Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: See You There!
Next story: New NHL Cities?

...And the Ward Was Good

Children in front of a house on the Beach.

The key chapter in Timothy Bohen’s new history of the First Ward, Against the Grain, comes late in the book, when he’s about getting ready to sum up. Chapter 12 of a total of 15. It’s called “The Ward Remembered.” It’s the best-written chapter in the book, the liveliest and most spirited, and thoroughly authentic-sounding. Some great memories gleaned from interviews with denizens, and written memoirs, often in the form of family chronicles, of long-time Ward residents, who seem unusually aware and appreciative of what a special privilege it was to grow up and live in the Ward, what a special neighborhood it was and is.

Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo's Old First Ward

by Timothy Bohen

Western New York Wares, October 2012

“I cannot imagine growing up anywhere else,” Jim McGeever said. “There was so much to do, and everyone was your friend.”

Particular memories were of the annual election night bonfire in the empty lot at the corner of South and Vandalia streets, and of a proprietor of a deli on South Street, Maurice O’Brien, who for a nickel would forge a kid a note to skip school for the day.

Bohen writes:

Joan (Graham) Scahill compared growing up in the First Ward in the 1940s and 1950s to “growing up in a small town. Everyone knew everyone else and their business (or tried hard to know it). It was great to walk down the street and wave “hello” to people sitting on their porches.”

Joan’s brother, Jim Graham, recalls that “‘the First Ward was as down to earth as it gets, with the Irish working class people that lived there. No uppity people allowed.’”

“Uppity,” a word that has often been used in a more charged context, by white people in reference to black people, inadvertently recalling the previous chapter, which treats of a somewhat less amiable aspect of the Ward, revealed when construction of a low-income housing project in the Ward caused an influx of African-Americans into the originally overwhelmingly Irish and still by the time of the project overwhelmingly if not completely white enclave.

Bohen’s book is a distinctly Irish-centric history, as well as Catholic Church-centric, the two collective groups—one ancestral, one institutional—with which most of the Ward residents fiercely identified from the mid-19th century, the time of the Irish famines, which drove the majority of them here, to the mid-20th century and beyond.

Major topics include sports—the Ward produced a number of great rowers and great pugilists; politics—the Ward continues to spawn politicians in overabundance; schools, particularly parochial grammar schools taught by the Sisters of Mercy; and social life, much of which took place in one of the many neighborhood taverns, which doubled as places of business—hiring halls—and political spawning grounds. And early on, the Fenians and their ill-starred invasion of Canada, in a plan ultimately to free Ireland from Britain.

But the focal issue throughout the book is work, the long hours and hard labor in ill-paid, mostly unskilled jobs around the harbor, on the docks, on boats, loading and unloading cargo, especially grain. Incorporating the founding of Local 109, the grain scoopers’ union, and the bitter Great Strike of 1899, wherein the new union faced off against local would-be docks potentate William “Fingy” Conners. The union prevailed, with substantial moral and no doubt other types of support from a powerful ally, the local Catholic Church, in the person most notably of the bishop, James Quigley, an activist proponent of the workers and the union. There were numerous other Church personnel—many of whom grew up in the Ward or served in parishes there, and so understood first-hand the plight of the Irish immigrant poor and oppressed—who outspokenly and articulately propagated Church doctrine on social justice, on behalf of the workers and the right to unionize. It was a proud time in the history of the local Catholic Church (versus a recent disgraceful episode, a week or so prior to the recent election, when the bishop sent out a thinly disguised appeal to all parishes and parishioners to vote for Romney, in light of Republican lip service on the abortion issue, at the sacrifice of the vital Church tradition regarding social justice, which all Republican budget proposals—especially vice-presidential candidate Ryan’s—made a mockery of).

This is a popular history—and will be popular in the Ward—as attested above all by the large numbers of names of Ward residents over the years, sometimes attached to a story, sometimes just in a list, as members of a particular club or organization, or regular patrons of a certain bar. There’s even an appendix list of names with nicknames—you pretty much had to have one in the Ward. Some of my favorites: “Oysters” Joyce; “Torch” Kelly; “Onions” McIrney; “Pecker Head” McNerny; and “Hosenose” Nowadly.

A couple of cavils. The book could have benefited from a good copy-editing that would have caught a number of sentences and paragraphs that might have been tightened up, and assorted other infelicities. A better map or maps would have been useful. And as an inveterate footnote-reader, I was disturbed to find the footnotes missing. That is, there are footnotes, but you have to go to a website to look them up. So, practically—in real time, as it were—they are unavailable. This is especially a problem where the source materials are such a miscellany of published historical texts and possibly less reliable—or possibly more—personal and family memoirs. Anyway, different sorts of sources.

blog comments powered by Disqus