Elevator Alley is a short-format paperback published in November 2010 by Furnace Press, with words by Michael Cook and medium-format photography by Andrew Emond.

Elevator Alley: The Working Landscape of Buffalo's First Ward

Michael Cook

Elevator Alley. Words by Michael Cook, Photographs by Andrew Emond. Published by Furnace Press, November, 2010. Trade Paperback, 8 x 7.5”, 60 Pages, color photos. ISBN 978-0-9772742-2 - $20.00 USD
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Launch Event: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 3rd Ward, 195 Morgan Avenue, Brooklyn NY. 7-9 pm. And yes, we'll be there! Details

Several years ago, I began a project with Andrew Emond (best known for undermontreal.com) looking at a complex of grain elevators and related industry in Buffalo, NY. We interviewed former and current elevator workers, and spent a lot of time rambling through and photographing what was then a huge, idle complex of elevators at Childs Street (one has since been reactivated, while most of the others are somewhere in the process of being remediated by Riverwright LLC, who plan to use them in an as-yet-unrealized ethanol refinery). That work has culminated in the release of a short book, to which I have contributed the text and Andrew has provided the glorious medium-format photography.

The grain elevators and former milling buildings at Childs Street (and the Standard Elevator, another active elevator, immediately across the river, which we also discuss), long known colloquially as "Elevator Alley" for the view they provide along this stretch of the Buffalo River, represent a concentrated industrial landscape with few parallels. The terminal elevators at Thunder Bay, Ontario, and the Midway in Minneapolis are perhaps its best comparisons, but in Buffalo this thick cluster of concrete elevators and storage silos sits in incredibly close proximity to a tightly knit working-class residential neighbourhood known as the Old First Ward.

As I pursued the research and began to write the book, what became increasingly interesting to me was the relationship between the elevators and their surroundings — both the residential community and the neighbouring manufacturing businesses. The book uses these relationships to provide a new perspective on the established preservationist and pro-demolition narratives that, since the 1980s, have driven so much of the debate about the future of the elevators (and of Buffalo itself).

Overview of elevator alley on the Buffalo River, and the Childs Street complex of grain elevators and mills. I have added annotations to point out a lot of the salient details.

Elevator Alley, Childs Street and the First Ward

I've taken the liberty of preparing an annotated version (above) of the aerial photography we included at the beginning of the book, to provide a better idea of the site and its surroundings for those who aren't familiar with this part of South Buffalo. Childs Street itself is located on a sort-of peninsula, on an inside bend of the Buffalo River (or Creek as it's known locally). Immediately north of the elevators is the First Ward, a neighbourhood of modest houses and the occasional light industrial building that extends north to the New York State Thruway.

View from the roof of the Lake & Rail Elevator in Buffalo, NY. The houses in the mid-ground are part of the Old First Ward, the elevator's immediate neighbourhood. Beyond, you can see the city's sprawling East Side, and the towers downtown. (Photographs by Michael Cook)

Industrial Elevation

While I hope I've said a few interesting things about the elevators throughout the book, the most important parts of the text are surely the excerpts from a small set of interviews I conducted with men who worked in the First Ward grain elevators (or in one case, was still employed at the Standard Elevator when we interviewed him). We covered a wide range of topics: the physical and social experience of working in the elevators, relationships with management, the proximity of home and workplace, and the future of Buffalo's elevators. Theirs is a perspective that rarely enters into the debates and plans for the future of the elevators that crop up periodically in local media and on websites like Buffalo Rising and FixBuffalo.

In one of the sections of the book, I explore how the size and position of the elevators at Childs Street has affected the way they are perceived by other residents of the city. However, one of the most interesting subjects that cropped up in our conversations with elevator workers was the perspective on their surroundings that the men gained from working on the upper levels of these buildings. Dick Martin, who had worked at the Standard Elevator for four decades when we talked to him, told us about how the elevator changed his experience of weather:

When you're up there in the winter, you can see the squall lines and the water spouts and the foul weather. It's something you can pick up on, you can get the weather. Of course, if one of the guys wants to go lunch at the casino, we can also see him from the roof.

