America Chartres
Buffalo's Waterfront Grain Elevators
Bruce Jackson
(Excelsior Editions/
State University of New York Press)
People do get the damnedest obsessions, don't they? I can remember my English pal James Brow and his medieval brass rubbings. He would take off on his bike from Oxford with rolls of drafting paper and "heel-ball" (a waxy substance for blacking boot heels). He would track down brass plaques embedded in the floors of various ancient parish churches nearby, and spend a few hours in the chill on his knees making "rubbings" of the metal bas-reliefs of ancient nobles buried there. These he would take the pictures home and hang on the walls, giant figures - - - often six feet tall - - - replete with armor and sword, their tootsies often resting on the engraved figures of a dog (for loyalty) or a lion (for bravery). A hobby, a wonderful hobby - - - especially when he chose to make a gift of one or two to those of his friends who had a blank wall to fill.

Professor Jackson has an equally odd (and equally rewarding) hobby: the abandoned grain elevators of Buffalo, New York. He likes taking pictures of them. Lots of them. He estimates 12,000 so far. A true addict.

He explains in his brief introduction that because of the coming of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo became the natural way-station for grains coming from the west, going on to grain wholesalers, exporters and/or local end-users - - - flour mills, breweries and alcohol distilleries.

Grain elevators were used because new produce - - - mostly wheat, but including corn, oats, and rice - - - could be scooped out of hulls of ships, and, by means of steam-powered elevators, lifted into the marine towers. This process was necessary, because the longer grain remains in storage, the more susceptible it is to rot and rats, so the newer grains go to the top, the older grains pour out from the bottom.

(Rats in the mix are by far the worst. Forty thousand pounds of wheat can become a tempting nesting place for them and their progeny. The FDA accepts their invasion as a fact of life, and their residue is innocently referred to as "defects." The FDA allows 9 milligrams or less of rodent pellets per kilogram of wheat.)

Another unpleasant fact-of-life in the older storage tanks was the fact that the earlier wooden structures could in an instant disappear. When floating the airspace, flour dust, if ignited, produces spectacular fireworks, blasting away the storage unit and often, many of its neighbors. All very titillating, perhaps, to the chance observer; possibly fatal to the workers.

The design of grain elevators had been created almost 200 years ago, and made Buffalo the major storage area until the time-tested mode of retrieval became obsolete - - - first by rail, and ultimately, by truck. By 1960, these towers, some as tall as 140 feet, had become dinosaurs (although of the fifteen pictured in this book, a few are, apparently, still in use). It took some time for the people of Buffalo to realize that they had a treasure trove on their hands: spacious places to hold musical events (dynamite resonance); or, in the case of a visiting poet, a place to read out, loud, with astonishing echoes.

The poet in question, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, had come to town for a reading of his "Babi Yar" with the Buffalo Philharmonic. He asked to go to "Silo City." The photographer and editor of this book took him to the Marine A Elevator. All spaces like this have something called "hang time." You clap, and listen for the reverberations. It is called this because if you have to wait too long for the echo, you get to hang yourself from the sheer boredom of having to be in, say, Buffalo.

That's a joke. The "hang time" is, according to Google, is how long something like a basketball or a frisbee or a note stays in the air; consequently, it's how long it takes for your sound to come back to you. Hang Time is also a "sports bar" near Lake Ray Hubbard, Dallas, "with easy access to both Rockwall and Rowlett residents." You think Buffalo is trying. Wait until you get to Lake Ray Hubbard, or worse, Dallas.

Anyway, back to Yevtushenko. Once in Marine A, he "started reciting poems." Except for his guide, none of the rest of them

    understood a word he said. It didn't matter. Every time he stopped, we'd all urge him to do another. He has a big voice, and it filled that very large concrete space. It remains one of my favorite poetry readings ever.

Despite my snide comments about Buffalo, this book is a show stopper. What it is about the fag-end of the industrial revolution that makes these places so delicious? The stomping ground of these giant storage tanks, once explosively busy . . . now rusted, faded out, turned from a business into a gigantic memorial to a now antique, vanished industrial world.

Like those massive brass figures set in the floors of 13th or 14th century rural churches, telling us so much about the near-divinity ascribed to those marauders who ventured to the south, to battle with strangers over some dimly-realized difference of religious fantasy. These monster storage areas, harking back to a time when tons of foodstuffs came to town, to be unloaded at in the peak of the tower, to rest for a day or a week or month, and then be sluiced out below and shipped on to some other city or country . . . to be turned into something even if buggy, so very good to eat so many miles and days away.

Suddenly in the 50s or 60s, due to radical changes in means of moving stuff across the land, these behemoths were shut down, left to rust there on the frozen edges of the Buffalo River, so that later people could soon again discover them, think of them in religious terms ("America Chartres"), take them from being dead storage to a site for joyous celebration, a huge party, a big , echoing poetry reading (in Russian!)

Encapsulated from beginning to end, here sprinkled around over 200 pages, these titans of the plains, frozen there at the edge of time, deserted, beginning to scale as even the dinosaurs must scale, still, though, lording over the upper reaches of the New York state countryside: rusted cables, flaking metal stairs, wind-whipped galvanized sheeting, with giant winches and broken windows and endlessly repeatable incurve and outthrust - - - the play of summer shadow and winter light, reflected up from the cold waters below, a splendid towering above all of us, thrusting up into the vast blue of infinite space . . . all walls now filled with the inevitable lettering of the graffiti masters, a few frowning faces, a few cluttered incomprehensible pregnant letters, a smudge-toothed face sneering at the few Canadian geese who stop long enough to sip the icy waters, contemplate the near-by tower cyclops, then go on, as one poet had it, to their rendezvous with destiny.

--- Pamela Wylie
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