Mark Goldman - Table of Contents

DRAFT - Chapter 10: Discovering the power of faith, family and friendship  in South Buffalo where, I learned, you are never alone.
City of My Heart: Buffalo, 1967-2020
By Mark Goldman

City of My Heart: Buffalo, 1967-2020
(Published in October 2021)
Forward: by Karen Brady
Introduction: A New York State of Mind
Chapter 1: A Brand New World - Buffalo, 1967
Chapter 2: An Italian Hill Town in Buffalo? How the neighborhood of Black Rock changed my way of thinking about life in the city
Chapter 3: Into the ‘Seventies -  How people stared down decline and, with faith in themselves in the future of their community, rolled up their sleeves, went to work and got it done
Chapter 4: Into the ‘Eighties -  How a teacher and his students discovered their city… together
Chapter 5: Judge John T. Curtin -  Struggling with the challenges of a changing city, helped restore my faith in Buffalo
Chapter 6: The Calumet Arts Café -  The arts as a tonic for an ailing downtown
Chapter 7: What Would Grandma Rosie Do? - How everyday wisdom brought sanity to downtown development plans
Chapter 8: The Buffalo Story -  History and heritage as the building blocks of community
Chapter 9: Next year in Jerusalem -  What? A New Yorker finds his Jewish identity in, where? Buffalo?
Chapter 10: Discovering the Power of Faith, Family and Friendship  - In South Buffalo, I learned, you are never alone.
Chapter 11: In the End -  The enchanted landscape of North Buffalo and Central Park
Epilogue: A healing heart: Buffalo, 2020


Chapter 10: Discovering the power of faith, family and friendship  in South Buffalo where, I learned, you are never alone.

It was not for many years after first settling in Buffalo that I came to learn anything about South Buffalo. Many times I’d driven  through  Woodlawn and Lackawanna on Route 5 where the hazy, orange lights and foul smells that emanated from Bethlehem and Republic steel in these two fast dying industrial towns made them, for me, at least,  places that I wanted to avoid, not to visit. South Buffalo, bounded roughly by  the Buffalo River, the lake shore, Cazenovia Creek and the Lackawanna city line, was never a stop on my tours; not a topic for my students at Empire State  and not a subject for discussion at our conference on Buffalo neighborhoods.  I’d created documentaries on Black Rock and the Lower West Side, but when it came to what was perhaps the most interesting of all the city’s neighborhoods, I did nothing. South Buffalo was “too ethnic”, “too blue-collar” and, following the election of Jimmy Griffin as mayor in 1977, “too red-neck.”

My first real introduction to South Buffalo came during the mid-1980s when, in City On the Lake, I wrote about the Buffalo school desegregation case. It was then that I  learned about the challenge of change that that neighborhood was facing and the efforts by such larger-than-life  South Buffalo luminaries like Judge Curtin, Eugene Reville, Carol Holtz, Jim Keane and  Dan Higgins to deal with them.

"South Buffalo Riviera”

It was in the late ‘eighties too  that I discovered something else about South Buffalo, something  compelling, something that transcended the problems of the neighborhood, something that  I would remember more than thirty years later, when in the Fall of 2018 I found myself back in South Buffalo. It was then that I discovered  the “South Buffalo Riviera,” a place where  ancient ties of family, of faith and of a common heritage came together in one small place to create a powerful sense of belonging, something that Peggy Cronin, one of my South Buffalo friends, would later describe to me, the three fingers of her right hand pressed against her thumb, Italian-style, as “the this” of South Buffalo.

It was at  Bay Beach, Ontario where, during the summer of 1989 that I first came in contact with “the magical this.” I had taken my daughter Lydia there to visit  Kristin Kam, her friend from City Honors which, like so many of Gene Reville’s and Joe Murray’s “magnet” schools, drew together children from all parts of the city, in this case Lydia from North Buffalo and Kristin, Charlie and Diane’s daughter, from Belvedere Road in South Buffalo.  In subsequent years I came to know more about the Kams, particularly Kristen’s father Charlie. Charlie who  like so many South Buffalo kids of his era was born  in the First Ward, grew up, like Judge Curtin before him,  on and around Seneca Street in St. Teresa’s Parish.  Both Charlie and his wife Diane were Buffalo public school teachers, both products of hard-working blue-collar South Buffalo families.  The Kams worked hard too and by the late 1970s they had joined a large group of their friends and neighbors at a small summer colony in Crystal Beach  just across the Peace Bridge in Canada known to them and their neighbors alternatively as “the South Buffalo Riviera” or “the cardboard cottages.” It was not till I took Lydia there sometime in the summer of 1989  that I first grasped the power of Peggy Cronin’s magical “this.”

We drove up the Dominion, over to Sodom Road, then  onto Erie Road where,  Charlie Kam told me, in about a mile or so “you’ll see the entrance to Bay Beach. Drive right past the entrance. You’ll see a collection of cottages. The ‘cardboard cottages,’ we call them.  Park right in front . I’ll be looking for you.” Well, sure enough there they were. Haphazardly arranged around a central area filled with sand and scruffy grass, there stood a dozen or so tiny cottages, nothing more  than shacks really, all of them wood, all painted white, many with large shamrocks painted, like  talismans, on their door posts. There were any number of families: the Higgins,  the Cannans, the Barrets, the McMahons, the Lickfelds, the  Keanes, names which, when I actually began to study the neighborhood in 2018, would come to  roll off  my tongue like water.

Many of the people that I later came to meet in South Buffalo had ties to this tiny, humble beach resort, a place which, in spirit at least, resembled the crowded, friendly and familiar streets of the neighborhood that I would subsequently become so familiar with. Here, on Bay Beach,  eating fries and drinking Loganberry from  Eli’s beach front snack stand;  playing football and spending hours of so many endless summers, several dozen families all from South Buffalo, many from the same parish there, had created for themselves and the  extended members of their family, a summer paradise .  At “the card board Riviera,” as in South Buffalo itself, the ties of ethnicity and neighborhood, faith and family  ran deep creating here  a place where, I was  told, “you are never alone.”

