Adventures in an urban jungle
UB alum serves as Executive Director for tour company Explore Buffalo
Leaning comfortably back in a black leather chair, Buffalo Brad points at a large map hung on the wall opposite the single large window in the small office.
“We’ve got the city covered pretty much,” he said, referencing tiny red dots and black squares hand drawn on the map.
Buffalo Brad – formally known as Brad Hahn – graduated from UB in 2013 with a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in English, political science and geography. He currently serves as the executive director of a new tour company, Explore Buffalo.
While attending UB, Hahn embraced his lifelong love of Buffalo and volunteered to give tours for Buffalo Tours, a group under Preservation Buffalo, an organization dedicated to historic conservation in Western New York.
In second grade at Forest Elementary in Williamsville, Hahn’s teacher took the students into the city for tours and Hahn fondly remembers the displays for the 100-year anniversary of the Pan-American Exposition. The Pan-Am Expo took place in Buffalo in 1901 and shaped much of Buffalo’s history. From then on, Hahn read all he could about the history of Buffalo.
In the summer of 2013, Hahn became an interim tour coordinator at Buffalo Tours.
When a group of about 40 docents, or tour guides, left the company after feeling undervalued and overlooked, Hahn and the docents worked together to create Explore Buffalo. As a docent-driven organization, Hahn is the only paid employee, acting as “the referee.”
“I am the only employee here; I’m kind of everything,” Hahn said. “I’m the receptionist, the IT department, sort of knowing everything that’s happening.”
From organizing tour times, to working with the marketing department to advertise tours and events and supporting the docents by visiting ongoing tours, Hahn serves as the organization’s backbone.
Explore Buffalo seeks to give docents both freedom and flexibility in creating their own tours as well as following scripts for more established tours, like the two downtown Buffalo tours the company offers. Hahn also gives the reins to the docents as they develop “special topic tours” that explore hidden gems of the city. For example, a docent who lives in North Tonawanda told Hahn, “‘OK, I want to do a tour of North Tonawanda and we can do it around Canal Fest.’”
“So she’s gone off and written a tour in North Tonawanda,” Hahn said. “It’s great to watch and see people really get a lot of ownership over these tours.”
Ann Palmer, the Secretary of Explore Buffalo and a Tour Guide docent, said that the 40-50 trained docents know where they like to give tours, as many of them have been giving tours for years.
Some docents also volunteer at the Frank Lloyd Wright Graycliffe Estate overlooking Lake Erie in Derby and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site on Delaware Avenue, as well as giving tours for Preservation Buffalo.
Each docent, according to Hahn, comes in with about “40 or 50 ideas they want to do.”
In order to select tours that will attract a large audience, at the company’s January launch party posters were hung labelled with ideas the tour company was considering giving, such as the “Allentown Mob Tour” or the “Cottage District Tour,” which explores the secluded and flowering neighborhood of Little Summer Street.
As Hahn pulled the posters down from the top of his wooden desk there were flashes of colored dots. Each guest at the launch was given four to five colored stickers to put on the tours he or she would be most likely to take.
“Big surprise, the brewery tour won,” Hahn said. “No. 2 was actually the garden tour, the urban farms tour.”
Unlike other tour companies in Buffalo, Explore Buffalo seeks to emphasize the importance of preservation and embrace the present state of the city through specialized and updated tours.
Currently in the works is a micro-brewery bus tour slated to travel to different breweries in the area.
Hahn’s favorite tour to lead is the Silo City Vertical tour, one he revamped from the Preservation Buffalo script. According to Explore Buffalo’s website, on the tour guests will “experience all of the history and mechanics of the grain elevator, as well as the malt production process in the Perot malthouse,” have lunch on a dock of the Buffalo River and a have look at the “regenerative projects” being undertaken in Silo City.
The tour has element of danger. It is a walk up 10 flights up stairs to the very top of the grain elevators.
Although the website advises anyone with a fear of heights not sign up, Hahn has encountered a few scared guests while giving the tour.
While working with Preservation Buffalo, Hahn gave the tour to a group including a graduating student from Syracuse University, his movie producer father from California, their uncle and aunt from Milan and another uncle who worked as a curator for the Louvre in Paris. The Parisian uncle failed to mention he had vertigo.
