Through the windshield of a car going 30 mph, Amherst Street in Buffalo doesn't look like much.
This well-worn thoroughfare -- lined with weathered storefronts and simple houses built during the neighborhood's industrial heyday -- serves for many Buffalonians as an unremarkable driveway linking the Scajaquada Expressway to a Wegmans supermarket.
But for a pedestrian ambling along the half-mile mile stretch between Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street, the seemingly sleepy neighborhood will begin to offer up its secrets.
And for those who peek their heads into the street's growing collection of businesses and bars, its art galleries and restaurants, an entirely different picture emerges:
Black Rock, the historic Buffalo neighborhood whose sense of community has remained strong even as its storefronts emptied and its property values stagnated, is showing new signs of life.
According to neighborhood business owners and habitues of the street's growing cultural scene, Black Rock is the next logical frontier among the city's walkable neighborhoods -- and ground zero for a burgeoning experiment in mixed-use urban development.
Signs of Black Rock's resurgence are apparent everywhere.
*Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the Black Rock Kitchen and Bar, a new restaurant being launched by local historian, entrepreneur and Buffalo booster Mark Goldman and his son, Charlie Goldman. They plan to open the restaurant for business by the end of June.
*East of Grant Street, the popular Sportsmen's Tavern, a bar and music venue, is completing a major renovation, adding a second floor of seating to the space and greatly expanding its capacity for concerts.
*Art exhibitions are in heavy rotation on a one-block stretch of Amherst Street that includes three galleries: 464, run by photographer and curator Marcus Wise in a former appliance store soon to be expanded to include studios; Artsphere, a gallery and studio launched in 2003 by Black Rock art scene pioneer Doreen DeBoth; and Tempest Air, an airbrush studio launched last October by artist Jenn Mayberry.
*Artists, musicians and neighborhood folks gather nightly in Rohall's Corner, a cozy, Eastern European-themed bar that opened its doors earlier this year on the corner of Amherst and Reservation streets, and Casey's, a long-established watering hole and restaurant that wears its no-nonsense Buffalo-bred attitude with pride.
*On the corner of Amherst and Grant streets, the sprawling decommissioned local fire hall is being renovated by local contractor Greg Nikiel, who bought it this year for $100,000. He plans to turn it into a loft residence, using its garage for community gatherings and art exhibitions.
*Delish, a high-end bakery, pastry shop and cooking school, recently announced that it will move from its current Elmwood Village location to a Black Rock storefront, where the bakery will quadruple its retail space.
>A closer look
If Buffalo is the City of No Illusions, Black Rock has pulled off a pretty good one: What to the motorist looks empty and uninspiring, is, up close, a surprising collection of cultural, culinary and business offerings.
Compared with other Buffalo neighborhoods left behind by time and progress, Black Rock is not plagued by long stretches of vacant lots or boarded-up properties -- factors that have impeded development in other neighborhoods, such as the one surrounding the Artspace lofts on Main Street. It boasts a healthy variety of businesses and plenty of intact storefronts.
"So much of Buffalo is like a smile with all the teeth missing, but Black Rock still has most of its teeth," said Goldman, who led the revitalization of Chippewa Street in the '90s and has been a leading force in the gradual stabilization of Allentown, where he owns the popular Allen Street Hardware Cafe. In the past year, he also has become a figure of increasing influence in the post-Bass Pro waterfront development process.
Goldman, who has written three histories of Buffalo, including the 2007 book "City on the Edge," has a close association with Black Rock. He completed his doctoral dissertation on the neighborhood and has a special understanding of its historical importance and its potential to be a thriving, walkable urban neighborhood. He attempted to foster something similar on Chippewa Street with the Calumet Arts Cafe before his dream of a "mini, urban Artpark" gave way to the street's current bar-based monoculture.
In Black Rock, Goldman is not the trailblazer he was when he opened the Calumet in 1990. As usual in developing urban neighborhoods, the arts came first.
The groundwork for the current Black Rock resurgence in the neighborhood was laid back in 2003, when Doreen DeBoth opened her Artsphere studio and gallery space, now at 447 Amherst St.
Three years later, during the ninth annual Rediscover Amherst Street Festival, high school French teacher Susan Cholewa got to talking with DeBoth about a building across the street from her gallery. Charmed by the former appliance store's ornate tin ceilings -- a feature of many buildings along the street -- Cholewa bought the property in 2007.