Buffalo Irish Center

In subsequent years, South Buffalo receded from my mind until one day in the Fall of 2018, intrigued by a flyer announcing an evening of traditional music sponsored by a group whose name I’d never heard and certainly could not pronounce:-- “Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann”-- I   ventured into  a place called The Buffalo Irish Center. Located on Abbott Road, The Irish Center is an extraordinary place, right out of Brooklyn, that fantastic film about an Irish immigrant young woman making her way in New York in the early 1950s.  The front room of the Center is a large, open space with a small, raised stage on one side and a big, rectangular bar on the other. The Center was packed with people of all ages, older ones on walkers, many men wearing tweed caps and a contingent of men and women, selling food from folding tables, wearing red tee shirts  proudly displaying their membership in  “The Greater Buffalo Firefighters Pipe and Drums.” Serving food and beverages and acting as ushers for the growing crowd, was a large contingent of teen-age girls each wearing costumes that identified them as members of the Rince Na Tierna School of  Irish Dance.  The concert was held in the Emerald Room, a square  hall with  32 large, colorful flags, 26 of them representing a county in the Irish Republic,  six  representing those counties in Northern Ireland that the people gathered here naturally assumed would be joined someday to those in the Republic. Sitting with an audience of 200 or more, I watched and listened to a performance unlike anything that I’d ever heard. The show opened with a shanachie, a traditional Irish story teller who embodied what I soon learned was an ancient Gaelic oral tradition. Who was this large and bearded man, I wondered, who, with his broad brogue, dressed in a tweed coat and cap, was spinning these touching, riotous tales of  pain and loss, laughter and love? Where was he from and what was his story? And what about the two musicians who followed him on to the stage?

The show opened with Tom Callahan, a white-bearded man sporting a tweed cap, who sang a lilting version of a 19th century Irish song  called “Arthur McBride.” I’d heard Bob Dylan sing that song years before but his version was no match for Callahan’s, whose powerful Irish brogue  dramatized McBride’s haughty resistance to the English officer who tried to press  him into the Navy. Callahan’s performance was followed by an acoustic duo, a fiddler and a pipe player who played not the breath-powered pipes that we are accustomed to, but rather Uillean pipes powered by the players’ right arms. These sounds and rhythms were new to me The crowd however, knew them all, tapping and clapping along to music that, it seemed they’d  known all their lives.

 I was overcome  by my experience at the Buffalo Irish Center, the power of the place itself, the rapt attention of the large and diverse audience and the passion of the performances.  I knew right away that   I had entered a special, wonderful and, for me at least, new world. “Come back next week,” the bartender told me on the way out, “if you want to see something really special. The  Greater Buffalo Fire Fighters Pipes and Drum corps are having a rehearsal.”  Eager to know more,  I called my long-term friend Brian Higgins, the South Buffalo born and bred congressman from New York’s 26th  District, and told him about my experience at the Irish Center. “Call Mary Heneghan,” he said. “She’ll tell you the whole story.”  I did. “Come down on Friday,” she said, making me an offer I could not refuse. “We can talk and then go to the Fenian Fish Fry.”

 The Buffalo Irish Center has a library filled with a staggering collection of books, magazines and ephemera dealing with Irish history and culture, and it was here at a long wooden table that Mary Heneghan recounted the story of  how in 1970  the Irish Center was created. The  effort was led not by the earlier generation of Irish immigrants, man and women who’d come to Buffalo as long ago as the mid-19the century, but by  recent immigrants from Ireland, people, who like  Ellis Lacey, the lead character in Brooklyn, came to America in the years after World War II.  While many went to New York, to Boston and Chicago, many came to Buffalo too  where, in the city’s robust industrial economy hundreds of them came to live and work. They came from counties all over the Emerald Isle--Moriartys from Kerry,  Burkes and Campbells from Sligo,  McGraths from Antrim and  Mary Heneghan’s husband, Tom, from Mayo—finding homes in South Buffalo and jobs in the neighborhood’s mills, factories and railroads. Seeking out the familiar, this new generation of Irish immigrants filled the taverns and social halls of the neighborhood, but unlike the far more assimilated Irish-Americans who made up much of the neighborhood, this new just-off-the boat generation  wanted more, a place of  their own, a cultural and community center  where the ties of faith, family and tradition strengthened and reinforced the ties that bound them to their neighborhood and to each other.

By 1970, a small group had acquired the necessary funds and were now able to  purchased  an empty YMCA building at 245 Abbott Road.  Raising the money and then, relying on the skills of the bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and skilled laborers among them, they repaired and renewed the old Y, transforming it into the Buffalo Irish Center. Now, fifty years later, the Buffalo Irish Center is  the epicenter of  the Irish-American cultural and political life of Buffalo, a dynamic hive of Irish and Irish American cultural and heritage activities,  home  to among others of the Buffalo Comhaltas, devotees of Gaelic music; the Celtic Angels, a young girls singing group; the Gaelic Youth Choir; The Rince Na Tiarna Irish Dancers; the School of Irish Culture and Language; the Buffalo  Irish Genealogical Society, the Daughters of Erin, the Knights of Equity and an athletic club known as the Buffalo Fenians of the Gaelic American Athletic Association.

Today, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, The Buffalo Irish Center is the focal point of all things Irish in Buffalo. For many years it has been led Mary Heneghan.  Born in St. Teresa’s parish on Seneca Street, Mary met the man who became her husband, Tom , a new   immigrant from County Mayo, at an Irish picnic held at Schiller Park in 1964. The couple played a leading role in the creation and initial development of the Irish Center and today much of Irish American life in South Buffalo is a  Heneghan family affair. Their son Tom, owns and operates the extraordinary Tara Shop located just across the street from the Center, where he sells the finest Irish linen and woolen clothes. Their daughter Mary Kay who learned Irish dance from her  “Da” in 1986,  founded and still directs one of the most successful   schools of Irish dance in the country, The Rince Na Tiarna Irish Dancers. Irish American heritage and culture runs thick in the veins of the Heneghan family and in the process nourishes the body of the entire world of South Buffalo.

