The Allentown Art Festival
We do two things really well in Buffalo. Snow in the winter and festivals in the summer.
I'm sure when non-Buffalo natives think of Buffalo (if they do indeed think of us at all) they associate Buffalo more with the former. Snow and Buffalo are synonymous. Not so much Buffalo and festivals.
Buffalonians love festivals, fairs, carnivals and lawn fetes. (if you aren't familiar with lawn fetes they are really just carnivals on the lawn of churches, usually with beer tents.)
Every weekend in Buffalo, starting with Memorial Day, there is something going on or some sort of celebration. We have a high population of Greek and Italian heritage residents so of course, we have Greek and Italian festivals. Buffalo is known for our wings, so naturally the Wing festival is highly attended. There are country fairs, corn festivals, music festivals, festivals by the waterfront and on the river. We have paddle boat festivals, garden festivals, blues festivals, and free Shakespeare performances. I find that Step Out Buffalo, as well as Visit Buffalo Niagara, are great resources when it comes to activities in the area, especially the “Things To Do” or “Upcoming Events” sections.
The Allentown Art Festival is not the first festival of the season, but it’s the first festival that really kicks off summer. This year was the 60th year.
Originally named “The Buffalo Arts Festival”, it was founded and created in 1958 to promote local artists and businesses. It was an outstanding success, even though the participating local artists numbered no more than 50. 20,000 people attended the festival in those two days. It was referred to unofficially as the “Allentown” arts festival for several years due to its location, (Allen street as one of the intersections) but it has been officially known as the Allentown Art Festival since 1967. The festival owes a lot of its continued success due to the dedicated work of the Allentown Village Society Inc., a not-for-profit run by more than 30 volunteers.
I was eager to get to the festival this year. Last year I had somehow missed it and I kicked myself the whole summer over it. The weather was unbelievable. A bright, hot sun and clear blue sky had persisted throughout the later part of the week. The festival takes up a large section of Delaware, with booths lining up on the smaller side streets of Franklin and Allen.
The festival location itself provides very little shade, just in tents of the artists and the occasional overhead tree. My Mom and her sisters were more than happy to come with me since they were already planning on attending. We agreed on Sunday, the second and last day of the festival. They insisted on going early, as it gets crowded quickly. Officially the festival started at 10 and lasted until 6pm. My aunts told us they were getting there at 9am, and my mother and I settled on meeting them at 10am.
I could have probably found free parking on one of the side streets, but parking is not my strong suit. The satisfaction of parking for free is not worth my anxiety over being ticketed, hit, or towed. I pulled over a block from where the festival started, where two young teens were frantically waving yellow flags and a “5 dollar” parking sign. I paid them and parked in a small lot behind a community center, under the shade of a large tree.
The block we strolled before arriving at the festival was shaded by thick trees, and under them, I was almost cold when the wind blew in sudden gusts. We moved from under the shade to enter the festival, skirting around the parked firetrucks and orange barricades. The heat reflected off the cement and bounced up to hit you in the face, while the sun had not a single cloud to block it. It was like being cooked from above and below.
As we walked to the point to meet up with my aunts I noticed that there were way more early birds than I was expecting. I am not a morning person and I had never been to the art festival this early. I am a 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon kind of girl, fighting the elbow to elbow crowds and worming through people to look at the artwork. If my aunts had not insisted on such an early start I am sure that this year would have been the same. The clear, uncrowded window of the late morning I found myself in was a much more relaxing atmosphere than I expected.
The types of artwork and artist at the Allentown Art Festival are almost anything you could think of. Wood, glass, jewelry, metalwork, and pottery. Paintings in every medium, photographs and handmade games, furniture, clothing. I could go on and on. All of it was stunning.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) I came with a light pocketbook. This was real art, with real price-tags. Nothing wrong with artists charging what they want for their work, but nothing was in my budget for the day (or month.) Items like photos or handmade cards might go for $10-$15. Keychains or small glass animals around the same. Wooden or metal figurines and garden items, handmade planters etc were totaling $30-$50. I am a sucker for jewelry. But anything that was catching my eye (which was everything) were $75-$200 or beyond. Truly a sound investment and a fair price for stainless steel or gold one-of-a-kind of jewelry. I had to sigh and turn away from a lot of pieces I loved.
