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There’s something about exploring an abandoned space that feels so…vibrant. Despite decaying interiors, empty hallways, and the eerie sound of sullen silence, you’ll find evidence of past semblances of life around every turn. Buffalo, New York is one of those special cities experiencing its own boom, in part thanks to the revitalization of the old.
I would argue that one of Buffalo’s main attractions isn’t quite a modern spin on a long-forgotten space, but more a celebration of its weathered state and spotlighting it front and center. Go on a Google hunt for things to do on a visit to Buffalo and it won’t be long before Silo City pop up. This space is exactly what it sounds like: a system of domineering silos used to house grain during the turn of the century. And you won’t exactly find a hopping scene once you arrive.
Silo City is a handful of things. There's a restaurant and bar—as well as a music venue, if you’re there on the right day—called Duende, an old 1940s office building that now serves up small plates and beers inside a space decorated with salvaged materials from the surrounding silos. It’s an interesting space to convene, as it’s been dropped right outside a fence guarding a set of historic grain silos, previously managed by Perot Company as a grain elevator and malthouse that have been abandoned since 1963.
The grain silos and Duende could not be more different. Duende hints at the arrival of a hip, new crowd: Those looking to celebrate decaying space and elevate it with art. Walk through the side door of Duende and into the yard, past the soccer nets meant to keep kids busy on summer days, and you’ll see a gate. Step through and you’ll find another silo filled with art from local talents. This is the easiest silo to locate, as it’s being monitored when there are art shows occurring. On a fall trip to Buffalo in 2019, my partner and I found ourselves sitting outside of Duende, listening to a rowdy local band, while gazing at the omnipresent grain silos to our right. The juxtaposition of life being loudly lived and an empty space that once teamed with its own raucous history seemed almost lonely, if you can call a set of buildings that. But to really experience the extent of the liveliness the silos previously housed, we had to book a ticket.
We opted for a vertical tour of the silo city system with Explore Buffalo. The tourism group is the only organization that offers guided tours through the space, and it’s highly recommended you visit with a trained guide as it’s 1) private property and illegal to enter on your own, and 2) incredibly dangerous given the unstable nature of the structure. On a rainy day in September, we climbed to the top of a grain elevator through the dark and stepped over the various items left from the last working day in the silo. It easily could have been the scene of a horror film, with papers scattered across the floor, graffiti peeking out from various crumbling walls, and rusted-out machinery shifting in the wind. It’s one of those experiences you’re surprised to find: an unbelievably massive space cloaked in silence and somehow covered in the kind of chaos only years of disrepair can bring.
Our guide, a wonderfully knowledgeable volunteer named Larry, shared stories and facts about the space; just enough to keep us interested and asking questions. We walked through the entirety of the malthouse and up all 150 feet of the attached grain elevator, learning the function of each room and many machines along the way. The entire tour lasted close to 2.5 hours, a good amount of which was spent climbing stairs in near pitch-black darkness. On the way, we learned of the precarious method workers used to get from one floor to the next—sitting on a small “elevator” pulley system hardly large enough for a human to occupy. Larry took us through the mechanics of the grain silo, from the massive funnels to the sorting and drying machines. At the top of the elevator, we were treated to a stunning view of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.
Joining a silo tour is easy: You just have to book a ticket, which will cost you $40. (Take note that the tours will not resume until Spring 2020—they do not run during the wintertime.) There’s also an option to skip the steps and tour the ground levels of the silos for $20.
One of my favorite parts about the tour wasn’t quite the sights, Larry’s incredible stories and facts, or exploring a creepy abandoned building—it was paying homage to the incredible resilience of the city and its historic past.