Mary had invited me to the Fenian Fish Fry which was about to begin in the  Pub Room,  a large meeting room with a bar at one end, a small stage at the other, was filling up as the  crowd,  a mix of people of all ages, made their way to the dozen or so picnic tables, ready to place their orders. On the stage  a man named Kevin O’Neill was reciting  “The Child’s Poem” by W. B. Yeats that he’d set to music:
We foot it all the night,
Weaving golden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight.
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles

And is anxious in its sleep.

The circular bar was busy and Mary, like the maître d’ at the Algonquin, pointed out the local celebrities who were sitting around it.  There was  Margaret Keane. (“She’s a Whalen,” Mary knowingly told me.) I’d known her husband Jim, long before he died in 2014, a scion of the great  South Buffalo Keane clan, when he’d been a councilman from the South District. Margaret had an extraordinary career in her own right. She, like so many members of the Keane family, had been a firefighter, a great one, the Deputy Commissioner of the Buffalo Fire Department, the first woman in the country to serve at that level. Though she is retired now, two of her daughters,  Katy and Meg, are  both lieutenants in the BFD. I wanted to talk with her more but she told me that I’d have to wait. She was going to Florida and would not be back for five months. “Five months,” I exclaimed. “How can you leave South Buffalo for five months?” “I’m not”, she replied. “Half of them are coming with me…..remember the cardboard cottages?  It’s the same down there.”

The bar was packed with chatty and very friendly South Buffalonians, some I knew, others Mary introduced me to.  She pointed out Bobby Doyle, a short, redhead “from Belfast.” He led the NORAID, the Northern Irish Aid association in Buffalo during “The Troubles” of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, Mary said: “He told us the money was for the women and children.” Then, with a sly smile at Doyle, she said: “But we know what it was really for, don’t we, Bobby?”  Getting up from their bar stools near-by were Jack Doyle and his wife, Jane. They were leaving early, they said, their daughter was coming home from a college trip to Ireland and they had to collect her at the airport in  Toronto the next morning. Chris Scanlon,  South Buffalo’s young representative in the Buffalo Common Council, set down his Guinness and, smiling ruefully, said: “That’s something that never happened in our house. Not with seven kids. We were lucky to get to the skating rink in Caz Park.”   Bonnie Kane Lockwood, “Bonnie Kane of the Seneca Street Kanes,”  “Crick rat” ( a term of endearment for one who hails from the Cazenovia Creek section of South Buffalo) who’d “crossed the Crik for love,” was there too. She’d been a council member from the South District and for years has been an associate of Congressman Higgins in his Buffalo office. I’d known Bonnie from our struggles over the Waterfront but  never did realize  just how deep her roots in South Buffalo were.  Her family, filled with judges and politicians and even a hockey star, Pat Kane, is big in South Buffalo. Like Judge Curtin, she told me over a Guiness, she grew up on Pawnee Parkway, off  Seneca Street, on the other side of “the Crik.” There were eight Kanes in that one house on Pawnee, she told me. “I never really did go anywhere else. There was no reason to really.  Never alone? You got that right. Where would we go… maybe to Hillery Park and the cardboard cottages.”

At that point Mary Heneghan took me aside. “I want you to meet him,” she said pointing to a man across the bar from us. “That’s Tommy McDonnell….he owns the Dog Ears Book Shop and Café on Abbott Road. Don’t miss “Dog Ears. Trust me.”

Tommy has worked, he tells me, at every bar in South Buffalo, sometimes several at a time: Mudd McGrath’s, Charlie O’Brien’s, Houlihans and now, every Saturday night, at O’Daniel’s. Tommy’s roots are firmly planted in South Buffalo. His mother,  Margaret  Reilly, grew up on Indian Church Road, in St. John’s parish, just around the corner from the old Seneca Indian burial ground on Buffum. She remembers, she tells me over coffee in her son’s café, seeing her mother uncover bones in their backyard. “We always wondered,” she said,  “if they  were not the bones of Red Jacket.” Tommy grew up on Carlyle, off Abbott on the other side of the Cazenovia Creek. “We travelled in packs then. And we still do now. The Carlyle Cougars , that was us. I’m still good buddies with most of  the “Cougars”: Teddy Nagle, Dinker Gallagher, the Mulligans and the Hillerys.” Like so many of his old neighborhood friends, Tom went  Bishop Timon High School. He loved books and he loved learning  but he was restless, uncomfortable with the structure of the classroom. “I like freedom,” he says.  “I like being my own boss. So, what did I do? I became a bartender….there’s not a bar in South Buffalo I haven’t worked. I still do work at one….come see me any Saturday at O’Daniels.” But books were his passion and, in 2008 ,  McDonnell opened the Dog Ears Bookstore and Café. Dog Ears is Tom’s life and he has created here  a  veritable community center around books: story hours for toddlers, poetry nights, weekly book club meetings and a movie night , all held  in a second floor room that is part library part living room—The Enlightenment Literary Arts Center. While Tom focuses on the kids and the programs, the book store itself is staffed by volunteers, people from the community like Jack Coyle. 

