Table of Contents
The Valley Neighborhood:
The Valley is located in the southeastern portion of the City of Buffalo. Its name is derived from the infrastructure that surrounded it until 1992. Prior to that time, five bridges offered the only vehicular and pedestrian access to the neighborhood. During 1990 and 1991 the bridge entering the Valley on Smith Street was razed and access was restored at grade level. A new large manufacturing plant of solar panels is now on the site of what was once Republic Steel Plant to the south with an expectation of 2000 new jobs. The Valley is bounded by the Buffalo River to the west and rail lines to the south, west and northwest which provided transportation for the heavy industry that once dominated the area.
Internally, the Valley is mostly residential with a few small businesses and industrial plants. It measures approximately one square mile. The smallness of the area creates a cohesive mix of residents who are proud of their property and neighborhood. There is also a four-block sub-neighborhood of the Valley on the northern border known as “Little Hollywood”.
The Valley Community Association:
When incorporated in 1969 the Valley Community Association (VCA) served the needs of the community by providing programs aimed at improving the social well-being of the residents however since that time the Valley has expanded its focus to include all the residents of the Buffalo River community.
In October 1968 a group of concerned residents, both young and old, met on the vacant lot where the center now stands to discuss increased vandalism, gangs hanging on street corners, and ways to provide recreation for these youth. Under the leadership of the late Fr. Hugh Carmichael, the association became incorporated in May 1969. Its original headquarters was located in a donated storefront at 917 South Park Avenue and was able to exist through the determination of volunteers, fund raising efforts, and small foundation grants.
In 1971, the lobbying efforts of the group were recognized by the completion of what is now known as the Fr. Carmichael Center. The City of Buffalo mandated that the center be operated under the auspices of the Parks Department and staffed by civil service employees. Although its initial mission for erecting a recreational center for area youth was complete, the Valley Community Association, which had grown to become a powerful voice, successfully sought government funding. Erie County Youth Board money enabled the VCA to lease space for its new headquarters at 202 Elk Street, hire staff, and extend programming into Public School #33 and St. Stephen’s School. Under the supervision of its first executive director, David Sengbush, programs included primarily youth activities, such as arts and crafts, a teen center, athletics, and recreation. In the Fall of 1968, at the same time the VCA saw its beginnings, a Teacher Corps Team from Buffalo State College was assigned to Buffalo Public School #33 and began to work in the community. This group, headed by the now deceased Helen Waite, was responsible for publication of a neighborhood newsletter and developed a preschool program known as “Sesame Street”.
As in most growing human service organizations, the VCA experienced turmoil and obstacles. One such incident was the embezzlement of funds by the treasurer in 1973 that crippled the agency for nearly a year. The United Way assisted the agency in revamping its procedures and policies and in devising methods to raise funds to pay the debts it had accrued. By 1977, the VCA was able to negotiate a land contract agreement to purchase its own building at 208 Elk Street.
Margaret Overdorf was hired in 1979 to succeed John Ort who served one year and Michael Overdorf who had served four years as executive director.
Shrinking maintenance dollars in the City of Buffalo budget in the late 1970’s had caused the Fr. Carmichael Center to fall into a state of disrepair. It had become a haven for gangs and repeated incidents of violence. In an effort to curtail the violence, the City of Buffalo Police Department assigned a police substation within the building. VCA staff and volunteers worked to repair the wooden gym floor that resembled a roller coaster due to a neglected roof leak. With permission from the City of Buffalo Parks Department, the VCA began to operate youth athletic leagues on a part time basis. A crime comparison study was conducted of the five months the VCA operated part-time programs in the 1981-1982 year with the same five months of 1980-1981 year and demonstrated a drastic decrease in youth related police calls.
Positive Data & Expansion
With this data, and recognizing an existing duplication of services, Ms. Overdorf and the VCA approached Charlie Ruff from the United Way, and then District Councilman James Keane, for assistance to negotiate with the City of Buffalo for complete takeover of the Fr. Carmichael Center. The United Way committed increased funding, the City of Buffalo promised to maintain the building, and the VCA agreed to take responsibility for programming, staffing, and supplies. Although this takeover was approved in 1982, the VCA administrative offices remained at 208 Elk Street until an addition was built on the Fr. Carmichael Center in 1988.
In 1988, a $303,000 addition to the Fr. Carmichael Center was built and is known as the Valley Senior Citizen Center. This area is used for various programs including senior citizen and youth after school activities. The center was later dedicated and named after long time board member, the late Geraldine Butler.
