The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor :A Dream Still Deferred

By Kevin Cottrell

“The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor is a nationally and internationally recognized Buffalo neighborhood that serves as the focal point of residents’ and visitors’ experience for learning about Buffalo’s rich African American history through its vibrant neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, unique structures, historical markers, people and institutions, as well as its significant impact on local, national and international history. The Heritage Corridor’s festivals, cultural events and artistic programming draw residents, national and international tourists, scholars and artists, writers, storytellers, poets, dancers, and actors to a thriving, community of historic urban scale. The Corridor contributes to the local and regional economy, the conservation of its cultural resources benefits and unites people and places.”

 -The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Vision Statement

They called it the “game changer.”

But the installation of the archway across Michigan Avenue to mark the African American Heritage Corridor last August – complete with African drumming and dancing    was more like the cart before  the horse.

 The corridor has awesome promise both  historically  and economically.   But it has yet to realize even its most basic potential.  In reality we have an archway and four  historically relevant sites –  and not much else.

The incompetence has been staggering; marked by missed opportunities and very few gains over the years.

 The organization is currently in search of a new director. The question is will they bring in a person with the necessary skill set who will know what their product is, develop it,  and  how to sell it to the world as well as the local communities?  Will they be able to provide the critical independent, experienced, visionary leadership that   can stop the process of setting the district up for failure?

-The Back Story-

Twenty-seven years ago I gathered up a few people to begin a preservation movement in the Michigan Avenue Area.

 It was during a time when I was beginning to see a local preservation movement re-energize itself. As a grants administrator working with New York State Parks Historic Preservation office and the numerous preservations groups applications that came across my desk, I figured my community was a natural as well.  At the time, with  the limited history that I knew about the area,  it was going to be a  two for the price of  one opportunity :  the  historic preservation and the history of the Underground Railroad. We had a tangible site and its history.   In those days there was very little development going on in the Ellicott district. No commercial slip , Medical Corridor, Larkinville or loft development, no Airbnb, Rideshare, Tourism, Review sites etc.  In essence we were ahead of our time; just a bunch of naive, young people with trying to do something positive. Our first project was to stabilize, restore and rehabilitate the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church. I wrote a grant for $100,000 through the Sacred Sites program.  On the day   Gov. Pataki came to the church to announce the NYS Freedom Trail Commission,  the first of its kind in the nation to showcase Underground Rail Road  sites across the state (legislation that I worked on with Deputy speaker Eve),  we couldn’t announce the award because at  the 11th hour the church congregation got cold feet and we had to return the money. There are many stories like this in the 27 year history of Michigan Street Heritage district.   

Over the years I stayed relevant, riding the tide of the information-age, learning in increments, as innovations came up that would make the whole heritage tourism industry adjust. To say that the Heritage district  was not doing anything  close to those trends is an understatement. They knew nothing of tourism or  selling your product to the world.    Case in point – any destination marketing organization or operator interested in bringing their groups into the district, would find it almost impossible  to speak with someone  in the Michigan Street Corridor. More often than not, they would work through me. The Nash House, for example, is not even on Trip Advisor and announced it would be open 2-3 days a week – something virtually  unheard of in the industry!  So why are we  celebrating the seven principles of Kwanza as this community has done for the past 27 years? One should re-check that one principle called “Cooperative Economics!” 

Fast forward to the real world – the 21st century- we find ourselves in a global economy. Tourism figures in 2018 were $1.1 Trillion and domestically   tourists spent $1,089 billion dollars. Every time to you see a Motor Coach that Coach generates over $100,000 in lodging, meals, admissions, shopping etc. The goal as it relates to the Michigan Street Heritage district should be how do we create a product  and sell it globally?  How do we  get those motor coaches to stop and spend their dollars here?  Over the 27 year period, my personal heritage tour company Motherland Connextions  has figured it out in spite of a district in the dark. However companies like mine are only as good as  what we have to offer. 

