“I’m the other Arthur.” Those were the awkward words I expressed to a standing room only crowd on the evening of May 12, 2015.
There I stood – a graying, 65-year-old Italian American lawyer – in the daunting position of being a last-minute replacement for the legendary George K. Arthur. The occasion was a town hall meeting, sponsored by the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force, at the Moot Senior Center on High Street on Buffalo’s east side. The topic of the evening was “Gentrification With Justice.”
The hundred or so attendees were mostly people of color and residents of the Fruit Belt neighborhood and nearby McCarley Gardens. They came out that evening to hear what former City Council President George K. Arthur, Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, and activist John Washington (then an organizer with PUSH Buffalo) had to say about the impact of Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus expansion on the Fruit Belt area. They wanted to hear whether neighborhood change could be based on respect, cooperation, and fairness. Few of the assembled knew of Art Giacalone (who, frankly, had never been mistaken for either an imposing physical presence, or a spellbinding speaker).
As a friend and one of the town hall organizers recently reminded me, in response to my maladroit opening line, “the audience laughed with the kind of acceptance that represented George.” I returned the favor by sharing with those in attendance a number of quotes from the Hon. George K. Here are two that still resonate:
First, in response to a question by Buffalo News reporter Susan Schulman, during a February 15, 2013 video, regarding the impact of gentrification on existing residents, the elder statesman did not hesitate to describe what he had observed for more than a half-century:
“Look at the history – The 1960s, Roswell Park lied to the community saying they were going to do certain things. Never honored their promises. . Today, the medical corridor – UB, Kaleida are playing the same game. The object is to move people out. … The problem: It’s too black. They’re misusing the people living there.”
Second, when asked by ArtVoice’s Buck Quigley in April 2010 what he would like to see happen in the Fruit Belt, George replied:
“I know what the Fruit Belt was, and I know what it can be. People have to pull together to make the Fruit Belt what it should be. And that means everybody working together, not just one or two.”
It had only been a week or so prior to the May 12, 2015 meeting that I had first met George, sitting around a small table at the original Jefferson Avenue location of Golden Cup Coffee. As a person interested in politics and the activities at Buffalo City Hall since moving to Buffalo in 1976, I was well aware of his reputation and the elected offices he had held. What I had not realized until then was how warm and self-effacing GKA was. But I was reminded of his thoughtful and kind personality every time our paths crossed from that day on. You would have thought that this man – 16 years my senior –had known me since our high school days.
Whether it was behind the stage at a jazz or blues festival, with a camera around his neck, or at a rally to preserve the character of his beloved Fruit Belt neighborhood, George would warmly greet and embrace me as a long-lost friend. We always promised each other that we would get together soon thereafter for a cup of coffee or lunch.
And, George was so generous with his encouragement and praise whenever I would send him a collection of photographs I had taken, whether of the Erie Basin Marina, Cazenovia Park, the Buffalo Erie County botanical gardens, or Rochester’s lilac festival . He may have been the talented master photographer, but he did not hesitate to inspire this amateur to keep on capturing beauty wherever observed. Little did he know how much he boosted my confidence when he kindly told me: “I want to follow you around Cazenovia Park to learn how you see the world.”
As with many Buffalonians, the December 25, 2020 passing of George K. Arthur leaves me wanting just one more cup of coffee, one more warm, embracing greeting, one more piece of practical insight, one more supportive word from this multifaceted, one-of-a-kind human being.
With All Due Respect (Admiration and Affection),
The Other Arthur