Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A look at how modern Buffalo compares with the city in its heyday
There were few better cities in America than Buffalo in 1902. The city installed America's first electric street lights, one of the world's first skyscrapers (Guaranty Building, 1894) and the world's largest office building (Ellicott Square, 1896). Fresh off of hosting the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition, the City of Light was cutting edge.
Time has not served Buffalo well since. Fighting rapid population loss and economic stagnation, the city's attempts to revitalize itself have resulted in swaths of surface parking and clusters of vapid office towers that impede on its radial street grid. We pulled sections from this 1902 map via the Library of Congress and compared it to current satellite imagery to see just how much has changed.
This section of downtown still has a few structures from the early 20th century. But it has also lost a lot to surface parking. A minor league baseball stadium and the city's tallest structure now occupy this area as well.
Every American city has a cluster of 1980s bank towers, and Buffalo is no different. Notice that the gold-domed bank on the right side still remains.
Every American city also has a cluster of modernist office towers. Here are Buffalo's - a classic example of density being sacrificed for scale.
Buffalo brought the suburbs to its downtown waterfront. Not necessarily the most common or best choice on the city's part. Along the top of each image you can see the Erie Canal has since been replaced by an elevated highway.
What was once a dense cluster of manufacturing and housing has turned into an urban prairie. This transition is repeated through much of the city's East Side.
On the West Side, many neighborhoods kept their density. Blocks of multi-family homes remain intact in this area off Allen street. It is also one of the more vibrant sections of the city.
This section of downtown is dominated by elevated roadways and surface lots but was once a vibrant cluster of rail and canal-based transit.
A short walk from here is the western terminus of the Erie Canal. A partially restored commercial slip can be seen on the left and the First Niagara Center can be seen on the right. A far cry from its days at the turn of the century.
Looking at how Buffalo has changed since its more spectacular days, we see a city that demonstrates some of the best and worst aspects of American urbanism.