Welcome to “You Should Move To…”, in which Lindsay travels the country scoping out beautiful, under-the-radar old house towns where big charm can be had for little cost. Have a city, town or neighborhood to recommend? Send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org!
When I think of “opportunity cities,” some of first places that come to mind are those infamous Rust Belt cities in the Great Lakes region. From Detroit to Cleveland to Buffalo, we’ve all at one time or another been seduced by the romantic and heart-wrenching photographs of these once grand cities’ urban decay. Such images take some of us only as far as a fantasy, while others — the courageous and adventurous — flock to the possibility of these places. Willing to look past the crime, ruin, and unsettling vacancy that characterize such places, and lured by the ridiculously low cost of property, many have found countless opportunities in home and business ownership, and have revitalized entire communities. Of all the Rust Belters, Buffalo has made, in my humble opinion, the most compelling comeback. Thanks to the hard work of a group of enterprising individuals over the last decade, us fair-weather adventurers can find numerous prospects there without some of the harder-to-digest grit to which our predecessors attended. Pause here and count the pennies in your change jar — you just might be the next person to snatch up a one-dollar 19th century cottage!
Downtown Buffalo. Image courtesy of usnavyband.blogspot.com.
Founded in 1789 as a frontier trading post, Buffalo is idyllically located in western New York, on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. Buffalo’s first population boom came in the early 19th century upon completion of the Erie Canal, which met its western terminus in the city. It quickly grew to one of North America’s most powerful industrial cities: a place of commerce, transport, freedom, and innovation. Buffalo boasts an important place in American history as home to the first steam powered grain elevator and the first electric street lights; former president Grover Cleveland began his political career there, and it was a significant point on the underground railroad where fugitives could cross the Niagara River into Canada to freedom. By the early 20th century Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the United States, and arguably one of the most beautiful, with parks and parkways designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, a skyscraper by Louis Sullivan, a state hospital by H.H. Richardson, and buildings by countless other notable architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Richard Upjohn and Eero Saarinen. If cheap old houses aren’t enough to draw you to Buffalo, its natural beauty, urban aesthetic, and rich architectural and cultural history certainly will.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s c. 1905 Darwin Martin House. Image by BJ & Marty.
Buffalo State Asylum, designed by by H.H. Richardson. Image by Andy Nash.
We’ve been taught that all good things must end (though I can’t say I agree), and what other momentous event should mark the end of such an impressive city as Buffalo than the stock market crash of 1929. Though it bounced back for a number of years as a manufacturing centre during World War II, the 1950s finally concluded Buffalo’s legacy as an economic empire. Shifting trade routes and cheaper, overseas manufacturing paired with growing suburbanization and led to a loss of over fifty percent of the The Queen City’s population during the latter half of the 20th century. Former residents and businesses left a wake of poverty, crime, and decaying infrastructure, and by the 21st century the once grand and glamourous Buffalo was reduced to the memory of a bygone era. Buffalo had assumed a new role as one of America’s many failed post-industrial cities.
A couple years ago, the wonderful blog Brownstoner published a photo tour of Buffalo. Here are some of their images.
It’s a sad and familiar story, but because the economy was so distressed in Buffalo in the post-war period, much of it remains today as it once was. That’s great news for us old house junkies. Just think of the selection! Would you prefer a massive, historically intact apartment on one of Olmstead’s parks for about $800 per month, or an entire, century old fixer upper for about $25k? If neither of those suits you a move-in-ready mansion awaits for under $300,000. Strapped for cash? Follow in Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson’s footsteps and buy an 1860s cottage for $1 (more on this fabulous duo later this week). Buffalo isn’t just a market for the domestic: if you’re looking to start a business you might consider setting up shop in an abandoned church or factory. And with rent around $1000 per month, you’ll have that much more dough to invest in your startup. Right now the possibilities are as endless as the building selection in Buffalo, and with the median home price being a very comfortable $70k, the American Dream seems less like folklore and more like fact. In case you need a cherry on top of the irresistible ice cream sundae I just served up, don’t forget that your future home or business will likely neighbor one or more of the greatest names in American urban design and architecture!
