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Buffalo’s hip: Where’s our Williamsburg? - INTERVIEWS

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

You’re about to find out if your Buffalo neighborhood is trendy—whether you like it or not.

Back in November 2013, Gawker polled its readers nationwide to compare their cities’ trendy neighborhoods with those in Brooklyn—Williamsburg and Bushwick, in particular.

Here’s the question as it was posed on Gawker via author Max Read:

Williamsburg and Bushwick, two Brooklyn neighborhoods, have become, for various reasons both accurate and not, a global icon of “hipness.” But it’s obviously not the only “hip” neighborhood in the world. What’s your city’s Williamsburg? And what’s its Bushwick?

As Gawker writers are wont to do, Read commented below his article with greater detail:

So, just to make it clearer, I’m looking for the neighborhoods in your city where the self-consciously arty creative-class would-be bohemians congregate. Williamsburg went from a lower-middle and working-class immigrant neighborhood to a refuge for artists priced out of Manhattan to an expensive alt-yuppie neighborhood—it used to be the neighborhood where the cool young arty kids went; now it’s the neighborhood where the rich old arty kids go (and live). Bushwick is where the cool young arty kids go and live now; it’s somewhere on the back end of the “cheap artist refuge” stage of gentrifying neighborhoods.

Sure, a crowd-sourced study is a good start, but who’s to say that each city’s hip populace reads Gawker? (Let’s face it—they’re probably already found a cooler, buzzier website.) Can the un-hip identify the hip?

Do I even know what it means to be a hipster?

A neighborhood’s trendiness is by no means crucial to everyone, but often it’s the fabric of certain communities that attracts talented young people to a city.

Picture yourself as a senior in college—which, of course, will be much easier if you are a senior in college—or a disgruntled-yet-talented artist in search of greener pastures.

You want to further your skill set, form relationships with like-minded people and feel like your neighborhood is an extension of yourself, a point of pride that you’re willing to stand firmly behind.

Basically, you’re hunting for the most hip spot in a new city and, since hipness is both relative and fleeting, you crave current information from trustworthy sources.

Time is of the essence, which makes the process tricky.

The goal of pigeon-holing neighborhoods once-and-for-all is foolish, as many desirable areas undergo gentrification, while others evolve due to an influx of residents, like Buffalo’s burgeoning refugee population, or a vast departure of businesses and residents, like Buffalo’s downtown center.

Even more complicated are neighborhoods at a crossroads—the second graph of Tara Palmeri’s New York Post article on Bushwick depicts two divergent forces—the hipsters and the wanna-be hipsters:

The hipsters who settled the Brooklyn neighborhood 10 years ago have declared war on rich kids flocking to new luxury digs on their parents’ dime.

The insights of the interviewees below may be relevant now and for the next few months, but by the summer, it’s possible that perspectives will change drastically.

Maybe the Larkin District becomes a residential hot-bed, maybe Hertel takes on the diversity of the West Side. Maybe Riverside becomes the new center of vibrant immigrant activity. 

Gawker’s results were released in late January, and Elmwood was declared Buffalo’s Williamsburg and Allentown was determined to be our Bushwick.

Should Buffalonians consider this gospel? We checked in with as many “hip” people as we could identify to see if they agreed.

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Hipster No. 1: Caesandra Seawell

Position: Garden manager/head cook at Children’s Vinery, but also volunteers regularly for The Foundry.

Why she’s hip: She’s bubbly and charismatic, the perfect voice for a multipurpose establishment like the Foundry, which serves as a working space for artists, promotes the sharing of ideas and injects youthful creativity in the East Side. Also, the vinery—which is basically a local community garden on (hormone-free) steroids—grows outside-the-box culinary treasures like mint and gourds, while also inspiring children to live a healthy lifestyle. 

To, Seawell, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: Hm, I’m not saying this cynically, but I’m not sure that Buffalo can be compared this way YET—where there’s a whole neighborhood “transformed” because of Art—or even a refuge for artists (I think we had hoped to see that kind of thing happen because of ArtSpace and that’s the neighborhood I live in, but it seems to be taking a bit longer to see the spreading out of artists and their work).

I view the West Side as a hub for grassroots and diversity/international community; THAT has definitely happened since I moved here in 2005.

The Art is beginning to happen and I think it’s an exciting area of Buffalo because of the international community feeling WELCOME and being encouraged in ways that other aspects of Buffalo have not.

But I want to see MORE art from the various international cultures living in Buffalo—throughout the city because I know that my part of Buffalo also has an increased international community.

Hertel is happening, but there’s that stretch between Elmwood/Delaware that makes both sides feel disconnected from each other…and if you keep heading toward Main—toward that stretch of University Heights—there is another pocket with improvement, art, gardens, eateries, but it’s interrupted by some vacant spaces.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: Allen is getting more interesting and colorful, but has it been cheap enough for young artists to live—ever? That hasn’t been my experience. Based on criticisms I’ve heard from business owners and the rapid turnover of a lot of businesses, I think it’s even too expensive for most businesses.