Jack Coyle’s story is the story of South Buffalo.  Tim Bohen, the great historian of the old First Ward, was right. The roots of South Buffalo’s are planted firmly in  The First Ward and it is there, on Perry Street, that Jack Coyle’s mother was born.  His father, who worked two jobs, one as a cop, the other as a railroad engineer, was from South Buffalo and it was there, on Bridge Street, “right behind St. Martin’s,” Jack says, that he was born. There’s not a job, it seems, that Jack hasn’t done, always, like so many of the men in South Buffalo, working two concurrently, as a scooper in the grain mills and, like his father,  as a railroad engineer on what until recently was known as The South Buffalo Railroad. “It was easy in the ‘fifties,” Jack told me. “There was work everywhere.” And if you didn’t want to work in a plant or on the railroads, there was always the Aud where all the jobs, Coyle says--the security guards, the  ticket takers--were filled with South Buffalo boys. “That’s because of Jim Keane’s father, Dick. He controlled that union and saved all the jobs there for his kids’ friends. We all worked, all the time. That’s just what we did.”  There was a similar pipe line, Jack says, for the girls in South Buffalo. “So many of the girls I knew growing up had aunts who were either Mercy nuns, Mercy nurses of Mercy teachers.  Retired now, Jack, who served on the  Buffalo School Board for more than ten years, volunteers at Dog Ears. “I read to the kids, upstairs, every Thursday afternoon after school.”

Dog Ears is a hang-out as well as a book store  and a coffee shop and there’s no better place to meet the people and to hear the stories that are the DNA of South Buffalo than this café.  Dog Ears is packed on Saturday mornings and on one  in December of 2018, Brian Higgins and his brother-in-law, Dennis Dargavel were at one table; the two Redmonds, father and son, Dan Sr and Dan Jr., both retired police officers, were at another. The Redmonds are an interesting family who, like so many of the people I met in this neighborhood, have deep ties and connections to it.  Like others, the Redmonds have lived all, if not most, of their  lives in the neighborhood, Dan Sr. on Dundee, right around the corner from Dog Ears, where his daughter and her family also live. Dan Jr, who, while he did follow his father into the police department was, he says, “the rebel. I moved around the corner to Downing.”

Mount Mercy Academy

I was drawn to the six women sitting together at a round table in the center of the room. “Oh, you’re the writer,” one of them said, with a very warm and friendly smile, “the fella writing about South Buffalo.”  “I’m Grace Gannon, this is Jeannie Cronin---she’s Peggy Cronin’s sister.” “I’m Barb Kelleher,” said the woman at her side, “and she,” pointing across the table, is Kathleen Crowley.”  “Those are our maiden names. Most of us girls, we all use our maiden names. That’s how everybody knows us. “ They are all “Mercy girls,”  and they meet at Dog Ears every Saturday morning at nine.

“There were over 200 girls in my class, the Class of ‘76,”  Barb Fitzgerald said. There’s not a woman in my family, going back to the 1920s, who didn’t go to The Mount.“Mercy was just a part of our blood,” she declared, adding that three of her aunts were Mercy nuns and Mercy nurses. Grace Gannon chimed in: “One of those aunts was Sister Mary  Annunciata Kelleher.  She was the real founder of the Catholic Health System.”  Nuns or nurses, that’s what they were. “Hey wait,” interjects Grace Gannon, who is a partner at a downtown law firm: “Yes I did work at Mercy as a kid but then I went to law school.” “And I,” adds Barb,   “am a Buffalo public school teacher in Hamlin Park.” Our meeting breaks up. Barb  wants to get home. Her son….is taking the police exam and she is  dying to know how he did. We promise to meet next Saturday, same place, same time. “You’ve got to meet my sister, Peggy,” Jeanne Cronin says on her way out. “She’s the president of Mount Mercy on Abbott Road. She’ll tell you everything.”  When later that week I called Ms. Cronin, she like everyone else that I’d met here, was warm, friendly and eager to talk. I met her at her office at “the Mount” on Abbott Road in early January 2019.

Ms. Cronin wasted little time. We were together for but a few minutes before she showed me a book. “I want you to read this, showing me a worn tome, a history of the Mercy nuns. “The author, Sister Mary Gerald Pierce, was my great-aunt, you know.”  Yes”, she continued,  “it was Bishop Timon who brought the sisters here from Dublin in the 1850s but it was the Sisters---themselves---who built and sustained the entire infrastructure of parochial education in Buffalo.”   We studied the book together: the Sisters  started in the old First Ward, at St. Bridget’s  church on Fulton Street, where in 1854 they founded Buffalo’s first Catholic elementary school. As Buffalo’s population pushed south following the opening of Lackawanna Steel at the turn of the century, the Mercy Sisters followed. In 1904, right across the street from the recently opened Holy Family parish, they converted an old home into a thirty-bed hospital known then, and still, as the Mercy Hospital of Buffalo. Later that year they opened Mt. Mercy Academy,  on Abbott Road and Red Jacket Parkway where it remains today.

The Sisters excelled at education and soon it was the Sisters of Mercy who ran the elementary schools in all of South Buffalo parishes. By the mid-1920s the schools in all of them---St. John the Evangelist, St. Agatha, St. Martin’s, St. Thomas Acquinas, Holy Family and St. Teresa---were staffed and managed by the Sisters of Mercy. By the mid-1940s even the school at St. Anthony’s, the old Italian parish on Court Street,  was run by the Sisters. “You simply cannot,” Ms. Cronin insisted, “begin to understand the culture and the values that we here in  South Buffalo live by without knowing just how deep and how strong has been the influence of the Sisters of Mercy.”

Mount Mercy Academy is a fascinating complex. Housed in an impressive brick and sandstone structure built in 1911, “The Mount” sits directly across from the entrance to Cazenovia Park. The school and the  Mercy Hospital ( in 1928, the Mercy Sisters moved their tiny hospital here) dominate the landscape of this part of South Buffalo. 

For generations, Peggy tells me,  the girls of South Buffalo  poured into  “The Mount,” particularly after  World War II when  young couples in Catholic  neighborhoods throughout the nation heeded the countless priestly admonitions  to “go forth and multiply.” The years of the great baby boom were on and it was here, in Catholic neighborhoods like South Buffalo, places like  Mount Mercy Academy, that the greatest benefits were reaped.

