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West Side Stories

Above: This summer's students at Squeaky Wheel's Buffalo Youth Media Institute. Below right, from the top: Naima Tesfu of Lucy Ethiopian Cuisine; a Grant Street mural; Jeannene Patri of West Side Stories book shop.

Squeaky Wheel documentary filmmakers present a portrait of a changing city

The politicians purveying the anti-immigrant rhetoric ought to watch the dozen or so young filmmakers’ videos on selected aspects of the West Side of Buffalo. The documentaries are the product of an eight-week summer program for aspiring film and video artists at Squeaky Wheel. The premier screening of the works, followed by question-and-answer periods with the makers, is scheduled for Sunday, September 15, at 1:30pm, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Admission is free.

If there’s an overall theme to the videos, it’s the vitality through diversity of the West Side due to the large numbers and variety of immigrants that settled there from the early days right up to the present. Their rich contributions, despite personal poverty.

Several of the videos are specifically about immigrants or immigrant groups, but all imply the strong communitarian element that is the immigrants’ legacy. What was basic coping and survival mechanism for each individual ethnic group became coping and survival mechanism for the community at large.

A secondary theme is food. (But what is more ethnic than food?) Several of the videos are about food or food supply. Two actually on the Sweet_ness 7 café, at Grant and Lafayette; one on the Lucy Ethiopian restaurant and variety store, at Grant and Amherst; one on Guercio and Sons’ store on Grant near Lafayette, a community cornerstone for generations; and one on the Five Points Bakery, at Utica and Rhode Island.

Others works are on the Peace Bridge plaza expansion into the surrounding neighborhood; the West Side Bazaar multicultural enterprise on Grant Street; the Buffalo Religious Arts Center in architectural gem former St. Francis Xavier church, East Street near Amherst; the Buffalo Maritime Center in Riverside; West Side Stories used book shop on Grant Street; and the single case crossing the line into the East Side—though just barely—the You and Who T-shirt printing project that for every shirt sold donates one to charity, in the Tri-Main Building, Main Street near Jewett.

But more than projects or places, the videos are about people, making wonderful and improbable projects happen, their vision and grit. Naima Tesfu, talking about starting up Lucy, so-named for the three-plus-million-year-old skeletal Lucy, like Naima, also from Ethiopia. She started the restaurant two years ago, she says, because there was then no other place in Buffalo that served Ethiopian food. Maybe you’ve never eaten Ethiopian food. Watch this video and you’ll want to go straight to Lucy, for the food and to meet Naima.

Or Kevin and Melissa Gardner, owners and operators of Five Points Bakery, who do not fear Panera, because in the five years or so Five Points has been in operation they have learned and practiced every step along the way of making great bread, starting with buying not flour but unmilled whole grain wheat, from the local farmers who grow it.

Or Trish Moran, owner and operator of Sweet_ness 7, who talks about the enormous support she got from the community on her project of rehabbing a derelict building and then—because you’ve got to do something with a rehabbed building—starting up a restaurant, all in the wake of great personal tragedy. The community that must have been enormously inspired by her courage and tenacity. That must have felt she gave them so much more than they gave her.

People of vision and passion, like Dan Gigante, making the world a better place two T-shirts at a time at You and Who; Roger Allen and Dr. John Montague of the Buffalo Maritime Center, contributing to the quality of the commonweal by building boats; and Kathy Mecca of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association, Jason Wilson of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, and Natasha Soto of the Clean Air Coalition, activists with overlapping interests in the Peace Bridge struggle.

Or like Jeannene Petri of West Side Stories bookstore, talking about how there are some 70 languages spoken on the West Side. Just one thing is more ethnic than food: language. But in America, learning English is a necessary survival skill. A bookstore, with used books for sale, but one book available free for the asking, a dictionary.

None of the videos is longer than about five or six minutes. Some seem a bit overly curtailed. Leaving you wanting to know more. But better at the end of a story to want to know more than want to know less.

The young filmmakers—mostly of high school age, but some outliers in either direction—in alphabetical order: Cincere Blackburn, Daijah Blackburn, Divine Blackburn, Hugh Brown, Emma Hulsing, Eli J. Jackson, Lauren Killian, Jack Nix, Olivia Long, Matt Rousselle, Will Stott, and Noah G. Williams. Filmmaker and still photographer Mark C. James instructed, with assistance from other Squeaky Wheel staff.

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