It gets to be this time of year and in Buffalo, Allentown comes to mean a festival. Artists and artisans "on the circuit" line Delaware Avenue with white pop-up tents, most in the same spot they have occupied for years. They come from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusettes, the Finger Lakes with their pottery, jewelry, watercolors, woodwork, textiles, toys. Tens of thousands of people pour into the city to jostle down the crowded streets, munching on fried dough and caramel corn. They have fought for a parking spot on historic streets lined with architecturely unique houses shaded by trees that may be more than a hundred years old. They are in a neighborhood, but think they are at a festival.
If you live here, however, Allentown is not a festival but a neighborhood. An historic place with an illustrious history. I lived in the most beautiful house I have ever lived in anywhere in the world in Allentown. It is a delightful Victorian italiante on Mariner, with a curved ballustraude, a stained glass window and no driveway. This house predates the predominance of the automobile. Why would it have a driveway?
Christopher Brown briefly chronicles the history of this 29 acres of land just a mile north of downtown in Allentown: A Photographic Journey in the Heart of Buffalo (which just took Gold, top honors in the prestigious national Benjamin Franklin Awards in the Gift Book category, says the proud publisher). His introductory essay "Allentown Yesterday: Putting Contemporary Allentown into Historical Context" sets the stage for a true appreciation of this neighborhood which is now adjacent to and now inextricably intertwined with the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
"What makes Buffalo's Allentown Historic District unique, different, mythic and inspiring? Perhaps it begins with its namesake, Lewis Falley Allen. He and the 19th century were both ushered in on New Year's Day, 1800. Allen moved to Buffalo in 1827, two years after the Erie Canal terminated at Buffalo and ushered in its explosive growth. Allen recognized Buffalo's great potential and capitalized on it. He speculatively purhased real estate and indulged in his profitable passions--agriculture, horticulture, architectural design, and short-horn cattle."
Allen paid $2,500 in 1829 for the land that would be named in his honor, and legend has it that his cattle trod the path that would become Allen Street as they made their way from Main Street to their pasture, now Day's Park.
"At its western boundary the Allentown neighborhood includes the unapologetic clashing of two towns' incompatible street designs: Buffalo's radial street pattern designed by Joseph Ellicott and Black Rock's grid pattern designed by General Peter B. Porter. The result is Allentown streets like College and Trinity that meanderingly twist at 45-degree angles."
The Allentown familiar to us today emerged during the aftermath of the Civil War. "From the mid-1860s through the early 20th century, breathtakingly beautiful homes, churches, and commercial buildings were constructed along its broad avenues, meandering side streets, and public green spaces. During the height of America's Gilded Age, homes were built of wood, brick, or stone. Each owner employed the best builder and architect they could afford, and in turn, the builders were eager to display the fruits of Victorian technology, arts and craftmanship."
As the neighborhood grew in popularity, vacant land became increasingly scarce. "In the 1880s, the Buffalo circus grounds were carved up into more uniquely configured streets, the one-block long Orton and St. Johns places. They fit perfectly in the unconventional, nothing-lines up streetscape at the westerrn boundary of Allentown."
While it may seem as though Allentown's story is about buildings, says Brown, it's really the tale of its residents and its advocates. He tells some of these stories, including how during the 1950s "longtime, white-gloved residents of Irving Place welcomed members of the Beat Generation to Allentown: artists, musicians, actors, writers, intellectuals, poets, and gays." He tells the story of Tony Sisti, who helped brand Allentown as an artist colony.
"What began as a an idea in 1958 to showcase the new artists of Allentown--Buffalo's Outdoor Festival--has since become a treasured annual Buffalo tradition, now known as the Allentown Art Festival. Encouraged by the success of the festival, neighborhood residents became activists and fought to preserve the intact streetscapes that make the neighborhood so special."
The Allentown Art Festival is now in its 60th year. The Allentown book should be available at the festival since it is a perfect way to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of this neighborhood as an artistic enclave, a funky, bohemian neighborhood. The hundred-plus primarily black & white photographs by Bill Faught tell the story in a poignant fashion, peeking into gardens, peering down tree-lined streets, capturing murals and sculptures and street art that we walk past but may not notice. The text contributed by Mark Goldman, Elizabeth Licata, John Carocci, Gretchan Grobe, Dick Haynes, Jonathan White, and of course, Christopher Brown, enhance the photographs, adding context and significance. The book pays homage to the past and the present by taking us on a photographic journey in what really is the heart of Buffalo.
Founded in 1998, the Allen West Festival is held concurrently with the Allentown Art Festival, Produced by the Allentown Association, it exists to "promote local artisans and Allentown businesses." But isn't that what the Allentown Art Festival was intended to do?
Well, yes. And there are still a few local artists and artisans in that festival, which is the sole function of the Allentown Village Society. But more than 150 local artists and vendors take part in the Allen West Fest, on Allen Street from Elmwood to Wadsworth, and on Wadsworth from Allen to Hudson. This parallel, local festival is fun, friendly, affordable, and truly in the Allentown bohemian spirit.
Just as there are two Allentown organizations, there are two Allentown festivals. The Allentown Village Society refused to sell the book at its event as a fundraiser for their organization or to allow it to be sold anywhere at the Allentown Art Festival since it is not juried artwork. On the other hand, the Allentown Association, the entity that organizes the First Friday Gallery Walks and works hard all year long to maintain and promote Allentown, will offer the book at a special festival discount.
Support the Allentown Association's 19th annual Allen West Art Festival! It's well worth the walk from Delaware over to Elmwood. It is this organization's largest fundraiser of the year, and Allentown book sales at the event will benefit the Association.