Buffalo’s First Ward, south of downtown, is the sort of place, in memory and actuality, which could have been imagined if it did not exist. This is the land of the close-knit and hard-working Irish, the Catholic Church, the taverns, the unions, the deep roots, the signature us-against-them mentality. Since “Against the Grain,” a new history of the First Ward by Timothy Bohen, is the only book on the topic, call it the definitive book.
It has a few problems, mostly in writing and editing. Things could be tightened to make it easier to read, and although the book is riddled with footnotes, the reader has to visit a website to learn the source material for quotes and authoritative facts. (One hopes that’s not a trend in non-fiction books) As a work composed part-time by an amateur researcher and historian, it is a breathtakingly comprehensive look at someplace fascinating and crucial in the development of American life.
Bohen’s family lived in the First Ward for generations; hence, the interest. What the immigrants, overwhelmingly Irish, made of their fortunes there is the topic of the book, and it mostly involves hard work. This was Buffalo’s Great Lakes port, beginning in the 1840s (actually, the terminus of the Erie Canal as well, circa 1825), and the book is largely about shoveling grain out of boats, which led to paychecks, the growth of neighborhoods, the influence of unions and churches, schools Catholic and public, other ethnic groups, the whole stew of up-by-the-bootstraps advancement.
It helped that the city’s Irish-Americans developed a hand in local government, their ranks well-represented in the fire department, police and politics. That is not unusual for a boomtown American city (which describes Buffalo for the majority of the book), but it demonstrates how sheer numbers, leavened with respect for order and education provided by the Catholic Church, brought on improvement in the lives of the First Ward’s residents.
The area was something of a shantytown for a while; the book’s dramatic photographs illustrate it well. Famines in Ireland brought in wave after wave of immigrants in the middle 19th century, all of a type: strong backs, allegiance to church and family, an eagerness to consort with their own kind, and in Buffalo they found a home. (Some of them organized a military invasion of Canada in 1866 to influence Britain to separate itself from Ireland, and although the Fenian Raid did not work out according to plan, many of the troops from out of town stayed in Buffalo)
The book serves as a scholarly history. The casual reader should not be frightened, but, boy, is this well-researched. Self-published books by admitted amateurs tend not to be this deep in their methodology and their presentation of facts and quotes. Similarly, the conclusions drawn, the sweeping ones to indicate observations and trends, are well-developed. How the Irish pulled it off, better than perhaps the Poles or the Italians in Buffalo; the overarching role of the Catholic Church; the celebrities the First Ward developed, from mayors to boxing champions, are explained expertly.
Of course, the author has some skin in this game; we are learning about his people. That, however, is often the undoing of a book such as this, filling the story with explanation, apology and rationalization. Not here.
The many photographs are compelling. The characters tend to be intriguing and fascinating. A few objections can be made about writing style; nonetheless it is a sensational book, one that covers vaguely familiar ground with sensitivity and detail by the shovelful. One need not be Irish, Catholic or from the part of the world known as the First Ward to sink into the lives described here. This is a splendidly done book.
Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.
• WHAT: "Against the Grain: the History of Buffalo's First Ward"
• BY: Timothy Bohen
• GRADE: A