Signs are all around that the times are changing in the city’s Old First Ward.
A new park two years ago.
A new casino on its way.
A makeover of Ohio Street coming soon.
Another sign came this week when the regulars trickled in and out of the Malamute Tavern to say goodbye to Richard Pyszczek Sr. and his classic Buffalo bar at the corner of South Park and Michigan avenues.
“Thanks for coming, you guys made my day,” Pyszczek said to a couple heading out the door.
“We know it’s sad,” the woman said.
“It’s not easy for me,” Pyszczek said.
The Malamute – which Pyszczek has owned for nearly a half century and has been a city watering hole for even longer – is closing next month, after a local developer purchased the corner property on the edge of the Cobblestone District.
“Age,” Pyszczek said when asked why he was selling. “I’m going to be 79 in September.”
Plans for the site have not been made public.
But it’s clear the property is primed to play a role in the reawakening that’s rolling through this neighborhood nestled among the grain mills along the Buffalo River.
“It’s all part of that positive metamorphosis of the waterfront, and it’s finally reached this neighborhood,” said Common Council Member David A. Franczyk, whose district includes the Old First Ward.
“People see that as an up-and-coming area, because it’s so close to the inner harbor,” Franczyk said, “and it’s not something speculative – it’s something that’s reality.”
Across the street from the Malamute, there’s the new $130 million Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino under construction.
Around the corner is Ohio Street, which is preparing for a $12.8 million face-lift to connect travelers to the inner and outer harbors.
Along Ohio, there’s River Fest Park, which opened in 2011; a $2 million boathouse planned for the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association; and 78 apartments proposed for the old Erie Freight House by Savarino Cos.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has even discussed building a parking garage in the neighborhood and extending the Metro Rail to help shuttle commuters northward to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“There’s a lot of action, a lot of activity, and I think us having the confidence to build that park was a catalyst for the resurgence of that neighborhood,” said Margaret “Peg” Overdorf, executive director of the Valley Community Association and a driving force behind the creation of River Fest Park.
“It’s just becoming a more desirable community,” she said. “I’m seeing the property values skyrocket.”
And, in a way, the Malamute’s closing shows how the neighborhood is turning a page.
Pyszczek, a former General Mills and city worker, bought the Malamute in 1965 when it was located in a building that sat kitty corner to where the bar is now.
That building needed work, so Pyszczek sold it, bought “Eddie’s” bar on the opposite corner and reopened the Malamute 10 days before the Blizzard of ’77.
It has always been a blue-collar tavern, whose customers worked for the city or the nearby grain mills or the Great Lakes freighters that docked in Buffalo.
Over the years, Pyszczek cashed their checks and got them in and out for lunch and sponsored softball and bowling teams. He was known to throw a few bucks to those down on their luck, or help find a job for those without.
Pyszczek – whose wife, Rosemary, died in 2002 – has lived above the bar for more than 20 years.
“It’s been my whole life,” said Pyszczek, who has had more than a little seller’s remorse.
Pyszczek said the property has been on the market for two years, until he recently sold it to developer Roger Trettel, who was involved with last year’s purchase of the Grand Island Holiday Inn.
Trettel did not return a call from The Buffalo News seeking comment on plans for the property.
“I tried to back out of the deal,” Pyszczek admitted, “but they wouldn’t do it.”
So Thursday was customer appreciation day at the Malamute, where old friends from all parts of the county came to bid farewell.
The tavern’s large, trademark bell that hung over the bar already had been taken down.
Only marks on the floor remained from where the pool table stood.
“I call it a ‘hysterical landmark,’ ” said Tim Yuskiw, a Malamute regular. “We had so much fun here.”
Bar rules, for example, required you buy a round for the house if you rang the ship’s bell over the bar.
Pyszczek always found a way to dupe the newcomers into pulling the rope.
And if Pyszczek gave you a pat on the back, it was more than likely he discreetly placed something on your back.
A bar favorite is a brightly colored sticker that reads: “Pig Food: Not for Human Consumption.”
“Check your back before you leave,” Pyszczek told a reporter. “A lot of guys went home that way.”
While the progress in the neighborhood is welcoming, the closing of this little piece of Buffalo history is a little unsettling for Malamute regular Bill Steiner.
“The first time I walked in here I just met some great people, and he just made me feel like I was part of the family,” Steiner said, as he sat at the bar.
Steiner took another sip of his beer.
Little did he know he wore a brightly colored sticker on his back.