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South Campus

Putting the “CoLab” in collaboration

Using tools at hand, UB alums build a space for community

University Heights residents get tree-pruning tips in CoLab’s South Campus neighborhood.

University Heights residents get tree-pruning tips in CoLab’s South Campus neighborhood. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Olivia W. Bae

Darren Cotton (MA ’12, BA ’10) is always excited to see growth in University Heights, and now it’s happening right next door to him.

In 2011, Cotton opened the University Heights Tool Library, a home- and garden-tool rental shop just off Main Street, to help residents maintain their homes. It has since expanded its role, partnering with various local organizations to help improve the South Campus neighborhood.

Recently, with the help of UB and Re-Tree Western New York, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforesting Buffalo’s urban areas, Cotton recruited hundreds of volunteers to plant 1,000 trees around the Heights. That, in turn, created a need for educational space, for Tool Library members who wanted to learn how to care for all the new trees.

A solution grew roots with the help of Madelaine Britt, a UB junior who had joined the Tool Library as a volunteer. Seeing potential in the empty storefront next door to the Tool Library, she helped Cotton and fellow community organizer Joe Kurtz refurbish the shabby space into the University Heights Community Laboratory, or CoLab.

Now in its second year, the CoLab works in tandem with the Tool Library as its “thought-cubator,” as Kurtz calls it. With fresh, white walls, chalkboard paint and modular furniture, it transforms from a classroom into an art gallery into a pop-up shop. It hosts Cotton’s Tree Stewardship Program and workshops on topics like home weatherization, tenants’ rights—even cupcake making. Student groups and other community organizations can rent the space for meetings, poetry readings or jewelry sales.

For UB students like Britt, CoLab is a tangible way to help bolster a neighborhood suffering from a reputation for loud parties and crime. “I realize now that it’s actually a wonderful, beautiful residential neighborhood,” she says. “We need to take care of it.”