There were, she continued, in those halcyon years of the baby-boomers during the 1950s and’60s, more than enough kids to fill the schools. All the Catholic schools in South Buffalo, let alone those in the near-by Valley and Seneca-Babcock neighborhoods, were jammed, she told me and pulled out numbers from the late 1970s that supported her claims: St. Ambrose, 1200 families; Holy Family, 1775;  St. Agatha, the smallest, with 812 families;  St. Martin’s, St. Theresa’s and St. Thomas Acquinas each had over 1700 families…Altogether there  were 20,000 families, all Catholic, almost all Irish….and oh how so many children!  You know how many baptisms and first communions that meant,” she asked rhetorically? “How many weddings? How many wakes? How many kids we all had to play with?

Peggy, like so many Buffalo baby-boomers, recalls a time when neighborhoods were strong and happy places, where there were zero degrees of separation, where everybody knew everybody, where mailmen and crossing guards, teachers and priests, bus drivers, firefighters and cops  knew  two and sometimes three generations of the same family. Despite the depth of her ties, marriage took Peggy to live in Los Angeles for over twenty years. She returned to Buffalo in 2014 and became president of her alma mater, Mt.  Mercy Academy. “Imagine”, she says, “in LA if I went to three wakes a year it was a lot. Here, I’m at three a week.”  What she  missed most, she said,  pressing the three fingers of her right hand against her thumb, a gesture more associated with Italians, “the this of South Buffalo.”  Raising the four compressed fingers of her  hand to her face for emphasis, she reiterated: “It’s this. This,”  a quality of life that started in large families, spilled out on and into the street, then to the block, around the corner to  the   church and the school  producing a neighborhood where public and private lives merged, a place where so many felt an overwhelming sense of comfort and belonging. “I’m not sure that you understand,” she said sympathetically. “You see, in South Buffalo we were never alone. Who wouldn’t have wanted to grow up here! Who wouldn’t want to live here?”

Things were getting complicated. I was in way over my head. I needed guidance and so I called my old friend Marge Ryan, a long-standing and highly respected community leader, the go-to gal for anybody who wants to get anything accomplished in South Buffalo.  I’d met Marge at my first South Buffalo go-around and in the years since had followed her work as an outstanding community leader. “Come with me,” she told me on the phone one day in March of 2019.  “Meet me here, at my home on Coolidge Road. I’ll show you around.”

Marge Ryan driving tour

I’d first heard about Coolidge  Road from Ann Gioia, the wife of one of my close friends, who, as Annie Driscoll, grew up on the street during the late- 1950s  and early 1960s. Coolidge, she said, was “the Middlesex Road of South Buffalo”,  which, like McKinley Parkway  was, with its large, single family homes on each side of a road divided by tree-filled median, home to doctors, lawyers and judges.  Marge has lived here for years and now, the week before St. Paddy’s Day 2019, she was waiting for me in the driveway of her home there, flanked on  one side with the American flag, the other with the Irish flag.  “We bought this house fifty years ago from Judge James Kane. “It’s hard to believe,” she says pointing out the modest exterior her home, “but the Kane’s raised twelve kids in this house. We raised 6 of our own here. Our seventeen grandchildren might just as well have lived here. There’s lots of South Buffalo roots in this house, that’s for sure.”  Marge was eager to show me around. Things were looking good in South Buffalo, she said, and with a little break in the weather, “we’ll be ready to go for the garden walk.” Yesterday, she told me, she had what she said was  “a perfect afternoon” in South Buffalo. Biking up and down the streets of her neighborhood, up Coolidge to McKinley, then over to  South Park Avenue, she checked on all of the gardens that she, singlehandedly, maintains.   Then, she biked home, took a shower and “it was off to the four o’clock mass at St. Tommy’s.” 

“Let’s have another one today,” she said. “You drive and I’ll lead.”  There’s not a person in South Buffalo that she does not know: every businessowner along Seneca Street and Abbott Road,  the head of every department in City Hall ,  the principals and  most  of the teachers in  all of South Buffalo’s schools. . She is  greeted wherever we go: by neighbors and mailmen, city garbage guys and inspectors,  the cops who  stop and wave and the firefighters rushing down McKinley Parkway, blasting their horns in respect and recognition. 

Marge, tall, thin red-headed, is a remarkable force of nature, omnipresent in the streets of South Buffalo. In 2000 she, along with a handful of neighbors and friends like Donna Curry and Kathy Cunningham, founded  the South Buffalo Garden Walk and South Buffalo Alive, now an influential business and neighborhood association .  She began our tour  began with some background, about how South Buffalo is divided by the Cazenovia Creek, with the Seneca Street neighborhood on one side, the Abbott Road neighborhood on the other.  She nodded familiarly when I told her that I’d already heard about the “Seneca Rats” and how Bonnie Kane had “crossed the Crik” for  the love of John “Locks” Lockwood. Marge was born on that side of the “Crik” too,  on Sage Street, right around the corner from Pawnee, birthplace of both Bonnie Kane and, remember, Judge John Curtin. She, too, was a St. Teresa’s girl.   We drove down Sage , a narrow tree-lined street with both single and double homes. Sage ends at the banks of the Buffalo River and  it was here along these river banks and the woods that filled the landscape of her youth, that Marge came to fully appreciate the importance of the natural environment. It was her childhood on Sage, she says, that years later inspired her to organize the South Buffalo garden walk.

