Fruit Belt history is Buffalo history, and as such, is American history. From the beginnings of the native Six Nations civilization, to European exploration and settlement, and including black African heritage presence from the early days of Buffalo to now, the Fruit Belt encompasses through its people and architecture the American story. With its 1835 street grid layout and street names that remain relatively unchanged spanning three centuries, the Fruit Belt and its people have a history to celebrate and a future to nurture. Fruit Belt history illustrates American ethnic, racial, and religious history through its changing settlement. Its social history documents much of what is exceptional as well as shameful in American history and life. The people of the Fruit Belt persist; and what binds the Fruit Belt and those with roots on the evocative street names of fruits, flowers, and trees, is that it is a place of community, built through work, play, learning, love, worship, commerce, and resistance.
Generally, the social history of the Fruit Belt is told of two groups: the German immigrants with rural roots who were encouraged during the 1820s to settle in, and farm, what became the Fruit Belt, and the black Americans who came due to urban renewal displacement or escape from the Jim Crow South. Whereas the German story is an optimistic story of immigration integral to American mythology, the African American story is the rarely acknowledged truth of America’s shameful racism. To glorify the 200 year presence of German heritage in the Fruit Belt at the expense of seventy plus years of African American community building in the face of injustice, is dismissive of the painful aspects of the American story and the heroics of African American resistance and success.
The story includes systematic and systemic racism demonstrated through redlining, loan denials, mortgage discrimination, restrictive covenants, block busting, and urban removal masked as “Urban Renewal.” Essential to the Fruit Belt story is the 1951 Plan for the City of Buffalo which led to the demolition of the Ellicott District, leaving 1,900 mainly African American families homeless. With the nearby Fruit Belt experiencing White Flight encouraged by federally subsidized building of suburbs and loan practices that favored whites, the Fruit Belt was a natural place for displaced families of the Ellicott District to make home.
The population of blacks in the Fruit Belt grew from 400 in 1950 to 4,284 in 1960. By 1970 the primarily black population was 9,125. Currently, the Fruit Belt population is given as approximately 2,670 persons, of whom 83 percent are African American.
From 1945-1977, City permit cards show razing of 39% of building stock to create the Kensington Expressway, expand Buffalo General and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and “improve” the community. Demolitions slowed somewhat but not completely through the 1980s to the early 2000s when residents demanded that a moratorium on demolitions in the Fruit Belt be enacted.
Both the Germans and the African Americans built strong institutions dedicated to communal support and preserving cultural heritage in the 200 year history of the Fruit Belt. Many of the German institutions were absorbed and transformed to meet the special needs of African Americans. Examples are the churches built by the Germans, the Neighborhood House, Locust Street Art, Fruit Belt Homeowners and Tenant Council, all which remain active and have been joined by new organizations such as the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force and the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. Despite the community’s best organizational and political eorts, policies and practices remain a constant challenge to community stability. But the Fruit Belt residents persist in retaining their homes and maintaining their community.
Through a Preservation League of New York Preserve New York grant, and the support of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a Fruit Belt Intensive Level Survey conducted in 2018 highlights the importance of this community, its history, the people, and the distinctive building stock which stands as a beacon of excellence and style. The Survey was conducted by Preservation Studios, and overseen by Preservation Buffalo Niagara. The report should be used to find ways to harness the power of historic preservation as a community building tool. More detailed history can be found in the Intensive Level Survey, which can be downloaded on the Preservation Buffalo Niagara website or viewed in print at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Grosvenor Room.
This overview of the history of the Fruit Belt has been adapted from research done by Preservation Buffalo Niagara in their Architectural Guide to the Fruit Belt pamphlet.