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Preservation groups continue fight to save Willert Park Courts

Thomas O'Neil-White/WBFO News
Preservation Buffalo Niagara Executive Director Jessie Fisher speaks Thursday near the former Willert Park public housing complex.

Two local preservations organizations are calling on the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to halt its plan to tear down the first public housing complex specifically for African Americans in the city, and one of the first in the state. 

The Willert Park/A.D. Price Courts, located off Spring Street on Buffalo’s Eastside, is a historically significant part of Buffalo’s past, but the complex has not been lived in for at least a decade and shows signs of neglect. Still, Preservation Buffalo Niagara and the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation are determined to protect the complex. On Thursday, the two organizations sent a letter to the B.M.H.A asking the housing authority to support their restoration efforts.

Standing across the street from the fenced in complex Thursday morning, University at Buffalo Urban and Regional Planning Professor Henry Louis Taylor said the city picks and chooses which historical buildings it allocates money to for preservation.

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White/WBFO News
University at Buffalo Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Dr. Henry Louis Taylor speaks during Thursday's event.

“The failure of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to work with the preservation society in the restoration of Willert Park is an example of systemic and structural racism,” he said. “And if you want to know what systemic, structural racism is, you take a look at this, and you drive across town to the Darwin Martin House, and you will see that.”

The preservation boards are asking the housing authority to support three initiatives; to support an application to list Willert Park in the National Register of Historic Places, supporting its listing as a Local Landmark, and naming Preservation Buffalo Niagara as the Designated Developer of the site for a two-year term.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara Executive Director Jessie Fisher said putting her organization in charge would help set motion the process of finding an interested developer.

“We would like the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to give us site control for 24 months so we can engage the proper professionals to find a way to save and to invest in this place,” she said. “To make it home once again, as supportive housing for folks who would love to live in this community, love to live in these beautiful buildings, and would love to have that sense of community that comes to all of us when we invest in the places that are important to us, and we are allowed to live in the places of our ancestors.”

As recently as this past winter, B.M.H.A. Executive Director Gillian Brown said there is no financially feasible plan he has seen for restoring Willert Park, saying the cost of restoration is double the cost it would take to tear the building down and build the larger units which currently surround the complex.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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