In the late 1930s and early ’40s, when a vibrant neighborhood was rising up along Amherst Street in Black Rock and pollution was not yet a thing, Richard Kubiniec would often wheel a wagon loaded with his family’s trash to the edge of Scajaquada Creek and dump its contents.
Other families also had used the creek as a dumping ground for decades, as did a paint company and foundry along the Scajaquada’s toxic shores. By the 1920s, all signs of life in the creek had disappeared and a 3.5-mile section of it was diverted like a dirty secret in underground culverts stretching from Forest Lawn to Cheektowaga.
With little love for the much-abused waterway, large sections of the creek’s exposed sections in Buffalo were filled in during the 1950s to make way for the 198 Expressway that now brings traffic screaming through a once-bucolic section of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Delaware Park.
All of these decisions, from the kid dumping garbage to the reckless botching of an important park, were mistakes.
But mistakes can be corrected, and that is exactly what a group of proud residents of the Grant-Amherst Street neighborhood have been attempting to do for the past quarter-century.
One small part of that work is on view in a gallery on the second floor of the Buffalo History Museum, where an exhibition about the history of the creek is on view through March 23. Community members gathered in the History Museum on Jan. 8 to celebrate the show, curated by Amherst Street champion Doreen DeBoth as part of the ambitious Black Rock Historic Photo Project, which has amassed some 1,800 photos of the neighborhood’s rise and decline since it was launched.
In attendance were Richard Kubiniec, 79, and his son Mark, president of the Grant-Amherst Business Association and owner of Joe’s Service Center on the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Amherst Street. Over the years, the younger Kubiniec recalled, he and his fellow residents dredged up old motorcycles, mattresses, cars, bicycles and decades worth of other detritus deposited by generations of Buffalonians.
After years of cleanup efforts led by the neighborhood and sometimes in conjunction with organizations like Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, wildlife has returned to sections of the creek, as have canoers and kayakers. Now, with grass-roots efforts like the photography show, residents are advocating for changes such as a link between the SUNY Buffalo State campus and Black Rock as well as the slowing of traffic along the Scajaquada Expressway.
“We need public investment into the infrastructure and into the waterways in our community,” Kubiniec said. “What they’re spending on Ohio Street, what they’re spending on the Inner Harbor, should be spent here as well.”
During the opening, the History Museum galleries were abuzz with conversations about the upward trajectory of the neighborhood, which is finally seeing the fruits of a revival effort that began more than 20 years ago.
Rob Niemiec, a lifelong Black Rock resident who owns a building supply company and formerly served as president of the association Kubiniec now heads, recalled the beginning of the current movement to repair damage to the creek and the surrounding neighborhood.
“It got down where this neighborhood was so deplorable that I said: You know what? I’m ashamed,” Niemiec said. “What we’ve done in 20 years in this neighborhood is nothing short of amazing. It’s a huge class effort is what it takes, and a bunch of hardworking people, because you can’t give up.
“Nowadays everybody’s ‘Nah, nah, nah, I don’t want to do it.’ Well, you know what? You just gotta do it.”
Dana Saylor, a Buffalo preservationist and historian who said the exhibition gave her a genuine sense of the creek’s historic breadth, echoed Niemiec’s charmingly Buffalonian twist on the famous Nike slogan.
“I think that’s what a lot of people have been decrying lately, this idea of Buffalonians saying, ‘It’s good enough,’ ” Saylor said. “I like that a lot of people that are involved in this are saying, yeah, it was great, and it can be great again. Here’s how.”
With gestures as large as pulling rusty cars out of Scajaquada’s sludge and as small as this photo exhibition, the champions of the Grant-Amherst neighborhood have been showing us how for 20 years. Now it’s time to take their advice.