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WNYBAC Features Max Collins's Striking Images

"Trust Issues" by Max Collins

Down on Main Street

Max Collins’s work on display at the Western New York Book Arts Center (468 Washington Street) is a series of powerful and beautiful photos on the important topic of the current city planning panacea makeover of Main Street downtown to allow motor vehicle traffic along with trolley traffic, after the previous panacea makeover to eliminate motor vehicle traffic but provide trolley traffic, after the previous brainstorm to eliminate trolley traffic, after the original anything goes arrangement. The exhibit is called “Deconstructing Main Street.”

A magnificent centerpiece photo looking straight down the middle of the street--between the trolley tracks--shows two phases of the current work, which is being performed progressively along the street, one side of the street, then the other. So all current operations, but the split image seems to evoke history—past and present—and the ultimately racist-based schizophrenia—east side and west side, city and suburbs—that was the real reason for the demise of downtown over the past fifty years or so, and real reason no street traffic arrangement was then or is now going make the urban center vibrant. White flight.

The exhibit includes old planning documents for the rail rapid transit system, which was supposed to continue into Amherst to the new UB campus, and only made sense for so grandiose and costly a project if it went to Amherst and new campus, plus initial concepts for further routes into the Tonawandas and the Southtowns. But Amherst didn’t want that easy and convenient a connection to the city, and city to Amherst. Nor was there any groundswell of enthusiasm from the Tonawandas and Southtowns.

So the rail rapid transit project—which was supposed to revitalize downtown and the city—ended up just duplicating—not even replacing—the Main Street bus route. Kind of a joke. And object of some derision. And easy enough to extend the derision since the elimination of car traffic on Main Street and creation of a so-called pedestrian mall were adjunct to the rail rapid transit plans—to blame the mall/traffic/transit scheme for the death of downtown. Which was happening anyway.

Now the city seems to be revitalizing. For whatever complex of reasons—a lot of hard work by a lot of people in a lot of different areas, maybe most notably the waterfront—but also having to do with the present generation—spurred by economic and ecological realities—dispensing with some of the racist fears that drove previous generations to the suburbs.

And if the city revitalizes, so will downtown. Willy-nilly the costly makeover of Main Street and recourse to the new/old traffic pattern. It’s happening anyway.

The exhibit photos include some clearly manipulated examples, but the best of them apparently straightforward documentation—you never can tell for sure—of the actual work in progress. Gritty, dusty, demolition work, viewed up close and personal. You can almost hear the jackhammers.

And amid a plenitude of literal and figurative concrete, an impulse toward abstraction. For example in the piece entitled Earth to Earth, a largely dust-obscured face-off between a heavy-equipment demolition apparatus and massive block of concrete and rebar. No workers are shown, as if to not personalize, not individualize, the work.

The subject matter general grittiness is underscored by the grainy to granular look and feel of toner prints wheat-pasted on wood. Like billboard ephemera. The sense of information over aesthetics. (Ars est celare artem.)

A photoshopped example shows—in an automobile rear-view mirror—the architecturally unique Romanesque Gothic Erie County Savings Bank building—in what was known as Shelton Square—in a partially demolished state, amid rubble. (To make way for the architecturally undistinguished Main Place Mall, now practically vacant of commercial tenants. Hindsight is everything.)

A brochure accompanying the exhibit contains an excellent short essay by urbanist Chris Hawley, describing the previous Main Street makeover—the pedestrian mall idea—as a case of competing with the suburbs by copying them. He concludes by quoting the prescient but underappreciated Buffalo architect Robert Traynham Coles, who wrote in 1963, in reference to what was happening downtown: “We must recognize…that the city is urban; that every great city is characterized by denseness, compactness, cohesiveness; that there can never be suburbia in the city...”

The exhibit continues through July 5.

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