We proceeded to McKinley Parkway, a beautiful  boulevard, the Olmsted-designed showcase  of South Buffalo, and stopped quickly in front of Bishop Timon. Someday, Marge said, “you’ve got to get in there. For the men of South Buffalo, for people of my husband Tom’s generation, Timon is South Buffalo.  You can’t write about South Buffalo without writing about Bishop Timon.”  
[See links to  Goldman's essays on Bishop Timon]
We drove down other streets: Tuscarora, Pawnee, Peconic, Niantic, Minnetonka named for Indian tribes who, though they never lived in South Buffalo,  pay  indirect homage to the Seneca Nation.  We went to Buffum Street, site of Marge’s childhood school # 70, but more significantly, the site of the old Seneca Burial Grounds and the original resting place of Red Jacket, who, along with several hundred other members of the Seneca Nation of Indians lived in this area until they were removed in 1842. (Red Jacket’s remains were removed as well when in 1884 his body was exhumed and, in defiance of his last wishes, reburied in the white man’s cemetery at Forest Lawn.) All that remains of his original burial site is a bronze plaque affixed to a boulder in the middle of a tiny, shady park. Its fading letters tell the sad and haunting story: “In this vicinity from 1780-1842 dwelt the larger portion of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois League. In this enclosure were buried Red Jacket, Mary Jemison and many of the noted chiefs and leaders of the nation.”   [See Goldman's essay on Red Jacket]

We drove down other streets that filled the  conversation of so many of the people I met in South Buffalo:  Karen Lickfeld Murray’s Strathmore, Terry Schuta’s Lilac, Peggy Cronin’s Edgewood, the Redmonds Dundee, Tommy McDonnell’s Carlyle and so many more.  Marge pointed out the sights as we drove along Abbott Road: her church, St. Thomas Aquinas, a landmark at the corner of Abbott and Strathmore for almost a century. “There, in that empty store-front across the street, was Sullivan’s Ice-Cream Parlor. We all hung out there. They had a juke-box in the back where we danced. That’s where I met my husband, Tom.’ We continued just past Dog Ears Book Store (“don’t miss Reddingtons Funeral Home across the street. You know how many wakes have been held there, and at Cannan’s and McCarthy’s, over the almost one hundred years that they’ve been here. “) 

We made a right on Warren Spahn Way, named for the great South Buffalo-born pitcher, Red Jacket Parkway and entered
Cazenovia Park  Designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted in the early 1890s, Caz Park has been a focal point of community life since.  She, like so many others here that I met and spoke with, reminisced about her childhood in the park, a time when both the ice skating rink and the swimming pool  were still outdoors and open to the fresh air. There were so many kids in the pool, her friends said,  that they were afraid  to jump in. We drove  through the park on the gently winding road, named appropriately for  Red Jacket. Marge is passionate about Caz Park and serves on a citizens’ group that advises the Olmsted Conservancy.

We drive through the park and onto  Seneca Street. “See that corner,” she said, pointing to St. John’s Evangelical Church. “It was just bought by the Hook and Ladder Development Company. They’re turning this whole street around.” She pointed out just some of  the work that they have done: the transformation of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on Seneca Street into a mixed-use commercial and residential building,  the restoration of “Bob’s Barber Shop,” an iconic wooden building from the early 1920s, a magical, wood-frame mixed use building at Seneca and Kamper and their own offices across the street.   Marge,  intensely proud of the Hook and Ladder company, talks about the men who own it as though they were her children. “Three of the four of them are from South Buffalo, you know. All four of them firefighters, all working out of the same firehouse on  Jefferson Street on the East Side.”

We  continued down Seneca where, at the corner of Kingston and Seneca, she had me stop. “That’s where the Keane house was,” she said.  Repeating a foundational piece of South Buffalo lore which I’d heard years before, she told me the Keane Family Saga: “Sixteen Keane children were raised in that house. Five of them,” she told me passionately,  “were fire fighters: Jim, his brothers Dick, Mike and Neal, a battalion chief. Then there was Bill Keane, known to everybody in South Buffalo as “Puff,” who was killed in the line of duty.” Marge continued:  “Jim’s wife Margaret came from a family of firefighters—(“a Whalen,” I’d remembered from the Irish Center)--on both the Whalen and the Healy sides. Two of her uncles were firemen too: “Whipper” and R.J. who, like Jim’s brother “Puff,” was killed on the job.  In 1983,  Jim’s wife Margaret  joined the fire fighting force and would soon  become one of the first female deputy fire commissioner in the country. Hard to believe but true,” she continued. “If you count the Keane’s and the Whalen’s, there’s thirty five of them  who have served in Buffalo’s Fire Department.”

Marge took me over to meet Jim Keane’s older sister, Mary Alice O’Neil, who lives in a small house on Tuscarora Road between Abbott and Potters Road.  Mary Alice, though diminutive, has  a big personality, a woman, I was told, “who curses in Gaelic and prays in Latin.” “Imagine,” she said shortly after Marge introduced us, “what it’s like to live in a family with sixteen kids.  We were all friends with each others friends and their families too, some of them as big as ours. Even before any of us got married and had  families of their own, we moved in  circles of several hundred people.”  I told her how Peggy Cronin described the “this” of South Buffalo. “Exactly,” Mary Alice said. “Our tribes  were big ones but they were  close ones. Those big families in tiny houses, filling the streets of the neighborhood, filling the churches and the schools…. She’s right. We never really were alone.

It’s still true today: The family remains intensely close today. Mary Alice can’t walk out of her house on Tuscarora, she says, without bumping into a family member. On the morning that I was there with her, her son “Stitch” stopped by with his son, both, by the way, members of the Buffalo fire department. Meanwhile, Mary Alice’s brother Mike called  to check in, while her daughter Patty, who owns a beauty shop  around the corner on Potters Road, stopped by to see if her mom would go with her to a wake in Angola. Seven of her children live in South Buffalo, as do all 17 of  her and her late husband Joe’s,  grandchildren. There are no degrees of separation in the Keane-O’Neil family: two of Mary Alice’s granddaughters in fact,  work at South Park High School, where Terry Schuta, one of South Buffalo’s finest, is the principal. Just to make sure that no one was missing, Mary Alice, who knew of my friendship with Bonnie Kane Lockwood, told me that one of her  granddaughters is married to Bonnie Kane’s son.

Marge insisted that I meet her husband Tom.  “You want to know about Bishop Timon, you’ have to meet Tom.”

