Buffalo's Southern Island

     It is a place that exists more in the minds of those who live there, than anywhere else. You won't ever see the designation for it on any map reference. But, you will hear it referred to daily in a thousand conversations. Ask any ofits residents where they live, and the name will spring immediately to their lips, even when they are far from home. “South Buffalo” is as real and as separate a community as any city, town or village in New York State.

Geographically, it encompasses that portion of the City of Buffalo, that lies immediately South of Cayuga Creek and the Buffalo River. The creek, river and Lake Erie to the west, form an imaginary peninsula that abuts the City of Buffalo on its southern flank. There are bridges connecting it to the city proper of course but the feeling, as a whole, is one of living on an island. The residents tend to inter-marry among the large extended families, patronize local businesses and generally act as clannish as islanders do the world over. It breeds an insular mentality that has kept South Buffalo separate and distinct, from the rest of the city, since the time most of it was first constructed at the turn of the twentieth century. Before that, it was mostly farmland and fields, the remainder of the Seneca Creek Indian Reservation that occupied the land for generations.

The people who live here are predominantly blue collar, working- class citizens who pay their taxes, go to church, serve in the military and eschew social welfare programs. They raise their children to get a good educationand climb the socio- economic ladder, one rung at a time. Ethnically, they are diverse. But, the traditions of the Irish are strongly rooted here. They are fierce in their identification with, and allegiance to, the misty Isle of Eire. St. Patrick's Day can be a week-long Holiday in South Buffalo, if the calendar co-operates and the liver holds out.

You will find many of their number among the ranks of the Police and Fire Brigades. It is an area steeped in family traditions. Some of these civil servants are the second and third generation of their family to hold these positions. The sons and daughters of South Buffalo are also proportionately over represented amidst the ranks of the politically connected, but more about that later.

Physically, the sprawling expanses of Cazenovia Park and nearby South Park, with the magnificent Palladian style Botanical Gardens Complex and picturesque South Park Lake, highlight the region. The mighty industrial palaces of Bethlehem and Republic Steel Companies once dominated and colored the skyline. They are gone now and with them,30,000 jobs. Most of their rusting bulk has, ironically, been dismantled for scrap steel.

The pleasant meandering concourse of Cazenovia Creek, with its large, old, Willow- lined banks and series of scenic iron bridges, further divides the Island. Curiously, there is a perceived social stratification that depends upon which side of the creek you live on. There are social gradations, even among the working class, I guess.

South Park Ave., Abbott Rd. and Seneca Street run south to north, along the length of the Island, and are lined with an eclectic array of bars, churches, funeral homes and small businesses. The other major thoroughfare, McKinley Parkway, is a broad residential boulevard of solid, two story dwellings, that is as visually pleasant a place to live as any tree lined suburb.

Several imposing institutions, like Mercy Hospital, with the nearby OLV Basilica, serve as area landmarks. There is, of course, an indoor pool and ice-skating complex and various recreational centers on the island. Bishop Timon, Mount Mercy and South Park High Schools are the institutions that train the area's young. The loyalty to these schools are both generational and emotional. An active sports program has created legions of devoted fans, who follow the progress of the school teams with religious intensity.

Predominantly Roman Catholic by religion, the Island is administratively divided into several parishes. Prominent among them are St. John the Evangelist and St. Theresa's, both along Seneca St., St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Martin of Tours, along Abbott Rd and finally St. Ambrose, Holy Family and St. Agatha's along the McKinley Parkway and South Park corridors. Most of the residents know and acknowledge the boundaries of these parishes, identifying strongly with them for a variety of demographic reasons.

In an Irish Catholic neighborhood like South Buffalo, the Friday night fish fry is a ritual as regular and unbending as Sunday Mass. To miss either is something that just isn't done. The tradition has its roots in a centuries-old CatholicChurch prohibition against eating meat on Fridays. The “prods,” as we then referred to our ecumenical Protestant brethren, developed the term “mackerel snappers” for us because of it. We didn't mind however, because we knew that they were heathens and didn't know any better.

