Something wonderful happened last winter. It was a moment Patti Jablonski-Dopkin had hoped for ever since Urban Roots Community Garden Center opened on Rhode Island Street in Buffalo 11 years ago. And she got to see it from the windows of her own garden shop: The neighborhood hummed with activity; people were out and about, patronizing shops and cafés.
For most of Urban Roots’ existence, the store, which is open year round, was about the only reason people visited the key intersection of Rhode Island, West Utica, and Brayton streets—the epicenter of the Five Points neighborhood on Buffalo’s West Side. While Urban Roots fared well during the colder months, the lack of neighboring businesses made for some lonely winters.
That’s changed over the past few years as Five Points has begun to blossom, thanks to neighborhood residents, a Buffalo-boosting investor, and several entrepreneurs willing to take a chance in a part of town that doesn’t quite have the name recognition of the Elmwood Village, Hertel Strip, or Allentown.
Now, visitors from across Buffalo and its suburbs are frequenting Five Points on a daily basis throughout the year. One can visit the garden center, head over to Five Points Bakery for gourmet toast and pastries, cross the street to buy some organic wine from Paradise Wine, take in a workout or art lesson at Pilates Art Studio, purchase culturally distinctive clothing and jewelry at Black Monarchy, and grab a beverage and a small plate from Remedy House.
Remedy House generated a buzz when it opened last November, bringing a steady stream of visitors to the neighborhood. “It was great to look out during the day and see people going to Remedy House. There was a great vibrancy in this neighborhood last winter, and it used to just be us,” said Jablonski-Dopkin.
Planting the seeds
Urban Roots called Five Points home before it was an-up-and-coming part of Buffalo. The concept for the shop came about in 2004, when a group of West Side residents began brainstorming around the idea of a neighborhood cooperative garden center that could serve locals, eliminating the need to venture to the suburbs or big-box stores to purchase plants and garden accessories. Urban Roots opened its doors at 428 Rhode Island in 2007.
As Urban Roots began to build up its customer base, people started coming from outside the city. “It was interesting to see the transition of people saying ‘I’m scared to go to the West Side,’ ‘I’m scared but I did it,’ and now, ‘I love it here,’” Jablonski-Dopkin said, adding that the neighborhood’s diversity of people and places is becoming more appreciated.
She says there’s been a spillover effect, with Five Points visitors also checking out places like BreadHive Bakery and Café or Black Sheep restaurant, both on nearby Connecticut Street.
On the Frits
You can’t talk about Five Points without mentioning Frits Abell. Five Points is the type of urban neighborhood that captures Abell’s attention. When he returned to Buffalo in 2011 after living in Boston and New York City for over 20 years, he found himself “inherently drawn” to the Five Points intersection.
Opportunities arose and he began investing in the neighborhood, first with a classic Buffalo Victorian home that he purchased for $18,000—and which triggered his “innate love for historic preservation”—and then bigger properties, such as the building in which Remedy House resides.
“Five Points speaks to me. I like the diversity here. I’ve lived in a number of cities and I’m drawn to the Bohemian, up-and-coming, slightly edgier centers of cities. I wanted to be a part of creating something like that,” said Abell, who is known for founding the echo Art Fair and the Buffalo Expat Network, among other ventures.
The property at 429 Rhode Island, where Remedy House now is, seemed especially appealing to Abell given its position right at the intersection. It wasn’t an easy project, though. It took four years to rehab the lower level of the building. The structure had to be lifted off the ground so the foundation could be rebuilt.
Once that was completed, Abell began seeking suitors. He didn’t want a bar; in fact, he turned down a few such proposals. “I knew, fundamentally, that we needed a real communal, coming together spot where people could meet and have conversations and genuine, substantive interactions,” he said. “Buffalo really needs more of that, and I saw an opportunity for that in this intersection.”
A remedy for the neighborhood
So did Remedy House owners Andrew Trautman and Justin Smith.
“The location of the building situated at the point of Rhode Island and West Utica, plus the feel of the neighborhood, really inspired us,” said Trautman. “We wanted to evoke the feel of a European sidewalk café without it being super literal.”
They envisioned a place where people could hang out, read a book, and people watch, a place that served espresso, beer, wine, amaro, and small plates, “all things that we are passionate about,” Trautman said.
Abell, who is a close friend of Trautman’s, invited the two to do a pop-up event inside the space in late 2016, amidst the renovation. Trautman remembers taking off the wooden boards on the front door to get in the building and set up the pop-up bar, where they served lattes and cappuccinos.
“Everyone that came in loved the idea of a café going into the space,” Trautman said. “It was a great day, the energy felt just right, and it was then we decided this was where we needed to be.”
Abell has been a key player in Five Points’ development, but he credits the neighborhood’s success to local activists who worked to stabilize the area by chasing out negligent property owners and beautifying neglected properties. Residents and business owners also worked together on traffic calming measures and initiatives aimed at increasing Five Points’ visibility.
“It’s been a really interesting experience to watch the neighborhood evolve,” Abell says. “I firmly believe that over the past 50 years, Buffalo became very fragmented on many levels, whether by race or class or ethnicities, due to economics and weather. It’s really important that we build these town centers like Five Points again, and create spaces where people can come together.”
Opening new doors in the neighborhood
Another of Abell’s Five Points holdings is 385 Rhode Island, which houses Las Puertas (translation: “The Doors”), an upscale Mexican restaurant founded by James Beard-nominated chef-owner Victor Parra Gonzalez, who has opened 14 restaurants between Buffalo, his native Mexico, and Montreal.
The opportunity in Five Points arose out of the blue. Gonzalez was sitting in BreadHive, giving a proposal for a potential pop-up restaurant, when he noticed some familiar faces—customers who frequented his previous restaurant, Jaguar at the Bistro, in Youngstown, N.Y.
Customers spotted him and asked if he was finally opening something in Buffalo. At the time, Gonzalez wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it was time to close the Youngstown eatery.
He decided to walk the neighborhood after his BreadHive meeting and ended up on Rhode Island Street, where he spotted a property available for lease. It was owned by Abell. The two talked and discovered that their visions for the site were closely aligned. Gonzalez’ newest project was born. He returned to Mexico briefly to liquify his assets there to help finance what would become Las Puertas.
“I came back here and started from the ground up,” Gonzalez said, pointing out that he didn’t even have a stove to cook on.
Eventually, Abell introduced Gonzalez to interior designer Jean-Michel Reed. While Reed was miraculously transforming the 700-square-foot space, Gonzalez “cooked for everybody who would let me cook” to raise more money—32 pop-up dinners in all.
Gonzalez says he’s grateful for Abell and Reed’s willingness to work with him. “They allowed me to build the restaurant at my own pace. It was a very unconventional way to do things,” he said. “I knew what I needed in order to have a place here, and we were able to work through it for a year and a half before opening the doors. If it wasn’t for Fritz and JM, I don’t think Las Puertas would exist. It had to be the right combination of people willing to go to battle, with a very unconventional model.”
Read more about Breadhive, the only worker-owner eatery in Buffalo, here.
Gonzalez believes Las Puertas’ successful opening is symbolic of the neighborhood. He’s taken inspiration from neighboring establishments like Five Points Bakery, whose customers are helping fund an expansion project, and BreadHive, which got its start through community-based investors who purchased nonvoting preferred stock in the business.
“It’s so exciting to see people in the morning, and they ask me how the weekend was,” Gonzalez said. “It gives you hope and pushes you to be better. What’s happening in Five Points is truly phenomenal.”