As hard as it is to believe today, there was no boys diocesan high school in Buffalo until 1946 when Bishop Timon was founded by an order of Franciscan friars. Canisius High School was  expensive ( When tuition was raised to $25 per month, Per Niente’s Joe DiLeo dropped  and transferred to Timon)  and, with its new and impressive  buildings on Delaware Avenue, too “too” for the children of working class Irish, Italian and German Catholic families. When word spread in the old First Ward in the summer of 1945 that “the Franciscans are coming,” that young men in their brown, Franciscan habits were suddenly seen walking around the streets of that old neighborhood, that a new school,  named for Buffalo’s first bishop, John Timon, was about to open, the people in the old First Ward were thrilled. For two years the school was housed on the top floor of the old mother church of the First Ward, Our Lady of Perpetual Help and then, in the fall of 1949, it opened in a brand new building in the heart of South Buffalo on prestigious McKinley Parkway. Marge’s husband Tom Ryan was a member of the third class, graduating in 1953.

What a mess I’d gotten myself into. What a tangled and confused, yet utterly heart-warming and mind-blowing set of circumstances and relationships. What could I possibly do with all this information? How could I organize and make sense of it all? Fortunately, I had Marge Ryan there to help me. “Let’s go,” she said, “to the firefighters memorial” at the triangle where Abbott meets Potters.  Marge Ryan tends the memorial as she would the grave site of a dear family member, picking up pieces of stray garbage that have collected there, raking the leaves and fussing with the flowers.  Her brother Bill Stanton and his two sons  are firefighters too and the firefighters’ memorial has intense, personal meaning to her. Referring to the tragedy of December 27th, 1983, Marge says: “This was our—South Buffalo’s—9/11.”
There is no South Buffalo tradition more deeply steeped in history than fire fighting.Though the pay was low, the work was steady, the hours flexible and so most of the city’s firefighters held second jobs. What’s more, the  fire department in general and the firehouses in particular, were, like the neighborhoods that they came from,  warm, friendly and familiar. In the sometimes yawning, sometimes fatal world of the firefighter, the ties that had been formed in the streets, the neighborhood and the parish, were bound tighter still. In firehouses throughout Buffalo,  the world seemed safe, secure and predictable, a place where, even in the face of a tragedy like the propane fire of 1983, you were never alone.

It all happened at 8:23 the night of December 27, 1983,  when Ladder 5 on Seneca Street received a call that propane tanks, illegally stored in a warehouse on N. Division Street, were leaking. A full assignment was dispatched and within seconds of their arrival, were met with a horrific explosion.  The block had become a war-zone: Houses in the neighborhood were instantly destroyed when a fire truck that  was blown across the street crashed into them; firefighters screamed for help, neighbors ran for their lives while the division chief, with a 5-five inch stake sticking into his neck, did his best to command the scene.  The damage was frightening. The fire had leveled the entire four-story warehouse and the ensuing fireball demolished many buildings throughout the neighborhood. A large Gothic church, one block away, had a huge section ripped out of it as if a great hand had carved out the middle. Worst of all, five firefighters, four of them from South Buffalo, were killed: Michael Catanzaro, Michael Austin, Matty Colpoys, Tony Waszkielewicz and James Lickfeld. The propane fire of that year created a deep scar in the heart of South Buffalo and at “2020 hours” on December 27 of every years, dozens of neighbors gather here at the memorial while the Buffalo Fire Department rings out the “1-9-1” alarm in honor of the men who died there. Among them is Karen Murray, nee Lickfeld,  daughter of Jim Lickfeld. Pointing to the names on the monument,  Marge Ryan singled out Lickfeld. “Everybody called him “Red,” she said. “Even before the fire, he was a legend in the neighborhood. One of those guys who everybody loved.” 

I learned later from Grace Gannon, one of the Mercy  regulars who met at the Dog Ears every Saturday, that “Red” was a contractor. “Well, not really a contractor, contractor. He could just fix everything. All the firemen did…There’s not too many people in South Buffalo who paid for home renovations. There was always a friendly fireman around who’d do it for free.” I’d shared with Marge my fascination with the “cardboard cottages” and now she told me that the Lickfelds were a part of that colony. His daughter Karen, Marge said,  was the principal of School 67 Discover School, one of South Buffalo’s old neighborhood schools. Now there’s a Buffalo story, I thought,  a “South Buffalo story,” if ever there was one: the young woman whose father, a legendary neighborhood fire man killed in the line of duty, returns to her childhood neighborhood as a school principal. Marge got it immediately and within days she had arranged for me to meet Karen Lickfeld Murray in her office at School 67 on Abbott Road.

Karen Lickfeld Murray

Marge told me that Karen was raised on Strathmore and before our  March, 2019 meeting, I visited the a short tree-lined street that runs between Abbott Road and McKinley Parkway. The street is a tableau of  intimacy, filled with one and two family homes, each with those inviting front porches which, if they could only talk,  would repeat a thousand conversations and  tell a thousand stories. Strathmore is shadowed by the imagery and symbolism of Catholicism:  the façade of St. Thomas Aquinas Church  on the Abbott Road side and  Bishop Timon High School on the McKinley Parkway side. It was clear from the time I spent here that Strathmore was a place, like so many in South Buffalo, where as Peggy Cronin said, “You are never alone.”

We met in Karen’s  office at Discovery School 67 where, stuck emphatically onto the bulletin board behind her desk was a large sign that read: “Thank the Lord I was born in the Ward.”  She was getting ready, she told me, to march with her father’s brother, in the annual First Ward St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Like everybody else I spoke to in South Buffalo, Karen Lickfeld Murray grew up with tons of kids, a pack of girl friends---“the witches of Strathmore,” they called themselves, with whom she is still close today. Today she lives, along with many of  those same  “witches of Strathmore”,  around the corner on Cushing. Here’s how she describes her Cushing Street community. “Well, there’s my best friend, Bridget McMahon who married Jim “Doler” Dole, a Buffalo firefighter. “Doler”, she says, “grew up with  my uncle Butch, in The Ward. Bridget though grew up right next door to me on Strathmore. We play golf with some of the other “witches“ all summer long at South Park.” Karen  continued enthusiastically: “Next to the Dole’s is Mark and Amanda Scanlon, Councilmember  Chris Scanlon’s older brother. His wife, Amanda, was in my class at St. Tommy’s. Chris Shanahan down the street grew up on Strathmore too. Lots of us on Cushing  went to St. Tommy’s together: Chris Shanahan, Kevin Lalley , Kara Scanlon, Joy Carney. And there’s lots of firefighters on the street too, just like my Dad: Matt Hayes, Kathy Gall, John Otto, Pat Britzzalaro, Jim Coughlin and Jimmy Basil.” When I suggested to her, again citing Peggy Cronin, that she was  “never alone,” she laughed heartily: “Never alone? We never were. And still aren’t.”