Growing up with a large Catholic family in South Buffalo, meant sending one of the little darlings off to Trautwein's or Reidy's Fish Market, on Friday afternoon, or the weekly ration of Blue or Yellow Pike. In addition,coleslaw, potato salad and a massive amount of French fries and rye bread were customary. When Lake Erie died and the pike ran out, we settled upon haddock as the fish ofchoice. The smell of grease, cooking in the neighborhood, was a pleasant reminder to us of who and what we were.

As we grew older and married, the custom ordained that on Friday nights, we migrate to one of the local taverns for dinner. There, however humble the surroundings, could be found many of the neighbors partaking of this aquatic communion. Usually, a couple of Genesee beers accompanied the ritual. Sure, they have wine at the altar, don't they?

The new age, and cholesterol consciousness, brought on the advent of “broiled fish,” but it wasn't the same. If the fish wasn't fried and of heaping proportions, something seemed amiss. The local traffic, on Fridays, could be a hazard aroundthe taverns. You could get killed crossing Seneca Street. People had thoughts of getting to the restaurant and securing a table promptly on their minds. Driving and parking were secondary concerns.

The business, to the taverns, was in volume and what  former Buffalo News Columnist Bob Curran fondly calls,“barley sandwiches.” (Beer) Indeed, you could procure the fixings for the dinner, from Trautwein's or Reidy's Fish Market, for only a few cents cheaper than that charged by Early Times or the Red Brick Tavern. Many are the pleasant memories that I have, of arriving at one of  these emporiums and being greeted, by now grown childhood friends, sharing the custom. They are honest and hard working people, indulging in a level of social intercourse, that is tribal in its ritual and reassuring in its regularity.

Like villages in rural Ireland, taverns were the center of social life. Everyone had their favorite, in South Buffalo, and were fierce in expressing their loyalty. Social Clubs sprang up around the chosen place and many of the regulars often participated in athletic and social events, sponsored by the tavern. The camaraderie engendered carried over into many other facets of our daily life.Like most ethnic neighborhoods, there were a few watering holes in South Buffalo that served as front line positions, in the continuing political Tong Wars. Lads from differing factions and clans would gather nightly, for a few rounds, to talk over the happenings of the day.

“Smitty's,” one of the more legendary such establishments, was like “Cheers.” You always knew somebody and they always knew your name. The place was run by a prince of a man named Ed Smith. His family was large and both fierce and out spoken in their loyalties. One day, a prominent elected official, from an opposing political faction, was served his beer and advised it would be appreciated if he finished his drink and “got the hell out.”  There were no ambiguities here. “For us or against us” was the codeThis particular establishment had a long and colorful history. Run since the 1940's by old Joe Cooley and then by the Smith Family, it was always a hangout for the local politicos. The place had made the transition, over the years, from Republican to Democrat, as the demographics of thearea changed. During W.W.II, servicemen in uniform, drank there for free. If they were a little short on money, they could also count on some help from the proud proprietors.

One time, as I talked quietly with friends at the bar, no less than four separate fights broke out within a 45-minute period. One involved an incumbent legislator, who accidently broke his opponent's leg. The next slaked the ire of a future Streets' Commissioner and a local policeman, whose gun and holster flapped obscenely through the wrestling match in the snow. The others were routine punch 'em ups and not worthy of comment. None made the news. In this neighborhood, you took your lumps and were quiet about it. The then Police Commissioner, Jim Cunningham, commented ruefully on the South Buffalo taverns. He said that complaints of police brutality were non-existent in the area. If the cops were a little rough, you figured that they got you this time and maybe you would even up at some future date. Perhaps, it is the legacy of the sprawling frontier canal town that preceded modern day Buffalo.

The saloons themselves, were a smoky archipelago ofwarmth and companionship, in an often difficult environment. Wielding the scooper's shovel all day and resenting the fat bellied foreman barking the orders, werething that needed a bit of easing at day's end. Thoughts of the icy foam and beaded sweat of a tall schuper of beer, were long anticipated and much appreciated. Several hours later, most of the lads made it home, after a fashion. And herself, left home for the evening, was not amused at the dubious condition of the lads arriving at the kitchen door. Sure, it was a hard night indeed spent debating the issues of the day and the proper solutions to them.