After renting space to a lighting store for several months, Cholewa recruited local photographer and gallerist Marcus Wise, who launched 464 Gallery and the adjacent gallery Blink (since repurposed into an educational space). Crowds of young, non-establishment artists and art fans have been flocking to the street ever since.
Heartened by the success and popularity of 464, Cholewa purchased a former hardware store on Amherst between Bush and Howell streets, with an eye toward marketing the building to a coffee shop franchise or restaurant. After striking out with Coffee Culture, which according to Cholewa deemed the Black Rock neighborhood to be outside its demographic, Cholewa asked Goldman to take a look. That turned out to be the right move.
Goldman was immediately smitten. The intimate space, complete with tin ceiling, appealed to him for a number of reasons: it was formerly a hardware store, as was his recently expanded restaurant in Allentown; it would bring him back to his roots as a historian of Black Rock; and it could feed off the street's growing artistic community and allure, the prime concern of Goldman in every development effort with which he has been involved.
Goldman's presence in the neighborhood, more a catalyst for the neighborhood's potential resurgence than its cause, is being taken by all to be a harbinger of things to come. It factored heavily into Deborah Clark's decision to move her popular Elmwood Village bakery, Delish, to new and larger quarters on Amherst Street.
"Mark Goldman is somebody that I've respected for so long. If he's involved in an area, you know that research has been done. You know it's not a fluke," Clark said. "It's sort of a way for Delish to reinvent itself."
>New faces, old classics
Elsewhere on Amherst Street, new businesses are cropping up, each one feeding into the new vibe in the neighborhood. Rohall's Corner, a bar featuring Eastern European-themed beers and wines owned by longtime Buffalo bartender Greg Rohall, opened for business on New Year's Eve of last year. On a recent Tuesday night, it was jammed with customers knocking back Zywiec beers and listening to musician Dave Adams bang out tunes on an old upright piano, with a smiling Rohall slinging drinks behind the bar.
Down at the corner of Grant and Amherst, Experiencia Latina, a Puerto Rican restaurant that opened recently, has been attracting attention in the local blogosphere.
And then, of course, there are the businesses that have stuck it out in Black Rock for years and have played their own important roles in the neighborhood's hoped-for renaissance. They include Casey's Tavern, a neighborhood bar and grill; Spar's European Sausage Shop, a Black Rock staple since 1989; Graser's Florist at 399 Amherst St.; the Sportsmen's Tavern, a hopping live music venue and long a draw to the neighborhood for outsiders; and plenty of others.
For Dwane Hall, who owns the Sportsmen's and belongs to the very tight Grant-Amherst Business Association (of which Cholewa serves as vice president), the Black Rock resurgence will provide a draw for those of a slightly different demographic than those who frequent Chippewa Street, Hertel Avenue, Allentown or the Elmwood Village.
"We can feel it in our bones that our neighborhood is really starting to make an impact in becoming a cool place to listen to music and check out the arts," Hall said. He and fellow business owners Rohall and Goldman will be holding a collaborative grand opening of their new spaces, tentatively scheduled for June 15 (but possibly as late as July 15, depending on final construction issues). They have even come up with a sexy new name for the half-mile strip of Amherst Street that they're hoping will roll off the tongues of people across Western New York: "The Rock."
For Goldman, Cholewa and others with an interest in urban development, what separates Black Rock from other neighborhoods that have struggled with good-faith efforts to create Elmwoodesque concentrations of vibrancy in neglected pockets of the city -- what makes "The Rock" less pie-in-the-sky and more down-to-earth -- is its genuine embodiment of the term "mixed-use."
The notion of mixed-use development, anchored by the arts, has built massive economies across the border in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and in places like Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio. It is something that Goldman says local officials have been slow to recognize, but which entrepreneurs innately understand.
Black Rock, if all goes as Goldman would like, could be the realization of his long-deferred Chippewa dream and a way forward for one small neighborhood and -- he hopes -- the region at large.
"You have an arts community here that, if you give them the slightest pat on the head, they would just turn the whole place around," Goldman said. "They just need affirmation: 'You guys are doing a great thing and we want you to point the direction for us.'
"That's really our future economy -- it's the arts. It has to be: the arts and heritage. There's nothing else except pizza parlors and nail salons."