Black history in housing complex at risk of demolition

Feb 28, 2020

In between William Street and Broadway on Buffalo’s East Side, nestled among recently built housing units sits a ghost town. Broken glass, ripped out electrical boxes and debris litter the walkways leading up to the boarded up, red brick, three story housing units of Willert Park Court.

Credit Emyle Watkins

But it wasn’t always this way. Willert Park Court was once a thriving public housing complex - the first of its kind for African Americans in Buffalo. 

University at Buffalo Urban and Regional Planning Professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. said the complex, built in 1939, was an innovative living space for its time.

“It was one of the first garden courtyard housing projects in the nation,” he said. “And the design itself was unique in the sense of creating art pieces that were symbolic of the African American cultural experience.”

Those art pieces are the relief sculptures built on many of the units. They depict a history of the Black experience in Buffalo, including a wife and husband, a trumpet, and a fleeing slave next to a returning soldier.

So what happened to Willert Park Court?

“That’s a darn good question,” former Buffalo Common Council President and former Willert Park tenant George Arthur said. “I want to say poor management. Neglect on the part of the Housing Authority.”

George Arthur stands outside of Willert Park Court.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

The complex was closed in 2009 by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which still owns the property. At the time, residents left, in favor of moving into newer, larger housing units in the neighborhood.

Today, the question stands whether the future of Willert Park has to be tied to its past. And if so, how?

Plans were made in 2014 by the BMHA to tear down all of the housing units and put up larger living spaces.

The group Preservation Buffalo Niagara is fighting to instead get the complex renovated. Preservation’s Executive Director, Jessie Fisher, sees value in restoration.

“We can invest in that again, not just so that we have another piece of beautiful architecture in Buffalo,” she said. “But also so that we continue to invest in families and have housing here on this site that is actually reflective of a community push to build good housing.”

Renovations would include raising the 7 foot tall ceilings in every 512 square foot apartment, and adding elevators and handicap accessible ramps.

B.M.H.A. Executive Director Gillian Brown said Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s plans are not cost effective.

“Our estimates of the cost of preserving every single building on the site exactly as they are, but rehabbing them, would be about double,” he said. “It’d be about $40 million if the plan that we call for is $20[million].”

And Brown said Fisher’s proposal wouldn’t meet the current needs of the community.

“What the preservationists are saying is simply not reflected in reality,” he said.

Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority Executive Director Gillian Brown
Credit Emyle Watkins

The B.M.H.A. has over 1,000 families on waiting lists for housing - most seeking apartments with three to six bedrooms. At its peak, Willert Park’s buildings offered only 172 one and two bedroom apartments. And even fewer are available today.

As for the artwork, Brown said preserving the sculptures are a priority.

“You can preserve history without actually forgetting that actual people have to live here,” he said.

Fisher said she has been talking to the BMHA about solutions which work for the community, preservationists, and the housing authority. And she’s looking for a developer to take interest in the project.

Still, Taylor wondered why there is widespread support to preserve some places in Buffalo, but not others.

“Some people have talked about the cost involved in the restoration and modernization of that unit. But I never heard anybody speak about that when they were doing the Darwin Martin House,” he said. “I’ve never heard anybody say 30-million dollars is a lot to pour into a house nobody is going to live in.”

Stop putting a price tag on preserving the history of the Black community. And that’s what they’re doing. They want to tear this down and put up something that has no history. -George Arthur

There’s no timeline for demolition. Brown still needs approval from the State Historic Preservation Office and has to conduct public hearings to move forward. He says nothing is set in stone, but he is trying to eliminate the backlog of families looking for housing as fast as he can.

So does significant history supersede current housing needs? Or does eliminating vacancy rates take precedence? The answer will determine the fate of Willert Park Court.