As we grew older, you could see the mark of the “creature” on some of the luckless souls. They were headed down into the abyss, God love them. Hard drinking was a problem that we had all seen close up, in the large families. We tried to be understanding, but it was as if the mark of Cain blazed upon the unfortunate. The stricken knew, on a visceral level, that they were doomed.

In most of South Buffalo, the side streets are lined with large, old, two-story frame dwellings. The different Catholic parishes had established the lines of demarcation, previously mentioned, that separated one grouping of streets from another. Like most artificial boundaries, the lines are invisible, yet powerful in the effects that they created. No ardent patriot ever identified more strongly than we did, with the Parish that sheltered us. The local church was a modern Fort Apache to which we turned, in times of laughter, or through a veil of tears.

The kids in our neighborhood went to the local Catholic grammar school, St. John The Evangelist. There, in addition to our regular studies, we were instructed in the perils of life and the damnation of sinners, by a community of nuns from the Order of the Sisters of Mercy.

The nuns were pretty much adjunct mothers and although inclined to be crotchety, cared about us. They looked after our spiritual and physical well-being. It wasn't unusual for them to step in quietly and help with food andclothing, when one of us was in need. They did this with the finesse of experienced diplomats, in a blue collar, ethnic community that prided itself on accepting charity from no one.

Going to a Catholic grammar school was like being raised by a churlish maiden aunt. You spent all day withthese women. Their authority and concerns encompassed your entire life. If they got wind of mischief or bad habits after school, they were on you like a detective the next day. No hardened policeman ever perfected the third degree like these women had. One way or another, they managed toextract the details of the offense from you. The call would then go home to your parents, and things would be decidedly unpleasant there as well.

I remember one incident in particular that involved throwing snowballs. The Mother Superior lined up about twenty of us in a row and methodically questioned each of us as to our culpability in the incident. Any one naïve enough to admit guilt, got a backhand across the face. Nobody had to instruct us on the philosophical merit of the protections afforded us by the fifth amendment. We figured that out pretty quickly all by ourselves.

As far as education went, the Nuns did a pretty fair job with limited resources. We weren't allowed to “not do thework.” That path led to fire and brimstone. The threat was pretty intimidating to junior urchins like us, with vividly active imaginations.

Many of the members, of this order of Mercy, were of Irish-American extraction. Guilt, as a behavioral modifier was honed to a fine science. To this day, I still have uncomfortable memories of threats and exhortations, promising eternal damnation, for some minor offense or another.

The Diocesan parish priest was also a figure to be reckoned with. He was the unquestioned arbiter of the moral code, that ruled our daily lives. He was the topbanana of a tight-knit Catholic Community. If he put thefinger on you, you were in for it, good. You could countupon a pretty fiery sermon, the next Sunday at Mass, detailing the infraction. You also squirmed like hell in your seat, praying that he wouldn't name names. It was a very real and much feared threat.

The nuns and priests loomed very large in our young lives. They did care for us however and spent their own lives in relative poverty, looking after other people's children. They were special people. We withstood the occasional ruler across the knuckles and were better people for it.

Next to the religious community, in South Buffalo, politics was the interest of choice. It was a pervasive influence in our daily lives. The elections and their results were topics of conversation around many a kitchen table. Families chose sides, along clan lines, and cheered on their faction with all the intensity of a hotly contested football game. You voted the way your Father did and his Father before Him.

Among our crowd, many of us had an aging relative involved in what was popularly called “The Game.” Mine was my father's brother, Edward. He was a storied and legendary ward politician, who carried the Republican banner, in the democratic bastion of South Buffalo, for decades. Our family had been active in politics since before the First World War, when everybody was a Republican.

“Manuch,” as he was called, looked the part. His shoes were always shined and his hat brushed. A crisp white shirt and a freshly pressed gray suit completed the image. These are powerful icons in a community that earned its living, for the most part, from the sweat of its brow.

