Savvy Over 60: Peg Overdorf

Mar 13, 2019

Down in the Valley is Margaret "Peg" Overdorf. Hang your head over the Michigan Avenue Lift Bridge and you can hear her wind blow. This year, Overdorf is celebrating 40 years as Executive Director of the Valley Community Association, from which has bloomed a renewal along the Ohio Street Corridor to the Buffalo River. You may not recognize their names, but the VCA, Overdorf and her close-knit army of volunteers are leaving their mark on our region, serving families and turning former polluted dumping grounds into waterfront destinations.

How did the Valley get its name?

The Valley got its name because it was surrounded by physical boundaries.

Historically, there were voting districts. This, where we are right now (at the Tewsbury Lodge), was known as the Old First Ward. The Valley got its name because it was surrounded by physical boundaries. You had to go over a bridge to get in it, you had to go over a bridge to get out of it. And the river was on one side and the Thruway was on the other side. That is no longer true because the bridge was razed for Larkinville, at Seneca and Smith. So the boundaries of the Valley would be Van Rennselaer Street, that leads into Larkinville; Lee Street, where it used to be heavy-duty industrial: Buffalo Color, Honeywell, Allied Signal at the time, the entrance to the Bethlehem Steel plant, now Tesla; then over as far as the Thruway and the Buffalo River. So it was a little neighborhood within there.

I've been there for 43 years, so when I came in, there was a big Polish population and a lot of them attended St. Valentine's Church, which was located on South Park and Alabama in the Old First Ward. People didn't refer to themselves so much by where they were from, but by which parish they belonged to. Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the only one still open, but the Ward has withstood a lot of change and it's still one of the few neighborhoods left in the city where there are a lot of descendents, people know each other. My family's been on the same street for 150 years. I'm still in the same house I was born in.

Why is that?

I don't know. There's a real sense of neighborhood down here, a sense of community. And I think South Buffalo's like that, too, but it's a much bigger geographic area. When you leave downtown, you go to the Old First Ward, which is lower Main Street to where you hit the bridge at Van Rennselear. Then all of a sudden it becomes the Valley. Then you go through the Valley and there's an area called Hickory Woods beyond that, a neighborhood nestled in Baraga, Mystic, Abby, those streets. Then you go beyond that and you're in South Buffalo. This is the largest geographic police district in the city.

The momentum seems really strong now for the Valley to be Buffalo's next renaissance.

Peg Overdorf stands in front of a historic Buffalo River picture, one of many that hang in the Tewksbury Lodge.
Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News

I think when I built this Buffalo River Fest Park and the park up the river called Mutual Riverfront Park, that was a catalyst to get a lot of stuff moving. There was nothing here. When I looked at this land to build the Buffalo River Fest Park, they said, "You're crazy." It was nothing but overgrown industrial waste. But we wrote a lot of grants, got some money, built the park and soon after, we saw this Larkin building go up next store, this entertainment complex across the river, (Rep.) Brian Higgins restored the infrastructure of Ohio Street.

Now property here is in demand. People are calling me all the time looking for land to build new homes. We have one brand new home built down here on Ohio Street, but a lot of these homes were built from 1888. They were built on piers. They were old Irish immigrants who really had nothing. They built the Erie Canal and settled in these neighborhoods around it. They're not the architectural wonders you see up on the West Side and they've been neglected, so they're in bad need of repair or they need demolition and new home put up. But I do see us (the VCA) as a catalyst for a lot of what happened after us.

Why did you decide to expand the VCA from a human services nonprofit to include parks and recreation?

Over all those years, we kept trying to get what ended up being 17 grants for $5.4 million.

All these years we've done a lot of human services - senior citizens, we have a licensed after-school program serving 157 kids, two child care centers, a food pantry - but I said we really have to stabilize the neighborhoods. We started with small projects. We did a beautiful brick "Welcome to the Valley" sign. I got a minigrant and turned an old NFTA dumping ground into greenspace with some trees. Then behind our center, I got a federal action grant to turn what used to be a baseball field into what we now call the Valley Nature Park, which is a trailway you walk and our kids use it as an outdoor science classroom. That leads back to the Buffalo River at Red Jacket Riverfront Park, which we were a steward for with the county and state in the early '90s, and we still use for our regatta. The county is doing some shoreline remediation there now with a grant.

We also do some big events. One is called the Buffalo River Fest, which is how we got started with creating this (Buffalo River Fest) park. That grew out of the "Rally in the Valley" we used to hold, first behind our center, then at Fr. Conway Park. But you couldn't see the river, so we went knocking on doors to find some land. Our vision for the park started in 2005 and it was completed in 2011. Over all those years, we kept trying to get what ended up being 17 grants for $5.4 million. The second phase of that was this Tewksbury Lodge, where we hold banquets and concerts. Our hope is that it will be steady cash flow and sustain us, so we don't have to rely on grants so much. Then a year later to the day, in June, we opened up Mutual Riverfront Park in 2012. And everything is pretty and built to be significant of the Old First Ward historically.

