Ralph Wilson Park is a land with history. The park has been a part of the Buffalo community for a long time but now it has a new name. While change is exciting, it can also be difficult. Will it be hard for our community to stop calling this place LaSalle and start calling it Ralph Wilson Park? Was it hard for the community to stop calling it Centennial and start calling it LaSalle? Was it always a park? Join us in exploring the history of Ralph Wilson Park, its various names, and the ways in which it has been embraced by the people of Buffalo.
Places hold significant meaning for people. They are not static physical locations, but landscapes filled with memories. Maybe the former LaSalle Park is where you walked your baby or your dog, loved ones now grown and flown or no longer here. Perhaps the grounds of the former LaSalle Park held a favorite annual event, like a festival or parade (those will return!). Maybe you once coached Little League in the ballpark, spending summer evenings supporting tiny athletes who today have families of their own. If you have memories at the park, those memories may be tied closely to the name LaSalle.
The Ralph Wilson Park Conservancy has been advocating for a heritage approach. We see the park as a legacy inherited from the past and poised to be inherited in the future. As a piece of heritage, it may feel counterintuitive to change something as intrinsic as its name. But the Imagine LaSalle Focus Group dreamt up a world-class park, working together to bring that design to life. Now, we are asking Buffalo to shift something big as well, and think of this reimagined community green space by its new name: Ralph Wilson Park.
It may help to know LaSalle has not always been the name of this waterfront green space. And, it hasn’t always been a usable green space! The park was originally christened Centennial Park, created through dredging the Erie Canal, where the 190 now runs. It was built for and named after Buffalo’s 100 year birthday in July of 1932. For almost a decade, the park was known as Centennial Park. In 1940, the city used the name of the French explorer who first led Europeans around Lake Erie, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, to rename it ‘LaSalle Park’.
We could look back even further in exploring the park’s history of names. While most of the park lands did not sit above the water prior to construction for the Centennial, what little did (as well as immediately adjoining areas) was once called Sandytown. Sandytown was not a pleasant family park in the 1800s, but an unofficial graveyard. Instead, its sandy soils once held the burials of deceased soldiers from the War of 1812. Let’s look back even further. Long before the establishment of the City of Buffalo and the arrival of European settlers, the lake and surrounding lands were Haudenosaunee territory. Home to the Seneca, the shores of Lake Erie have a history of names that far precede these English names.
To inherit something from the past does not mean it must remain in its original form. Inheriting a historical family home does not require you to live with broken plumbing. Inheriting a beloved family recipe does not require you to use hand-churned butter (even if your great-grandmother’s handwriting demands it). While there can be a desire to immortalize what we inherit from the past, the truth is most heritage has been altered along the way. In many cases, alterations are what allowed for survival into the present day.
Change can also be what secures heritage for the future. Our park has seen many eras of human history and many names for its lands. It has also faced many challenges. LaSalle Park was frequently battered by storms over the years, while rising water levels still flood the grounds today. The redesign of the park will address these challenges – introducing elevation, a soft shoreline and topographical changes as well as bringing in thousands of new trees.
Today, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, the City of Buffalo, and the Conservancy’s many partners work to usher in a new era for this Buffalo park, altering what needs to change to ensure its future. A new name solidifies these changes. New era. New name. The transformation of Ralph Wilson Park will take these lands and this piece of natural and cultural heritage into the present and into the future. It is a new era for the park and its new name will help us make this distinction.
Lead photo caption: Mayor Byron Brown, Members of the Buffalo Common Council, and Mary Wilson, wife of the late Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Board Chair and Life Trustee of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, celebrated the signing of legislation renaming LaSalle Park Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park in October 2019.
This article is part of the conservancy’s Heritage Engagement Project.