Grant Street: With development and crime, a work in progress

Signs of vitality and change on Grant Street are easy to find:

Immigrant-owned businesses cater to recent West Side arrivals.

Neighborhood mainstays are still going strong long after the West Side's Italian population moved north.

There are places that appeal to young people and hipsters.

And last year, a three-story apartment building by Potomac Street opened in what had been a vacant lot, and a large building near West Ferry Street was renovated.

Still, signs of blight and criminal activity on Grant Street also are evident.

Buildings with dreary facades and barred windows abound. So does chronic litter, vacancies and barren tree plots.

Drug dealers hang out and brazenly make sales on the street, impeding businesses by their presence. Prostitutes are a common sight.

That is the yin and yang of the nearly mile-long stretch of Grant Street that runs from West Ferry north to Forest Avenue, and where the level of commerce and activity changes every few blocks.

Grant Street is home to the popular West Side Bazaar. KeyBank and M&T Bank, a Save-A-Lot and post office also are there.

So, too, are longtime institutions Guercio & Sons and Lorigo's Meating Place, as well as a Shakti Yoga studio and Rust Belt Books.

"Grant Street has the bones of a perfect commercial strip," said Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, who moved his office into a newly renovated building at 65 Grant St. last fall.

"This is what urban planners tell you you want to replicate: narrow streets, close together," Ryan said. "Grant is definitely on the rebound, and I believe the community is going to keep the improvements going."

Once thriving business district

Paul Murphy is a third-generation owner of G&L Flooring Center. His grandfather opened the business in 1943; Murphy took it over from his father in the mid-1970s.

Murphy, 64, remembers a very different Grant Street growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s.

A shopper could go to Simon's or Phillip & Son for full-line men's clothing, and women could get fashionable clothes at Gutman's Women's Wear and Lora Lee Dress Shop. Thom McAn, Buster Brown, Liberty and Rudolph's sold shoes on Grant. Orville's Appliances had its first store on Grant.

There were Texaco and Mobil gas stations, neighborhood restaurants and bars and two movie theaters – the Victoria at Grant and West Ferry, and the Ellen Terry at Grant and Potomac.

"There were a lot more viable businesses," Murphy said. "You could get anything you wanted."

But the neighborhood went through wrenching changes, as workers lost their jobs at steel mills and auto plants and businesses closed or relocated. Homeowners left for North Buffalo and the suburbs, often replaced by absentee landlords. As the middle class moved out, poverty moved in.

But Murphy sees a difference now.

"Grant is definitely on the way back," he said. "New businesses are coming back in."

Susan McCartney, who directs SUNY Buffalo State's Small Business Development Center, said while Elmwood Avenue looks more successful, looks may be deceiving.

"The assumption is that Elmwood is where the most profitable businesses are," McCartney said. "But it is my understanding that there are several businesses that make more money on Grant than Elmwood, with the exception of the grocery stores."

The businesses that have stuck it out on Grant are owed a lot of thanks for sustaining the neighborhood through tough times, she said.

Sweetness 7 was catalyst

The commercial stretch of Grant Street divides roughly into three sections.

There's West Ferry to Auburn Avenue, which encompasses a number of stores, a small supermarket and other services. Then there's the middle section that runs from Auburn to West Delavan Avenue and includes the busiest retail blocks. Heading north to Forest Avenue, there are fewer shops and stores sprinkled among rental housing.

The middle section is where new life was injected onto the street. Much of the credit goes to the arrival of Sweetness 7 Cafe in 2007.

Prish Moran bought the boarded up building that houses Sweetness 7 that March for $112,000 – to prevent it from becoming a Rite Aid, she says – and later spent $300,000 to rehab seven apartments and five storefronts.

The corner cafe at Grant and Lafayette Street has a diverse clientele, with the biggest customer base coming from the Elmwood Village and Amherst, Moran said.

Other businesses on both sides of the block appeal to young people and hipsters. They include Westside Stories Used Books, Black Dots record store and Sunday, a skate shop.

"When I started, there was no one walking around," Moran said. "Now I see people walking, I see strollers and tons of immigrants. People are putting flowers out."

Buffalo State Community Academic Center has a storefront on the block, where it tutors students learning English.

"They were a great boost for the entire neighborhood," Moran said. "They brought legitimacy, I think, to Grant Street."

Joe Petri, who owns Westside Stories, is upbeat about the neighborhood. Property values have shot up in recent years on the street and surrounding blocks, where he said he knew of homes selling for $300,000, an unheard of sum not long ago.

