Day 3: Buffalo (Part ii: South Park)

We follow the Niagara River back upstream, under the Peace Bridge, to Lake Erie south of Buffalo.  Here is a view of the Niagara River from the Robert Moses Parkway, south of Niagara Falls.

A pumping station on the Parkway.

The head of the Niagara River, at Lake Erie (with a bit of Canada and the Riverwalk zig-zagging into the lake) seen from I-190, just south of the Peace Bridge.

A view of Lake Erie, past the Outer Harbor, from the Skyway, South Buffalo.

Our destination is South Park, the landlocked and diminished version of a grand park Olmsted had designed for the shore of Lake Erie, connecting its waters with those of a lagoon plotted with “islands, savannas, capes and peninsulas” (Civilizing American Cities 139).  So far as Olmsted honors the lake, courses of waterways and associated wetlands, and employs them as a principal resource in his design, he perhaps sees the landscape as the Kahkwa or Seneca did.  (Though maybe with less wildlife.)  The sixth Olmsted park, not far from South Park, called Cazenovia, is built near the original site of the Kahkwa village and Seneca Buffalo Creek Reservation: Mary Jamieson was buried there, a settler captured by the Seneca as a child, who as an adult chose to stay.

In his 1888 proposal for South Park, Olmsted cites the success of Delaware Park, as a model conducive to “a contemplative or musing turn of mind and restful refreshment.”  But, he continues, “those who pass most of their time in monotonous occupations and amid sombre surroundings” tend to seek out “gayety, liveliness, and a slight spirit of adventure.”  Hence, the encroachment of structured activities on park space–“small, feeble, imperfect and desultory interpolations,” according to Olmsted–including museum edifices and zoo complexes.

To meet this desire for adventure, while protecting the North Park, another park of a distinct character should be built in South Buffalo.  “Twenty years hence,” Olmsted asks, “shall Buffalo have one park, of a poor, confused character, or two, each of a good, distinct character?” (132).  Doing so would also give Buffalo another chance to connect with the lake waters–a city which “has no work of art and can have no work of art that will compare” with Lake Erie (132).

Olmsted deploys utilitarian rhetoric at the service of an aesthetic aim: to imagine water taking the place of turf, in the kind of landscape composition he has mastered but is eager to adapt to a watery environment, where park goers enter by boat rather than foot.  (Buffalo has been called Little Venice for its canal system.)  This would be a first: “No example of a realized design of such a character can be pointed to” (141-142).  Olmsted aims to bridge the domestic with the wild, the bounded with the open horizon.  His parks were harbors for possibility.

Olmsted’s Northern designs also shelter memories of the bayou and the “restful, dreamy nature of the South” (164).  Such was the language Olmsted used in 1871–a language not immune to irony, given Olmsted’s extensive travels in the South to report on slavery–when proposing a water park for Chicago’s South Side (now Jackson Park).  These dreams would not mature with Buffalo’s South Park.  Instead, Jackson Park, finally completed in 1892 for the Chicago World Columbian Expo, would first realize a lagoon interface with a Great Lake.  (It was at the Columbia Exposition that Westinghouse exhibited its technological innovations on the path to transmitting alternating current over distance:

In the Buffalo South Park proposal, packet boats were to ferry park-goers through islands marked out by windmill-powered lights.

Here are some windmills over Lackawanna, the Steel Winds wind farm.

The boaters would discover “an extended series of interesting passages of scenery.  At intervals there will open long vistas over water under broad leafy canopies . . . verdant grottoes . . . spacious forest glades . . . nurseries for song birds” (140).  The islands would enclose spaces ranging from broad open meadows to secluded picnic spots and migratory bird exclosures.  Olmsted’s plan is unique for balancing water with land, in an imbricated yet simple pattern.

As the design entailed excavating more than half a million yards of land, Buffalo’s park commissioners deemed it too expensive.  Olmsted’s son John and his partners in the Olmsted firm took over the project.  Their 1892 plan outlined a smaller inland park, in the “English deer park” mode, that eventually would include a 21-acre water feature, a conservatory, botanical garden and arboretum.

In Frederick Omsted’s 1888 proposal, he decries “the present railroad evil” and “the barbarity of a great number of deadly grade railroad crossings, within which no provision has yet been made for a single open space” (151, 153).  Ironically, what fuels urban growth also constrains healthy development–the profusion of uncrossable railway lines and their adjacent border vacuums.  Olmsted proposed a counter-system of parkways, which he considered as much the duty of Park Commissioners as the parks themselves:

“parkways are not to be dealt with on the principle that they are local affairs any more than the parks with which they connect.  They are to be laid out primarily even with less regard for the people who are to live in quarters of the city near the park than for those at a distance, because the fatigue and inconvenience of an approach to the park independently of any new ways to it would be of much less consequence to those living near it than to the main body of citizens” (147).

Olmsted argues for the private benefit such a public utility would bring to neighborhoods adjoining the parkways. Such a benefit was cruelly reversed when some of these parkways were turned into high speed thruways–most destructively in the case of the Humboldt Parkway (the “33”), which now separates the Parade from Delaware Park and isolates Buffalo’s east side from its west side, effectively segregating the city’s population.  Olmsted considered the Buffalo parks his “best-planned” system, due to the city’s extensively realized parkways.  Modern “parkways” reverse Olmsted’s intended aim.   The Scajaquada Parkway races through Delaware Park, impairing a large part of the design (including soundscape) and splitting the park in two.

We drive around in circles, past Father Baker’s Basilica (where the stations of the cross are lit in neon), looking for South Park.

The famous Lackawanna Six sent money home from here, drawing the attention of the Ashcroft justice department.  Even the public transportation is virtual.

After finally asking directions of a woman and her granddaughter who give me three tomatoes from their garden, we find the turn into the park, and the botanical gardens.  I used to come here in the winter to sit in the cactus greenhouse.  And to see the orchids.

Drive-through park.

The carriage way in the park plan turned out to be  convenient short-cut, connecting to Tifft Street via Hopkins Road, which was connected to the park in 1940 and has about a third the lights of South Park Avenue.  So this end of the park has traffic.  And Golf.

Clumps of trees casting their shade on virtually “open” greensward.


and country views.  (This is in the midst of residential and industrial South Buffalo, between rail yards, scrap yards and brownfields, a few miles north of the Ford Stamping Plant.)

The trees are decidedly less well kept than at Delaware Park.  Dead snags stand at the edge of the water feature, which is lily choked.

The park has a somewhat wild aspect, except for the traffic.  Robin and I talk about geo casing–tracking via time and place stamps.  Also, about how it takes three to bird: a human, a bird, and one other.  On the way out of the park, I photograph a mysterious mailbox, standing in the grass.

South Park is an intact Olmsted (Firm) design surrounded on two sieds by dense, low-income housing in a mixed use neighborhood.  The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has put together an impressive master plan, The Buffalo Olmsted Park System: Plan for the 21st Century. In it, the authors note, “Located within a thriving downtown and boasting one of the best-preserved Olmsted water parks in the country, South Park could easily be a model for the restoration of the Buffalo Olmsted Park System and a signature destination in Buffalo” (78).  For this to happen, we need to reconsider Olmsted’s parkway vision, to explore “green” ways to reconnect South Buffalo to the rest of the city.

I came here often, when I lived in Buffalo, but always regretted the use of a private automobile to do so.  As part of Buffalo’s emerging master plan and redevelopment of the Inner Harbor and waterfront, under mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration, the bike paths that run along the Niagara River north into Tonawanda are being connected to South Buffalo, the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve and, hopefully, to South Park.  That will be a big step forward.  Please visit South Park.

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