Waterfront Elementary School offered many opportunities for daydreaming. The first K-8 magnet school in Buffalo, New York, was built on the same stretch of land as the old, abandoned shell of the Buffalo Gas Light Company Works. Fourth street used to lead directly to the waters of Lake Erie, with the Gas Light building looming only a few yards away from the lapping shores. Later renamed Illuminating Gas Co., the building existed solely to convert coal into illuminating gas for the surrounding residences, which were few and far between in 1848. Waterfront Elementary School was one hundred and thirty years away from being erected directly behind the landmark, a perfectly grey, apathetic point of reference for a dawdling student. Buffalo Gas Light remained planted in the grass like a stout, sleeping hippopotamus as children scrambled around the prickly grass and looming trees with hollowed, cracked trunks during recess.
The land filled up in sedimentary layers, pushing the shoreline back onto itself: through a century and a half, Fourth street was paved and curved back towards Niagara Street, the I-190 thruway hovered above heads as the less fortunate huddled in cardboard boxes in the rubble beneath it. Condominiums spread in twirling, twisting repetitions until there was no space between a backyard and the original lighthouse.
In the early part of this century, a mysterious odor began seeping through the soil that spread between the school and the old building. Children that graduated from Waterfront began high school careers with splitting migraines and weakening muscles. Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, attention deficit disorder, and Lupus bubbled up in a shockingly high number of bodies that used this soil in a revolutionary set of science class ‘labs’ that were so advanced for such young children, PBS filmed the entire process to be used around the country. We dug the soil up with our tiny bare hands, and visited natural landmarks chosen as plots to be studied over the course of the entire school year, a required one hour a day experiencing the textures of the land. Three feet underground,roughly the height of a kindergardener, barrels of toxic refuse were disintegrating after one hundred years of erosion.
The story barely gained any momentum when it surfaced. The western New York area has a slimy history of dangerous school placements, Love Canal being the nationally recognized blow to an already rusting city. Children there muddled in the soils the same way, experimenting in the landscapes far more terrifying. The Niagara Falls School board purchased the land covering 21000 tons of noxious chemicals from Hooker Chemical in 1953 for $1 and immediately proceeded to build two elementary schools and parceled out numerous plots of land to young families.
“An army of five fifth grade boys bellied their way across the carefully manicured lawn and slipped behind a clump of hydrangea bushes. Quietly they emptied an arsenal of little blue stones from their jean pockets, and…hurled the projectiles at the enemy fort. The stones exploded upon impact shattering into thousands of pieces. The boys jumped up and surrounded the old shed…They nudged Him through an open doorway and down a flight of stairs. He hesitated on the last step. A strange iridescent bluish black liquid bubbled up beneath him.”
Mr. Wagner, our eighth grade teacher, walked us down to the remaining facade without our coats on an October afternoon. He walked us behind the school, through uncleared thickets clawing through fences.
He stared at the ashlar stone with his arms crossed.
“This was Buffalo that will never, ever resurface again,” he raised his arms into the air and held them there for quite some time.