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The War on Pizza

Gentrification is a loaded term, especially in Buffalo.  As much as we complain about “sprawl without growth”, we play the same game with gentrification. The dictionary definition is: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. You know, like bourgeois white kids “discovering” Buffalo’s West Side or New York City’s outer boroughs. 

There’s nothing and everything wrong with gentrification, depending on who you are and to whom you’re talking, but in recent years it’s become an epithet, which isn’t altogether fair. Perhaps because in Buffalo, gentrification is not accompanied by any significant population growth

This article in the print edition of Artvoice hurls the “gentrification” epithet in a somewhat hypocritical way. It highlights the way in which the term has become a weapon, and how threatening any change might be. 

The College Street Gallery, a well-loved fixture of the Allentown art scene since 1997, is being evicted from the space it now occupies at the west end of Allen St. near Nietzsche’s. The reason is to give more room to the gallery’s next-door neighbor Crust Pizza, who wants to expand a full service bar in the gallery’s 500 sq. ft. space. Crust Pizza has been on Allen St. less than a year.

Photographer and College Street Gallery operator Michael Mulley said the changeover would occur this summer. He called it “Gentrification pure and simple,” and contrary to the social and commercial best interests of the neighborhood.

I don’t have any problem with – or any animus towards – either Crust or the gallery.  I think both businesses – and types of businesses – help make Allentown the unique and special neighborhood that it’s become in the last 30 years. But this smacks of an art community overreaction.

In most cases, when a landlord cuts a deal to expand one tenant and displace another, the displaced tenant looks for a new space. It doesn’t become a cause celebre. Have a “lost our lease” sale and start looking for a new space – it’s not a unique or unconscionable situation. 

This isn’t Manhattan’s SoHo becoming a parade of high-end chain storefronts, but it would seem as if Crust is the biggest criminal since Hitler invaded Poland. 

When we came here, to this end of Allen Street, there wasn’t much here,” he said. “Art makes other things happen. People go out to see art, then they say: ‘Let’s go get a piece of pizza, let’s get a beer.’ It’s not the other way around. That was the whole idea of Allentown originally, what made it work. Art first, commerce after. We brought energy to this corner. Now this whole end of Allen is going to be just bars.”

Look at that highlighted sentence – isn’t that gentrification? Renewal and rebuilding? What do you call it when you place an art gallery in an empty, underserved, or blighted neighborhood? Art definitely made Allentown what it is today, but it’s a misconception to suggest that people don’t do the exact opposite of what’s being suggested in Mr. Mulley’s statement – go out for pizza and a beer, and then go look at art. 

But by seeking to expand a legal business, Crust is now the enemy. The Infringement Festival had planned to host something there, but has instead decided to take its toys and go home. 

Infringement Festival music programmer Curt Rodderdam, who lives a few doors away, said the Crust plan “hurts the neighborhood.” He said the changeover “bothers me on a personal level and a social level—what it’s doing to the community. They’re taking the last piece of culture in the neighborhood and destroying it,” he said. Who wants to live on Chippewa?” he asked rhetorically.

Infringement Fest programmer for outside performances David Adamczyk said the planned changeover “didn’t represent what we [the Infringement Festival organizers] were all about.”

You would think Crust was selling crack or whores. 

Did Mark Goldman get this much pushback when he displaced a took over a spot most recently occupied by a hardware store? Hardware stores aren’t especially creative, but they are a dying breed, being replaced by Home Depots and Lowes. I figure no one wants to live on Chippewa, but Allen is known for its nightlife, too. Rather than flashy clubs, it has the upscale Allentown Hardware alongside gritty spots like the Pink, Mulligan’s, Nietzsche’s, and Duke’s Bohemian. Expanding a pizza place so that it can have a bar on a street that’s known for its nightlife isn’t going to destroy the neighborhood. It isn’t going to destroy the community. 

Crust, for the record, is a charming little quick-serve pizza place that makes really great “al taglio” Roman- style pizzas.  The crust is baked from scratch, and the toppings are added on demand throughout the day – you pick your toppings and get a great little personal pizza.  Their arancini are pretty great, too, and they serve craft beer already.  Crust’s push to build a bar is its own business, and it has an agreeable landlord. No one likes to see another business be displaced, but that’s business

The gallery is also fantastic. It’s a co-op of local artists, and their work rotates on a monthly basis. Wouldn’t the better way to handle this be to highlight what a great opportunity a move would be to help grow the concept? 

Mulley said the gallery change “is bittersweet. Maybe we’ll come up with a bigger and better space ultimately.” But for the moment he has no place identified, much less negotiated. Mulley said he wants to stay in Allentown, preferably in another storefront–less preferably an off-the-street venue.

“There are a lot of great memories here,” Mulley said. “A lot of good things happened here. A lot of artists got to show here who might not have had another chance to show. And musical groups got to perform here.” He said the gypsy flavor jazz group Babik made its first public appearance on the street outside the gallery. “And I couldn’t name how many aspiring young writers read here for the first time.”

The College Street Gallery is a cooperative, supported by the forty or so artists who show new work there every month. Mulley said there was a waiting list of applicants wanting to become members, if there was room to show their work.