112 Johnson Park is for sale for $224,900.
369 E Utica Street is for sale for $4,500!!!
Wait. There’s more. Lots more. Buffalo’s greatness isn’t just found in looking back. Some pretty exciting things are happening there right now and I predict that it’s going to be a hot place to live in coming years. In fact, if I weren’t in the middle of a master’s degree I’d be packing up my apartment for a move north right now. Because the vacancy rate in Buffalo still hovers at over 15%, the city has been pushing for the demolition of thousands of vacant properties (3/4 of which were built before 1940), which means an old house can be had for a steal at auction. Creative, community-minded folk have caught wind of this and are exploiting the system not simply for a place to call home, but to revitalize the once magnificent city, one community at a time. Microdevelopers like Buffalove Development are taking advantage of cheap real estate to invest in abandoned or derelict properties in a way that traditional developers can’t or won’t. With a little financial investment and a lot of sweat equity, Buffalove is turning these eyesores into eye-catching gems. Similar is Push Buffalo’s model: buy up abandoned old houses and buildings, renovate them, and make them available to the community as affordable housing (10 Winter Street an example). It’s really tough not to be totally inspired by these two groups!
204 Woodbridge Avenue is for sale for $349,000.
288 Linwood Avenue is for sale for $399,900.
In addition to vacant buildings, Buffalo has its share of vacant lots (yuck!), a result of poor maintenance, fire, or planned demolition. A number of groups are making these scars a thing of the past in terrifically imaginative ways. Farmer Pirates has to be my favorite of the bunch. I admit it, I’m a sucker for urban farming, and any group that simultaneously addresses issues of access to local and affordable fruits and veggies while transforming icky vacant lots into lush community spaces gets the gold. Like Buffalove they acquired their lots on the cheap. Some were purchased from developers, but others were acquired through a city tax foreclosure auction. In 2012 the group purchased a total of 22 vacant lots (around three acres) and transformed them into a vibrant agriculture centre in the middle of the city. Buffalo Rising has a similar outlook when it comes to pairing food and empty spaces: it is currently considering the purchase of vacant lots to outfit with power in order to make the open space available to food truck vendors, drawing inspiration from the hugely successful food truck culture that has taken over Portland, Oregon in recent years.
Right: 467 Virginia Street is for sale for $349,900.
61 Thornton Avenue is for sale for $29,900.
396 Gold Street is for sale for $25,000.
123 W Winspear Avenue is for sale for $79,900.
If farming and flipping houses don’t send you into a frenzy like me, then the art and craft scene in Buffalo just might. Etsy craft groups abound and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is a must for modern and contemporary art lovers. There’s also the annual Echo Art Fair, founded in 2011, a juried art exposition that draws visitors, artists, and galleries from all over the United States and Canada. Between the first and second year the number of visitors grew by over 300%, and I hear it’s a must for both collectors and viewers. If wine’s your thing you can pop over the Peace Bridge into Canada for some wine tasting in the fabulous Niagara Region. And don’t forget, you’re only 30 minutes from Niagara Falls, though I don’t suggest you try going over in a barrel as did the adventurous Annie Taylor. There is no end to the list of activities in and near Buffalo, but really, how much free time are you going to have whilst renovating your real estate catch? That Pinboard full of wallpaper and antique door hardware is just a few thousand dollars from reality in Buffalo!
INEXPENSIVE PROPERTIES FOR SALE:
(WITH A FEW PRICIER ONES MIXED IN FOR FUN!)
39 ATHOL STREET
215 MELROSE STREET
226 COMSTOCK AVENUE
87 MAYER AVENUE
17 ST LOUIS PLACE
368 LISBON AVENUE
255 REED STREET
166 WOODSIDE AVENUE
70 THEODORE STREET
46 KRUPP AVENUE
121 JOHNSON STREET
388 ABBOTT ROAD
AUTHOR LINDSAY RIDDELL
Lindsay is a Brooklyn, NY-based architectural historian with a soft spot for all things Victorian. Her obsession with beautiful houses began when she discovered her dad’s collection of house plan and construction books as a child, to which she attributes her enthusiasm for hunting down the most perfect wooden windows, most over-the-top gingerbread, and the most impressive arrangement of Minton Tiles.