Sunday, March 17, 2002
By KEVIN PURDY
NORTH TONAWANDA -- To many familiar with Oliver Street, charting the history of the city's historic main street used to be a simple game of "count the bars."
Most business owners who have lived here long enough can recall a time when the number of taverns on Oliver, supported by a large, ethnically diverse working-class population, gained the city notoriety for those who tried to take an in-depth tour of each.
"I can remember, coming out of high school in 1952, there were 54 bars on Oliver," said Leonard Wudyka, owner of the East Avenue Tavern at 881 Oliver. "I remember because my buddies and I could never make it much past 13."
Oliver Street has exactly 13 bars now, with a number of small stores, apartments and restaurants replacing the bustling stores, theaters and restaurants of days gone by. For one group of business owners and residents, Oliver Street's aged storefronts and walkways provide an opportunity to reinvest pride in a street with a strong history and unique character.
Oliver Street Community Pride, an offshoot of the city's four-year-old Project Pride program, will work this spring to beautify and refurbish the street between its intersections with Sweeney and Wheatfield streets, placing flower planters on streetlights and benches along walkways.
And in keeping with the town's billing as "Home of the Carousel," the group is also in the first stages of a plan to place painted carousel horses on the street and auction them to local businesses, akin to Buffalo's hugely successful "Herd About Buffalo" project.
With additional funding, former Pride President and Soos' Cafe owner Larry Soos believes the project could easily expand well beyond a typical beautification effort -- and in some ways, already has.
"A lot of residents seem to think the only thing happening is down at the Mid-City Plaza," said Soos, who stepped down as president of the organization after being elected to a Common Council position. "They're going to see a change, see something progressive going on here on Oliver; they want to see Oliver Street shine again."
A $3,000 grant is currently budgeted by the city for the organization, and Soos said the group is trying to obtain $32,000 in matching-funds grants from the state. Along with a proposed $100,000 capital improvement to Gateway Point Park canal access, Oliver Street Community Pride represents part of what many consider a move toward creating a new identity for the street and the city.
"The original Project Pride was a dramatic improvement for the city's image," Mayor David Burgio said of the project's effects on Webster Street. The group's initial request for $27,000 to renovate older storefronts was reduced because of budget constraints, said Burgio, who added that the Oliver Street project "is keeping a lot of people happy, and if there's other groups that have their heart in it, I'm going to consider them."
"At this time, we can't afford to do everything we'd like, but there's some niceties in life you have to maintain," he said. "(Oliver Street) has a character all its own, and now (residents and merchants) need to make their own decisions on how to make it better with what they have.'
The street's rich history is part of what drew Penny Creasey back to North Tonawanda after a 10-year stay in England. She opened the Hodgepodge gift and antiques store on Oliver, along with co-owner Kay Learned. Now managing the store's Webster Street location, Creasey believes revitalizing Oliver may be more difficult than it was on traditionally business-oriented Webster Street.
"It's going to be a challenge," Creasey said. "It's not like the few blocks here on Webster and Sweeney; it's a larger area on Oliver. There's a lot going on and a lot to reclaim."
Many Oliver Street business owners believe the street's older properties have created low-cost entry opportunities for start-up businesses. Along with this, however, are the absentee landlords and temporary residents "looking for a low-rent place to live, and usually don't care about or want to get involved with the street," said Soos.
Creasey said she and Learned launched Hodgepodge in its Oliver location "mainly because we didn't want the space rented out again." They said the previous tenant, a dealer in exotic pets, left the store with dead and shriveled snakes in the space's unreachable areas -- among other unique problems.
"It created a very unorthodox reason for us to start a business," said Creasey.
The Gathering, a place where devotees of fantasy card and board games gather to compete, surf the Internet and feed their collectible-card habits, grew from a cheap and convenient playing space for Steven Hobbs and three friends into a new and steadily growing business, without anyone's having planned for it. Hobbs believes his space -- which retains the industrial ceilings and installation shower rooms from its baton twirling and karate studio past -- is perfect for his needs. Though he'd probably fare better at the city's Mid-City Plaza, with its higher youth concentration and generous parking, "it'd be more business, but far more problems," Hobbs said.
"Our landlord's what you might call 'absentee,' but that's only because we don't need anything from him," said Hobbs.
"If we ever leave this location, it'll be because of parking."
The store has about 60 regular customers, and Hobbs believes a common concern in the past, youth delinquency and vagrancy, has "decreased considerably" since he opened his doors, which often stay open until he leaves with the last customer, sometimes at 4 a.m. The store is monitored by a Web camera while open, "so latchkey kids and their parents don't have to worry," said Hobbs.
"(Oliver Street) is a safe area in general," said Creasey, "but whenever you have empty lots, people start to wonder about the businesses, and the safety, in the area."
One such empty lot on Oliver Street will be converted by September into the Elizabeth C. Harvey apartments for visually impaired people. The project could have "the biggest impact Oliver Street has seen in 40 years," said Soos.
Many businesses, including his own, have begun looking into such accommodations as Braille menus and greater accessibility for the apartment's residents, he said.
Alderman P. Russell Rizzo is currently petitioning the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority against its suggested cancellation of a city bus route that would stop directly in front of the apartments, Soos said.
John Olszowka, a North Tonawanda native who is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maine-Farmington, specializes in labor research and analyzing how changes in the labor market affect communities. He believes North Tonawanda is a classic example of a town "looking for a new, post-industrial identity."
With the decline in industrial labor in North Tonawanda came the dissolution of tightly knit communities that made Oliver Street's numerous taverns and other establishments their home, Olszowka said.
"Not just at taverns alone, the ethnic communities made (North Tonawanda) much more of a vibrant area, even as recently as the '70s," he said.
Olszowka said that while North Tonawanda's adjustment toward a more attraction-based economy is a step toward "rethinking itself," much as Cleveland has in its own industrial decline, the lack of hotels and a variety of restaurants on Oliver Street may prove difficult.
Beverly Loxterman, chairwoman of the city's waterfront commission, believes improvements to the city's canals will be a crucial first step in drawing visitors onto Oliver Street.
"What's needed is something to draw them in, something that sets us apart from Tonawanda or Niagara Falls," she said.
By working with business owners, Oliver Street Community Pride President Linda Jufer hopes to do exactly that.
"We've had no problems in dealing with owners," said Jufer. "Everybody here has been ready for a change for a long time."
Olszowka believes shifting attention toward the city's traditional focal point is a move in the right direction for the city.
"It's now dependent on those small shops, on the will to open a pizza place right there in town and take a chance," said Olszowka.
"(North Tonawanda) is like so many other places across the country with a rich industry and a rich history. It's founded on strong people who had the courage to start their own businesses. If you're talking about what Main Street America is or should be, we have it here."