Day 3: Buffalo (Part iv: Delaware Park)

No parking in the park. I am in The Park, as Olmsted called it. (The name did not stick; built 1868-1876, it would come to be called Delaware Park.) The trees have thinned, no longer sheltering The Park from traffic—traffic that, in any case, cuts through The Park.

“Four Trees – opon a solitary / Acre – / Without Design / Or Order, or Apparent / Action – / Maintain – ”

These are young trees, probably planted to replace giants destroyed during the 2006 October Surprise Storm. (Also known as Lake Storm “Aphid,” Arborgeddon, Columbus Day Massacre, Octoblizzard, Thundersnow—indeed, as Robin Blaser pronounced the word “God,” in the Episcopal Church on the first night of the Robert Creeley conference during that storm, the blizzard did clap with thunder.)

At least eighty percent of the city’s trees were damaged in the October storm, and many trees lost. Even at that time, the city’s estimated canopy cover was only twelve percent, well below the national average of a third.

Crossing the greensward from one group of trees to another is like crossing a bay: the distances hard to judge. What seemed empty and smooth is in fact full of singularities. (The greensward’s lack of flocks or unstructured human wandering accentuates the illusion—walkers stick to the perimeter road, golfers rule the green.)

In one bay the green organizes itself to reveal a sort of tumulus.

But I move on, drawn to a Natural Regeneration Area (a recent addition to the park). This wedge of wildness, out in the midst of the green, manifests a future landscape.

The soundscape is dense—populated with insects.

what is the park to me
spots of time
on the edges of the fairway
I know a place

some mower with a sense
of humor left

a weedy island
city of clover and iris flag
datura thistle & daisies

queen anne’s lace
sumac    brown-eyed susans

big oaks on two sides

Gilles Clément might call this a Planetary Garden, with its index of global diversity, a privileged site for intercrossing: “the result of a ceaseless agitation of flows around the planet—winds, marine currents, animal and human migrations—through which the species transported find themselves constantly mixed and redistributed.”

The fairway however feels striated, as one walks across the courses. Crossing territories. Lines.

I am heading for a bench under a tree.

Am I ruining a drive? The bench itself seems oriented to the golf course, not the view. Must I yield the bench to those approaching golfers?

There are some birds here: a yowling bunch of nestlings. Then one bird, a song. I listen—flattery? Or, get the fuck away.

A golf cart, driven by a parks official, arcs past, for a look see. I am watched, stop the recording.

But this park will continue to disclose itself. More than when I pedaled the ring road, for years.

Olmsted selected a site for his park—in the Bertie Waterlime, on glacier-churned bones of Neosiluric coral, not far from the pool of eurypterids. Geology that exemplifies what is special about the landscape of Western New York: scraped bare, rubbed against the sky, exposed. It is a place for watching clouds. Cecilia Vicuña: “Buffalo is a claahhhoud place.”

Looking from the Devonian right onto the Silurian, from I.’s sculpture studio in the Tri-Main Building onto the Onondaga limestone parking lot. Right where the tracks from Canada cross Main Street. “The Devonian is a precise Route 20 limit, for example, of Western New York.” (Charles Olson)

D.M.: “this is Buffalo”—crushing an invisible cigarette butt, on the back of his hand.

B.L. Hawkins, drawing a line with her finger and sparkling eyes: “ah, that long northern light.”

There are vast quantities of it in the air immediately above The Park, reflected off the lake.

Charles Burchfield would have loved this tree. His painting The Three Trees captures the essence of this landscape for me. How the sky towers over the towering trees.

Flaneur of the lakeshore and foothill scapes of Lake Erie, Alleghenies, Salem to Buffalo. Sunflower mystic. Painter of nightmoth tantras. Steps into the ordinary kingdom of open country. Like Olmsted, Burchfield walked all hours and watches.

Out there, on grad school weekday sorties, I sometimes felt it was just me and Burchfield, boxcars shifting, and the thousand eyed creatures.

Notice how the trees have lost their secondary branches and are tufted with leaves.

Like desert plants, or some Dr. Seuss scape. The atmosphere a form of water.

