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A Short Walk on a Long Pier

The Bird Island Pier: a $3 million repair job.

The long pier that forms the westernmost edge of Buffalo’s West Side has many names. Stretching south off the tip of Squaw Island from Broderick Park at the foot of Ferry, there’s a plaque that commemorates the pier as “Nowak Pier,” named for long-serving Buffalo Congressman Henry Nowak, “the Billion Dollar Man.” The plaque was erected sometime in the halcyon early 1990s, those heady days when politicians were lauded for bringing federal dollars home for public works projects.

The sign directly opposite the plaque offers a different name and symbolizes a new era in public works projects: “BIRD ISLAND PIER CLOSED AT PEACE BRIDGE.”

On August 10, 2010, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, and the City of Buffalo conducted a joint inspection of the Bird Island Pier and found significant degradation of the walkway’s support structure. The subsequent report, dated August 25, 2010 , provides photo evidence of “severe undermining and cantilevering of the walkway”—areas where the stone and concrete foundation below the walkway has partially, and in one area completely, eroded. Because there is some risk the walkway may collapse, officials decided to close the pier altogether, fencing off roughly two-thirds of the walkway’s 1.25-mile length.

Folks who have visited and walked the pier know it is one of the city’s greatest public spaces, an area accessible by foot and bike only that extends from the river’s rapid narrowing at Ferry Street to the opening of Buffalo Harbor opposite LaSalle Park, as the magnitude and grandeur of Lake Erie slowly reveals itself the farther south one travels. It’s an area loved as much by winter’s water fowl and summer’s herons as it is by fishermen, joggers, couples, and families. On a summer day, the ethnic segregation of the city momentarily evaporates on the pier’s length, making it one of the city’s few areas that is shared and enjoyed by all its residents.

Even on a late autumn day, during a recent visit with my family, with the chilling wind blowing freely off the lake, there were people out there fishing and walking. For the past 18 months, however, all have been prohibited from enjoying the pier’s full reality—all but the few who find a way past the fence and choose to ignore the signs. I asked one couple who chose that route how the path seemed.

“It seems fine, just like it is on this side of the fence.”

Before Hank Nowak was able to secure the money and fund the construction of the walkway in the 1980s, the pier had been there for decades as a breakwall against the Niagara River, forming a shipping canal that bypassed the swift river currents and connected the Erie Canal to the Buffalo Harbor. And for probably just as long as the pier existed, it lured people to walk it unsafely, offering views of the city, lake, and river that typically have only been available to people on boats. The pier’s attraction and danger was multiplied in warmer weather, when, according to USACE Chief of Operations Robert Remmers, many drownings have occurred.

Although almost 18 months have passed since most of the pier was closed, and more than seven years have elapsed since the pier was most recently repaired in 2004, but it doesn’t look like anything is about to change.

“There’s no funding at this time,” Remmers says. “Higher priority projects come first.”

The pier serves dual functions: recreational (pedestrians on the walkway), and navigational (ships in the canal), and the USACE is primarily concerned with the navigation piece. Remmers admits that the project would be a higher priority if the deterioration of the pier impacted its navigational function.

Part of this attitude no doubt lies in the USACE’s mission to stimulate economic interests, but it’s hard to make an argument for the importance of the Black Rock Canal as a vital shipping lane, as most of the boats that pass it are more likely to be seen at a yacht club than at a shipyard. It’s harder still to resist thinking that the six-pack-drinking fisherman just isn’t as important as the twelve-pack-drinking sailboat captain.

But even if the pier were a top priority for the USACE, the Corps would still need cooperation and funding from the City of Buffalo, as there’s a legally defined separation of responsibility between the agencies for the costs and maintenance of the pier. Somewhere between the top of the concrete walkway and where the stone riprap is lapped by waves is an imaginary line that divides territory, much like the invisible international boundary a few feet to the pier’s east. The USACE takes the bottom, the city takes the top.

City officials are quick to note that the pier is precariously situated as the weather’s punching bag, with almost all of the damage to the pier occurring on the Niagara River side of the canal, facing Fort Erie. The city seems to recognize what the pier means to the city and are happy to say they want it fixed.

But there appears to be no timeline set for the costly repairs, and, as the trend goes these days, there’s no money.

Sources in City Hall have pegged the cost of repairs at $3 million, and are quick to add they will need state and/or federal funding. It’s easy to see how a concrete walkway extending out of one of Buffalo’s many poor neighborhoods is a low priority for everyone involved, but one has to wonder if officials truly understand the beauty and rarity of a 1.25-mile walkway into a Great Lake along a famed river.

The pier is one of Buffalo’s greatest natural assets, a piece of waterfront development established before developing the waterfront was cool. Walking the pier’s full length is borderline hypnotic—the motion of the water combined with the various sight lines work to distort time and space to such an extent that I lose track of time when I walk it, having learned to ignore the Robert Moses monstrosity, the I-190, that straddles much of the pier’s extension.

Until the pier is restored, the plaque honoring Henry Nowak will feel like a memorial to an era when such projects mattered.

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