Most recently, we just got $350,000 from the Ralph Wilson Foundation and the Greenway Commission gave use $100,000 for this wharf out here, across from the Labatt towers. It's the only structure that's actually built over the Buffalo River. Our driveway used to be where the lake freighters would get their supplies from the local vendors and off they went down the Erie Canal with it. It's a very historic area of the river and it's a big space - as big as my gymnasium - built on 16 piers and it took a year to get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We want to cover that so it's a multi-use thing, because right now, if it's inclement weather or blistering hot, our program stops. Right now, we have an architectural drawing. That would be cool. But the Tewsbury Lodge is booked all season, so we'll probably hold off construction until September, when it dies down a little bit.

What do you think of Tesla's impact on the neighborhood?

Not much. When they first came to town, we asked them to help get people jobs, but they were very private and didn't seem interested in working with us. I don't think they'll be there long.

That building across the street, the former E.B. Holmes Machinery Co., is applying for historic tax credits. And there's a building on Hamburg and O'Connell - the old Barcalo Building, they actually made the parts for the recliner - they're applying for national historic tax credits to turn that into 85 lofts. This neighborhood already has the (Edward M. Cotter) fireboat, which is a national historic landmark, as is the Great Northern Grain Elevator on Ganson Street.

How do you inspire people to see the same vision as you?

I've nurtured so many relationships, have so many good friends. I could never, ever, ever do what I've done if I didn't have the support of my friends and volunteers. Never. We've got a ton of partnerships. When I came in to the VCA our budget was about $37,000 a year. Now it's $2.7 million and there's a myriad of programs offered based upon needs assessments we've done with the help of the University at Buffalo. Even our board members went door to door one year to find out what the community needed. Our day care center, for example, opened in 1998 behind the VCA with $15,000 in the bank, two teachers and eight kids. Today' we've got two day care centers, one in the Larkin Building, and they're both licensed for 60 children affordable sliding scale and there's waiting lists to get into them.

Buffalo River kayakers paddle past the Tewksbury Lodge.
Credit Valley Community Center

I think if people see a positive, they want to join forces with you, and I think if you make it fun and social, that too. I have a lot of corporations that want to come in and when they come out, I want to make it a pleasurable day for them and we get a lot accomplished in the short that that they're here. This is how we're able to maintain this, because we'd never have the resources to maintain everything. I use the forces of my friends. I tell young people, they can't be afraid to ask. All they can say is,"No," but more likely than not, people are willing to help you. On Wednesday nights, I have 32 people who volunteer with concerts. It's a community event. We keep it inexpensive, with cheap beer and food, but we need it to sustain ourselves. So it's not through my own being, it's been through the community, for the community. 

We (the VCA) don't have many full-time staff, excluding the day care, maybe eight who run all the operations. This is the first time in 40 years I've gotten an assistant, because I've taken up the management of the Tewksbury, as well. We still get it done. It's called mutiltasking. It's called working hard. The best advice I ever got was, "Get out from behind a desk and meet people." I try to be out and about, talking with people to see what their concerns are. And I don't ask anyone to do anything I'm not willing to do myself. I've done everything from scrub bathrooms to maintaining trees and landscaping to whatever. You gotta have that passion, you gotta like what you do. If you don't like what you do, get out of it.

Have you ever felt held back because you're a woman?

No. I go to every meeting, I've met with contractors and construction people. Once they know you've accomplished something, they have confidence in you. It's important to have a win - and more wins and more wins. But, again, you gotta be out and about and get to know people. Networking is the name of the game.

The Irish snake is a signature of the Old Neighborhood St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Credit Valley Community Center

March is a very important season for you, when you hold your signature event.

Yes. We will have our Old Neighborhood St. Patrick's Day Parade on March 16, which in the beginning had 25 people participate and now we have like 1,000 people. It's a cultural heritage event for the Irish celebration of St. Patrick. This year's Grand Marshal is Dawn Carpino. She came onboard, shortly after I did, as a volunteer and she still does all sorts of work from making auction baskets to soup for our seniors. The parade will start at the community center on Leddy Street, then goes up to Smith Street, down Elk, over South Park, down Hamburg and down South Street, by the scenic Buffalo River, then disperses at South and Louisiana. Hopefully, then everybody will go the Tewksbury Lodge and we'll have a bus shuttling people back and forth.

Flats or heels?

Wedges. Always wedges.

NOTE: Content has been edited. Details can be found in the audio clips. Listen Wednesday mornings throughout March on WBFO and watch online for more "Savvy Over 60." #SavvyWomenOver60