Rick Smith '79

Sacred Concrete

by Adele Jackson-Gibson '09

When I graduated from Nichols, I wanted to get as far away from Buffalo as I could. “Far” didn’t mean distance as in the amount of miles from here to LA. “Far” meant a change in experience and mentality, adventure, big city lights—a bodega with a residential cat. Something.

Back in 2009, the Rustbelt City felt hopeless, vacant, weathered with terrible weather, and I readily sighed when my new college friends told me I came from “America’s cold armpit.” Needless to say, last year I wasn’t very excited to leave my exciting teaching job in Japan and return to Buffalo, unemployed and living with her parents. I am sure “the Return” sounds familiar to many a Millenial in these harsh economic times. I had every intention of leaving as soon as I could, but I settled back into Nichols School as their new marketing assistant. I was uncertain as to how I would enjoy being back in a place that I was so bent on fleeing, but as the year went on this job has forced me to rediscover this city and the Nichols community in ways I could have never imagined.

On one of the coldest mornings of the year, I was assigned to interview Rick Smith ’79 and visit the infamous Silo City located on the Outer Harbor. As the owner of Rigidized Metals, Rick has always been aware of the grandeur of the silos towering over his office. They are the biggest cluster of concrete elevators on the planet. Eerie and magical, they are a glimpse into Buffalo’s architectural heyday from the early 20th century. Renowned architects like Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier praised the buildings for their geometrical simplicity, bare nature, and complex engineering. Yet since the fall of the industrial era, the silos were left to crumble. The leftover grain quietly flaked down from the bins.

Rick and I stood small among the concrete monoliths analyzing a hoof print in the snow. “There’s a white deer that lives around the silos,” said Rick through the icicles of his burly mustache. “Seneca Nation lore says it’s very lucky to have one on site.” I looked around and dreamed of this majestic creature prancing around Buffalo’s famous grain elevators—a pristine beast among chiseled behemoths. I winced. My ears started to sting and part of me wished I had Rick’s cowboy hat, but he just kept trudging through the snow, making the large foot holes I had to hop to and from just not to sink. For Rick the silos are a spiritual place, especially in the quiet of winter. The cavernous columns provide a lot of space to think. For a moment, we paused to watch the geese hover as the sun winked off the frozen river. He smiled and continued on. The frigid wind couldn’t stop the jokes from floating off of his breath and in that laughter I forgot that I couldn’t feel my fingers. “It’s overwhelming,” he said. “But the site is so beautiful. It’s raw, industrial beauty.”

In 2006, Rick seized the opportunity to purchase the silos from ConAgra. “It’s a lot of property but I wanted to get it in local hands so we could start to have something over there” he said. One evening, Rick hosted a cocktail party for the National Preservation Trust and the UB School of Architecture, and as the ideas and high spirits wafted in the air, it suddenly hit him: “This could be a pretty cool place to host events and be as design-centric as we can.”

Since then, Rick opened the site to the public and Silo City began to grow. He built mezzanines, patios and stages for weddings and receptions. By virtue of putting in a new dock last summer, the site has seen over 2,000 tourists by water alone—some float in on kayaks or venture in with Queen City Ferry tours. Rick “the Sodbuster” is always wandering the site thinking of new paths to forge and new areas to reconstruct, yet he treads lightly. “We treat the concrete as sacred. We don’t poke holes in it. We treat the metal and brick as something that can be changed or replaced.”

He calls the process “slow-burn regeneration,” a strategy that forces his team to approach the site piece by piece instead of developing it all at once. In this way, the place holds its integrity while keeping costs in check: “Everywhere you look, there’s a fix that’s very expensive,” said Rick. “So with slow-burn regeneration it’s really letting the site teach us what to do next—where we should make it safer, where we should have heat or utilities. It’s evolving and we get a little bit better all of the time.”

As I walked around, I noticed that the silos summoned Buffalo’s creative spirit. Screen print portraits plastered the wall black and white with the graffiti art adding accents of color. “One time the famous Russian poet, Evgeny Evtushenko, was here and he just loved the site,” said Rick. “This was a man who was on the cover of TIME. And then all of a sudden, he broke out into vociferous poetry in Russian which none of us understood, but it was pure magic. ”

I shouted to the top of a grain elevator just to hear the echo. Musicians clamber to play in a space like this. In Marine A, there’s a 9 second reverberation that you cannot find easily anywhere else. Rick remembers a performance by 3 trombonists from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and how hollow horns shook his bones. He remembers when Torn Space Theatre floated one of their dancers down to the stage on a pulley system in one of their innovative productions.

Silo City is also a playground where people collaborate and turn their imagination into reality: Silo City Rocks built an indoor/outdoor rock climbing gym; PUSH Buffalo, McKinley High School and Tapestry School planted a garden by the dock; once the Good Neighborhood and the Flying Bison Brewing Company hosted the Buffalo Mustache Hall of Fame and Museum; and one day Rick dreams of a classy night club full of dancing people in fancy tuxes. In a nook, I found a sun-bleached playhouse sitting against a wall of whimsical chalk drawings. Its door was wide open. “With a site with scale so large, the possibilities are endless,” said Rick. “People wander through the site and say, ‘Let’s do something here. How about bungee jumping? How about a zipline? This place inspires so many different ideas.”

According to Rick, Millenials have been a vital part of the site’s growth. In the midst of the Buffalo Renaissance, millennials have been known to create something out of nothing, and more specifically, seeing the usefulness of abandoned spaces. “10 years ago Silo City would not have happened,” said Rick. “It’s a generational thing and now the young people are really the driving force in its development. The last generation look at the silos and say, ‘We failed.’ Whereas the young look at these elevators with fresh eyes. It’s cool to go down to Silo City and we are trying to support that.” In this economy, it is cool to be able to take scare resources and use them effectively, and as the silos demonstrate, all it takes is a bunch of energy to turn visions into reality.

Unfortunately at the end of my exploration with Rick, I could not find the lucky white deer—just the howl of the wind and tiny fox prints. But I felt fortunate enough to discover a place that Buffalo was finally recognizing as a historic treasure. Above all, I felt a new sense of hope. I looked forward to the summer when I could kayak to the dock, catch a glimpse of a flowery wedding, or enjoy a glass of wine while I drowned in the moving sound waves of a brass band. And who knows? There are probably more ideas brewing in the heads of creative Buffaloians. As we embrace the silos, we recapture the innovative culture that once made this city great and that spirit encourages me to be a proud Buffalo pioneer too.