HAMILTON: So Sad, the Closing of the Old Community Center

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By: Ken Hamilton

On can’t help but to notice a new and beautiful “Big Blue” building as one drives on Interstate 290 through the LaSalle section of the city of Niagara Falls NY.  It stands looming large behind the now-closed and former Niagara Catholic High School, whose small but mighty basketball team was once known as the “Big Red.” 

Like the big blue building that bears, not one, but two names that were important to many “different” Niagarans, its placement was supposedly there to augment the activities of the students of NCHS – the high school from which Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster graduated and went on to gain a higher education.  It is all a reflection of what we have become, yet stands as a mirror image of its two namesakes, both of whom are dead and whose significance will likely be forgotten: Buffalo Bills owner and western New York benefactor Ralph C. Wilson and the original Niagara Community Center.

Don’t get me wrong; I am thankful to the Wilson foundation helping to sponsor Gary Hall’s vision.  Hall was the building’s developer, as well as being a significant contributor to the much needed 17th Street Boys Club located near Pine Avenue.  Nonetheless, my telephone calls went unanswered when I heard that he was naming the building after the now-defunct Niagara Community Center, once located on Centre Avenue and Aaron Griffin Way in the Highland Avenue neighborhood. 



I begged Hall not take the name Niagara Community Center for his new building. It was a name that was dear and historic to the black community; and he did so seemingly minutes after the judge dropped the gavel that wrested the organizations charter away from former Niagara County Legislator Renae Kimble’s ersatz agent Shirley Hamilton, both of whose antics surely played major roles in the building’s dilapidation.

But who cares? As one resident and former youthful attendee said when I told her, now some 10 years ago, that “they” were going to close the Community Center, she nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders and declared, “Well, that’s just one more thing that we don’t have any more.”

In black circles, the term “they” often means some group of notoriously big and often unidentified white men. And yes, it was a very wealthy white guy who commandeered the name of the only non-church institution in Niagara Falls that the dreams, hearts, sweat and tinkling dimes of a small population of African-Americans began to build as far back in the 1920’s. 

In fact, even some white folks helped with the institution. Journalist Michael Boston, PhD, wrote in his well-written, well-cited, must read Blacks in Niagara Falls, New York: 1865 to 1965, a survey, that, “Besides the increase in population, the formation of a community center was one of the greatest single evens that benefited black Niagara Fallsians during the Age of Freedom.  It is rumored that black Niagara Fallsians who patronized the local YMCA were told to get their own recreational facility government, about sponsoring some social and recreational facility for the black community … Nonetheless, during the late 1920s, Eugene Ellis, Benjamin Bolden and Reverend D. B. Barton, who were prominent leaders of the black community, approached the Community Chest, a division of the local Niagara Falls government, about sponsoring some social and recreational facility for the black community.”

Boston had cited earlier in his treatise that the 1920 census had indicated that some blacks were factory workers, albeit listed as laborers. The funny thing of it is that some 80-years later it would be some very highly-educated blacks who would close the community center that was the legacy of those who had so few resources and such big dreams.

Ironically, it is also some highly educated African-Americans who have set about replacing the institution. The original pact for the Centre Avenue center indicated that if the Niagara Community Center would eventually fail then the land that the city granted to the-then new Niagara Falls housing Authority upon which the Center was built would ultimately be returned to the city.  But, by the time that the smoke from the court case that had withdrew its charter was over, it was less costly to build a new Center elsewhere than to even renovate the old one to current codes.

I would love to criticize Mayor Dyster for to this day not signing off on the building and land’s return to the city; but honestly, how could I blame him for not so doing, neither for not getting into the fracas that stewed around it for so many years. It was indeed a hornets’ nest of political and social intrigue, with names at fault, among others, like Stephanie Cowart, Charles Walker, Cynthia Bianco, Cathy DeSantis, the Niagara Ministerial Council and scores of others.  There’s neither enough room to finish here, nor enough newspaper to print it all.  But next week, we will work our way backwards to understand what happened, focusing first on the misguided efforts of a small group who wants to yet plant another dandelion among the thorny roses. It is the black history that should be taught to our young, far more important than even the knowledge of Martin Luther King.


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