Karen Lickfeld Murray’s story is a compelling one. I was moved by her passionate commitment to family, to faith and to  the traditions of her neighborhood.   And while rooted to that history, Karen Murray, is as an educator,  looking to the future, working to transform Discovery 67 into a “school of inquiry” where first-hand and experiential learning will someday replace the test-based approach that Karen so strongly questions. It was her ties to her neighborhood and to the memory of her Father’s service and his tragic death in the propane explosion of 1983 that inspired Karen to return to South Buffalo, to live and to work. She wanted to be here, in this neighborhood, close to where her Father died, to continue the Lickfeld family’s commitment to South Buffalo.

Gene Overdorf

One of the last people I met with in South Buffalo was Gene Overdorf who, as an historian, honors the area’s past; as a teacher, lives vibrantly in its present, and as a grandparent is deeply committed to its future.  On a beautiful summer’s morning in late July 2019, Overdorf led me through the grounds of Holy Cross Cemetery just down Ridge Road from the Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the border where South Buffalo meets Lackawanna. Overdorf,  like so many South Buffalonians of his generation,  has his roots deeply planted in the First Ward where members of his family have lived since the end of the 19th century. Gene was born here 1953 in a house on Mackinaw Street that had been in his family since the 1890s. Indeed, his sister Peggy Overdorf, one of Buffalo’s great grass-roots community leaders, still lives there. Overdorf, who has taught for years at Bishop Timon, is an avid historian deeply knowledgeable about Buffalo’s Irish American history as well as the history of Ireland  itself. Like so many of his South Buffalo friends and neighbors, the Overdorfs have made several trips back to the Emerald Isle visiting libraries and archives, old friends and family.  It all comes together, he tells me, at Holy Cross.

On monuments and gravestones, some that date back to the middle of the 19th century, Holy Cross contains the stories and the secrets of the foundational story of South Buffalo, the history of  Old First Ward. Like Tim Bohen, Overdorf is particularly drawn to the fantastical 1866  story of the Fenians who in their passionate commitment to a free Ireland, invaded, with an attempt to conquer, Canada. The stories about the Fenians that had captured my imagination years before  were here, in the silence of Holy Cross substantiated in the cemetary’s several monuments to the veterans of that fascinating event. For example, the gravestone of  Edward K. Lonergan, a 21-year-old lieutenant in a regiment called “The I.R.A.” (Irish Republican Army) who “fell gallantly fighting Ireland’s enemies on the famous field of Ridgeway, Ontario on June 2, 1866.” Many of the Fenians, Overdorf told me, were veterans of the New York State 155th Regiment, organized in Buffalo by an Irishman named  Colonel John E. McMahon.  Drawn from the growing number of Irishmen who, by then were all living in the First Ward, the 155th was dispatched to New York City.  They wanted to stay together, Lonergan and the other boys from the Ward, to fight together as they’d lived together. Alas, that was not to be and in October,1862, Buffalo’s Irish soldiers from the First Ward were incorporated into a much larger Irish unit, “the Corcoran Brigade.”  It was there that Lonergan and his pals from the neighborhood learned how to fight and at the War’s end, hearing the calls of the Fenians,  they joined yet another war for freedom, the glorious crusade to conquer Canada, and then swap it for a free Ireland.

The names of the Irish families that are buried here are legion: Connors, Kennedys, Brennans, Sheehans, O’Days, Driscolls, Cronins, Crottys and more—and Overdorf knows everything about most of them.  As a historian, Overdorf has deep ties that bind him to the First Ward and to South Buffalo.  But it’s not all about the past.  “My family’s future is here too. Right here in South Buffalo. All four of my kids and all of my grandkids live right around the corner from me in South Buffalo. Three of my boys are police officers….all working at the C-District. Like the members of that old 155 regiment. Except my boys  stayed together.”

In South Buffalo there were simply no easy endings. It never stopped: one after another, the cascading stories and memories-- all of them filled with the power of family,  of faith, of history, of place.  There were still so many people to talk to, many stories to learn and many places to go. I wanted to know what it was like to meet after school at Sullivan’s Ice Cream Parlor across from St. Tommy’s on Abbott and Columbus. I wanted to know what it felt like to skate on the outdoor rink and to swim in the outdoor pool at Caz Park; to know how it felt to go to Crystal Beach on South Buffalo Day; to watch the Timon Tigers play baseball on a lazy summer afternoon  in Caz park; to sit on the porch on Strathmore Avenue waiting for Karen Lickfeld and the other “witches of Strathmore” to come home for the night. I had discovered  in South Buffalo an incredibly rich tapestry of a tightly knit community which, rooted in a common faith, a common ethnic identity and a shared and heightened sense of place, a place where  family and faith, street, neighborhood and parish created a structure of daily life that was warm, closely-knit and supportive,  the kind of place that on a personal and intellectual level,  I found so appealing.  But time, at least for now, was running out. I was spending too much time in South Buffalo. I had other work to do. But I knew I’d return, just as Peggy Cronin and Karen Murry had. The stories wre too reich, the people too compelling. But now, at least, other areas of the city were calling and I was off to North Park and to  Central Park, where the people who lived there,  like those in South Buffalo,  I would soon find out, were also never alone.

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