Tour the Old Steel Town at the Center of ‘Lackawanna Blues’

Today, it’s Tifft Nature Preserve, a 264-acre refuge in Buffalo, just north of Lackawanna, N.Y. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was an industrial site of train tracks, grain elevators and a handful of small ponds. That area is where Ruben Santiago-Hudson — the writer, director and star of “Lackawanna Blues,” on Broadway through Nov. 12 — went fishing as a child. It is also one of the many places that he fondly reminisces about in his autobiographical show.

Santiago-Hudson’s play takes place in and around a boardinghouse at 32 Wasson Avenue owned by a big-hearted landlady, Ms. Rachel Crosby (affectionately known as “Nanny”), who took him in and raised him. While the 90-minute autobiographical one-man show is an ode to Nanny, it includes at least 25 neighborhood figures (all artfully played by Santiago-Hudson in various postures, accents and cadences).

An aerial view of Lackawanna, including the site of Bethlehem Steel.Credit…via Lackawanna Historical Association

Among the lost souls, petty hustlers and philosophers waxing poetic was Ol’ Po’ Carl, a would-be chef and former baseball player. At a rehearsal of the play in mid-August, Santiago-Hudson recounted a conversation the pair had about fishing. (Ol’ Po’ Carl called him “doc” because there was always a chance Santiago-Hudson would be a doctor someday.)

“He’d say to me, ‘Hey, doc! You little curly-headed, raggedy-headed rascal. You going the fishing?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I might go the fishing.’ Not ‘going to fishing,’ ‘going the fishing.’

“He’d say, ‘You’d better get on out there before they caught up all the fish.’ And I’d be like — I was 11 years old — I’m like, ‘He might be right, they caught all the fish!’ And I’m thinking, as I got older, I’m like, ‘How you going to catch all the fish?’”

Recently, Malik Rainey, a photographer based in Buffalo, toured Lackawanna to capture the area during dusky evenings. Those images — along with archival photographs from the ’50s and ’60s that include photographs of Santiago-Hudson as a boy and Nanny with her husband, Bill — tell the story of a town’s rich past and present.

Text excerpts from “Lackawanna Blues”

1956 Lackawanna, New York, like all Great Lakes cities, was thriving! Jobs everywhere, money everywhere. Steel plants, grain mills, railroads, the docks.

Everybody had a new car and a conk. Restaurants, bars, stores, everybody made money.

The smell of fried fish, chicken and pork chops floating in the air every weekend. In every bar the aroma of a newly tapped keg of Black Label, Iroquois, or Genesee beer, to complement that hot roast beef-on-weck with just a touch of horseradish.

These snowbound cities that kissed the shores of the Great Lakes tried to live up to that privilege. And they were jumping; Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Erie, Toledo, Detroit, Gary, Lackawanna!

After-hour joints were jumping, sisters from Alabama frying pork rinds, brothers from Tennessee slopping sauce on freshly smoked slabs of ribs and shots of Black Velvet or Canadian Club whisky overrunning the shot glasses.

You could get to town on a Monday and by Wednesday have more jobs than one man can take. These were fertile times.

The 2020 census counted 19,949 people in Lackawanna. In the late ’50s and ’60s, when “Lackawanna Blues” is set, the town was thriving, courtesy of the Bethlehem Steel mill.

In 1983, the steel mill closed its doors. Today, wind turbines spin where steel was once manufactured.

The play, Santiago-Hudson said during an interview in August, allows him to revisit and remember where he came from.

“People say things like, ‘Well, how did you escape? How did you get out?’ I didn’t want to escape,” he said. “I didn’t want to go nowhere. I’d have never left. If Nanny didn’t make me go to college, I’d have never left. It’s the honest to God truth. I’d rather take a job in the steel plant and stay in Lackawanna, and be with these people.”

Bethlehem Steel closed in the early 1980s.Credit…Malik Rainey for The New York Times
Some of the current residents of Wasson Avenue.Credit…Malik Rainey for The New York Times
Tifft Nature Preserve, and grain elevators in the distance.Credit…Malik Rainey for The New York Times
Houses as seen from Albright Court.Credit…Malik Rainey for The New York Times

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