Then there is the African American market. Consider these facts:

   •The economic value of African American travelers has increased in 2018 to $63 billion from $48 billion in 2010. African American “cultural” travelers are the highest spenders, with an average per trip spend of $2,078 versus $1,345 for all African American travelers.

   •More than half reported that their most recent leisure destination was between 100-500 miles from home with Florida, New York City/New York, and Atlanta being top US destinations and Caribbean/Bahamas (38%) and Mexico (26%) mentioned as leading international destinations

   •Food and shopping are leading spend categories with nearly half of travelers spending on local and/or regional cuisine on their most recent leisure trip. Shopping continues to be a popular activity for vacationers, most often at malls (41%) and outlet malls (34%), but also downtown (28%).

The above facts   have not been even remotely considered here as it should have been with 27 years under our belts. I worked with the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitor’s Bureau  and Outside The  Box who produced   an African-American heritage tour guide for those inbound travelers coming in to spend at our shops, attractions and  restaurants, yet  none if any  such attractions  materialized in the Michigan Street Heritage Corridor district.   Even back then it was a battle working with then Rich Gieger head of the CVB who stated we had no product and what we did have was too folksy.

There are numerous potential employment opportunities in  the Heritage Corridor for those in our community who can not only earn a livable wage but a very productive career. It’s happening all over the country and particularly in the South but not here because of our lack of  activity, creativity and vision.  We could be marketing our products steaming from  movies  like 12 Years a Slave and  Harriet (Tubman);    the proposal to put Tubman on the 20-dollar bill, and the 1619 Project  – all of which tourists share as a motivation for their travels. And because I have been involved in the Underground Railroad movement nationally since its inception,  I can attest  to the very real encroachment of  gentrification.  People from outside of the community are building careers around their research of our historic treasures as evidence here last summer during a National Underground Railroad Conference.  Very few African-Americans were present. In fact many local residents were not even aware it was going on. Then up in Niagara Falls the Niagara Falls Underground Heritage Center  I worked so hard to establish,  appointed  a White woman to run the center.  How does that happen? For the record the community in Niagara Falls is not the beneficiary.  How can they be when the director doesn’t look like you?

When I think back to all those years ago, it’s sad to realize that we have been our own worst enemy in regards to reaping the rewards of  the positive impact of heritage tourism. I recall getting the contract for the National Baptist Convention in Buffalo. Motherland Connextions was  the selected tour operator. I knew very little then. I went to Rev. Bennett Smith and told him I thought the community needed  to be more involved  in order to reap  the economic benefits of the national Conference. He told me in no uncertain terms that if the community locals wanted to be involved they needed to pay this big fee to be down in the basement of the Buffalo Convention Center. Very few if any did that.  Then there were people offering their own personal cars to take people around (before ride sharing). In another instance a   lady pulled up in front of the  Convention Center and opened up the trunk of her car to show the banana pudding she was selling on Styrofoam plates to the conventioneers  in the middle of July. In short, the whole community was forced to hack and it was embarrassing.   I felt bad for my community.

Suffice it to say, the lady selling banana pudding out of her trunk is where we are some 27-30 years later in Black Buffalo. The staggering incompetence continues.  And a fully functional Heritage Corridor is still a dream deferred.

Kevin Cottrell is one of the founders and currently the Station Master for the Buffalo-Niagara based   Motherland Connextions Inc., a nationally recognized heritage tour company. Born and raised  in Buffalo , Kevin has 31 years of experience working in the fields with African-American life and history in Western New York, Historic Preservation, and Heritage Tourism. As the visionary of the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor, as it would ultimately become known as, he founded the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation as a not-for-profit organization (501c3) in 1996. Mr. Cottrell is  a graduate of Buffalo State College. He applied for the recently  posted position of Executive director for  the Michigan street African American Heritage Corridor, but was not  among the finalists. For more information Facebook Motherland Connextions Tours.