"It's a wonderful community," said Petri, whose store has a new facade. "We know our neighbors, and we feel that progress and time are on our side."

But Petri sees the downside, too, especially the drug dealers and prostitutes who make their presence known.

"On any given day you'll see several that are walking up and down, all day long," Petri said of the prostitutes. "The drug dealers and prostitutes are not trying to be discreet. I think it's easily the biggest challenge for Grant Street."

Immigrants find a place

Changes on Grant also are evident in Our Lady of Hope Church, at Lafayette and Grant, which once served mainly Irish congregants. Now the services are in English, Spanish and Burmese.

Some of the deli case offerings inside Lorigo's Meating Place are listed in Spanish with English subtitles.

If someone stepped onto Grant Street after being in a time machine for the past 20 years, they'd no doubt be shocked by the diversity. Many of the recent arrivals came to Buffalo after fleeing war, persecution or natural disasters.

The largest number of immigrants come from Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan. Some who came in the past 10 years have opened stores on Grant to serve other recent arrivals.

Louise Sano opened Global Villages – featuring handmade jewelry, clothing and other items from around the globe – in Moran's building five years ago after fleeing Rwanda.

The shop began a block away as part of a business incubator started by Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which has helped numerous businesses on the street. That includes West Side Bazaar, which houses numerous immigrant-owned eateries and vendors under one roof.

"There is more business, even tourists," Sano said. "Grant is growing, oh my goodness. There are many stores, and a lot have stayed."

David Kat, who came to Buffalo from South Sudan, owns Kat Food Market a few blocks north, next to Renisha Mini-Mart, a Nepalese-owned business. Kat opened his small African grocery three years ago.

"What I like about Grant Street is that there are a lot of immigrants around here," Kat said.

What's not so good for business, he said, are having four other small markets catering to Africans. One, Jomow International Market, sells camel meat.

"There is now too much competition," Kat said.

His target population – immigrants from South Sudan, Eritrea, Rwanda, Congo and Kenya – cannot support that many stores, he said. He's considering moving to another location because of it.

Drugs, prostitution, shootings 

Vineeta International Foods, on Grant near Breckenridge Street, a few doors from Golden Burma market, is an 11,000-square-foot Indian and Asian market.

Sujata Chauhan, who opened the market with her husband, Raj, five years ago, said business is good. But she has grown increasingly concerned about crime and the feeling of menace on Grant.

"It's getting worse," Chauhan said. "There are a lot of homeless people, drug people – and there were shootings on this street a couple times," she said, motioning through her window to the corner of Grant and Breckenridge, where men often gather in front of American Corner Mart and Fade Doctor's Barber Shop, as well as nearby Frontier Liquors.

"You used to see one, two or three prostitutes," Chauhan said. "Now you see many, many more, and men too."

The criminal element keeps shoppers away from Grant, and discourages businesses from opening, she said.

"I've talked to people interested in starting a business, and they look around here and say, no, I don't want to be here," Chauhan said.

Rick Bordieri is committed to Grant Street. His sporting goods store, San-Bor Sports, was there when Grant went from better days to worse. Now he sees the pendulum starting to swing back again.

"I don't want to kick Grant Street," Bordieri said.

But the drug dealers are a problem, he said, especially when they hang out in front of his store.

"I don't want to be confrontational," Bordieri said. "I can throw them out and give them all kinds of problems, but who's going to protect me if they are waiting for me when I leave because of their ideas of street justice?"

Bordieri said another big problem on the street is the trash that blows from West Ferry and collects on Grant.

"When the wind blows it's like a tunnel here, blowing things from blocks away all the way down," Bordieri said. "You sweep in the morning and by the end of the day things have blown here from three or four blocks away."

Moran agrees. "It's all coming from West Ferry – businesses serving single-serve items, from McDonald's – and it's all day, every day," Moran said.

Despite the problems, Bordieri said Grant Street has a lot of potential.

"I've been here my whole adult life and I'm not giving up on it, but we do need help," he said.

Further north, Gary Grundtisch, co-owner of Ink Assassins Tattoos & Piercings, at Bird and Grant, has noticed crime going down.

"When we first opened up,  it was a little more rough," Grundtisch said. "It seems to be getting better and better each year, maybe because the college is kind of spreading toward us more. It seems like most of the crime went toward West Ferry and Black Rock."

Police: Crime's down

The police chief in charge of D District, which covers the length of Grant Street, said violent crime was down 53 percent from the year before. Gun activity was 73 percent less.

