BUFFALO’S BYGONE BEST By Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News May 16, 2009
Hop on the tour bus, crack open a beer and get ready for a ride through time into neighborhood places that make this city special.
Its 5 p. m. on a Friday, and the Forgotten Buffalo bus is ready to leave. It is sitting in front of the Sportsmens Tavern, on Amherst Street in Black Rock. Tourists have five minutes to tear themselves away from the thundering song stylings of bluesman Billy McEwen and run outside and board. Where is the bus going, to the Seneca Niagara casino? Nope.
Downtown to a Sabres game? No, not there either. The bus is going to Black Rock. And the people are piling in! The bus holds 40, and the tour is sold out. You could call this extreme Staycationing. Run by Airborne Eddy Dobosiewicz, who is known for being a local comedian, and amateur historian Martin Biniasz, Forgotten Buffalo tours focus not on well-known attractions like the Guaranty Building or the Darwin Martin House, but on things even lifelong Buffalonians commonly overlook.
Their premise is simple. They rent a school bus. Everyone kicks in; price is $40 a head. The cost includes dinner at an old tavern, and transportation to a dozen destinations, perhaps half of which are other historic taverns. (Drinks are on your own, but dont worry, theyre cheap.)
Forgotten Buffalo specializes in gritty neighborhoods. Easter brought Polonia, exploring the mom-and-pop bars that surround the Broadway Market. A Prohibition tour poked into taverns dating to the 1920s. And a June 25 tour called Steel Mills and Gin Mills focuses on Lackawanna. The slogan: Youre Gonna Wanna/Come to Lackawanna.
Its like a treasure hunt,Dobosiewicz says. We eat, drink and laugh our way through Buffalo history. It makes it experiential, as opposed to giving people dates and names and boring stuff.
The Black Rock tour is going over big. One couple, Alan and Deb Lanctot, came in from Rochester. We heard about it and thought it sounded interesting, they said. Rumor has it that a Toronto couple is also on board. And our farthest-flung guest is Michael Stark, who flew in from Sacramento, Calif., to visit his sister, Kathy McGinley of Pendleton, and take the tour. Im always driven to older history, he said.
As the tour starts, Erie Canal songs are playing on the bus sound system. Oh, the Er-I-E was a-risingAnd the gin was gettin? low,And I scarcely think we?ll geta drink Till we get to Buffalo-o-o
Biniasz, in a plaid Madras jacket, and Dobosiewicz, sporting a black beret, feed us facts. See that house on the left It was built by Augustus Porter, brother of Gen. Porter, of Porter Avenue fame. It could be the oldest house in Buffalo.
People stare. Cameras snap. The music changes to Civil War-era pipe and drum tunes as we approach our first stop, the former St. Francis Xavier Church.
Inside, a docent explains how the church will become a museum of religious art, rescued from closed churches and synagogues. The crowd gathers around. It is funny seeing a guy in a T-shirt reading Buffalo Hockey Un-Puckn Believable listening avidly to a lecture about Jesuits and which apostle is which. But then this is no ordinary day.
Next we pay a brief visit to Mason Street, a narrow, industrial alley near Rich Products that has a peculiar beauty. And the next stop is another surprise Squaw Island.
As we step off the bus, Biniasz opens a cooler and hands everyone an icy Genny. Dobosiewicz points out the International Railroad Bridge, explaining its engineering. You would never have known this place was here, marvels Mary Beth Erbacher, here with her husband, Joe. I have lived here all my life. And I never knew this bridge was here.
The Erbachers are busy taking pictures with their phones and sending them to their 24- year-old daughter. They said: Youre drinking beer on a school bus? What in the world are you doing?? laughs Joe Erbacher, who works at Northtown Automotive.
Our first tavern is Mixers, on Niagara Street. It has a mod-ern sign and sits on a nondescript corner. We learn the tavern is a classic, though, dating to 1919. ?I need a mixer!? jokes Vincy Faliero, a collections worker from South Buffalo, as we head inside. But Mixer?s is named for Don Mix, a legend who owned a host of bars on Buffalo?s West Side back in the day. The horseshoe- shaped bar was a relic from McVan?s, a fabled club where Sinatra used to sing. The joint is jumping. The handsome bartender has dressed up for the occasion, and looks excited by the crowd. Dobosiewicz leads a toast to the owner. ?Let?s raise a glass to Wes for keeping this place ?Look at the ?Jimmy Griffin For County Executive? sign.?
