While our free and inclusive community bike rides are usually roundtrip, one of the many pandemic-induced changes to Slow Roll is to end at a different location than where we began – see below for all changes. Our Middle Main Ride this coming Monday, September 14th, will start at The Oakk Room (1435 Main Street, 6:30pm start) and end nearby at the African American Cultural Center (AACC) at 350 Masten Avenue – both part of the area affected by the City of Buffalo’s Middle Main Street major reconstruction project, yet both, as discussed below, out of the loop about the process.

Lead image – The Old School B-Boys welcome Slow Roll’s return to the AACC in 2017 – photo by Clay Davies

The Oakk Room is a baby compared to the AACC, having been in the bar and restaurant business for nine years; the nonprofit AACC has been a cultural hub for 57 years, long led by the late Agnes Bain and now directed by Tina Washington-Abubeker, who was introduced to many through this great interview in The Challenger News. Tina took time to speak about the state of AACC and potential of the Middle Main project.

How has the pandemic affected AACC?

Our doors are still open, but we’re operating with a part-time staff. We’re making it our business to continue with the same types of services because our community is underserved to begin with, so to completely close our doors would be such a disservice to our community.

Instead of our Jumpin’ Jambalaya summer program onsite, we did a virtual summer camp, and each one of our programming components contributed to the camp – education-oriented like teaching about African history and Black Wall Street, economics through entrepreneurial workshops, and also the kinds of activities that would get people up and moving.

We brainstormed as a staff, because we had been homebound and in some ways still are, that one of the things kids need is to get up and get moving – so we began teaching Kemetic yoga and how it originates from Egypt, and also did African dance of course with drumming in the background. We also did spoken word, because we realize the connection between ELA as a subject and writing, being able to recite poetry, which ties in with our theater workshops.

We’re now putting together some virtual educational virtual pieces that will help to expand on what students are doing in classrooms virtually, like some science experiments and more spoken word. And we also want to have a homework hotline – really trying to provide some vital services, while at the same time not duplicate but enhance what they’re doing in schools.

We’re constantly having to think outside the box. For example, we held our Pine Grill Reunion virtually, now in its 53rd year, we didn’t wanna break with tradition and people wanted to connect, which we realize the importance of even more this summer – we needed to be able to see, first of all, who’s still among us? Are you ok? We encouraged watch parties – my family did one, and an advantage to this format was that my family who lived in Buffalo for many years but have moved away yet still consider themselves Buffalonians, they were able to attend because it was a global event. We all came together like that.

How have you been engaged in the Middle Main Street construction project?

As far as I know, we haven’t been consulted, but I think we should be. And personally, I haven’t really been engaged, not to say that I wouldn’t want to be.

Here’s how I see it: I live around the corner from The Oakk Room, on the “other side of Main” –  and I think that there’s always been the “other side of Main,” speaking to the segregation in Buffalo. 

I live on Oxford, which has been interesting – at one point in time it was the ‘hood, now it’s been transformed into a more diverse neighborhood. Literally, we have a United Nations on my block – from the end of West Ferry all the way to Delavan, we have African-Americans and Caucasians and now we also have Burmese, Somali, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and the children all play together – it’s really a cool thing to see how they come together speaking different languages, especially at that corner of Lafayette and Oxford. We fought through our block club to keep that a playground for the children.

As for the African American Cultural Center, we are central in this community. We’re in between Jefferson, which is a hub in terms of culture and history, and Michigan along the Underground Railroad. And then Main – I got a whole history lesson from Jim Pitts, former Buffalo Common Council President, about how Main was a divider between different ethnic groups, and the fact that it was set up that way, this side of Main and that side. Now that’s kind of changing, but one of the things I learned from his lesson is that we need to bring all sides of Buffalo together. And I feel like the African American Cultural Center is close enough to Main that one of the things we can take on is finding different ways to bring people from all sectors across Main.

And one of the ways I think we can create accessibility is green space – I feel like in our rush to try to metropolize cities, a lot of what we’ve lost is green space. I learned from people like Mr. Pitts about how Humboldt used to be a tree-lined promenade where families would walk, with all kinds of flowers and gardens and beauty, and now it’s a highway.

I don’t know how we can do this for Main, but we need to get back to small-town Main, with boutiques and places to go – why can’t what we have on Main a reflection of what we have on Hertel or Allen or Elmwood? Why can’t the street be more user-friendly? Why can’t we have more trees? Why can’t we make it more of a community than a way for people to escape from the city? Why can’t it be something that looks and feels like a place where people live, where things and children grow and thrive? We have a lot of work to do, but why can’t we unearth some of the concrete and put some real earth down with more flowers and gardens? That in itself will create a healthier environment.

I believe that if you build a treelined street with a bike lane on either side and one driving lane in each direction, people will still come. And they’ll respect it, because they’re not gonna drive 40-50 miles per hour on it like they do now.

How can folks get involved with AACC?

We’re about to announce a membership program, which will support a major expansion – it will be available through our website and at many community events. There’s a $17.5 million project in the works – we have some money, some grant funding, and some patrons who wanna be a part of it, though we still have a lot of fundraising to do, and we really need the community as a whole to be involved.

We’re talking about a theater that could seat 300, and an outdoor theater as well. We want this to be a citywide effort, not just an East Side project, to be able to open doors for all different kinds of art – a museum, a visual arts gallery, and a place to preserve memorabilia that right now is in people’s attics. We want to be a place where people can come together and celebrate each other’s differences.

We want people to understand that when we promote culture – any culture across the board – we help with understanding, help further unity among us, A lot of what we’re experiencing now in terms of intolerance can be overcome if we can understand and appreciate each other’s cultures, celebrate what’s unique about each ethnicity and heritage.