Where we were
Where We Were

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After 40 years as a single-department medical school, the University of Buffalo chose the late 1880s and early 1890s to begin its expansion into the multi-branched institution of today.

The setting was a vibrant and growing city; the climate one of sophistication and intellectual inquiry. Between 1880 and 1890, the population of Buffalo soared from 155,000 to 255,000. Before the turn of the century, the census would register yet another 100,000 new citizens. Two and one-half thousand manufacturing enterprises employed 50,000 workers, who made their way to and from their employment over paved streets and in newly-electrified trolley cars. Fortunes were made both by industrious immigrants, and old-money names in the lumber, meat-packing, leather-tanning, flour-milling and iron-making industries.

Immigrants brought their talents and dreams to a burgeoning economy. From 83 in 1875, the number of Italian immigrants living in the city multiplied to 2,500 by 1892. Although some of them were skilled laborers-who were able to start up their own businesses-the majority of men tried to find work on the docks. This was not always a peaceful endeavor, despite the waterfront demand for labor. Frequently, hunger and poor living conditions forced Italian workers to cross picket lines, when the Irish were attempting to organize a powerful, bargaining labor force. Sometimes, the result was physical violence.

The number of newly arrived Italians was not nearly as great as the number of Polish immigrants during this period, however. The Eastern Europeans did not, for the most part, contribute to the waterfront tensions brought on by overcrowding and labor relations. Rather, the Polish community established itself on Buffalo's East Side, centering around St. Stanislaus Parish on Peckham Street. By 1892, more than 13,000 Poles had decided to build new lives in Buffalo.

As the city's downtown area became a crowded center of industry and banking, residents sought refuge in the beautiful parks of the period. Between 1868 and 1898, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-who had designed New York's Central Park-constructed the park and parkway system that still includes Delaware Park, South Park and Cazenovia Park; Bidwell Parkway; and Symphony and Gates Circles. Residents saw development all around them, not of parking garages and prefabricated office buildings, but of provocative architectural monuments. Among those remaining are Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building, with its richly designed terra-cotta surfaces, and the massive and ornate Ellicott Square Building.

Meanwhile, few inhabitants of Buffalo's canal district were able to leisurely sample the architecture and landscaping of the city's avenues and parkways. This largely Italian and Irish area south of downtown was notorious for its poor sanitation, overcrowded housing and inadequate ventilation. In 1892, 124 tenements provided housing to 863 families, or 3,325 people in all. The contemporary press reported five infant deaths each week in the district, mainly due to respiratory disease.

The Christian Homestead Association and the Salvation Army targeted the canal district for mission work, providing food, shelter and Bible verse to its poor inhabitants. Although one preacher went so far as to call the region "the Sodom of the Eastern half of North America," the canal district was more than just the smell of gin and the sound of a honky-tonk piano. As home to thousands of Buffalo working people-many of whom had dreams as intricate as those who were building mansions on Delaware Avenue-the canal district was also known for its inhabitants' local pride, strong religious faith, and efforts to maintain decrepit buildings in the face of slumlord indifference.

During the latter part of the century, those who were born or had worked their way into Buffalo high society saw the establishment of several social clubs that hosted dinners, lectures and evening discussions. The Liberal Club, founded in 1891, was the site of passionate conversations and lectures on the order of Theodore Roosevelt's "The Duties of American Citizenship." Club officers included Carlton Sprague, who was to become the third UB chancellor; Roswell Park, already enjoying a long career at the helm of the medical department; Frank Hollister, secretary of the University Council; and Adelbert Moot, future dean of the law department.

ROBERT DEVENS is a Ph.D. candidate in the UB English Department.