Those positions — on the bin floor where grain is distributed into the elevator's various storage bins, and in the workhouse tower as a weighman or other machinery operator — are the most sought-after in the elevators. A large part of their desirability is no doubt because they offer the opportunity to escape the toil of unloading trucks and railcars and cleaning up the constant grain spills at ground level. But the view, and what it means to the worker's perspective on the city and their role within it, must surely factor into it.

Bin floor at the top of the American Elevator, Buffalo, NY. The machine the conveyor runs through is called a tripper, and is used to feed grain from the conveyor down into the loading hatches of the bins below. (Photographs by Michael Cook)

 

These buildings are very different from the tall, multi-floored 'daylight' factories that rose in 19th century North American cities (and whose windows were mostly covered over as soon as cheap electric light became available). In elevators, there are workplaces mostly at the very top and bottom of the buildings, with the middle floors taken up by machine-spaces and storage-spaces, and while there are usually some small windows at basement level, most of the windows are located at the top of the buildings, giving them their monolithic appearance.

View from the top of the Eureka no. 40 Coal Breaker, Scalp Level PA. (Photographs by Michael Cook)

 

There is a very small category of industries that have had this kind of vertical architecture, presently or historically, and in most cases the impetus is the need to elevate materials for efficiency: either for transshipment and storage, as is the case with these grain elevators and elevators used for storing cement powder; or for milling and other processing, principally of aggregates, mineral ores and fuel coke, but also of sugar and a few other food commodities. Over the last decade, I've visited a few dozen elevators, coal breakers, and mineral processing mills across the continent. For me, the most salient impression from all these places was the height and vantage point they provided for taking in the community or physical landscape that surrounded them. While these buildings are often said to present a cold and unapproachable appearance when viewed from a distance, the view from the elevator or breaker was surely an important part of each community's view of themselves, their solidarity, and their ambitions for the future.

Example pages from Elevator Alley by Michael Cook and Andrew Emond, Published 2010 by Furnace Press.

A Working Landscape

This is a complicated, conflicted landscape of home, work, and decay, one that defies the simple narratives of historical preservationists, the speculative plans for reuse floated periodically by the local school of architecture and planning, and the desires for demolition that are held quite vocally by many residents of Greater Buffalo. Despite the doomsaying of demolition proponents, there are a number of operational elevators, others that could be returned to service at moderate cost, and various other industries operating in the low-density lands adjacent to the elevators.

At the same time though, this is an economic landscape that clearly is not what it was sixty or even thirty years ago. It's a place where quick fixes and grand plans are equally unsuitable — in other words, it is a lot like almost anywhere else, but with a more spectacular industrial architecture that provides a useful grounding for thinking about the big questions of urban experience, memory and redevelopment. In the text we're only able to scratch the surface of these relationships, but hopefully the result helps to provoke a reassessment of what this landscape and these buildings mean to Buffalo's present and future.

Again, you can order the book at the Furnace Press website (Amazon link coming soon) — at $20, it's worth it for Andrew's photography alone, but I hope you'll find the text useful as well. And as mentioned at the outset, we'll both be attending the launch event for this and two other books in Furnace's 'Decomposition' series in Brooklyn, NY on Tuesday. Jean Kahler and Jessica Rowe's The End of New York reflects on the changing landscape of Staten Island, while my friend Jonathan Haeber (who unfortunately won't be able to attend the launch) has contributed Grossinger's: City of Refuge and Illusion, an exploration of an abandoned Catskills resort. If you live in the NYC area, or just happen to be there on Tuesday, you are more than welcome to join us. We also hope to be able to provide information on a Buffalo launch of the book shortly.

Have a suggestion, question or comment about this article, or anything else on the website? Send an e-mail to the author at michael@vanishingpoint.ca, or use this contact form.

Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.