"Crime is down significantly in that area," Chief Anthony Barba said.

Still, Barba acknowledged more needs to be done.

"The drug dealing is something we are fighting all the time," he said. "Usually the patrols don't do that much because they see us coming down the street. That has to be undercover work, and we have had some great progress on raids and arrests, and we will continue to step that up and fight it as best we can."

Barba said the police are also developing new strategies to address prostitution. The clients, he said, are mostly from the suburbs.

"I can't tell you exactly, but we have some plans in place right now and will try to solve the matter," he said.

Barba said there'll be more of a visible police presence after the weather improves.

"I will say we are out there in greater numbers than in a long time, and once the weather breaks you will see more walking patrols," he said.

As for the criminal activity and loitering that occurs on the corner of Breckenridge and Grant that Chauhan pointed to near her market, Barba said it was "my pet project."

"We're really combating that," he said. "We're doing a lot to make that corner safer."

Focusing on Grant

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan relocated his office to 65 Grant St. in November. He was one of a number of people who worked to get a change in ownership, so the long-vacant and deteriorating building could be renovated and help preserve Grant's streetscape.

Ryan is the first tenant of the building, which includes apartments upstairs and a second storefront.

A new building that opened last May at 363 Grant near Potomac has retail space and 11 apartments, of which about half are rented. Public Espresso + Coffee is considering opening a cafe there.

Ryan has held three meetings with around 20 storefront owners in attendance at each. The need for better sidewalks, landscaping and lighting, controlling litter and crime are among the issues discussed.

They've discussed a littering campaign in multiple languages, and using grants for facade improvements. Ryan said they and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera want to develop a strategy with the city and state to make overdue infrastructure improvements, and to pressure absentee landlords.

"My staff may not be happy, but we are going to focus on Grant Street for the next 36 months," Ryan said.

Ryan revels in the multicultural world Grant has become.

"When I go in Nick the Barber, there can be someone who's Pakistani on the chair, and an old guy who's Italian and three Hispanics waiting," Ryan said. "A multiethnic, multigenerational and multisocioeconomic barbershop is not the norm.

"Nick cuts the hair of the whole world," he said.

Grant's success should not be based on comparisons to Elmwood Avenue, Ryan said.

"Retail has to serve the population that surrounds it, and these are viable businesses selling essentially household and daily items for people in the community," he said. "A big portion of the people who live in and around Grant Street don't have cars."

Ryan thinks the city can do more to enforce code restrictions.

He is frustrated by inaction on fixing up the Glendale apartment building across from his office. And he reserves particular frustration for an empty, blighted lot that belongs to absentee owner John Katsimotis, owner of the Kwik Fill/Red Apple gas stations, on the corner of Grant and Auburn Avenue. Dozens of Jersey barriers surround it to keep cars out.

"Try that on Main Street in Williamsville," Ryan said.

But James Comerford, the city's head of permits and inspections, said his hands are tied when it comes to the lot.

"There are no code violations there," Comerford said. "If there were we would go after it, but there is nothing we can do about a property that is just barricaded."

Comerford said his department has gone after code violators on the street, but Ryan thinks the city can do more. He is critical of gas meters in front of a storefront, tall weeds protruding out of cracks in the pavement, holders with missing trash cans and heavily chipped paint on the facade of a store.

"The City of Buffalo has not put adequate capital investment into Grant Street," Ryan said. "You need to have the big buy-in. When's the last time a street sweeper went down Grant Street? Or a snow plow? When is the last time they put any enforcement into streetscape improvements?"

Pushing forward

People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) has been headquartered on Grant for 10 years, and helped stabilize the street.

The group helps strengthen residential housing, promotes green energy programs and operates an after-school program for around 50 kids – what PUSH Executive Director Aaron Bartley calls "a safe, hopeful and productive space."

"Grant Street represents both the hope of low-income communities in Buffalo and America, and also the pain of those communities," Bartley said. "Many of the disparities in class and race that are roiling our political system and our economy are very visible on the street, as are the ways in which they manifest in addiction and prostitution."

Bartley said the visibility of addiction isn't the problem – failing to see addiction as a public health crisis is.

Bartley hopes to see more refugee-owned businesses, and women and minority-owned businesses opening on Grant in the coming years. He also said Grant does not need to be another Elmwood Avenue, which some hold up as a model.

"Grant needs businesses that serves the community that's there, and not the community that's imagined," he said.

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