To me, Buffalo has a lot of pockets of culture, art, business and neighborhood development; but I’m also not convinced it’s just because artists moved in—it’s because a culture of creativity energy, initiative and commitment moved in.

Now we need to work harder at CONNECTING and expanding these pockets so that it feels seamless to go from several galleries to a screening or a museum and a concert in an evening or a weekend. 

I also get a sense that Buffalo enjoys hopping from one kind of event to another; we don’t just do “one thing” for an evening of entertainment. Again, Buffalo needs to figure out how to enhance our connectivity or mobility across the city.

If it’s difficult for residents to go from one venue to another—think how much more intimidating it might be for college students, tourists or suburbanites to participate in our cultural events.

[Essentially, Seawell says that Buffalo’s neighborhoods don’t quit connect with Brooklyn’s at all].

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Hipster No. 2: Christian Willmott

Position: Co-owner of The Black Market Food Truck

Why he’s hip: Owning and operating a food truck automatically suggests trendiness, and Willmott (left in photo below) and co-owner Michael Dimmer (right) receive sterling reviews from customers for their product quality, creative menu and almost tangible positivity.

Tie in the logo design from Mr. Smith, as well as the BMFT’s innate ability to serve at hipster events (like BLOW’s opening at Five Points Bakery, Lake Effect Ice Cream’s winter sale and Lockhouse Distillery’s flash vodka sales), and you have a next-level type of coolness.

To Willmott, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: To get right into it, I definitely understand that most people would associate Elmwood with Williamsburg. 

If you drive a block east or west on either side of Elmwood Avenue, you will see some of the most impressive Victorian architecture in the country with a matching price tag. It is fairly common to find apartments that are higher in price than in other areas of the city as well, but I find that most of these homes are either single family, owner occupied, or both. 

I have lived in the Elmwood Village for years now, and I don’t get a very Williamsburg feel from it. I think the area in Buffalo most closely associated with Williamsburg would be Allentown.

I’m not talking about Allen Street specifically, but the one ways and side streets surrounding it. A house half the size of one in the Elmwood Village will sell for almost the same price.

The “old arty kids” who have the scratch head to Allen and purchase unique (albeit smaller) homes and stay just on the outskirts of the action they have grown accustomed to. 

Just tonight there was a meeting held to discuss plans for revamping Allentown and Allen Street specifically to drive more traffic and business there. Williamsburg is on its way.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: It’s a little more difficult to pin down Bushwick’s counterpart here in Buffalo. 

In almost any neighborhood, even Allentown, you can find cheap housing and plenty of “young artsy kids.” You have reasonably priced lofts on Main, studios on Allen and Elmwood, and now more than ever, a lot of younger people heading to the Hertel-North Buffalo area. 

To me though, the West Side of Buffalo is the closest thing we have to Bushwick.  From Forest Avenue to Porter Avenue, you can find plenty of struggling young people either renting apartments or buying their first homes in predominantly ethnic neighborhoods. And, with the current, as well as upcoming food options that are going to be available west of Richmond, there’s no question in my mind that the West Side is Buffalo’s Bushwick.

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Hipster No. 3: Steve Poland

Position: Director of product at Act Away

Why he’s hip: Really all you need to know is that he spent a few weeks as a marketing roadie for Earth, Wind and Fire, but he’s also one of the foremost names in Buffalo’s entrepreneur scene.

He’s an event organizer for the annual BarCamp Buffalo, an idea-sharing paradise aimed at aspiring techies.

And we haven’t even brought up Act Away, Poland’s own social acting game for mobile devices.

To Poland, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: Poland agrees that Elmwood is Williamsburg right now, but he adds: “I believe Black Rock will be a city we look at in 10 years as Buffalo’s next Hertel and North Buffalo.

Hertel is becoming the Williamsville of the actual city of Buffalo—hip, pricey, and the suburbia of the city of Buffalo.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: Poland agrees with Gawker’s readers’ choice of Allentown, but he adds: “The West Side is on its way up as well… lots of home improvements and some good watering holes like Essex St Pub, Left Bank, Providence Social Club, Horsefeathers, Sweetness7.

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Hipster No. 4: Andre Sadoff

Position: Co-owner of Buffalo Motor Works

Why he’s hip: Along with co-owner Dan Sciolino, Sadoff runs Buffalo Motor Works, which is one of Buffalo’s only hybrid and electrical vehicle vendors. I’d say selling green, affordable transportation from Rhode Island Street, one of the more aggressively trendy spots in Buffalo, calls for a title of hip.

To Sadoff, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: Elmwood Avenue has gone through quite a renaissance. An area that still had a fair amount of grit to it only 15 years ago, Elmwood Avenue has witnessed grassroots efforts by small business owners that have really cleaned things up: they brought in yoga studios, skateboard shops, fashionable clothing stores, and eclectic eateries. They made it a place teenagers and young adults wanted to congregate.

