Tonawanda News

April 18, 2014

ADAMCZYK: Kenmore is a village made of bricks

By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Your heritage, essentially, is what you drag behind. It’s your birthright, backstory, history, whatever, and bricks are likely as part of it if it includes life here in the rust belt (I’m beginning to feel pride in that term).

Yeah, we’re made of bricks.

Pittsburgh is a dynamic and forward-facing city that no longer manufactures a bit of steel, but surrounding the city on hills rising high above it are rusting railroad tracks, machinery unused for decades and sitting like sculpture, mountains of piles of whatever steel is, or was, made of.

Detroit these days has a Mad Max vibe to it and abandoned office buildings with holes in their roofs and lustrous green carpeting — no, wait, that’s moss growing on the rugs.

Buffalo and surrounding environs have brick buildings galore, often in the process of repurpose. Whole neighborhoods made of brick await development, redevelopment, gentrification, whatever wand will be waved at them to make them function again. Structures here tend not to be razed; they fall down occasionally but typically simply stand and wait. They’re hard to knock down, anyway, and this is the sort of thing that dazzles the out-of-town architectural tourist and occasional investor.

I have been a regular visitor to Britain, a place where Industrial Revolution towns still exist, and hell yeah they’re all made of brick. Brick buildings, brick walls, brick streets. Kids growing up in these places must have thought the whole world looks like this, and whoever owned the kilns back then must have made a fortune. Then I’d come home, and while it’s less obvious (largely because we paint our brick and tend to cover our homes with clapboard or siding), my world here is made of brick as well.

I receive a growing number of questions and comments about the old Wickwire-Spencer Steel Company plant on River Road, vacant since 1963. Some of the buildings have been reclaimed and are now small factories, a row of industrial businesses. Much of it remained one of those derelict factories suitable only for the setting of an MTV video of a generation ago.

Yes, Ken-Ton has its own ruins, younger than those in the Holy Land but equally immovable, unless the real estate value of brownfields suddenly skyrockets. Not in my lifetime.

Restoration is a hot field, these days. The architect and the urban planner often rely on the historian to ascertain what existing buildings looked like; they then work to recreate the effect intended years ago. Kenmore’s Delaware Avenue has seen admirable attempts in this regard. Drive, or walk, past these retail and mixed-use buildings and note they look more-or-less the same as they did in the 1910s and 1920s when they were built, when butcher shops and radio stores occupied the spaces now taken over by hair care salons and gyms.

A row of newer buildings typically implies that, somewhere on the time line between then and now, a massive fire cleaned out the entire block.

Out here we do not bulldoze unless we have to. That Walgreens at Delaware and Kenmore Avenues replaced a shops-and-apartment hovel that deserved it. That vacant greensward adjacent to the Eberhardt Mansion was once the site of another, nearly identical Eberhardt Mansion. It fell in 1978, too costly to modernize and repair.

We have enough on our minds, these days, to wallow in history, and Kenmore, despite its image as a psychic repository of all the attitudes of Americana, is not the Colonial Williamsburg of Erie County (that may be Orchard Park). Kenmore remains a living, breathing organism, as any municipality should be.

And yet, kids on their way to school trod the same sidewalks as their counterparts did 100 years ago, past homes and buildings erected nearly 100 years ago.

Eventually everyone and everything goes to dust, so to speak, except maybe for things made of brick, and becomes the fabric of someone else’s history. If it’s made of brick it seems to go on forever.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears Fridays in the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.