We continue the series on walking Buffalo, from the intrepid couple who walked every day—no matter the weather—in the first 30 months of Covid. They think (without being systematic) they walked every street in Buffalo, and many in other cities and towns, taking some 20,000 photos, some of which are shared in this series. While not itineraries, we hope to encourage others to “walk the walk,” to see, observe and appreciate Buffalo—and beyond. William Graebner and Dianne Bennett are also 5 Cent Cine’s film critics, here.
Today’s Photo-Essay: Block Clubs
Buffalo is a city of block clubs. According to Amanda Seligman, author of Chicago’s Block Clubs (2016), Buffalo has one of the highest concentrations of block clubs in the country. In 2013, the city had 559 “registered and certified” block clubs, of which about 25% were active. Of those (based on our walks), a high percentage are on the East Side.
Buffalo’s status as a block club leader is not surprising. Block Clubs are problem-solving organizations, and the city (its East Side in particular) has more than its share of problems—and at the same time, a strong sense of community. Fortunately, there is solid scholarly evidence that blocks clubs are effective. They foster increased community involvement and collective action, and by doing so they benefit and improve the neighborhoods in which they operate. “There’s a lot of power in collective action,” said Melanie Shorey, founder of the Whitney Place Block Club on the lower West Side. “I know that it takes a block club to reach out to City Hall. As an individual, I can’t do it alone” (quoted in the Buffalo News, 9/13/2013)
As walkers, what we know about Buffalo’s block clubs comes from the signs the clubs post to identify themselves and to encourage residents to participate.
It’s likely that blocks clubs first became a phenomenon in the 1970s, when white flight to the suburbs, de-industrialization, and globalization combined to damage inner-city neighborhoods. Some of the block club signs seem to be old enough to suggest that the club was created many years ago. Occasionally a sign will include the date when the club was founded.
The typical block club sign—here, Longview Avenue, running south off East Delavan—suggests an effort to strengthen community ties:
Signs present the “problems” that the club anticipates addressing: drugs, crime, trash, and a weakened community.
In some areas, where many homes and businesses have been demolished and vacant lots predominate, creating a functioning block club must have been difficult—too few people, living too far apart.
Some block club signs take the approach that the community is fine—safe and drug free—and that it’s the function of the block club to keep it that way:
The Five Point Block (above) is one of several built around multiple streets, rather than just one block. Another, the Ridgewood Road/Olmsted Islands block club, which covers Ridgewood, Culver and Harding Roads, is in a stable, reasonably prosperous, South Buffalo neighborhood; its sign doesn’t mention issues with drugs or public safety.
The folks who designed the Wade Avenue (south of East Amherst, in the Leroy district) block club sign took a philosophical approach: “Choice not Chance Determines Destiny.” (Most social scientists would say that’s not true. To explore the idea, we recommend Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives ).
We were surprised at how many block clubs had religious—and often Christian—content. We assume the symbolism of these clubs was created before Muslims became a significant presence on the East Side.
A few club signs feature silhouetted figures. The celebrated Black artist Kara Walker employs silhouettes in her depictions of slavery because they function as stereotypes which, as she puts it, “say a lot with very little information.” The silhouettes we’ve found on block club signs are idealizations of families. In this case, they valorize the multi-generational family, and one in which women handle the child care:
The silhouettes on the sign for the Goulding Avenue Block Club (one of the streets cut off by the construction of the Kensington Expressway) idealize the gendered, two-parent household: a father with his son, a mother with her daughter:
Two clubs employ a shell motif at the top of their signs.
As we learned during our frequent visits to Rome, Italy, the shell was a symbol of fertility during the Renaissance (as in Botticelli’s “Venus”). In modern times, the shell represents contentment, sometimes (as a shield) protection, and the idea of a comfortable home. The first photo below is of a Rome apartment house constructed at the turn of the last century.
That’s the positive message the folks on Butler Avenue want to communicate when they use the motif of the shell on their block club sign. A symbol of a comfortable neighborhood, coming together.
On your next walk, keep an eye out for Block Clubs.
© William Graebner
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