I do like and appreciate art, but I don’t own anything that would be considered “real” art. (Painted by an artist and not bought at Target or Hobby Lobby. Although I do have a painting I made myself in one of those paint nights where you drink a lot of wine.) Art was not in the budget either, but that didn’t stop me from checking out almost every single booth.
My mom and aunts were poking through a tent filled with metal bug-eyed insects mounted on poles. The products were meant to be stuck in a garden or lawn. They were cute and well made, but the lack of lawn I have at my apartment made that kind of product relevant. I was fanning myself with my brochure, patting at my face with my hand in an effort to wipe away sweat but also not smear my makeup. I realized at that moment I hadn’t put on sunscreen that morning. Stupid. I looked around the edge of the tent, saw blissfully beckoning shade on the
sidewalk. As I cooled off I took my first good look at the back of the tents and street beyond.
The tents were backed up right to the sidewalk, creating a kind of “alley” between them and the buildings of Delaware. I noticed I was standing in front of one of the more famous Mansions (Literally called the Mansion on Delaware) and turned to finally take in the houses behind me.
I have driven down Delaware more times than I could count, but it is a busy street and I am usually the one driving. I barely ever have time to really take a good look at them.
Few, if any, are single-family residences anymore. Most of them seem to be offices, headquarters of Buffalo-based organizations, or a few apartment-style homes. Some are on the national register of historic places and homes, and all are really a sight that has to be seen.
The sky made a perfect canvas to set off the healthy summer leaves. So waxy and thick, the kind you know would snap between your fingers if you went to pluck one. White tents with peaked tops were popped up like clean mushrooms against a backdrop of turn-of-the-century mansions. The sun was shining with a strength only felt in early summer, when winter was just on the edge of your memory so you blessed the sweat on your lip instead of cursing it.
I felt great love and pride for my city just then. I always do, really. But. I was standing in the middle of one of its busiest streets, looking at art that was crafted by Buffalo artists, many of whom made our city the focal point and theme of their work. And we were all strolling in the shadow of mansions that did nothing but show how powerful and important Buffalo was at the turn of the century. It wasn't the first time I had thought these things, but it was the first time found myself in front of the mansions themselves as the thoughts turned over in my head.
I lost myself in thought and had to trot to catch up with my group.
Lunch was on everyone's mind when I finally caught up to them, so we turned down Franklin Street. Still an official part of the Allentown festival, but here the street was narrow and the crowd much thinner. Franklin is more residential than Delaware. A local Veteran’s posts was offering chicken sandwiches, hotdogs and fries for a much lower price than the carnival-type food stands on Delaware. We bought some food and spread out on one of the many card tables they had set up on their lawn. The food was good, the shade almost better.
Afterward, my aunts and I went inside to find the ladies room. The Veteran’s post was a mansion like many others on the street, redone with a restaurant and community hall with a bar on the lower level, which is where we found the bathroom and a friendly bartender who was eager to talk about the history of the place.
Our pace after lunch became lazier. I lost some interest in the endless booths and began window-shopping in some of the neighborhood shops, who were taking full advantage of the heavy foot traffic. Their doors were flung open, music blaring and products for sale set up on the sidewalk. I stopped in front of a thrift shop that had live “mannequins” in the window, striking poses in sync with the music. It was so cool and quirky, and really so “Allentown” the only part of Buffalo where this could happen. I just loved it.
IIn the end, I found the festival to be both predictable and enjoyable, like a favorite meal. Although from time to time I felt like some of the products were a bit repetitive. (How many glass bobble stands does the festival need, really? I think I saw the same stained glass bird hanging from a wire about 10 times) But most of the artists were showcasing truly unique and awe-inspiring work. I was especially partial to hand-drawn sketches and the jewelry as well as anything Buffalo related (as mentioned above) so perhaps I’m biased, as there were plenty of those stands and I never once thought there were too many of them.
We left the festival around 1pm, just as the crowd began to thicken. I’ll never go late again, trust me, arriving early is a must for the art festival, especially if you are interested in buying some great products and being able to browse freely!
Also, for the love of God, do not forget sunscreen. I’m scratching my peeling shoulders as I write this