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Book explores conflicting imagery, identities, narratives of Buffalo

Fargo House

"Ineffably Urban" contributor Dennis Maher scours flea markets, thrift stores, estate sales and demolition sites for discarded treasures that he uses to create new worlds inside his Fargo Avenue home.

By PATRICIA DONOVAN

Published March 31, 2014

Although famously and at various times ruined, rich, poor, cold, Midwestern and Eastern, industrial and no longer so, the fact is that Buffalo, N.Y., is a city that thoroughly engages its historians, artists, writers, activists, architectural essayists, urban anthropologists and cultural critics, not to mention poets, runners and wing gobblers.

The city is the subject of a new and distinctive exploration, “Ineffably Urban: Imaging Buffalo” (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Surrey, 2014), edited by UB art historian Miriam Paeslack.

It is a collection of critical essays and rich imagery by scholars, artists and community members, some of whom were participants in the 2011 “Ineffably Urban” symposium organized for UB by Paeslack, assistant professor in the Arts Management Program, and held at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

The book’s public launch at 7 p.m. May 1 at Hallwalls, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, will feature talks and book signings by the contributors, who will offer the audience a smorgasbord of intriguing and unexpected ways in which they addressed the Nickel City.

It is an event that will be of interest to Buffalo history buffs, photo lovers, non-academics and academics of many stripes.

The goal of the book, as was that of the symposium, is the exploration of the conflicting imagery, identities and many narratives of Buffalo and similarly situated cities that have emerged through art in recent years: stories told by garbage, old industrial giants, urban farming, even abandoned shopping carts.

Because Buffalo’s urbanity is “ineffable” — too complex to be expressed or described in words — the authors explore how it appears in images found in photographs, maps, advertisements and other visual media that reveal the city‘s peripheral spaces, rubble, neighborhoods, activism, “new pastoralism,” refugee urbanism and even pyromania. 

Mary N. Woods, Michael A. McCarthy Professor of Architecture at Cornell University, says the book “challenges and complicates the usual imagery and discourse surrounding today’s shrinking cities … excavating the many lives and places nested within the city’s past and present.”

The book features a forward by Andreas Huyssen of Columbia University, author of “Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia” and a scholar of theories of representation and difference. It ends with an afterward by well-known Buffalo urban activist, author, entrepreneur and local historian Mark Goldman.

Class A / Type 2 – Plaza Drift from the Stray Shopping Cart Project by Julian Montague.

Class A / Type 2 — Plaza Drift from the Stray Shopping Cart Project by "Ineffably Urban" contributor Julian Montague. Image: Copyright Julian Montague

Contributors include culture and urbanism writer Jeff Byles, whose work unearths, among other things, the history of demolition and the “unbuilding” of our cities; prominent local artist Julian Montague, whose “Stray Shopping Cart Identification System” provides a language with which to engage in meaningful discussion of  these often-homeless and terribly familiar critters; photographer Gregory Halpern, whose photos, he says, are “from the American Rust Belt without being about it,” and American historian and photographer Peter Bacon Hales, who considers representations of Buffalo during its monumental transformation from 1804 to 1929.

Well-known Buffalo activist and organizer Aaron Bartley, co-founder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), who has been cited by Bill Moyers among “Activists to Watch,” discusses the challenge Buffalo faces in attempts to synthesize the pastoralism of Frederick Law Olmsted’s system of parks and parkways with the urban “wilds” emerging throughout the city.

Work by a number of UB faculty members is included as well. One is architect Dennis Maher, who offers an explication of his house on Fargo Avenue in which he continues to deploy detritus from urban ruins in the construction of his massive, complex and endlessly explorable city-in-a-house.

Another is urban historian Michael Frisch, who with Paeslack considers Milton Rogovin’s haunting, dignified photographic series of Buffalo’s poor and working-class residents across decades. Architectural historian, theorist and critic Hadas Steiner discusses the historic imagery of the city’s famed and industrially important grain elevators, which so influenced early European modernity.

Dorothea Braemer of the Department of Media Study, a passionate believer in the power of grass-roots documentary media, developed the Channels program through which documentary filmmakers partner with community groups and urban grass-roots initiatives. Here, she considers three Buffalo-based documentaries produced by Channels, including “You Are Where You Live” by the Western New York Clean Air Coalition and a film made with Buffalo Reuse, Western New York’s largest supplier of used building materials.

Jordan Geiger, assistant professor of architecture, has a deep interest in refugee urbanism and here considers the visual languages of sensing, play and immigration policy in mapping the urban refugee space.

Carl Lee of the Department of Media Study discusses his film installation focused on Buffalo’s disappearing houses.