Across the par, a deskeined flock of geese, fertilizing.

Tennis: mother and son.

On the track one experiences the park in relation to a lane, to the relative velocity of other walkers. Catching up, passing, getting passed. Bicycles. This side of the loop is open to cars. (The other side, closed to cars, happens to parallel the Scajaquada Expressway.)

And beside me, Jack Foran. Jack is an interesting guy. This is not the first time I have run into him here.

Jack has a theory about the psychogeographical fault line that jogs Elmwood at Allen Street—trace of the Devil’s Hole Massacre, the Seneca cession, and a displacement of Buffalo mind and matter, some ten meters west and east of center. (See Goat Island entry on this blog.) Jack wrote the “Niagara Falls and Electricity” essay for a collection on the Pan-American Expo of 1901 that I used when writing about the Falls on this blog.

Jack and I take up as if no time had passed between this and our last conversation here, years ago. Olson’s park of eternal events. We discuss Jack’s dissertation on Homer. Our dissatisfaction with academia. What would Olmsted, who sought to “civilize” American cities, think of American civilization now?

Jack updates me on some recent controversy around the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. In 2004, one year before I left Buffalo, the city in the midst of a budgetary crisis turned management of its parks over to Erie County (Intermunicipal Cooperation Agreement for Operation, Management and Improvement of City of Buffalo Parklands), an agreement that eventually contracted the management and maintenance of the Olmsted park system to the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy.  After six years, the agreement seems to be working well for the parks—at least in regards to appearance and physical ecology, and despite the devastating October 2007 storm that did so much damage. The parks, including the natural regeneration areas, have never looked better.

In 2008 the Conservancy “adopted the Plan for the 21st Century, the comprehensive blueprint necessary to restore the [Buffalo] parks to Olmsted’s original vision while expanding and completing the system as originally conceived, a ‘city within a park.’  The plan calls for systematic reinvestment in the parks over time with 300 capital projects providing a new investment in Buffalo’s historic parks and parkways.”

Disaster capitalism? The Buffalo Olmsted Park System: Plan for the 21st Century is a concise and comprehensive introduction to Olmsted’s aesthetics.

According to the contract with Erie County, management of the parks would revert to the City of Buffalo at the end of 2009. But it was expected the City would renew the Conservancy’s contract. As it happens, renewal of the contract was held up for more than a year over some push-back from mayor Byron Brown’s office. On labor issues: would non-unionized Conservancy workers be allowed to work alongside the unionized City parks workers? Would the Conservancy be required to pay the City-ordained “living wage” to its temporary and seasonal workers And on cultural politics: Brown, Buffalo’s first African American mayor, took issue with the racial homogeneity of the Conservancy’s board of trustees and its staff.

Some of the recommendations in the master plan seem to underlay this tension. As in regards to Delaware Park: “Reconsider the golf course—maintain, downgrade to a 9-hole course, or remove.”

Over five years, I noted a vastly predominant African American use of this public golf course. Apart from the exercise loop, the playing fields and the ball courts, also enjoyed largely by African Americans, golfing seems one of the more popular uses of Delaware Park. Even though the park sits on the white (west) side of the Main Street color line.

This line was reinforced when Humboldt Parkway, originally built as a green artery connecting The Park with The Parade (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park) to the east, was obliterated by the four lanes of route 33, funneling white collar workers from the suburbs downtown, and creating formidable moat (what Jane Jacobs would call a “border vacuum”) between West and East Buffalo.

The Master Plan’s recommendation to remove the golf course follows the first of its stated guiding principles—to “Protect and rehabilitate the Buffalo Olmsted Park System to preserve and restore the historic integrity of Olmsted’s vision.” In Buffalo, Olmsted unpacks the superimposed layers of his New York City parks and spreads them across different, specialized spaces: Front Park for gregarious congregation and admiring the Lake and headwaters of the Niagara River, The Parade for civic and athletic gatherings, Delaware Park for boating and an “oasis of green” in the City. Olmsted even argues for a new park in South Buffalo as a way to protect the unique, “passive” recreational character of Delaware Park (under his son’s management, the firm would design and build a version of South Park):