He had a working man's respect for any job that you got to use your brain, instead of your back. He and my father, Franny, were the sons of a water front scooper, one of those hardy Micks who muscled grain on Buffalo's waterfront. Manuch took an interest in me as a youngster and tried to help me along in what had become for us, a family trade.

Manuch's Uncle Willie had been a saloon keeper, where most of the political meetings were held, and a New York State Senator. Willie had helped get him started in the business and he was carrying on the tradition with me.

The Irish had learned early that politics was a ticket out of the slums. They infiltrated the ranks of the civil service and stood their own for public office, to control the mechanics of the system. Tammany was our spiritual  progenitor and taking care of one's own was a way of life. City Hall and the court systems were an employment cornucopia that would feed thousands of the faithful in South Buffalo. The formation of the Irish Political Mafia was for our own protection. All of our grandfathers remembered the “Irish need not apply” signs on places of employment. We saw to it that none of that nonsense would ever happen to us again.

The various political campaigns were waged with the ferocity of a religious crusade. No quarter was asked for orgiven. The enemies made in one generation, were often passed down into the second and third. Grudges were a much treasured family inheritance, often carefully nurtured with grand donnybrooks in the local saloons.     

The neighborhood saloons, as mentioned, often became front line positions in the continuing skirmishes. It was here that the Irish politician learned his trade. Sure, who could be angry with the darlin' lad who had bought the last round? Bless his sainted mother for bringing him among us.  Many is the local Democratic Party Chairman, judge and elected official that sprang from these humble origins. The discussions between the lads could sometimes become boisterous, and often a point was expressed with a wee bit too much emphasis on the opposition's personal shortcomings. And, if the occasional plate glass window was shattered by someone sailing through it in a bit of regrettable exuberance, sure it only added to the charm of the place. It was but a family squabble amidst people who had lived and died, alongside of each other, for generations.

We knew each other by the parish, street and family name. The “shirt tail cousins” among us, were legion. Ourancestral home was not a distant emerald isle, but a collection of streets and characters called “The Ward.” From it, most of our forbearers had “migrated” south, across the Buffalo River, in search of a better life. It existed in our minds as a spectral Brigadoon, to which everyone referred with nostalgia, over a lengthy tale and a barley sandwich or two. Usually, it involved characters like “Harbor Lights” O'Brien , “Potatoes” McGowan, “Diapers” Reardon or some such colorful figure. “Nails” and “Manuch” Martin were two such figures in my own clan.

A frontier honesty pervaded the area and people rarely locked their doors at night. You could depend upon the neighbors to watch over the castle if you were away. On the quaint dead-end streets, people sat on their front porches and watched the comings and goings of the neighborhood, while enjoying the evening air. And sure, the odd lad weaving down the street, in the wee hours, like a sailor at sea in a gale, was the subject of much review, around the area kitchen tables, for days afterward.

We were fortunate enough to live across the street from Cazenovia Park. We could sit on the porch and watchhardball games, on diamond # 1, every summer afternoon. The older folks told tales of the 1930's. They remembered when 30,000 people would gather around “The Cazenovia Bowl” to watch the antics of legendary softball players like “Shifty Gears” and “Bobble-hands” Callahan.

Before that era, the bowl was a flooded portion of Cazenovia Creek. Canoes and row boats were rented, from the Cazenovia Park Casino, to Sunday revelers, in a more peaceful and bucolic era long past.

I suppose, that we often look backward, with fondness, for things that time and fading memory have softened.  They seemed like simpler times then and I am glad that I remember them that way.

Novelist Tom Wolfe wrote that “you can't go home again,” and maybe he is right. But now and then, it is fun to look back and remember the way it was, long ago and far from now, in a place that existed more in the minds of those who lived there than anywhere else. South Buffalo is Buffalo's “Southern Island.” I was born and raised there and although I no longer live there, I am an islander still.


                                  (3407 words)

                            Joseph Xavier Martin