The neighborhood has seemingly gone past that part of its transition, though. Now littered with frozen yogurt chains and olive oil stores, residential and commercial real estate has consequently skyrocketed. This has priced out a lot of residents and retailers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Every city needs a posh area where people from outside of the city can visit, feel safe and experience the city center. We have Elmwood and Hertel in that respect.

Luckily, Buffalo has many other small commercial areas to bring it back down to human scale. Your Grant Streets, Amherst Streets, and Connecticut Streets. They all have dense infrastructure with glass facades built to the sidewalk line, where retailers are moving to and livening those areas as some once did with Elmwood.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: It would be easy to say Allentown brings the article’s definition of Bushwick.

Rents are (or at least used to be) more reasonable, retailers consist of more galleries, and it’s a less polished feel. Allen Street is erupting with energy on the first Friday of every month.

Most of the younger residents who didn’t want to follow Elmwood’s inflation have migrated south to Allentown, along with the former transients of the neighborhood. Allentown is more focused on nightlife, however, leaving the daytime population still a bit scarce. The bar scene is a strong one on Allen, catering more to the “bohemian” crowd, though even that is changing as newer bars attract more of a Chippewa-friendly crowd.

As those neighborhoods transition, there seems to be a sort of Manifest-Westiny. Where Richmond used to be a dividing line, young creative types are pushing farther, buying homes on the lower West Side and renovating them, introducing open floor plans, more natural lighting, and more green practices.

The cost to obtain a home in this neighborhood is much more reasonable, allowing more funds to be used for restoration in the desired manner. A lot of rain water barrels and skylights can be seen scattered throughout the lower West Side at houses and community gardens where drug dealers once stood.

The neighborhood fabric also facilitates this transition: a lot of homes have been purchased or rented for the purpose of basement shows. If you live on Breckenridge near Grant, your neighbors are a lot less likely to call the police on your loud music at 2 a.m. than, say, the doctor in the $300k home in what’s now the “Elmwood Village.”

Young people are buying houses right out of college for $40k, having their friends move into the rental unit and throwing beach parties with 85-degree heat in the dead of winter. It’s easier to heat your place up once in a while when your rent is only $200 per month.

These are also the neighborhoods teeming with diversity, a Vietnamese restaurant along with an African market next to a Puerto Rican deli. The “Bushwick” crowd appreciates the diversity in cultural offerings, even if there is a bit of a barrier with language and culture.

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Hipster No. 5: Bernice Radle

Position: Project manager at Buffalo Energy

Why she’s hip: Most people in Buffalo haven’t been a subject of a New York Times feature, but Radle is an exception.

She’s one of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists—perhaps the most outspoken of the bunch—and her Buffalove Development project with Jason Wilson brightens the futures of abandoned houses.

To Radle, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: It is hard to compare NYC to Buffalo, but personally I would say Allentown is like Williamsburg with its hip bars, art scene and trendy people.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: The West Side, specifically Grant Street is sort of like Bushwick because it is up and coming, has lots of great local shops and it’s cheaper to live in, which attracts a diverse community.

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Hipster No. 6: Tom Jablonski

Position: Business manager at Lockhouse Distillery

Why he’s hip: If helping start Buffalo’s first distillery since Prohibition doesn’t set someone apart as trendy, then I’m not sure what will.

From Lockhouse’s perch in the Great Arrow Building to the business’ grape-instead-of-grain-based vodka, there’s an undeniable coolness that has customers coming in droves to purchase a $35 bottle of liquor.

To Jablonski, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: I’d say Elmwood is roughly equivalent to Williamsburg, but I sort of take issue with Allentown as Bushwick.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: I’ve always thought of Allentown as more Lower East Side [of Manhattan], and I’d probably compare the emerging West Side to Bushwick both for demographic reasons and due to spreading gentrification [on Allen and Elmwood].

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Hipster No. 7: Gabrielle Mattina

Position: Owner at The Gypsy Parlor

Why she’s hip: It takes considerable temerity for a young person to rehab and open a bar in the Upper West Side neighborhood just south of Buffalo State College, but the decision is also an indicator that Mattina (pictured left in photo) ardently believes that the area surrounding the Gypsy Parlor has immense potential.

She’s already dealt with and learned from her business’ adversity, and the Gypsy Parlor keeps chugging along on its mission.

To Mattina, Buffalo’s Williamsburg is: Allentown.

And Buffalo’s Bushwick is: Grant Street, the coolest place on earth.

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I know the above interviews only amount to a tiny sample size of Buffalonians with a deeper understanding of neighborhoods, but regardless, time seems to have passed the Gawker pollsters by.

Let’s call it this way: Buffalo’s Williamsburg is Allen Street and its Bushwick is the West Side.

(Image of the hipster lion is from Flickr / Dust Storm).

TAGGED: allentown, andre sadoff, bernice radle, caesandra seawell, christian willmott, elmwood, gabrielle mattina, gawker, interviews, neighborhoods, steve poland, thomas jablonski, west side

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