“Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that come out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say. So you will have to know something about the time and place where I come from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life.”
– Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
“You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory from childhood….You hear a lot said about education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov
Shaketa Redden’s grandmother Olivia spoke fast, with a thick Arkansas twang. Ms. Redden, now 33, remembers having to occasionally translate for friends who didn’t understand. Her grandmother was tiny, at most five feet tall, and all of the determination that might have been more diffused in another person was concentrated in her. She didn’t make a lot of money baking cinnamon rolls at Sibley’s Bakery; nonetheless, “not only was she super giving, people knew if they came to her house they could stay there…Whatever she had she would give or let people borrow. Every weekend and every summer I would be over there. I called it the fun house,” Ms. Redden says. Olivia Redden rooted her family in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt with a defining quality of family as an act of love that transcends name and blood.
To say ‘family’ and ‘community’ as though they are two separate things is, in the context of this story, false. Ms. Redden’s stories of growing up there are peppered with further translation, things like “My aunt had two kids- but she’s not really my aunt, that’s the thing, she’s my neighbor, but really she’s my aunt because of the neighborhood.” The underlying theme is evident. It’s all about family, and everyone is family, interconnected by several generations who have lived in the Fruit Belt together.
Ms. Redden’s family moved back to the Fruit Belt in the nineties. While their home on Lemon Street was being built, the Reddens would drive over to take pictures of different stages of construction. Ms. Redden remembers her parents photographing the foundation, the walls going up, the roof that became her secret perch once they moved in. “There were times in the summer especially when our parents would be sleeping and we would be hanging out on my porch or on my friend’s porch,” which was just across the street.
She goes through the long list of cousins she grew up with, cousins by upbringing, not by family name. “It was a very carefree time because I didn’t have too many restrictions. There were just a ton of kids playing sports, riding bikes, and, running in and out of houses just because- who knows why? It was just a Lemon Street connection.” Her remembrances are marked with a sense of security and trust, for example, the night when they forgot to close their front door, and someone came and yelled her father’s name from the porch until he went out and closed it.
When one of those cousins died recently, they all returned to support each other, gathering on the street where they played as children. Ms. Redden says, “That, to me, is a testament of the bond that is created, that people stick together and still feel like a family, and that family has nothing to do with blood and has everything to do with the neighborhood.”
Shaketa Redden’s father is named Larthonia Redden but he is known as Squirt, the youngest in a large family. His house today is quiet and well-kept, the plants and trees and neatly mulched, an air of contentment to the neatly groomed yard and white-railed porch. The neighborhood has a steady hum of people coming and going, quieter during the day but with the sidewalks and yards filling up in the afternoons and evenings. Many children play out in the schoolyard and gardens at Futures Academy/ School 37, where fruit trees are in bloom now that have been replanted through a partnership with the University of Buffalo Center for Urban Studies. People trickle in and out of the Moot Center and across the street, the New Zion Baptist Church. The historic churches, dating back to the 1800s, are quiet during the week and remain in good condition. People drive slowly through, kids ride bikes, and people are out mowing lawns, stacking firewood in their yard, unloading their cars, or just sitting on the porch.
Mr. Redden grew up, like his daughter, in and out of homes and yards in the neighborhood. He liked to pick plums from the neighbor’s tree and one time broke the gate in his hasty exit when he was caught in the act; another time he had to jump out of a pear tree after getting stung by a bee. People on the street would put whitewash on a tree out front as a signal that they wanted someone to help them plant grass in the yard, then Squirt and other kids would go dig up the yard in exchange for a few dollars they spent on marbles and penny candy. He describes a youth filled with enrichment at numerous after-school and summer programs.
At the basketball court behind the Neighborhood House, the younger crowd played first, then the older crowd, who took time to tell stories to and generally advise their juniors. Squirt remembers, in general, plenty of time listening to old-timers in the neighborhood. “All we did was sit around and talk, after we played basketball. We would hang at the courts when they wasn’t running us off and we’d sit right up on ‘em and listen.”
People who were there in the fifties do remember different times. Dwayne Denson, 73, refers to what he calls the “change-over.” Most of his reminiscing centers on the time before “the change-over,” a.k.a. white flight, took place, when he lived in what he calls the “beautiful generation.”
