Ice bikes were invented in Buffalo.(KC Kratt)
Back in the day, the Erie Canal turned Buffalo into a bustling bastion of industry and commerce — until trains and automobiles rendered the canal obsolete.
Today, the city is in the throes of more transformation, shaking off its Rust Belt past and embracing the waterways that helped build it. Nowhere is this change more obvious than in the buzzy area called Canalside.
“Just a decade ago, the waterfront was a place to be avoided, a desolate brownfield strewn with garbage and weeds, concrete rubble and haphazard fencing,” says Robert Gioia, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., or ECHDC. “Now, Canalside is the jewel of the city, alive with activity and a magnet for more than a million visitors each year.”
The vibrant energy here is palpable. The waterfront is once again brimming with activity, but unlike in the canal days, the focus is on new hotels and restaurants, sporting activities, river cruises and entertainment — all part of this 23-acre development. Located on the southern end of downtown by the Naval & Military Park, KeyBank Center arena (formerly First Niagara Center) and the Buffalo River, Canalside (www.canalsidebuffalo.com) has quickly become a hot spot in New York’s second largest city.
In the summer, it’s a place to go water biking and kayaking, or rent a paddleboat. Take an outdoor yoga class under a highway overpass, catch a free weekly concert, meander along pedestrian towpaths or just kick back in one of the many Adirondack chairs sprinkled about.
Come winter, when you’d think this area just below Canada would basically shut down, Canalside is as alive as ever. The popular outdoor skating facility has a surface bigger than two NHL rinks.
Why stay cooped up indoors when you can enjoy skating, curling and ice bikes, which were invented right here?
“Just a couple years ago, the ECHDC asked the summertime vendors to bring forward any ideas for activities on the ice. I thought, ‘If you can ride a bike on water, why not on ice?’” says Lisa Florczak of Water Bikes of Buffalo (www.waterbikesofbuffalo.com). Her ice bikes were an instant hit.
Across from Canalside is the recently constructed HarborCenter (www.harborcenter.com), a $200 million project financed by the owners of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, who play at the newly renamed KeyBank Center. It sports a premier hockey training facility plus two NHL-regulation rinks. Part of the complex includes a new Marriott hotel and a huge sports bar boasting a 38-foot TV screen.
To venture onto the water, we hop aboard a boat tour for a 90-minute cruise peppered with anecdotes about the history of the river and canal.
“The energy of the developing waterfront and downtown has been electric,” says Ric Hilliman, who owns and operates Buffalo River History Tours; www.buffaloriverhistorytours.com. (And he wasn’t referring to the fact that Buffalo was the first U.S. city to have widespread electric lighting — a tidbit we learned during our cruise.) “Locals are very proud of where Buffalo is going and what it is becoming.”
Cruising through Elevator Alley — believed to be the world’s largest collection of grain elevators — I stare up at these towers, which have come to represent this city as a sort of living reminder of its industrial heritage. Many, including an area known as Silo City, are being preserved and used for various events, concerts, rock climbing walls and even a brewery. And now, from dusk until 11 p.m., you can enjoy an impressive, nightly light show projected onto these massive grain repositories.
“Coming to Canalside can be a very emotional experience for people who grew up in Western New York, always frustrated that our waterfront was unappealing and inaccessible,” says Gioia from the ECHDC. “I often hear people say, ‘I never thought I would see the waterfront looking like this in my lifetime.’”
The famous Niagara Falls are just down river from here. But now that Buffalo has so much to offer, they almost seem secondary. You can take a day trip there instead of the other way around.
Lisa Lubin is a freelance writer.