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The Ward Gets Back Up: Jimmy Griffin
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp. 233-237
by Timothy Bohen
Reprinted with permission.
By the 1980s the Ward had drastically changed from its pre-St. Lawrence Seaway days. The majority of the manufacturers and waterfront industries had closed or were significantly downsized; and the grain scooping industry was doing a fraction of the business it enjoyed during the heyday; the hustle and bustle along the Buffalo River, which was a constant since the 1840s, was noticeably diminished. In 1981, First Ward resident John Baldyga lamented what the First Ward had become:
It is not a pretty sight or scene. The river is silent, not a ripple in it. No ships plying this waterway as before. The towering elevators, Concrete and Superior, [are] silent. No ships docking there anymore. The only movement, around the elevators now is the pigeons flying in mass formation or scurrying from one elevator to the other, decorating them for sure with their droppings.
The Ward was once again in need of some reason to hope as it had one hundred and thirty years earlier when things looked bleak. In the late 1840s it was an outsider, Bishop John Timon, who arrived to lift Ward residents out of their misery; but this time they got one of their own.
Jimmy Griffin’s story, like so many before him from the First Ward, begins in humble circumstances. Griffin was born on June 29, 1929, four months before the start of the Great Depression, an event that significantly shaped his views on self-reliance.
His father, Tom, worked hard as a hardware clerk for Beals, McCarthy and Rogers in the Ward, and in Jimmy’s words, “my dad never made much money, but he’d take us to Sullivan playground on Sidway Street between South Park and Mackinaw every day and hit flies.” The Griffin family home was at 602 South Park Avenue near Hamburg Street, and as a boy, when not playing baseball, Jimmy hauled bags of potatoes at the Elk Street Market.
While attending St. Brigid’s elementary school, he worked part-time at McMahon’s store and hauled Budweiser kegs at the Elk Street Market during the summers. Jimmy dropped out of high school to work on the waterfront, returned to complete his diploma and then fought in the Korean War in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper. At one time he worked for Maritime Milling at Hopkins and Tifft Streets as a laborer and even scooped grain from railcars.
Eventually he fell in love with and married a First Ward woman, Margie McMahon, from Tennessee Street. His biography essentially mirrors other prominent men from the Ward: he worked in the mills, worked for the railroads, and operated a saloon: Hagan’s Tavern.
In an article about First Ward legend and prizefighter Jimmy Slattery, Griffin shared his four heroes in life: his father [“Rocco” Griffin], Harry S. Truman, Warren Spahn, and Jimmy Slattery. Of Harry S. Truman, Griffin said “he made a lot of tough decisions and wasn’t afraid to. He did what he thought was right.” Griffin also mentioned that if he could meet one famous person in history he would have liked to meet St. Paul because “he was a warrior. He knew how to sway people who listened to him.” Griffin also shared some of his philosophy on life in the Ward when he was describing Slattery: “They loved Slattery for the way he fought, drank, and took care of the less fortunate.” Winning, fighting, and leading were three things that his heroes exhibited and Griffin did too.
In 1961, the scrappy former tavern owner won a seat in the Buffalo Common Council representing the Ellicott District, and five years later won higher office in the New York State Senate. Griffin had great political instincts, a knack for connecting with people, and a gift for remembering names and faces.
Griffin, however, lacked one important ingredient for establishing a base to run for higher office: the ability to give jobs to loyal deputies. The feisty Griffin sparred with Peter Crotty and Joe Crangle, two of the leading Democratic leaders in Buffalo, and therefore they “starved him out of any political patronage jobs.”
The upstart Griffin befriended Jimmy McMahon, who held a powerful position at the Bethlehem Steel Company, and through McMahon’s assistance, Griffin was able to get forty to fifty First Ward friends jobs at the steel mill. Jimmy Griffin now had the base of supporters he needed to run a successful citywide campaign.
In 1977, after meeting with his top advisors at Kennedy’s Tavern on Katherine Street in the Ward, Griffin was convinced he had to run for mayor of Buffalo, a feat that no Irish Catholic had yet accomplished. However, the Democratic leadership in Buffalo had decided on an African-American candidate, Arthur Eve, so it appeared Griffin would have to wait a little longer. But the former infantry platoon leader thought he should lead Buffalo, so he ran on the Conservative Party line instead. In a heated campaign, Griffin carried the Irish vote in South Buffalo and also convinced a sizable group of Poles on the East Side, many of whom were Democrats, that their interests were best served by him and not Arthur Eve. In a three-way race, Griffin beat the favored Democratic candidate Arthur Eve and then proceeded to win four consecutive mayoral terms; his sixteen years as Buffalo’s mayor stands as a local record.
Jimmy’s common sense management philosophy as mayor was most likely shaped by his upbringing in the Ward. Griffin once said:
I campaigned on very simple ideas. Everybody said, “You’ve got a simple solution to everything.” Well, that’s the way life is. You can’t make it complex. If the people in a neighborhood say that they want a stop sign, that stop sign goes up. I don’t wait for surveys. If I think there should be more policemen on the streets, I don’t wait for FBI statistics. I believe in the simple way of doing things. More than experts, we need people with common sense in government.
An example of this management style was best remembered in his famous decree during the Blizzard of 1985 when he urged Buffalonians to: “Stay home. Enjoy the family. Watch Channel 7, and get a six-pack.”
Griffin’s gut-instinct leadership served him well in many areas, but some of Buffalo’s problems were more complex and required input from other elected officials and community leaders; Griffin often refused to include them in the decision-making and historians will have to judge whether that hurt or helped the city.
