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.