Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Bordering the southern end of Buffalo is the City of Lackawanna. In some ways, I often think of it these days as Buffalo’s forgotten community – a graveyard to the region’s blue-collar past haunted by the ghosts of ex-Bethlehem Steel workers. (NOTE - click on photos/use arrows)
Named after the Lackawanna Steel Company, the city’s population was listed at 19,949 according to 2020 Census figures. In its heyday, Lackawanna epitomized Buffalo’s gritty, hard-working, blue-collar reputation and fueled its industrial economy. At its peak, Bethlehem Steel employed 20,000 people and the plant served as the seed for the growth of the city, its neighborhoods and its institutions.
But, in 1983, the company delivered a knockout blow to Lackawanna — and the greater Buffalo area – as it announced it was shuttering most of its steel-making operations in the city. The move put some 7,500 steelworkers on the unemployment line, devastating the city, its tax revenues and the region’s economy for years to come. Many of my friends’ fathers worked at the plant, and many of them never recovered from being pink-slipped. The ripple-effect from the loss of so many good-paying jobs lasted for years and had a far-reaching adverse economic impact on many other businesses throughout Buffalo, leading to the loss of good-paying jobs elsewhere in the region. And to this day, while Buffalo is experiencing a renaissance (finally), the deteriorating, hollowed-out, abandoned Bethlehem Steel buildings that sit along Route 5 on what is now essentially a massive brownfield serve as a constant reminder of the area’s decaying rust-belt past.
I spent a lot of time in Lackawanna growing up and have a sentimental attachment to the city. Many of my cousins were raised there. I remember a mural painted on the side of a bar in Lackawanna, that said, ‘Welcome to Sunny LA.’ I learned to bowl down the street from that bar, at Abbott Lanes, where I'd go every Sunday with my 6-pound ball my father bought, used, for $4. I spent years and years at Ron Jaworski Stadium, named after the former NFL quarterback who hails from Lackawanna, watching Fourth of July fireworks and playing football and baseball. The venue, now called Veterans Stadium, is a relic — a concrete behemoth that seems more fitting for the backdrop of a sports movie set in the early 1970s than a viable field for a sporting event today. Every Tuesday night, my father and I would go to the Towne Theater for 99-cent movie night. It never mattered whether the film was appropriate for a kid. My father just wanted to get out of the house so he made me tag along. We saw Clint Eastwood flicks and Mel Brooks movies and even Cheech & Chong joints (pun intended.) I also had my first drink served to me in a bar in Lackawanna — at age 15, in a place called ‘Turtles.’ A dark Stroh’s draft served by a middle-aged female bartender with — and I swear this is true — a fully grown black mustache.
I recently returned to Buffalo after being away for 33 years and pass through Lackawanna often as the city sits between the town in which I bought my home and downtown Buffalo.
Parts of Lackawanna today look like they have fallen on hard times, but other areas still look the same to me as when I was a kid. The Botanical Gardens, located in the Frederick Olmsted-designed South Park just over the city line, remain a major tourist attraction. There is a sizeable Yemeni population in the city now. I like to go and sit inside the beautiful Our Lady of Victory Basilica, marvel at its architectural and artistic splendor and ponder life. And when I actually remember to reserve a table, I like to eat at Mulberry in Bethlehem Park, one of the best Italian restaurants in the Buffalo area.
The other day, while shooting in Veterans Stadium, I traveled back to 1976. There were fireworks exploding in the sky above and I was sitting on the ground laughing with my friend Kenny, as we wore our souvenir bright green glow-in-the-dark necklaces. His dad was a steelworker, wore his hair slicked back and drove this really cool 1969 Mustang.
Man, the possibilities seemed endless then. God was smiling on Sunny LA.