It's fair to say that the East Side has a perception problem.
A drive along its decaying thoroughfares and side streets dotted with vacant lots can leave some cynical visitors with the distinct impression that this vast, half-empty tract of land is beyond saving.
But others, including an increasing number of artists, farmers and creative thinkers, have come away from their own exploratory trips through the same pockmarked territory with a sense of possibility and opportunity.
One of the latest members of this growing society of East Side champions is David Lagé, a Brooklyn-based architect who for the last year has been at work on an ambitious project to retool Western New Yorkers' perceptions of the sprawling neighborhood.
The project, dubbed Art Farms, was inspired by Lagé's exploratory journeys through the East Side, where he met urban farmers who are slowly working to make something out of the daunting emptiness of this long-troubled section of the city. They inspired Lagé to dream up a project that will eventually involve several outdoor sculptures integrated into existing East Side urban farms and nearby empty lots. The idea fits snugly into the rising philosophy of slow, piecemeal development that is beginning to take hold in places where it would have been laughed at even a few years ago.
Art Farms, through the work of Lagé and his colleague Andrea Salvini, has already enlisted several artists to create designs for sculptures in at least three sites – Michigan Avenue at Riley Street, Wilson Street at Broadway and Paderewski Drive at Coit Street. The artists include Ethan Breckenridge, Kyle Butler, Michael Beitz, Millie Chen, Joan Linder and Megan Michalak.
The project, complete with a slick website and video at artfarms.org, will begin fundraising in September, with its initial phase targeted for completion sometime in 2013.
Sitting in SPoT Coffee on Delaware Avenue during a brief visit to town recently, Lagé explained his simple philosophy about the project: Art draws people; people create a scene, and a scene creates the conditions for revitalization and investment. After that, voila: the East Side's reputation begins ever-so-gradually to shift.
"As more people come to the area because they hear about this, I think it starts the process of changing the perception," Lagé said. "It creates a kind of a background where it's suddenly possible for other people to do their own redevelopment. So you've got foot traffic going to these locations, so if somebody wanted to do a café locally then now they have a backdrop, a support for themselves. Art Farms is an idea really just to help other people get their stuff off the ground."
For Lagé, who is migrating away from the building projects he works on in his architecture practice and toward community-based efforts like Art Farms, the economic and cultural reality of Buffalo calls for a new approach to development.
"In a place like Buffalo, where it's not the New York City market, projects aren't driven in the same way that they would be in a normal market situation," he said. "Up here, you have to think using a different approach."
That approach, beginning with a few sculptures and watching it grow from there, strikes Lagé – and an increasing number of like-minded Buffalonians – as the right way to go.
"It's not hard to prove that art plays a role in any kind of redevelopment," he said. "It's not a large solution quickly. I think it's something that is more organic. It's layered. It slowly evolves ... And I think the result is a place that's more authentic."