So, the gallery has effectively outgrown its location and it’s being forced (never a fun thing, admittedly) to go and find a bigger one. I’m unmoved by the “things happened here” flavor of “this place matters” nostalgia. How about working with the guy renovating this place

I don’t like it when people demonize a legitimate business that isn’t doing anything wrong except trying to continue doing its legitimate business. Crust isn’t the enemy, and it isn’t single-handedly destroying Allentown. 

To that end, we’ll have a cash mob show up for lunch next week at Crust. Perhaps someone will host a cash mob for the College Street Gallery, too, or you can donate to help fund its search for a new space. But let’s treat business like business, and not turn a pizza place, of all things, into the enemy. 

Everyone just relax. 


In the News

Blue Sky Optimism

Blue Sky Optimism by ardvorak79

A few things worth reading in the Buffalo News:

Colin Dabkowski has quickly become a must-read every Sunday. His columns are direct, pithy, and insightful. This week, he weighs in on the city’s revival of its public arts program.

Although I’m not a huge fan of nostalgia, I think that Bruce Andriatch’s look back at his time at a defunct Olean-area restaurant and hotel is poignant and interesting.

The News’ endorsements for the upcoming school board election are notable for being exclusively Caucasian in a predominately African-American district. It would seem that there will be a lot of whitesplaining going on over the next year. But understand that when Paladino’s agenda is unsuccessful, he’s going to have to own that and he won’t have any “sisterhood” to blame anymore.

Buffalo’s own news historian guru, Steve Cichon, has begun curating the “BN Chronicles”, highlighting interesting stories from the News’ archives. Nestled between stories detailing America’s intervention in the Mexican Revolution, there’s this 1969 story about moving the Williamsville toll back past the Transit exit (never happened, we’re still arguing about it), a Buffalo Bill selling cars during the off-season, a story about fledgling gay rights in 1984, and a 1969 piece about “high speed rail”.

Sacred Heart Academy refused to print an alumna’s same-sex marriage announcement in its alumni periodical. The woman in charge of the magazine expressed that she was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“I’m very sorry that we can’t publish your pictures and your good news in the Cordecho,” Sister Edith Wyss wrote. “We had a similar request several years ago and we did publish that announcement of the marriage of an alum to her partner. We did expect some negative response and we got some.

“However some readers of the Cordecho also contacted the Diocese of Buffalo. The bishop sent a diocesan official to meet with us at SHA to make sure that we understood what we had done,” Wyss wrote. “In their view, we were publicly supporting same-sex marriage. In our view, we were supporting our alumnae.”

The bottom line, according to Wyss, was that the Cordecho – published three times a year in winter, spring and fall – could not again print news or photos related to same-sex marriage.

One person posted a comment on my Facebook wall, indicating that Nardin has no problem announcing alums’ same-sex marriages, so all of this is a bit odd. But then, read what Buffalo’s bishop has to say:

“I am grateful that the leadership of Sacred Heart Academy has done the right thing and has not compromised its Catholic mission and values. While Sacred Heart is not a diocesan school, it is a Catholic school within the diocese, and I have responsibility for Catholic identity there and in every Catholic school, diocesan or not.”

Yet Pope Francis famously said, “[i]f someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” While not a full-throated endorsement of same-sex marriage, it’s certainly more loving and tolerant than what Buffalo’s bishop has to say. 

Sacred Heart Academy reportedly has no problem cashing homosexual students’ and alumnae’s checks.


Echo Park Film Mobile

If you’ve ever considered getting involved in the enchanting field of filmmaking, Sunday (July 17) is your chance to satisfy that curiosity with the encouragement of the Echo Park Film Center.  In conjunction with the Buffalo DIY Punk Festival, Lisa Marr and Paolo Davanzo is organizing a Filmmobile tour in celebration of EPFC’s ten years of commitment to its community.

EPFC is a non-profit organization determined to provide equal and affordable opportunities in the field of media arts to media-marginalized populations through a neighborhood microcinema, free and nominal cost education programs, a comprehensive film equipment and service retail department, an eco-friendly mobile cinema and film school, and a touring film festival showcasing locally established and emerging filmmakers.  Once a 1997 Bluebird, the Filmmobile bus now screens free films in parking lots and nontraditional venues of the like while simultaneously providing the community with a model of sustainable energy—it runs on vegetable oil!

This Sunday, the Filmmobile will exhibit an assortment of short format experimental and documentary pieces outside the Squeaky Wheel (712 Main Street) at dusk.  Meanwhile, a Direct Animation Workshop will take place from 6-9pm where you are free to work on a collective animated film—sans cameras—by physically altering and drawing directly on film.  Plus, Lloyd’s Taco Truck is providing eats, and donating a portion of the proceeds to support Squeaky Wheel’s arts and education programs for youth and adults.

-rachelle toarmino


B-I-N-G-O!

Thursday, February 17: Play bingo, win art at Hallwalls

Celebrity bingo caller Ron Ehmke and the Real Dream Cabaret will direct the proceedings Thursday (Feb. 17) at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Babeville at Asbury Hall. That’s right, it’s church bingo—only it’s a benefit for Hallwalls, so the winners take home genuine works of art and booze is available at the bar. Bingo boards are $5 apiece. Doors open at 7:30pm, and the games begin at 8pm.