?We immerse ourselves in these neighborhoods,? he says. ?I find myself walking down side streets in Lackawanna, thinking, ?Look, here is a bar I didn?t know was here.? ?
Dobosiewicz and Biniasz laugh remembering taverns they investigated that they learned immediately were unsuitable. And it?s amusing to hear phrases like: ?I was driving around the old Precious Blood neighborhood, and ...?
But the tours have their serious side. They attract a cross-section of people. ?We have people who come on the tours by themselves, and we have other people on dates,? Biniasz says. ?Others bring eight, 10, 15 people, as a party.? And these people can wind up making a difference to a struggling neighborhood in a direct and practical way. Tour takers often return to the destinations on their own, patronizing the bars and businesses.
?People are starting to realize their might be something cool in these old structures,? Biniasz says. ?We?re saving Buffalo, one bar at a time.? Dinner is next, at Barry?s Bar and Grill on Amherst Street. ?A great joint,? Dobosiewicz says.
More bar trivia awaits: Historically, Biniasz explains, the tavern?s front room was for men, and the back room for women. ?That?s why the men?s room is in front, while the ladies? room is in back,? he explains. An ancient mystery solved!
Barry?s is named for its owners, whose name is Baranski. They have a buffet ready, with sauerkraut, deviled eggs and two kinds of sausages. As we eat, Dobosiewicz passes out copies of ancient maps of the 25th Ward, where we now are.
Next is Dill?s, on Military Road. ?Perfect! Perfect vintage tavern,? Dobosiewicz announces as we pour in.
Dill?s has a history of catering to American Brass. Owner Bill Dill tells us how workers used to have only 20 minutes for lunch. ?One guy always wanted three bottles of beer. No food, just three bottles of beer. He always had his three bottles of beer in 20 minutes, and he was never late back to work.?
?That?s the thing about these joints,? Dobosiewicz announces. ?They?re warm. They have regulars, typically ? six, seven, eight older people ? and they?re very friendly. And that?s how you find out history.?
Suddenly it is dark, we?ve been touring for four hours, and the basket of empties at the front of the bus is growing full. In a way, though, Black Rock ?n Roll saves the best for last, ushering us into two private clubs. The first is the Ukrainian- American Social Club, which has a kind of rec room look, with faux stonework and a balcony reminiscent of Alpine chalets. Next comes the Polish Cadets, a fortress at Grant and Military, where, incredibly, they are playing a polka version of Rick James? ?Superfreak.?
Both clubs were founded around the turn of the last century. But memberships are affordable ($15 a year for the Polish Cadets), making them a bargain for Buffalonians seeking retro chic. By the time we emerge from the Polish Cadets, glowing from our pilsner, everyone is making plans to join. Hilariously, the bus is waiting to return us to the Sportsmen?s, which is right across the street. ?That was so much fun!? exults one tour-taker, Gary Marino. ?It?s like going to a Bills game, only you don?t have to suffer through the game.?
It is a lot of fun, Biniasz and Dobosiewicz agree a few days later. They are always on the job, doing reconnaissance. Driving down Hertel, Biniasz says alertly: ?Look at the Jimmy Griffin For County Executive sign.?
"We immerse ourselves in these neighborhoods," he says. "I find myself walking down side streets in Lackawanna thinking, "Look, here is a bar I did not know was here."
Dobosiewicz and Biniasz laugh remembering taverns they investigated that they learned immediately were unsuitable. And it's amusing to hear phrases like: "I was driving around the old Precious Blood neighborhood and..."
But the tours have their serious side. They attract a cross-section of people." We have people who come on the tours by themselves, and we have other people on dates," Biniasz says. "Others bring eight, 10, 15 people as a party/."
And these people can wind up making a difference to a struggling neighborhood in a direct and practical way. Tour takers often return to the destinations on their own, patronizing the bars and business.
"People are starting to realize their might be something cool in these old structures," Biniasz says. "We're saving Buffalo, one bar at a time.