A funny thing happened on the way to Niagara Falls: We got distracted – for a week – by Buffalo.
Hoping to avoid a few of the 12 million annual visitors who flock to see that famous tumbling water, we chose the city 20 miles down the road, perched at the edge of Lake Erie, as home base for our trip to the Niagara region. To our delight, we found Buffalo to be rich in history, with world-class architecture and parks, a stunning waterfront, and a diverse and funky culture that flies higher than chicken wings.
Thanks to the Erie Canal, the superhighway of the 19th century, Buffalo was well-positioned at the confluence of the Great Lakes to move goods down to New York Harbor. It rode this wave to become a center of commerce and, by the 1920s, had more millionaires per capita than any other American city.
Its waterfront, boasting row upon row of concrete grain elevators and silos, was the transit point for shiploads of wheat and corn making their way across the Great Lakes from the Midwest breadbasket. At its peak, Buffalo was the largest grain port in the world; even baguettes in Paris were made with flour whose wheat passed though the city on the lake.
Buffalo was leading-edge in the early 20th century in that many prominent architects designed buildings that still line the downtown streets. Louis Sullivan, Eero Saarinen, H.H. Richardson, and others created an urban landscape that the New York Times called “a textbook for a course in modern American buildings.”
All those millionaires had to live somewhere. Buffalo’s residential neighborhoods boast several homes designed by a then-young upstart named Frank Lloyd Wright, while Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (best known as co-designers of New York’s Central Park) created the nation’s first coordinated system of parks and green corridors. That landscape legacy lives on in roundabouts and boulevards stretching for miles and providing several scenic walks in this surprisingly lush city.
Wright devotees also can see what is perhaps his most intriguing design: A faithful-to-the-plan construction of a gas station – one that was never built – graces the main display hall of the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum.
A gas station seems plebeian for an eminent architect, but at the time, motoring was still an event that merited high-end design. While being dazzled by rows of locally built antique Pierce-Arrow automobiles (in its day, the car of choice for kings and presidents), visitors get a notion of how Wright would have preferred to fill up his tank. His design included a second-floor observation deck, complete with fireplace, where motorists could lounge as they watched their cars being serviced.
Buffalo embraces its past as it adapts to changing times. The junction of Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the Erie Canal forms the center of waterfront activity for the city. Many mammoth grain silos of “Elevator Alley” left over from Buffalo’s shipping heyday loom beside yacht basins and a new park. Rather than allow these silos to become vacant eyesores, Buffalo has incorporated them into the fabric of the new recreational waterfront. Art exhibits, concert venues, even climbing walls now occupy converted silos, while kayaks and paddle boarders glide by on the adjacent river.
Creativity abounds on the Buffalo cultural scene. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has been the city’s premier art museum for 150 years. It specializes in modern and contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. Try to spot the match Pollock accidentally dropped amid the polychromatic paint swirls in his wall-size Convergence. Rotating exhibits highlight the next generation of creative talent.
In contrast to the scions of industry, Buffalo’s busy port and factories attracted immigrants seeking jobs. Polish, Italian, and Irish enclaves built up around the city. At one time, the First Ward neighborhood, in the shadow of the grain elevators, boasted more than a dozen Polish bakeries serving Old World-style doughnuts, babkas, and poppy logs.
Today, only Mazurek’s Bakery, founded in 1933, remains. The last of the Mazureks retired in 2012, but young new owners Ty Reynolds and Rick Smith carry on the Polish bakery tradition. A steady stream of customers, many of whom have moved to the suburbs, return for the treats of their youth, including Mazurek’s signature seeded New York rye bread, its crust baked to a perfect chewy crisp in the original brick oven.
Although the neighborhood has seen better days, it is within walking distance of the waterfront, and speculators have started to gobble up nearby properties.
Yes, that’s Larissa serving up the jelly donuts at Mazurek’s. To learn why she was behind the counter read about our day at the bakery.
Just north of downtown, the funky Five Points and Elmwood Village neighborhoods bridge past and present with boutiques, pubs, and Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe concert venue. Eateries such as Five Points Bakery & Toast Café put a modern spin on the bakery tradition; the locally sourced, organic bakery offers up toast concoctions worthy of a restaurant review. Our favorite was their take on Buffalo chicken wings: chunky cheddar bread served with bleu cheese, hot sauce, sour cream, and pickles.
The grain heritage of Buffalo is omnipresent in another sense. Downtown bears the unmistakable aroma of toasted cereal, thanks to the massive General Mills facility on the Buffalo River. It still produces all the Cheerios consumed east of the Mississippi. Buffalonians proudly wear T-shirts proclaiming, “My city smells like Cheerios.”
After a breakfast of said cereal, funky toast, or perhaps a Mazurek’s jelly doughnut, begin exploring Buffalo with a free tour of the Buffalo City Hall, considered one of the finest Art Deco buildings in the country. From the 28th-floor observation deck, you’ll get your first glimpse of the many sights that will keep you entertained for several days.
Way in the distance, you can even see the mist of Niagara Falls. I guess we should check it out.
This article originally appeared in our column in The Philadelphia Inquirer travel section.