Griffin created many admirers as well as detractors throughout his years as mayor. The Irish from South Buffalo and the First Ward mostly loved him. In fact, after his first term 65% of the citizens of Buffalo felt that he was doing a good or excellent job in handling the city. His administration and staff were loaded with his trusted advisors from the Irish section of the city, both from the First Ward and South Buffalo, such as his long-time friend John “Scanoots” Scanlon, Dave and James Comerford, Rick Donovan, Donald “Bughead” Smith, Stan “Boots” Buczkowski, George “Ortsie” Gould, John B. Myers and Danny Bohen. However, while many of the Irish loved him, there was a definite tension between Jimmy and the African-American leaders of Buffalo.
The First Ward, which had been badly battered by lost industries in the 1960s and 1970s, benefited from the Griffin administration’s renewed focus on this section of the city. In fact, from 1978 to 1990, the Griffin administration was busy giving out 221 homeowner block grant loans worth $1.26 million in the First Ward. Other city funds that went to the Ward included $276,239 for free paint and rehabilitation loans and over $585,000 in commercial loans. With the help of the Housing Trust Fund, the city also built ten new homes in the area. Griffin did not forget where he came from or those who helped him get to Buffalo’s top elected office.
Yet, despite Griffin’s revitalization efforts, he couldn’t slow the closing of nearby plants and mills, which were the lifeblood of jobs for those in the Ward. Pillsbury closed the Great Northern Elevator in 1981, and two years later the closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant dealt a devastating blow to the region. This was followed by the closing of Republic Steel a year later. All three of these businesses employed thousands of Western New Yorkers and hundreds from the First Ward.
Even with the plant closings and lost jobs, there was still a real sense of hope in the Ward during the Griffin years. In 1990, a Buffalo journalist from Business First predicted that as a result of the business development occurring in the downtown area, the Ward “stands on the verge of economic rebirth.” Developer Carl Paladino was another optimist and in 1987, despite the high unemployment in the Ward, he developed a 17,000 square foot retail plaza at Louisiana Street and South Park Avenue to address the limited retail opportunities in the Ward. Evidence that the Ward was stabilizing during the Griffin years was seen in the parish enrollments. Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Pets) and St. Valentines were still growing in terms of the number of families. Pets grew from 250 families in 1982 to 340 in 1990, and St. Valentines increased from 200 families in 1985 to 250 in 1990.
However, while there was optimism and energy in the Ward, another part of the city wasn’t so lucky. The East Side of Buffalo, with its predominantly African-American population, deteriorated rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s. Much of this decline was due to the closing of manufacturing plants and the loss of countless jobs in the blue-collar East Side.
But some of Griffin’s opponents blamed him and cited the deterioration of race relations in Buffalo under his tenure as one of his failures. It is true that Griffin continually sparred with Councilman James Pitts, one of the city’s leading African-American leaders; Griffin even challenged him to a fistfight after a nasty argument. The Griffin administration was also criticized for its minority-hiring track record, and the poor allocation of neighborhood revitalization funds to James Pitts’s Ellicott district. At the start of his third term as Mayor of Buffalo, the feisty Griffin even purged African Americans from the top spots in his administration and replaced them with two Puerto Ricans.
The mayor from the Ward refused to close City Hall on Martin Luther King’s birthday because he felt the city workers already had too many days off. Griffin was personally opposed to the forced busing that was imposed by Judge John Curtin in 1981 and he took the matter to court, but Curtin’s decision was upheld. Griffin also petitioned the federal courts to end the minority hiring quotas in the public schools. One African-American social worker was quoted in 1981 as saying: “He’s [Griffin] not perceived as being sympathetic to the black community. But I don’t think anybody hates him or anything like that.” Perhaps his animosity toward African Americans, which was shared by others who grew up in the Ward, stemmed from the century-long distrust between the two groups.
Griffin accomplished much during his tenure as mayor despite the declining population, loss of Buffalo’s manufacturing base, and lower tax revenue. Major projects included the gentrification of the Theatre District on Main Street and the restoration of the historic Market Arcade building. Many voters thought his greatest accomplishment was on the waterfront where he led the development of housing and commercial buildings on the Erie Basin Marina.
Griffin also led the effort to bring a Triple-A baseball team back to the city with the hopes of eventually bringing a major league team. To accomplish this, he spearheaded efforts to secure funds to build Pilot Field, arguably the finest minor league baseball stadium in the country in 1988.
During his tenure, a metro rail line was built from downtown to the University at Buffalo on Main Street, and over 1,000 affordable homes were constructed.
Griffin, a product of the Great Depression, also believed in fiscal discipline and was able to pay off the city’s $19 million deficit after only five years in office.
Griffin has been described as a feisty, “dukes-up” Irishman. In his 1978 inaugural address Griffin exclaimed, “I promise I won’t let you down.” For many Buffalonians, especially those in South Buffalo and for those with downtown interests, Griffin did not disappoint. Griffin’s legacy with downtown Buffalo, the waterfront, the baseball stadium, the Theatre District, mass transit, and thousands of affordable houses has and will benefit generations of Buffalonians to come.
At Griffin’s farewell party in 1993, the Buffalo developer Frank Ciminelli said, “Here’s a guy who broke his neck for this city, and people just don’t realize it. There were deals I never would have touched if it wasn’t for him. It was always ‘Aw c’mon Frank. The city needs it.’” As one Buffalo News columnist stated after Jimmy’s death, “[Jimmy Griffin] might rank as the most dominant political figure of modern Buffalo.”