Schuyler Banks contacted a bunch of his friends, as well as several developers, about a decade ago with an idea. Over the years, Banks had noticed new, market-rate housing being built in other parts of the city – Walden Heights and LaSalle Avenue, for example. Banks lived in the Fruit Belt, and he thought the same could be done for his neighborhood.
Move to the Fruit Belt and build a new house, he told his friends.
Build new homes in the Fruit Belt, he told builders.
His friends weren’t interested.
Neither were the builders.
In fact, the only one Banks convinced was his wife, Linda, a financial consultant, and even that took some coaxing.
“It was months of talking and convincing, telling her I was thinking long-term,” Schuyler Banks said.
Finally, he convinced her. The couple then began visiting some open houses in Amherst to find the house of their dreams.
The Bankses then contacted the developer and convinced him in 2004 to build a model home marketed for Amherst on a triple lot on Lemon Street in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt.
Soon the $177,000 house on Lemon became more than just brick and mortar.
The 2,130-square-foot home and the achievements of the family living in it fulfilled a promise that Banks said he made to himself to become a neighborhood role model.
With four bedrooms, a sort-of-finished basement and a fenced-in backyard on a triple lot, the Banks home became the place where neighborhood children, including the couple’s own three daughters and son, could hang out. They played, ate, had fun and also learned about a family that, as Banks put it, “did it the right way”:
Graduate from college. Get a job. Get married. Have kids.
In that order.
“I wanted to stay in the Fruit Belt because I knew there weren’t a lot of role models for these kids. I wanted them to see people who did it the right way, and didn’t leave and move to the suburbs,” said Banks, a former Niagara Grid supervisor who is currently running a consulting firm and teaching business courses at Bryant & Stratton College.
Today, even with the Banks children just about all grown – the youngest is in college – the home remains a playhouse for nieces, nephews, grandchildren and neighborhood kids.
It also remains the most expensive house on Lemon Street and among the most expensive in the entire Fruit Belt.
But all is not what it appears to be. On one block of Lemon Street, for example, where the Banks family lives, there are six people with master’s degrees. There is the house where local basketball legend Leonard Stokes grew up. And the home now owned by a Buffalo police officer.
Around the corner, on Locust Street, Cleolius Calloway’s house cost more than $150,000 to build in 1994.
“People told me I was crazy,” she said.
But Calloway, like Banks, views the Fruit Belt as her home and believes in the neighborhood.
As he stands in front of his home, Banks looks out at low-income rental units being built by his church, St. John Baptist, on the empty lots across the street. The rentals are preferable to the vacant lots that had been there for years, Banks said. But the rentals are not what he had hoped for.
“My vision was to get more professionals to build here,” he said.
“But I guess not growing up in the neighborhood, I wouldn’t have invested, either. I knew the neighborhood. I love the location.”
That, of course, may change with growth at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Banks notes that some Medical Campus employees park cars on Lemon and other Fruit Belt streets, then walk to their Medical Campus jobs.
But sometimes, Banks said, these employees seem to go out of their way to ignore Fruit Belt residents, not even saying hello when greeted by residents.
Still, just as Banks hasn’t given up on his Fruit Belt dream, he doesn’t give up on the Medical Campus workers.
He said, “I keep saying hello until they say hello back.”