On Tuesday afternoon in a light-filled room on the second floor of the old Slotkin department store downtown, City Honors School student Lillian Kahris stepped onto a soap box, cleared her throat and delivered the inaugural poem in the newly opened Just Buffalo Writing Center.
Kahris, the editor of the City Honors newspaper and a correspondent for The Buffalo News’ NeXt section, was one of a half-dozen Buffalo students on hand to celebrate the long-anticipated opening of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s latest accomplishment. The space, where established writers will lead workshops and where students who need writing help can come after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, will serve as an essential bridge between the city’s vibrant arts community and its struggling education system.
“It’ll just create a whole new community, a new network for young people looking for like-minded people to share and connect with,” Kahris said on Tuesday amid the excited chatter of other students and teachers celebrating the opening. “It’ll really open up some doors for kids, especially kids who may not have opportunities in school or may not have opportunities at home to share and express themselves. I think it’s wonderful.”
A series of writing workshops are scheduled for the summer on topics ranging from playwriting to Vine videos and poem films, with more information at justbuffalo.org. The center will be open for students to drop in for help with assignments on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 3:30 to 6 p.m.
Buffalo, a city with a proud if underrecognized literary tradition and a hyperactive active writing community, is teeming with gifted poets and writers. You can’t round a corner in this town without bumping into some strand of scribbler, many of whom would jump at the opportunity to foster a new generation of creative writers.
Because of shifting priorities in education, however, opportunities for Buffalo’s young students to take advantage of the city’s extraordinarily diverse writing community have been on the decline for many years. Between 2009 and this year, Just Buffalo Literary Center’s in-school programs went from serving 4,000 students per year to less than 1,000.
So the Writing Center, which in some ways mirrors the 826 Writing Center model that has sprung up in cities across the United States, is poised to fill a widening gap between students’ needs and the school system’s ability to meet them.
“My vision of it is something where young people who think of themselves as writers, who think of themselves as well-read, can have a place to go and be around other people who have those same feelings,” said Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Education Director Noah Falck. “It’s like a place that you can go and be excited about a Shakespeare sonnet, it’s a place to be excited about reading or writing a short story or writing a one-act play. This is a place where you can have those conversations and be excited about it. And it’s cool to be excited about it.”
For Just Buffalo’s Artistic Director Barbara Cole, the space will serve as an important nexus between the community’s untapped talent and students’ unmet needs. It’s also a proud moment in the history of Just Buffalo, a vital community institution that has been teaching local students and nurturing Buffalo’s literary scene for almost 40 years.
“One of the beauties of Buffalo is how many writers we have, how many retired teachers we have who are still interested in working with kids. So we’re hoping that this is not only a resource for all those students, but it’s also an opportunity for local writers and people who are interested in giving back to the community,” Cole said. She added that the center will not only serve students already inclined toward writing, but those who are struggling with essays and others who haven’t yet tapped their potential or talent as writers.
The pristine center at the corner of Washington and Mohawk, with big glass windows looking out on the Electric Tower and the tail-end of a colorful mural on the side of 515 Main St. spelling out the word “love” in rainbow-colored cursive, seems designed to inspire poets and writers. During the opening, visitors typed their own fragments of poetry on two old-fashioned typewriters positioned on white podiums in front of the windows, which Falck read at the end of the event.
Asked whether they thought the center would become popular with Buffalo students, Cole, Falck and Just Buffalo Executive Director Laurie Dean Torrell all answered without hesitation.
“I feel like there’s nothing like this here,” Falck said. “We are confident that it will take off. It’s just a matter of time.”
During Tuesday’s event, the potential for the center to excite students about their untapped literary potential was already evident. After a stirring poem delivered on a soap box by veteran Buffalo poet Janna Willoughby-Lohr, a young girl who had come with a group of friends from Riverside High School to celebrate the center’s opening, was wide-eyed with awe at the performance.
“I wish one day I could read that good,” she said. “I’ve got to start practicing.”