A quick look at the faded display windows along the abandoned AM&A's department store in downtown Buffalo may feel like an unexpected trip to the past. But what you're actually seeing is one of the newest, and most unique street art projects in town.
Local artist Christopher Kameck designed a series of wheat pastes over the parts of the building where ads once hung. The careful placement and classic imagery is so good in fact, that since being unveiled, it has tricked more than one local publication (and average citizens) into thinking the pieces are leftover ads from the building's days as AM&A's' flagship store.
The pieces are actually from an old AM&A's catalog owned by the artist's grandmother. While working at a nearby art festival last September, Kameck, a former construction worker, rescanned it, measured the display windows, and climbed the scaffolding already up along the wall while sporting a safety vest one night. Pulling it off meant a little luck too.
"When I was putting the pieces up I saw cop drive by and do a U-turn so I thought I was in trouble," he says. "But he actually thought it was cool."
In a city where street art has only recently proliferated, people may be getting fooled by the weathered wheat pastes simply because the building had long been just one of a few underused and abandoned buildings on the block until recent years, meaning little reason for city dwellers to ever walk by. AM&A's' former warehouse across the street (where Vincent Gallo's character in Buffalo '66 struggled to find a bathroom and kidnapped a tap dancer) was turned into lofts in 2010 and its neighbor, the Hotel Lafayette, was turned into a mixed-use complex two years later. Those projects have helped bring new life to Washington Street, but Kameck's art may be the only update the old department store experiences for a while.
Since AM&A's' departure, the building has had a string of different owners, an 8-month run as another department store in 1998, and multiple proposed redevelopments. But attempts to bring the structure back to life have failed, mostly due to burdensome renovation costs. Most recently, an attempt to increase the cap on New York State's tax credits for renovating historic buildings failed.
Downtown enthusiasts will have to keep hoping and waiting for the building's rebirth. For now, Kameck's new street art expresses the city's long held love of its past on top of a more recent confidence in its future.
"It's about getting people to look at downtown as a walkable place again where people come down to live and shop," says the artist, who admits to being quite nostalgic for the old department store. Nearly 20 years since AM&A's last shut its doors, that goal, while still ambitious, seems a little more realistic these days.
All images by Mark Byrnes