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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. 


Tonight: Allentown First Fridays

college streetEach month for the past year, 15-20 local and regional artists have exhibited their work at the College Street Gallery (which recently celebrated its 12-year anniversary), and it’s time to celebrate. The Co-op’s first anniversary celebration will be held during Allentown’s monthly First Friday Gallery Walk on Friday (Nov. 6). Besides College Street, particiating galleries this month include Allen Street Hardware, Betty’s Restaurant, Buffalo Big Print, El Buen Amigo, El Museo, Hallwalls, Hero Design Studio, Indigo, Kepa3, Merge Restaurant, Sp@ce 224, Starlight Studio, Studio Hart, and Sugar City.

Venues are scattered throughout the Elmwood/Allen area, all the way to Tupper and Delaware (where Hallwalls is, at Babeville). Back to College Street, where this month’s exhibitors number 18, the reception goes on from 5-10 pm and it’s as good a place (or better) as any to start.