“Your present North Park [Delaware Park] is presently well adapted to certain quiet forms of recreation, favoring a contemplative or musing turn of mind and restful refreshment. . . . But it is not always that merely soothing, out-of-door refreshment is wanted. Occasionally by all, but oftenest by those who pass most of their time in monotonous occupations and amid sombre surroundings, tranquilizing natural scenes are less demanded than those by which gayety, liveliness, and a slight spirit of adventure are stimulated. . . . It will follow that unless comprehensive provision for it is soon undertaken elsewhere, you will be constrained to meet the requirement by a succession of small, feeble, imperfect and desultory interpolations upon the design of the North Park. . . . Twenty years hence shall Buffalo have one park, of a poor, confused character, or two, each of a good, distinct character?” (Civilizing American Cities 131-132).

The phrase “those who pass most of their time in monotonous occupations and amid sombre surroundings” seems code for working class occupations, and “gayety, liveliness, and a slight spirit of adventure” for working class pastimes. In an uncharitable reading, Olmsted might be construed to say, “we need to build a park for the hoi polloi, otherwise, our ‘tranquilizing natural scenes’ will be compromised by their lowbrow activities.” I walk his parks to discredit, or at least to complicate, such an easy reduction of Olmsted’s politics.

The first intrusions on Olmsted’s designs were not single-use sports facilities (those came later) but the Albright Knox Art Gallery and the New York State Building (now the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society). Construction of these imposing edifices, vigorously opposed by Olmsted’s sons who considered them “deductions” from the park proper, entailed cutting down several hundred mature trees. Only then, in addition to the zoo (formalizing what had been a deer paddock), and the “lovely but incongruously formal” rose garden, came the sports facilities:

“In the newly renamed Delaware Park, golf, football, and baseball had all secured a foothold in the Meadow as early as 1899. By 1913, sixteen hundred golfers had permits, and two years later the course was enlarged to 18 holes. Formal baseball diamonds appeared in 1914” (The Buffalo Olmsted Park System 43).

There do not seem to be statistics on the diversity of these early Olmsted park golfers. In Olmsted’s parks the open space system, the progressive era, and the reform park are layered, in tension.

(Caption at bottom reads: “The areas [golfing fairways] in white are major obstacles to the realization of the full restoration plan. Without their removal, the park can only partially be restored. However, non-historic structures and uses in any park will not be removed without community input, and if removed will be replaced outside of the park as community needs dictate.”)

In the early 1960s NY State Route 198 (the Scajaquada Expressway) cut through Olmsted’s green oasis, on its 50 mph rush to join I-190 along the lake.

These bridges, in the northeast corner of the park, used to span the Quarry Garden, since filled with debris from the construction of Route 198. Such bridge architecture would in any case not have been rustic enough for Olmsted.


not Olmstedian!

More natural regeneration areas, and Olmstedian curves.


and compost.

Rhizomes and roots

and crazy Dr. Seuss trees.

Buffalo’s bison—caught in the English mishearing of “Beau Fleuve” (Beautiful River)? Or guardians of Buffalo’s lost connections with the Great Plains?

A flight of Branta canadensis.


and moonrise.

Traffic (and radio lights) on the Scajaquada.

Standing, in the very middle of this park I have known well but never so well as today, on the threshold of a journey West, across the continent, to discover the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted’s parks, and of the public, green open space bequeathed to some of this nation’s great cities, I feel I have already arrived. Suspended between setting sun and rising moon, head in the sky, practically above clouds, I observe the distant jeweled traffic.  I could stand here for hours, on the edge of some perpetual Olmstedian insomnia, or soaking in nostalgia — where else to go? Many places. Let epiphany be beginning not end.

Under branch

and over par.

Past the leaf compost

and the cone choreography (with rustic bridge restoration)

invasive species removing “Invasive Species Removal”

to Hoyt Lake sunset.

Staring at the fading, triffid-like shapes of these weeping willows, I hear the city’s wails drowned in water voices. The Scajaquada, pouring from a culvert into the lake.

Buffalo gals go round the outside (my hosts Robin and Todd dancing).

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