class notes

Man About Town

Mark Goldman helps urban neighborhoods remember their past and embrace their future

Mark Goldman

Mark Goldman in front of a mural created by the Allen Street Street Art Collective, one of Goldman’s many urban projects. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Elizabeth Gehrman

Mark Goldman is a people person. Meet him for coffee and you can expect to leave the coffee shop knowing the life stories and probably the cellphone numbers of the owner, the barista, the cashier and every customer in the vicinity of Goldman’s table, all of whom were strangers to him before he walked in the door.

It is this trait, perhaps more than any other, that has made Goldman (PhD ’73) something of a local celebrity in his adopted hometown of Buffalo; it’s the driving force behind all the projects he has undertaken in his eclectic career as urban historian, author, developer, restaurateur and activist—and those projects have been legion.

Among the highlights: In the 1990s Goldman spurred the transformation of downtown’s West Chippewa Street from seedy red-light district into thriving social scene by opening the Calumet Cafe, a restaurant and performance space that was the original home of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. More recently, he led the move to block the opening of a Bass Pro Shop near the waterfront (a prospect many felt would overcommercialize the long-neglected district) and helped shape Canalside, a hugely successful recreation hub along the Erie Canal Harbor that has been a game changer for Buffalo’s image and morale.

That’s why it’s surprising to hear he could have done all of this someplace else. The Manhattan native came to Buffalo in 1967 to study urban history at UB and, he says, just happened to stick around. “It’s where I’ve made connections,” he explains. He mentions the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” which translates to “heal the world,” as a kind of creed. “I never really wanted to do anything but, one, create a meaningful life for myself in the place where I happened to be living and, two, try to make that place a little better,” he says. “That’s all I care about.”

When Goldman was doing his graduate work, the statistical approach was all the rage, but he was more drawn to narrative. During a summer in Italy he discovered hill towns “where the whole focus was around the church and the marketplace and the town square,” he says. Writing his dissertation in Europe wasn’t a practical option, but a connective theme emerged when he realized that Buffalo is “a series of Italian hill towns—locally focused.”

He adapted some of the research he’d done on neighborhood development to start the first bus tours in the city and eventually wrote a trio of books—“High Hopes,” “City on the Lake” and “City on the Edge”—that have become classics for students of Rust Belt revivalism. His latest publication, “The Life and Times of John J. Albright,” became a happening, in typical Goldman fashion, when he had a companion play commissioned and put on a three-day event at the art gallery that bears the name of the philanthropic businessman.

A passion for the arts has been at the heart of all of Goldman’s endeavors, including the recent founding of Friends of the Buffalo Story, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the city’s site-specific heritage. One project in the planning stages is the creation of community-based histories in Buffalo neighborhoods, such as the Lower West Side, Black Rock and South Buffalo—perhaps involving photo exhibits, performance pieces, video documentaries, a book tying it all together. The idea grew out of his association with Per Niente, a social and philanthropic club that produces a magazine chronicling Italian-American culture. “They’re very colorful people,” he says, “and they celebrate their history. I like to sit on a bench and schmooze with old Sicilians.”

Until something else catches his attention, that is—like the grand enterprise he says will be his “last act” (though that seems unlikely given his apparently limitless energy). It’s still in the talking stages, but he’s envisioning a citywide celebration for the 200th anniversary of the completion of the Erie Canal, which Goldman calls an “epochal event in Western New York history and the history of the United States.” He hopes to make the bicentennial a cross-disciplinary “big deal,” involving everyone from playwrights, musicians and archaeologists to geologists and urban planners.

“It’s worth pushing something like that,” he says. “The more we feel connected to the place we live in, the more likely we are to stay and make a difference there.”