“We came here at a better time, when we still ate food at home and before we had all these cancer-causing chemicals in our food. My grandparents raised me and my grandmother cooked food from scratch every day.” His grandmother, Josephine Anderson, who lived until she was 104, moved up from West Virginia after growing up in a mining family, part of a wave of northern migration that resulted in African-Americans first moving into areas around plants such as Tri-Co beginning in the thirties. Olivia Redden moved north as part of the same wave of migration, first picking tobacco outside of Syracuse before settling in Buffalo.
Germans had been the first settlers to move north to the rise of land where they planted orchards. They first lived in lean-tos on the back of their narrow lots and then built, as they had the means, small frame houses at the front, many of which had shops or taverns on the first floor. When the Germans and small number of Polish realized the Kensington Expressway was going to be built through the neighborhood, starting in the fifties, they sold and moved out in droves, replaced by African-American families who were simultaneously being displaced from downtown neighborhoods in the name of the urban renewal efforts that created vacant-lot prairies we still see today.
“Milk was milk, we had a milkman and milk came in a bottle with the cream on top that we skimmed off for whipped cream. We got our chicken from Williams and Jefferson where they killed and cleaned them right there.” Mr. Denson says. “Point me in any direction, and I could tell you what was on the block, place by place.” Mr. Denson’s beautiful generation existed side by side and was not lessened by the hatred he also faced. “Hate has never changed. There was so much hatred. We had to fight every day to go to school. It was a racial thing. The Germans didn’t want us there.” His family was amongst the first black residents to move into the Fruit Belt in the fifties; a small number had been there since the thirties. Fast forward from that moment to the incredibly tight-knit community that Olivia’s generation created and nourished and it is all the more profound.
It used to take Squirt two hours to walk the two blocks up to High Street with his brother, because so many people wanted to talk to them. Shaketa also remembers his slow drives through the neighborhood marked by numerous conversation stops, to the chagrin of his teenage children. People have always gone to her father for help navigating everything from employment to personal issues to a pothole in need of repair.
The Fruit Belt functions through its long-term relationships, of which Lemon Street and the Reddens are but one example. Currently the neighborhood is under pressure, again, for its land, which historically has been its hardest battle. The original land has been carved away, by the Kensington Expressway on one side and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) on the other. Repeated bulldozing of houses without promised rebuilds, notably in urban renewal programs of the seventies, has lowered community wealth immeasurably.
Now the development of the BNMC is impossible to miss and its impact is yet to be determined. The many-faceted and rich texture of the neighborhood does not necessarily lend itself to swift, decisive political action and an important culture hangs in the balance.
Ms. Redden asks: “I think a hard part of that is, what does a person of color or their home or space equate to in the establishment of wealth? There are lots of people in this neighborhood who have invested their lives. It makes me angry that now that [the Fruit Belt] is a place where professionals and white people want to live, our land or our wealth is worth more, and all of the other richness in the neighborhood may be swept away.” In a significant move of erasure, without consultation with residents the city has actually changed the official name of the place from “Fruit Belt” to “Medical Park.”
New resident India Walton says that her children love their new neighborhood and she plans to be there for a while, but she feels the pressure of both being a newcomer in a tightly-knit neighborhood and also the urgency and need for the Fruit Belt to self-determine what their future should hold. She grew up visiting relatives on Grape Street; now her youngest son knows they are close to home when he sees the crane in the air. Ms. Walton is one of the many individuals and groups who are organizing in the Fruit Belt. “This is an opportunity to go to this multi-million dollar facility and say, these are things you should provide to this community” she says. “You can’t come and build your establishment on top of us, you have to build it with us.”
The actual geographic area of the neighborhood is tiny. Maybe a quarter-mile square of the original residential area remains, but the connections travel far beyond those who still live in the Fruit Belt. There are many people who return daily or weekly, with even more coming in the summer for the famed Fruit Belt Picnic. The impact of the place extends well beyond its land but its people are dependent upon that land existing. Ms. Redden says “I mean, I still say I live in Fruit Belt, and I don’t even live over there. But I am also over there all the time. I was there today.”
Mr. Redden echoes the sentiment: “My heart is here.”
Thank you to: Dwayne Denson, India Walton, Shaketa Redden, Larthonia “Squirt” Redden, and Harper Bishop.