Reviving the sounds of Buffalo could enhance local placemaking efforts

We don’t pay enough attention to the impact that sounds can have as a place making urban design tactic. Sound can have — like the smell of Cheerios baking or the subtle scent of seaweed in a lakefront breeze — an incredible impact on the feel, charm, and aesthetic of a city.

Imagine what Buffalo must have felt and sounded like in the 1890s, when the city was bustling with commerce — the sounds of stream whistles emanating from train yards in the distance; fog horns from freight vessels and lighthouses coming off the harbor; the splash of water from public fountains; the echo of an alma matter from collegiate chimes; or a chorus of churchly bell towers that would engulf the city on Sunday mornings, seemingly in concert.

Like music, these sounds can improve the mood of the populace and set the tone of a neighborhood’s identity. As the rebuilding of Buffalo continues, we should do so in a way that thinks deeply about place making and we should not hesitate to use sound as an urban design tactic.

Indeed, Buffalo still has beautiful church steeples that dot the cityscape. Some of those church towers still actively ring their bells ahead of masses or at the top of an hour. Too many have closed their doors and have discontinued ringing their bells, sometimes for a lack of funding and other times for structural concerns.

Cornell and Syracuse Universities still have functioning chimes that are manually operated by student groups daily, ringing at the top of each hour. The Cornell chimes perform the alma matter in 15 minute concerts throughout the day. Of course, with modern technologies, the chimes can be configured without the need for manual operation.

The University at Buffalo has a beautiful clocktower at Hayes Hall, but since the 1970s, the bell room has been closed after it was defaced by destructive student protestors, common during the era. In 1928 Mrs. Edward H. Butler, the wife of the Buffalo News publisher, donated four massive bells to the University between 400 and 1,800 pounds, each ringing a different pitch. Mrs. Butler was a member of the University Council.

The University Heights neighborhood could feel like a college town again — if the bells were restored and fully functioning again. Imagine the Hamlin Park and Parkside neighborhoods if Canisius College did the same — or D’Youville College at Columbus Park; or Rockwell Hall at Delaware Park.

Former Senator Al Coppola has been working with preservationists in recent months to restore the South Buffalo Lighthouse. Coppola would like to revive the lighthouse’s fog horn — which Coppola could hear faintly in the distance as a child growing up in the Dante Place neighborhood.

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