The six-pack silos — and their recent makeover — have people across the region talking, and the viewpoints vary widely.
For some it is playful art; for others it is the very opposite: vulgar commercialism and a defacement of one of several world-renowned, historic structures.
Beyond the age-old question: “is this art?” however, is the question of whether the supposedly temporary signage is legal or rather in violation of New York State and city codes.
Stephen Paskey has his doubts about its legality. He has been passionate about reviving and preserving the character of urban spaces. Over the summer, he organized the area’s first series of Jane’s Walks — tours of neighborhoods given by their residents to educate about their heritage and ongoing issues. Recently, on a Facebook site dedicated to historic preservation, he pointed to three codes of which the Labatt Blue signage may now — or potentially — be in violation. If, in fact, the city is only selectively enforcing zoning laws, then it needs to be called out regardless of whether the initiative in question is popular.
Colin Dabkowski takes a different view in an article published in the Buffalo News on Sunday, pointing to a petition to remove the sign as an example of reactionary vitriol and preservationists making “caricatures of themselves.” Yet, the most vitriolic of the comments to Stephen’s social media post — which numbered over 400 — were actually in favor of the advertisement. Those replies, which started as a call to “lighten up,” devolved into personal attacks and appeals to nativism — the viewpoint that if someone has not lived here their whole life, they should not have a say in what goes on herein.
One Buffalo resident who might take issue with such a viewpoint is Frits Abell who organized the Facebook group Buffalo Blow-ins and Boomerangs, a networking forum for newcomers to the city as well as returning ex-pats.
He is a man-about-town and a vocal advocate for historic preservation and adaptive re-use, and he takes umbrage at the “eyesore” label given to the grain silos by many of the commenters.
“Many of us see these buildings as beautiful monuments as they are,” he replies. “So I won’t agree with anyone who calls them ‘eyesores.’ ”
He also remarks that “we no longer need to be desperate and think that ANY change is good; let’s raise our standards…”
We certainly could afford to raise our standards. Several years ago, Buffalo had such a self-esteem problem that its mayor awarded the “Key to the City” to a past-his-prime NFL wide receiver — one who did nothing more than sign a one-year contract. It made us look cheap. So should we be continuing to award “keys” — in this case, metaphorically rather than symbolically — to allow businesses to circumvent the law in exchange for attention?
Whether it is legal or not, based on whatever technicalities, is not the whole of the issue.
Advertising now permeates every aspect of our lives. It targets children early and follows them into schools. It affects the way we see the world and occupies a space in our brains. It can stunt our creative and intellectual growth, the very opposite of fine art’s raison d’etre. It may pay some bills, but this latest development strikes a nerve, encroaching on a public space that until now was considered a sanctum from the ever-increasing commercial white noise.
Dana Saylor believes there is a better approach to garnering interest in the grain silos, and she has a unique perspective on the issue surrounding the RiverWorks project. For the past three years she has been the event coordinator for City of Night, a now annual event at the complex of grain silos referred to as Silo City. “Our temporary pop-up art installations, projections, music, dance, etc. have brought out tens of thousands of people to that site and the district. It’s an authentic expression of the history, significance and future of our city,” she writes in response to some of the negativity over Mr. Paskey’s Facebook post. “While we do have sponsors, we don’t semi-permanently plaster their names all over the structures we’re using.”
She adds that: “We have an international architecture heritage to consider, and slapping a giant advertisement on them is something I think we, the public, should have a say in, since we are taxpayers and citizens.”
I now wonder if there was ever a debate as to whether the columns of the Parthenon should be wrapped with vinyl or painted to look like cigarettes. Shouldn’t we take pride in the structures that have been an unique and integral part of our history?
Perhaps it is because prospects for the City of Buffalo have not been this good for some time that we are so passionate in our views about how we steer its direction. We feel we are at a crossroads, and seemingly everyone has a vision for what Buffalo can and should be.
As I drove home last Friday from a brand-new office building downtown and peered at the nearly-completed Harbor Center and nearby cranes, Terry Pegula’s speech as the new owner of the Bills was being aired live on WBFO. I found myself, like Mr. Pegula, very choked-up in that moment. There was a feeling that a transition to a new era had finally been completed. With that, however, comes both new opportunities and new pitfalls.
The glaring blue grain silos are not likely to be going anywhere soon; and if the signage does get removed, the act will likely be met with more outcry than fanfare. Still, life will go on with or without the advertising, and the debates over our values as a city will continue.
The concerns are reasonable. They go beyond the issue of historic preservation and to the very core of our character. They will be important, and they will need to involve more people from all walks of life whether they be natives or newcomers.