importance in the Niagara Frontier both geographically and commercially. Though its bygone era of bustling streets and fancy department stores along Main Street has not been completely reclaimed, visitors to downtown today will be greeted with a lot more than the boarded-up storefronts and eerie desolation that they would have seen a quarter-century ago.
For the purposes of this article, the Medical Corridor — located north of what has traditionally been called downtown, where the University at Buffalo Medical School has helped cultivate a complex of medical research institutions that are a new and growing sector of the area’s economy — falls under the umbrella of downtown due to its abundance of tall buildings and white-collar workers.
Downtown Buffalo has come a long way in the past decade or two, and now contains a number of distinct attractions for tourists. Main Street’s Theater District is centered around the grand old silent movie palace-turned-performing arts venue, Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, and boasts a range of restaurants, bars, shops, music venues, and of course, theatres, that is astonishingly wide for a city Buffalo’s size. Nearby, though the club kids and rowdies of old are largely gone these days, there’s still a healthy (and now much more chilled-out) bar scene along West Chippewa Street. Most recently, the ongoing revitalization of the Canalside area is a paradise for history buffs, families with children, and those who just enjoy the simple pleasure of a stroll along the lakefront on a warm summer day. Fans of architecture will also be enraptured by the many well-preserved examples of turn-of-the-century buildings found all over the business district, many of which have been lovingly restored and have been repurposed with new identities amid the modest but growing renaissance that Buffalo is enjoying.
Not surprisingly, downtown Buffalo is the oldest section of the city. Though the official incorporation of Buffalo dates to 1804, it is known that there was a tiny trading post, a few cabins, and perhaps a half-dozen settlers located here before that date — and perhaps even before the Holland Land Company’s purchase eleven years earlier of all of what is today New York State west of the Genesee River. However, it was in 1798 when Joseph Ellicott, a land agent and surveyor for the Holland Land Company, arrived at the junction of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie. Soon afterward, he began to lay out streets and lots for a village he called New Amsterdam, but which the residents insisted on calling Buffalo (a name change that was made official in 1808). Joseph Ellicott was the brother of Andrew Ellicott, who was responsible for surveying the streets of Washington, D.C.; the radial streets that Joseph Ellicott laid out in Buffalo, centered on Niagara Square and largely intact today, certainly bear a great deal of similarity to the street plan of Washington and also testify to the greatness that Ellicott envisioned for Buffalo — though it was well beyond the frontier of settlement at that time, Ellicott predicted that Buffalo would someday be a huge city and an important inland port. Ellicott’s vision came to fruition in 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal from the Hudson River at Albany to Buffalo Harbor, kickstarting a century of meteoric growth for Buffalo.
For all of Buffalo’s importance during those early years as an inland port and manufacturing center, commerce played a much smaller role in its economy than industry. Buffalo’s commercial district at that time was quite small, hugging the north side of the harbor and extending no further north than Church Street. By contrast, the northern reaches of today’s downtown, i.e. the Theater District, were residential; even Niagara Square was a cluster of elegant and spacious mansions with an appearance much more akin to a village green in New England than the center of an urban business district. It was not until after the Civil War that commerce truly began to take a place in Buffalo’s economy; by the turn of the century, Lafayette Square, two blocks north of Church Street, was the home of large office buildings such as the Buffalo German Insurance Company and the Mooney & Brisbane Building. The business district’s boundary continued to creep further north during the first part of the 20th century; at the onset of the Depression, Niagara Square was an odd mishmash, with the remaining mansions standing side by side with tall skyscrapers like the 12-story Buffalo Athletic Club, the 19-story Hotel Statler, and the then brand-new City Hall, which, at a height of 398 feet (121 m), is still the second-tallest building in Buffalo.
However, things were slowly beginning to change. Though World War II saw Buffalo’s steel mills and automotive plants working at full force, a number of factors converged after the war that stymied, and finally reversed, Buffalo’s growth. In downtown specifically, the Main Street retail corridor began to grow less and less crowded each year as shoppers began to pass up grand old department stores like Adam, Meldrum and Anderson, Hengerer’s, and L. L. Berger in favor of suburban plazas and malls. Sadly, the response of Buffalo’s civic leaders to the decline of downtown was the same as their response to the deterioration in other neighborhoods: “urban renewal”, for the most part poorly thought out and incredibly destructive. Among the many examples of the devastation of downtown’s urban fabric was the demolition of the stunning, castlelike Erie County Savings Bank building to make way for the Main Place Tower, a bland modernist office tower with an attached suburban-style shopping mall, the razing of Cyrus Eidlitz’s Buffalo Public Library, a beautiful Romanesque edifice in red sandstone at the east end of Lafayette Square, to be replaced by the drab monolith that houses the Central Library today, and the replacement of the beautiful French Second Empire-style Buffalo German Insurance Company with the minimalist, boxlike Tishman Building, which stood abandoned for nearly a decade before a belated redevelopment as a combination Hilton Garden Inn and headquarters to local development company, the Hamister Group.
By 2000, signs of hope had begun to emerge. Buffalo’s preservationist movement, which was kickstarted in 1950 with the city’s shortsighted demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s glorious Larkin Administration Building, had gained strength all through this time as their list of successes in preventing future disasters of that type grew. Thanks to their efforts, downtown Buffalo retains many splendid old buildings that would otherwise have been demolished. More importantly, the failure of Robert Moses-style urban renewal to address Buffalo’s decline has inspired the city’s leaders to adopt a new strategy for development, favoring a more broad-based approach that has already borne fruit in similar Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Without this epiphany, West Chippewa Street would likely still be overrun with seedy flophouses, prostitutes, and other unsavory characters, Canalside would likely still be a desolate patchwork of parking lots and moribund warehouses, and downtown in general would likely still be replete with boarded-up storefronts and a virtual ghost town after the end of the workday and on weekends. The most recent phase in downtown’s renaissance, beginning over the past decade, has been the conversion of disused office space into high-end downtown apartments and condominiums — a commodity for which many Buffalonians have been surprised to discover there is considerable pent-up demand.