08 August 2011

Bird Island Pier

At the end of Buffalo's West Side there is a concrete walkway on top of the wall that separates the Black Rock Canal from the Niagara River and extends upriver 2 miles all the way into Buffalo Harbor, where Lake Erie is suddenly channeled into a narrow stretch of nascent Niagara. Accessible at the "Foot of Ferry" street, the river there is extremely fast and powerful, suggestive of the immense violence that awaits the water about 10 miles downstream at the Falls.

It's a walking history lesson of sorts and it has at least 4 names. Broderick Park is the name of the area where the parking lot and picnic benches are, and it's named after a distant relative on my mother's side, the Brodericks. Officially it's on Squaw Island, home to Buffalo Waste Water Treatment Plant. There's also a plaque at the beginning of the pier, naming it Nowak pier, after a congressman nicknamed "The Billion Dollar Man," presumably for his skill at getting federal monies spent on Western New York projects. The kind of thing that seem unimaginable as a quality in today's politics. Locals call it simply the foot of Ferry St., an unspoken acknowledgment of area's history as a ferry launch to Fort Erie, Ontario. It's also an important site for the Underground Railroad, a place where slaves attempted to cross to freedom in Canada in Buffalo's early days.

Buffalo's Ted DiBiase
It's long been one of my favorite walks in Buffalo or anywhere, because it's surrounded by water and it just our seemingly directly into the lake and you end up with perspective you would otherwise only get on a boat. It's incredible in all seasons, though in winter the wind is punishing. Colonizing invasive plants grow readily out of the rock and concrete, with a few natives like cottonwood and sumac, and city crews cut it all back every few years to keep sight lines in tact. One summer there was a family of minks living along the pier, and towards dusk you will almost always see great blue and black-crowned night herons, as well as common terns. In spring the channel is full of migrating ducks: goldeneye, scaup, and red-breasted and hooded mergansers, pied-billed grebes, and American coots. It's not always pretty, however, one summer 8 years ago there was the carcass of a calf in the slow moving canal water, a stark contrast to the fast river on the other side. This is how I first learned of the Great Lakes monster that is the muskellunge, having seen a dead one washed up on the pier.

For over a year now, the pier has been closed past the Peace Bridge (short of the halfway point) due to a maintenance issue that is unknown to me, but I think I remember the Army Corps of Engineers being involved. It's relatively easy to get around the fence, and I'm thankful that people do. I've walked the whole thing since it's been closed and I haven't been able to note any overt structural issue with the pier that would preclude it to recreation, and it's an embarrassment to the whole city that it's still closed off. The thick band of razor wire around the base of the Peace Bridge, added since 9/11 doesn't do the pier any favors either.

My favorite aspect of taking this walk is the way it distorts time and space, probably because of the effect the water and sight lines have on you, it always feels impossible to know how far the pier actually extends and how long you've actually spent out there. I don't spend a lot of time on boats, but maybe it's something like that.

If you live in Buffalo or any Robert Moses city for that matter, you know that public areas along the water are hard to come by, and in humid weather it feels natural to go near water. Tonight there were people swimming directly behind the sign warning of sewage, and a number of walkers and fisherman had worked their way around the closed fence to get to the other side and for me it was a great thing to see. I like to think that for all its dysfunction and neglect, Buffalo is an oasis of sanity in a society inching closer every day to a fear-driven police state.

I attended a Washington Nationals game in the inaugural season of their bland new ballpark. I got to the stadium early, looking to find a place for a few drinks before the game. There was absolutely nothing there besides a large boulevard of traffic that felt like a highway. I found a corner store and bought a can of beer, but then there was no where to go. Behind the store, there were a few older neighborhood guys drinking but they didn't look friendly to company. I ended up sitting on the boulevard, hiding the beer behind my legs and taking sips when traffic was moving quicker. Fans were started showing up for the game but still no one was drinking and I felt like I was about to get nabbed at any second the whole time.


Paladin said...


As the Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I can assure you that the decision to close the Bird Island Pier was not taken lightly. The Corps and the City of Buffalo, after examining the condition of the walking surface and the foundation, determined that the pier should be closed to the public. Safety is the Corps' number one mission. The pier will not be reopened until it is determined that it is safe. Please do not encourage people to use the pier in its current state.

Aaron Lowinger said...

Thank you. My number one goal by writing about this matter is to bring attention to the pier and what a great asset it is to my neighborhood and that it's been closed for 12 months and that's embarrassing.

I wrote to my Buffalo Councilmember and my Congressman on the matter and received information that a study was being performed the Army Corps of Engineers to develop the repair project, and that maybe by next spring it would reopen. I understand the maintenance work is complicated by the pier's location and the beating it endures every year, but it is still my opinion that it is taking too long.