Exploring the hidden with Forgotten Buffalo - PHOTOS
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • July 17, 2012 @ 1:48pm
Local tour group Forgotten Buffalo, founded by local celebrities Eddy Dobosiewicz and Marty Biniasz of Dyngus Day fame, directed a five-hour adventure that provided a nostalgic glance at the city’s now-dwindling private ethnic clubs.
The tour took us to four different ethnic enclaves in various Buffalo neighborhoods: St. Stan’s Athletic Club in the Polonia District, Bison Rod and Gun Club on the waterfront, the Ukrainian American Civic Center in Black Rock and the Croatian Club in Riverside. Navigated by Gary, the driver of a rather stuffy school bus, Dobosiewicz and Biniasz spoke knowledgeably about the history of each of the locations on the ride to each of the stops, and then the 40+ tour-goers could explore each of the sites and ask questions.
Here’s a short breakdown of the stops—for more information and the opportunity to join one of Forgotten Buffalo’s monthly trips, head to the tour’s website.
St. Stan’s Athletic Club, 289 Peckham St., Buffalo: Opposite the St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church, the St. Stan’s Athletic Club became especially popular during Prohibition (1920 to 1933) and served as a means of controlling the drinking exploits of youth at the time as well. Judging from the decor inside, the second-floor establishment still boasts serious national pride, as club manager Len Hoeglmeier doled out bottles of common Polish beer Tyskie, local Genny Cream Ale and shots of Krupnik, a Polish honey liqueur. Membership is still available for the club, and it costs a mere $5. A bargain, if you ask me.
Commentary: As taxing as it can be to drink on the job, the St. Stan’s experience was a little wistful for me. Its membership seems to be hanging by a thread, and it’s more a memory of good times past than it is a bustling haven for the Polonia District. It’s frustrating to see historic taverns and clubs go by the wayside, but how many people are inclined to join a struggling club when there are so many newer and more flashy options? Not many, it appears.
Bison Rod and Gun Club, 511 Ohio St., Buffalo: Located less than a mile from the Buffalo News, I had no idea this private club existed. Granted, its membership is full, and whenever spots are open, they’re passed down to the family of current members. Still, beer is absurdly cheap—Bud Light Platinums ran for only $2—and the place was bustling on Saturday evening when we stopped in. I asked a patron what the yearly membership fee was, but he’d been a member for so long that he simply gave me a range of $250 to $500. Nestled against the water, however, picnic areas and a live band revealed that the exclusive club was alive and buzzing.
Commentary: Bison Rod and Gun Club is proof that private clubs can still thrive in Buffalo, although it’s notable that Bison was the only club we visited that didn’t have a strong ethnic bent. Immigrant populations, at least in my experience, seem incredibly mobile over time—say, if a neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic in the early 2000s, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll stay the same in 2012. Chatting with Niagara Cafe owner Raul Hernandez this winter, he mentioned how the Puerto Rican population was shifting noticeably from the lower West Side into Riverside, a good five miles up Niagara Street, due to gentrification. Perhaps that’s one reason why these stationary ethnic taverns are losing their luster.
Ukrainian American Civic Center, 205 Military Road, Buffalo: Complete with mind-bending wallpaper, stacks of empty cases of Eastern European beer and a random vegetable garden behind the building, the Ukrainian American Civic Center screams culture. Spaten Dundel, Zywiec, Tatra and Obolon are just four of the unfamiliar beer options—I went for the Zywiec, a pilsner with an alcohol content of 5.6%—and since membership here is only $10, an outing for beer sampling wouldn’t be outrageously priced. The Ukrainian American Civic Center nearly met its demise in 2000 when it was down to eight members, but it’s been reinvented thanks to the perseverance of bartender Yuri, among other supportive locals.
Commentary: The Ukrainian Center is certainly a little off the grid—when you think of Military Road, “bars” isn’t the first word that pops in your mind—but its cozy, relaxed and they serve plenty of beer. Of the four taverns/private clubs we visited, this is the one I’d feel most comfortable going to as a first-timer. Host Dobosiewicz was in rare form at this stop, dropping mildly crude jokes left and right. To say this is a PG-13 tour would be fairly accurate, but it’s certainly not boring (especially as the alcohol kicks in).
Croatian Club, 226 Condon St., Buffalo: City of Buffalo Councilman Joseph Golombek, Jr. and a number of investors saved the Croatian Club in Riverside from going out of business last year, and while it’s not quite as welcoming as I’m sure it once was, its rather hysterical shape and lore gives it some credibility as a private club. Initially intended to be three floors, the builders basically said, “Screw this, we’re drinking!” and quit after one floor, giving the building an unorthodox “squatty” shape. “The Cro” opens at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, though Golombek (in the Hawaiian shirt, second from right in photo below) mentioned that a few details were still being implemented, reinforced by the fact that the bathroom randomly flooded during our tour.
Commentary: After watching Golombek in action at City Hall during the food truck legal fracas earlier this year, it was very strange (but cool) seeing him supporting a bar that had fallen upon hard times in his district. The sports lore that surrounded the Cro—frequent visits from former Bills’ head coach Lou Saban, an appearance from Mickey Mantle and a potential curse of the Bills’ Super Bowl appearances give cultural color to the tiny tavern. You’ll have to attend a Forgotten Buffalo tour to learn the details of these stories that Dobosiewicz and Biniasz happily relay.