In 1998, the VCA built a 7000 square foot expansion onto the back of the Fr. Carmichael Center. It is the home of “Puppy Dog Tales” – a state of the art, secure, quality child care center licensed by the State of New York for 60 children. Grants totaling nearly 1 million dollars including $490,000 from the Empire State Development Corporation enabled the child care center to open debt free.
Transforming the Area
Also in 1998 the Valley Community Association thru a Federal Resource Partnership Grant transformed the land behind the center from an overgrown illegal dumping ground into the Valley Nature Park and Habitat Trail, an outdoor living classroom.
In 2004, the VCA opened its second New York State licensed day care – Valley Child Care at Larkin in Larkinville at 726 Exchange Street, formerly Graphic Controls. The center licensed for 60 children serves primarily the tenants of this restored historic building, once part of the Larkin Company complex.
Striving for Excellence
Space to accommodate the growing Valley Community Center became very evident with the creation of the Striving for Excellence Afterschool Program. The program consists of a menu of programs and services which include tutoring, homework assistance, computer classes, reading club, recreation, athletics, field trips, and music to youth in grades K thru 12. Being located adjacent to the Valley Nature Trail and Habitat Trail and a collaboration with outside agencies and schools youth are offered a fun interactive program focusing on STEM. With the program’s success also came a waiting list of kids wanting to join the program.
Old abandoned portable classrooms were identified at the former PS School #57 on Sears Street and Broadway on Buffalo’s East side. . Peg Overdorf, Executive Director contacted then Mayor Masiello and Control Board Chairman Tom Baker to ask that the City of Buffalo donate these buildings. Spearheaded by Bill Bohen, business agent for Ironworkers Local 6, trade unions including Laborers Local 210, Electrical Workers Local 41, Operating Engineers Local 17, Carpenters Local 9 and UAW 687 all came to the rescue to move these steel buildings adjacent to the center. With assistance from Western New York Foundation and the Richard Rupp Foundation and the generosity of corporations and community volunteers the classrooms were dedicated The Frank Pezzimenti Academic Center in February of 2008 in honor of a long time board member.
The VCA holds various events throughout the year that aim to promote community togetherness, neighborhood spirit, and ethnic pride. The two largest of these events are the “Old Neighborhood” St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the “Buffalo River Fest”. The “Old Neighborhood” St. Patrick’s Day Parade is held annually on the third Saturday of March. The parade, which was started in 1994, highlights the rich Irish history and heritage of the neighborhood.
Buffalo River Fest Park
“Buffalo River Fest” began in 2001 as the new major fundraiser for the agency, replacing the long-running “Rally in the Valley” carnival and was held at Fr. Conway Park. Buffalo River Fest aims to showcase and draw attention to the history of, and the on-going revitalization of, the Buffalo River front. The only sad thing was at the River Fest you could not see, feel or touch the Buffalo River. That soon changed. With the help of then Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, the Valley Community Association secured over $5,000,000 in grants over the past 10 years. These grants enabled the Valley Community Association to create Buffalo River Fest Park LLC.which now owns and operates a beautiful 3 acre park on the shores of the Buffalo River that opened in June of 2011. This public access, privately owned park features a wharf, a boardwalk, boat docks, walking paths, landscaped gardens, an amphitheater, a lodge with food/banquet opportunities, public bathrooms and interpretive signage offering a glimpse of Buffalo’s rich industrial past on the river.
Mutual Riverfront Park
In the midst of building Buffalo River Fest Park the New York State Power Authority announced their interest in relocating the Ice Boom to the property on the Buffalo River at Hamburg and South Street. In opposition to this move Assemblyman Schroeder and Peg Overdorf began talks with the authority and with community approval negotiated a deal for a second public access park to be managed by Buffalo River Fest Park LLC which opened in 2012. Mutual Riverfront Park is named after a rowing club that stood just across the street and produced Olympian rowers. This beautiful one acre park includes rain gardens, walking paths, interpretive signage, a kayak storage boat house and the Waterfront Memories and More Heritage Center and a promenade along the Buffalo River on South Street. The ice boom is stored behind a decorative concrete wall on Katherine Street.
The VCA currently receives funding from a variety of sources including New York State, Erie County, the City of Buffalo, corporations, foundations, program fees, fundraising, and the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.
When the Ohio Street road was reconstructed Peg Overdorf worked with city officials to create a connection between the two parks via St Clair Street for pedestrians and bicyclists to enjoy.
Continuing the Mission
Today, the mission of the VCA remains the betterment of the neighborhood. The VCA is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of the residents of the Buffalo River Community by meeting individual and family needs and promoting environmental beautification and stewardship. Advocating a strong sense of empowerment and ownership the Valley Community Association’s committed staff and volunteers serve infants through older individuals with health related, educational, economic, social, and recreational assistance and opportunities.