Many Americans, it can safely be said, would recoil at the thought of moving to Buffalo, New York State. Apart from Buffalo wings – chicken pieces slathered in a peppery sauce concocted at the Anchor Bar on Main Street – the gritty city on the south-eastern shore of Lake Erie seems to have few reasons for celebration. It has long been a poster-child for the decaying rust belt and all that entails – a dwindling population, boarded-up buildings and rampant crime. To make matters worse, its winters are among the harshest in the lower 48 states.
Yet Lura Hess Bechtel and her husband, Mitch, have no regrets about moving to Buffalo from New York City five years ago. “Everything is financially and geographically more accessible,” Bechtel says. In her job as an employment practices lawyer, she adds: “Everything in Buffalo functions with a higher degree of trust and respectfulness than in New York.”
Her husband has gone from working as a freelance software developer out of the couple’s Brooklyn apartment to owning a business with its own building and a dozen employees. “If you’re an entrepreneurial type of person, you can afford to get started here,” Bechtel says.
The couple paid just $123,000 for a Victorian workers’ cottage with an adjoining two-bedroom carriage house in Allentown, less than a mile north of downtown. As Bechtel’s friends in New York keep reminding her, their monthly condominium maintenance fees are higher than her mortgage payments.
Notwithstanding the subprime mortgage meltdown, Allentown house prices have risen markedly since the Bechtels bought. A small, 800 sq ft home on College Street sold quickly for $120,000 a few weeks ago, according to MJ Peterson Real Estate’s Tim Riordan, an agent who specialises in the area. Riordan says it would be difficult to find a 2,000 sq ft family home with three bedrooms, a full bathroom and a second toilet for less than $180,000. A larger property with parking and a back garden on one of the area’s sought-after streets, such as Irving Place or Arlington Park, is typically priced at $350,000 and up.
For the past three decades Allentown and neighbouring Elmwood Village have been largely – though not entirely – insulated from the blighted neighbourhoods to the east, west and south that give Buffalo its bad name. The two areas have even been spared the worst of the subprime mortgage crisis. “Middle and upper middle-class people are moving into the neighbourhood,” says Carol Holcberg, an estate agent who has lived in the area for 40 years. “It’s become an extraordinarily desirable community.”
Holcberg cites her former neighbours on Irving Place, who bought their three-storey frame house four years ago for $380,000 and sold it earlier this year – with only cosmetic improvements – for $432,000.
Allentown owes much of its good fortune to its links with Buffalo’s heyday, from the 1860s to the 1920s. The city’s location at the northern end of the Erie Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, made it a bustling transportation and industrial hub and, at one time, the US’s sixth-largest city. Mark Twain lived at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Virginia Street when he edited the Buffalo Morning Express in the late 1860s. (The main house is gone but its adjoining carriage house still stands.) Two blocks away is the Greek revival mansion where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president in 1901 after William McKinley’s assassination.
Two of Allentown’s most picturesque streets curl around Arlington Park and Days Park, “pocket” spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the US’s leading landscape architects in the post-civil war era. Local residents have worked hard over the years to prevent these and other architectural gems from falling into the same abyss as much of the rest of Buffalo.
“The heritage has always been a catalyst for future efforts,” says Chris Brown, a bank technology manager and unofficial historian of the Allentown Association, a community group formed in 1960 to foster interest in the area’s history and architecture. One of the latest projects is to turn the dilapidated 118-year-old Bosche Building on Main Street, which forms Allentown’s eastern boundary, into shops and residences.
The building’s interior was demolished years ago but the façade has remained intact. According to Brown: “If this was anywhere else in the city it would have been knocked down a long time ago”.
Residents’ efforts have also helped Allentown become the centre of much of Buffalo’s cultural life, which is surprisingly vibrant for a city whose population has shrunk by one-fifth over the past 30 years to well under 300,000. The area has played host each summer for the past half-century to an arts festival that draws 450 exhibitors. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is based in Kleinhans Music Hall on Symphony Circle, another Olmsted creation. Local art galleries stay open late once a month for the First Friday Gallery Walk.
The neighbourhood’s vibrancy is reflected in a recent influx of young families who have started and helped to sustain a handful of highly regarded “charter” schools, which are publicly financed but typically run by local parents and teachers. “There are kids in their 20s sitting on the Allentown Association,” Ms Holcberg observes. “That’s what keeps a neighbourhood alive.”
Most recently, Allentown has received a boost from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a conglomeration of hospitals and research laboratories, the 120-acre site of which separates Allentown’s eastern flank from some of Buffalo’s most blighted neighbourhoods. Partly with an eye on doctors and researchers coming to the campus from other parts of the US, The Kissling Interests, a local developer, has converted several buildings into upscale apartments with features – such as high-grade WiFi connections – that allow tenants to run a business from home. “Five years ago there wasn’t a market but now there is,” says Scott Lacasse, Kissling’s executive vice-president.
One Kissling property, Allentown Lofts on Virginia Street, was until two years ago a coffinmaker’s head office. The National Casket Company inscription remains above the front door but the building now has under-floor heating and indoor parking. A roof garden is under construction. Two-bedroom units rent for $2,250 to $2,850 a month, well above levels typically associated with Buffalo. Lacasse says that tenants include a neurosurgeon, the head coach of the Buffalo Bills football team and a martial arts specialist who runs a Chinese medicine business from home.
Despite these encouraging signs, Allentown is not without problems. While residents are justifiably proud of the many carefully tended historic homes, the area is also dotted with low-income apartment blocks and empty storefronts. Tidying them up is not always easy. One challenge is to track down landlords, many of whom now live in Florida and California. Another is to persuade those landlords to improve their properties.
Bob Palgutt, a thirtysomething furniture manufacturing estimator who bought his three-storey Victorian home on Hudson Street last May, observes that “the neighbourhood can get a bit boisterous at times”. The bars and restaurants along Allen Street draw big crowds, especially on weekend evenings. Palgutt’s home is two doors from Friends of the Night People, a non-profit group that describes itself as the “shelter of last resort”. Car break-ins are common in the area. “It’s generally considered a safe neighbourhood,” says Andrew Eisenhardt, the Allentown Association’s part-time director. “If you’re silly enough to leave your GPS stuck to your windshield, you’ll get what you deserve.” But for Palgutt petty crime is a small price to pay for Allentown’s strong community spirit and the summer music along Allen Street.
Bernard Simon is the FT’s Canada correspondent
Holcberg Real Estate Brokerage, tel: +1 716-884 1144, www.holcberg.com
MJ Peterson Real Estate, tel: +1 716-688 1234, www.mjpeterson.com
The Kissling Interests, tel: +1 716-853 2787, www.kapts.com