The scene is so Buffalo it almost seems staged:
On a gritty section of Seneca Street just east of Larkinville, amid boarded-up houses and tattered brick buildings that line the street like broken teeth, sits a humble shrine to the Virgin Mary. Inside the brick structure are dozens of notes and letters, mailed to its address at 847 Seneca St. or pushed through the tarnished brass slot by pilgrims begging her to intercede in their troubles.
Across the street, two bright yellow backhoes rumble slowly across towering mounds of dirt and concrete rubble – the remnants of an industrial dry-cleaning facility demolished last year. According to a report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the building had been leaching toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil and groundwater for years. It is now being cleaned up as part of New York’s brownfield remediation program.
It’s the sort of scene – suspended perfectly between despair and hope, decline and repair – that seems to demand a playwright. And fortunately for Buffalonians interested in the way their neighborhoods are changing, one has arrived right on schedule.
Tom Dudzick, author of the “Over the Tavern” trilogy that delighted local theatergoers through the ’90s and into the 2000s, wrote a play based on the shrine that’s now playing in the Kavinoky Theatre. “Miracle on South Division Street” is set in 2010, before Howard Zemsky’s Larkinville began to infuse the neighborhood with some small measure of hope. But like so much work that has emerged lately on Buffalo’s art and theater scenes, it is inextricably tied up with the city’s determination to will itself out of its misfortunes.
The family at the heart of Dudzick’s play has remained in the old neighborhood even as its economic fortunes have declined – a struggle familiar to thousands of Buffalonians. When one character has the temerity to suggest a move, cracks in the family’s identity begin to widen.
In “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ jarring drama now playing in the 710 Main Theatre, formerly Studio Arena, the connections to Buffalo’s streetscape are much more explicit. The play, set in 1959 and 2009 in the living room of a Chicago house that might as well be on Buffalo’s East Side, spends its first act reminding us of the racial animus partially responsible for the decline of inner-city neighborhoods and the second act excoriating us for our inability to get beyond it. It offers no simple answers and invites no simple conclusions, but rings uncomfortably true.
The play also points to a future issue that is sure to emerge when the city gets its economic house back in order. As wealthy residents branch out from the neighborhoods they’ve traditionally occupied, they may potentially displace poor residents and upset the delicate ecology of neighborhoods, like some pockets of Buffalo’s West Side, that are in the midst of a precarious recovery. We haven’t arrived at that bridge yet, but “Clybourne Park,” in its visceral way, is preparing us to cross it.
Another artist directing his efforts and our attention to the city’s shifting streetscape is Dennis Maher, the gifted local architect, artist and thinker who is rearranging bits and pieces of Buffalo’s past into strange new visions of its future. Maher has converted his house on Fargo Avenue into a stunning sculpture, filled with beautiful detritus from demolition sites and thrift stores and excavated to reveal layers of wallpaper and floor coverings stretching back a century.
In Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, a show featuring Maher’s work is on view through Dec. 20. It includes many of his strange and often hauntingly beautiful sculptures, each one cobbled together out of material salvaged from area houses that were demolished or otherwise emptied of their possessions.
Like Maher’s remarkable house, the sculptures prompt us to think about how we might repurpose our empty structures, or the objects inside them, in ways that open up new and unexpected possibilities for the city’s future.
Take Jason Middlebrook’s fine new sculpture on the grounds of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The piece, called “Underlife,” shows the root structure and trunk of a tree cast in steel. The roots are totally exposed while the trunk towers overhead, prompting us to think more deeply about the invisible systems that lie beneath city streets and what it actually meant to uproot, for instance, the grand elms that once lined Humboldt Parkway.
One of the most important jobs of any artist – playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects – is to force us to consider an issue or landscape we thought we understood from a different perspective. Whether it’s a network of tree roots pulled out of its usual context, a jarring exploration of urban decline and renewal or a touching story about a family hanging on to their changing neighborhood, the function of these projects is to deepen our understanding of our city and ourselves.
Buffalo is changing quickly, as the construction cranes across the city are so visibly demonstrating, and that change demands artists to help us appreciate where we are and to imagine where we could go. We’re extremely fortunate that our rebounding city has more than its share of gifted artists – and so much imagination – to spare.