When the East MobileBooth stopped in Buffalo, New York this past summer, Jennifer Gayles, 31, came to listen to her mother Diane Gayles, 58, tell childhood stories. Having grown up on a farm, Diane had quite a few to tell.
On one occasion, Mrs. Gayles was playing in the bed of an old pickup truck when her brother shouted for her to run. Suspecting a trick, she was unmoved by her brother’s increasingly insistent pleas. However, when he took off at top speed himself, she figured the situation required further investigation.
Some days in downtown Buffalo, the smell of Cheerios fills the air. On a hungry afternoon I followed the smell to General Mills, one of the few remaining factories in production along Buffalo’s waterfront. Other giant industrial monuments stand as a testament to a part of Buffalo that is no longer. At one point, these monolithic structures made Buffalo the largest exporter of grain in the world, and by way of the Erie Canal, made New York City the major port of the United States.
At the cusp of WWII Britain began Operation Pied Piper, evacuating children from large cities to the surrounding countryside for safety. My interest in the evacuation grew from the myriad of children’s stories featuring the event (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lord of the Flies). This event obviously makes a wonderful premise for children’s books because it places children in new and exciting environments, away from mom and dad and ready for adventure.
Joan McKernan came into the MobileBooth in Buffalo to share her real-life evacuation story. She remembered growing up in London and indulging in salted peanuts and ice cream. Ms. McKernan was readying to enter high school in 1939 when the evacuation began, and she was sent out into the country to live with strangers. She stayed with a couple who had a swing, a greenhouse, and a car, who took her to the movies once a week, a pleasure she rarely had at home. While the adults were worrying about the terrors of war, Joan was distracted with being young and having fun.
Buffalo is concerned about its future. Like many cities, Buffalo has seen its industry decline and the people move farther and farther away from the city center into the suburbs. While the city’s ghosts are still very visible in neighborhoods (where red spray paint marks houses for demolition) and in business districts, there are also visible signs of growth. During our stay we are fortunate to not only see Buffalo, but also hear its stories from the people who know it best.
Most people we speak to truly love their city and are eager to see it reemerge with a growing economy and engaged community. And many people are actively working towards progress here. Ani Difranco, a musician and Buffalo native, has toured the world and still calls Buffalo home. When Ani and her manager, Scot Fisher, realized a church in downtown Buffalo built in the late 1800′s was slated for demolition due to years of neglect, they bought the building from the city. Millions of dollars and years of renovations later, the church has been transformed into a beautiful music hall that still retains its original grand beauty. Rechristened Babeville, it now houses the Righteous Babe offices, a gorgeous performance hall, an art gallery, a cinema, and a soon-to-be bar.
We were lucky enough to receive a grand tour of Babeville, including a long climb up the bell tower.
Babeville offers a beautiful venue for the Buffalo arts community to enjoy and for performers to visit. And like many of Buffalo’s historical landmarks, the church is “no longer simply a static reminder of Buffalo’s bygone glory, it’s a promise of things to come. “
In Buffalo, the StoryCorps MobileBooth is parked in front of the Buffalo and Erie County Library. This library is one of only nineteen public libraries in the US to house a rare book collection. Although full of many beautiful old books, this collection boasts many very exceptional items, including a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of The Federalist, and my personal favorite, the original handwritten manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain) moved to Buffalo in 1869 to work as editor of the Buffalo Express. He and his wife, Olivia, lived for a time in a mansion at 472 Delaware Ave (which unfortunately, we can’t see because it burned down in the 60′s). The library houses not only the Huck Finn manuscript (which Twain gave to the Library in 1886) but many other Mark Twain items, including Norman Rockwell lithographs of Huck Finn illustrations, a first edition of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), and various copies of Huckleberry Finn in 150 languages.
The MobileBooth feels right at home next to a treasure trove of great storytellers.
For Opening Day in Buffalo we got a visit from a summer school. During their tour of booth, they all took turns practicing their StoryCorps skills.
Listen to a clip from their recording session featuring
Our radio station partner, WBFO, and the Buffalo Public Library hosted a delightful and delicious party celebrating StoryCorps’ arrival last night. Fables, the library cafe provided the food for the event, including some incredible crab cakes. Many supporters of the Library and the WBFO showed up for the event. The library hosted a tour of their rare book collection including Shakespeare’s first folio.