Silo City Is Both the Past and Future of Buffalo

Chuck wolfe
credit: Lloyd Alter

By day, Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, dealing with environmental and land use law. By night, he becomes Chuck Wolfe, urbanist, author of books like Urbanism without effort and blogging at My Urbanist. Somewhere around twilight he has time to be a terrific photographer. I met him at the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Buffalo, where he agreed to share some of his photos of Silo City with TreeHugger.

credit: Chuck Wolfe

Silo City is the name given to what was once the industrial heart of Buffalo, when transport relied on the Erie and other canals that were built before the railroads. Buffalo was the terminus for getting 2 million bushels of grain each year from the midwest to the east coast through the canal network. The concrete grain elevator was invented here (they used to be wood and would burn down regularly).

credit: Chuck Wolfe

These silos inspired a generation of architects including Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, and Le Corbusier. One author, writing in 1927, is quoted in Buffalo Spree:

... the simple structures of industrial building such as grain elevators and big silos . . . These examples of modern engineering, designed for practical use only, and obviously without any decorative assistance from an architect, made a deep impression by their simple structure reduced to basic forms of geometry such as cubes and cylinders. They were conceived as patterns exemplifying once more the essence of the pure form of use, gaining its impressive effect from its bare structure.”
credit: Chuck Wolfe

Buffalo continued to be an important terminus throughout the rail age until after World War II. As Edward Glaeser noted in City Journal

Starting in the 1910s, trucks made it easy to deliver products and get deliveries--all you needed was a nearby highway. Rail became more efficient: the real cost of transporting a ton one mile by rail has fallen 90 percent since 1900. Then the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened in 1957, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and allowing grain shipments to bypass Buffalo altogether.
credit: Chuck Wolfe

The way grain was moved and stored evolved to a more distributed system, with local, smaller silos, often farmers cooperatives, that stored the grain locally and moved it by rail directly to where it was used. All that is really left in Buffalo are a couple of silos servicing a big General Mills factory making your Cheerios.

future of silo city

credit: Chuck Wolfe

The area now known as silo city was was assembled by an ethanol company in 2006 for an extraordinary $160,000, which won't buy a storage closet today 25 miles north across Lake Ontario. (It does not include all the silos in Chuck's photos)

credit: Chuck Wolfe

Today, the three silos at the center of Silo City are owned by local entrepreneur Rick Smith, who, according to Fast Company, was also chasing the ethanol dream. When that didn't work out he regrouped:

During his search for what else he could do with the space, he attended a preservation conference and was inspired by the enthusiasm of the people there. He listened to their ideas about identity and historical value as tools to boost economic progress, not hinder it--and this led him to value the silos in a new way.

silo and tower

credit: Charles Wolfe

While Smith works out his options, the silos are being used as a climbing gym, bee colonies and some really terrific parties. Long term, it could be anything; as Smith tells Fast Company, " “We're reaching a critical mass of interest and momentum."

credit: Lloyd Alter

When I did a cycle tour of Silo City after the CNU conference, there were not many signs of activity. But all over Buffalo, there is a new energy and drive. I suspect that in five years Silo City will be a very different place.