That's the old Bethlehem Steel headquarters building in Buffalo. It's quite an attractive structure. The problem is that it's been unoccupied for more than thirty years. And what's more, it's not exactly in a great location.
That's the building, way up in the upper right hand corner. Note that it's not surrounded by a larger business district or neighborhood; no, this building basically sits on an enormous brownfield that takes up a huge portion of the Buffalo and Lackawanna waterfronts. Bethlehem Steel closed up shop here more than three decades ago, and this building has been empty, unused, and unmaintained in all that time. Now, the city of Lackwanna wants to demolish it.
Enter...as always...the Preservationists.
Here in Buffalo-Niagara, we have a large and vocal contingent of people who are awfully well-meaning, but their main goal seems to be to mobilize anew each time some old building is 'threatened'. The refrain always comes: Save the building, it's a part of our heritage, re-use it, et cetera. The odd thing is that this 'mobilize for the newly threatened building' approach seems to be the main way of operating; you don't hear much about pursuing public policies that might make preservation preferable to demolition.
The main problem is that all this preserving ends up contributing to the already uphill battle this region tends to face every time it courts a new business or entertains the growth of an old one, and for me, it's come to the point where the mobilization of the preservationists just makes me wince every single time. The last few years, my family and I have taken brief trips to other cities in the spring, and it's always eye-popping to me to see the degree to which other cities are rebuilding and reenergizing and reinventing, even in this economy. But not us. Not Buffalo. Here, we treat every building as though it's the very place in which George Washington took the oath of office while baptizing Abraham Lincoln and punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw. So much of the 'historical significance' seems to often boil down to 'A successful business stood here for a long time before it either died or went away and nobody since then has had enough money to do something with this building so here it sits, beloved for simply existing.'
Here's a good example of the foolishness that the preservation instinct around here can lead to. This is the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building in downtown Buffalo. It was erected just a few years ago.
See that odd-looking stone facade at the front of the building? For many years, this entire lot was completely vacant, except for that facade. That was it. Just the facade, no building behind it: a stone facade and a big empty lot, right at downtown's front door. So when local health insurance company Blue Cross-Blue Shield bought the lot and built their building there, they for some unfathomable reason incorporated that facade into their building in a way that doesn't 'incorporate' at all -- it just basically duct-tapes the facade to the building. Every time I drive by there, I think, "That is one of the dumbest looking buildings anywhere."
Are there great old buildings worth keeping in Buffalo? Sure...but I'm sick of the way we go about it. Just as I'm generally sick of the way Buffalo goes about everything. While other cities rebuild and grow and keep a little bit of heritage while they move into the century we're living in, Buffalo remains the cruddy hovel in a Monty Python sketch.
Which brings me to this. It's to be sung to the tune of...well, any Monty Python fan ought to be able to figure it out.
We’ve got tons of old buildings in Buffalo,(Apologies to Cleese, Chapman, Gillian, Jones, Palin, and Idle.)
Brick buildings, stone buildings and more;
And almost all of those buildings were
built back in days of yore!
Yup, we got lots of old places,
they’ve been empty since before you were born,
but we still think that they’re pretty awesome,
like empty towers once full of corn!
It might bug you that they are crumbling,
and you might want to build something new,
but don’t even think about demo,
‘cause if you try it we’ll sue!
Every brick is sacred,
Every building’s grand;
We’ll fight to keep them standing,
‘Til they turn to sand!
We love old Greek ruins,
crumbling on fields brown;
And we want that look for
our aging, rusting town!
Let Milwaukee build things;
Pittsburgh, itself renew;
We’ll stick with closed fact’ries,
And warehouses too.
Shuttered buildings thrill us,
new ones make us mad!
Though they're forever empty,
the old ones make us glad!
So stop the demolitions;
our plan, we must endorse!
Though soon, no one will live here,
And things will take their course.
Every building’s sacred,
and hist’ry makes them great;
And if you try to wreck one,
we’ll all be quite irate!