“It’s usually not a problem for people going to the top of the elevators – it’s going back down,” Hahn said. “It took about half an hour to get back down. It’s just a slow, long process. There’s really no other way down.”
With an array of more classical architecture and history tours like ‘Masters of American Architecture,’ to the intriguing ‘Crime in the Queen City’ series, to the exclusive tour of the Twentieth Century Club – one of the oldest private women’s clubs in America – Explore Buffalo offers a tour to suit many Buffalo-related interests.
For students, these tours offer a glimpse into the university’s namesake city. Student prices as low as $5 are available.
As an UB alumni, Hahn remains connected to the university. While at UB, Hahn was in the Honors College. He served as a Colloquium teaching assistant for three years and worked as the Honors College’s Community Partner liaison during his senior year.
Today, Explore Buffalo puts on a tour for the incoming Honors College freshmen to introduce them to the city where they will be spending four years and performing the required 25 hours community service.
This particular tour is a huge undertaking for Explore Buffalo, as it takes more than 300 students, 15 colloquium teaching assistants and the Honors College Staff from UB’s North Campus to South Campus and passes through “the Delaware Park/Parkside neighborhood, the Elmwood Village, the UB Medical Campus, Silo City (with a stop inside one of the grain elevators), the East and West sides of Buffalo, Canalside, and ends at Niagara Square in front of City Hall,” said Jessica Seabury, the senior assistant director of the Honors College and UB alumni in an email.
As an introduction to Buffalo for students from out of town and a reintroduction to local students, Seabury said that the participants “are pleasantly surprised at all that the city has to offer and do and at the beauty of the architecture and the variety of the neighborhoods.”
Tour evaluations completed by students reflect the value some of them feel the tour offers.
“I think Buffalo’s an incredibly beautiful place with a lot of potential and rich history,” one review stated.
“I’ve lived here my entire life, but I definitely understand and appreciate it more,” remarked another.
Seabury and Hahn said they understand the importance of introducing students, local and from out of town, to the city.
“You don’t want to spend four years in the dorms,” Hahn said. “There’s so much more to offer here than just the bars in University Heights.”
For Seabury, students need to see how integral the city is to the fate of the Western New York region as well as to recognize the opportunities available in Buffalo.
“The entire landscape in the city will be quite different in just four short years,” Seabury said. “So I hope to impress upon the students that this is an exciting time to be part of the city’s resurgence.”
Students are not the only part of the UB community that Explore Buffalo seeks to reach. After parents of Honors College students voiced concerns about their children volunteering in the city, Hahn and the Honors College coordinated a tour for the parents.
Hahn said that many of the parents were locals but, “They were just blown away by what’s happening, how it’s developing, how the neighborhoods are really developing.”
Many people from out of town have a perception that Buffalo is “just a cold, Rust Belt city,” according to Hahn. But he says after taking the tours, their perspectives change.
Entering Hahn’s office is an immediate reminder of the role of Explore Buffalo – teaching others and learning about and exploring the city.
His office is located in a wing of the First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo, which boasts the tallest point on the lower West Side – a tower designed by E.B. Green that is reminiscent of the towers of the Richardson-Olmstead Complex, at the opposite end of Buffalo’s West Side. The congregation is also the oldest in the city; it was found in 1812.
The church overlooks Symphony Circle, originally called “The Circle,” which was one of the first traffic circles designed by Frederick Law Olmstead that dots the city, now home to Kleinhan’s Music Hall. In the 1890s, The Circle was the finish line for sleigh races that ran down Richmond Avenue, according to Buffalo as an Architectural Museum’s website.
Passing through the interior of the church, Hahn points out the Tiffany stained glass windows, the Tiffany chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that replicate oil lamps and the Byzantine revival style of the interior, a stark contrast to the layered look of the exterior. His tour guide persona emerges almost instantly as Hahn moves through the space, gesturing toward particularly interesting features and offering to turn the lights on to better see the domed ceiling.
Explore Buffalo is a way for UB students to see hidden, opulent or historical parts of the city that may seem unexpected as one sets up their dorm room. The city comes to life as Hahn and his team of docents tell the stories of wealthy Buffalo families, successful enterprises and the death and revival of commercial staples like the grain elevators.
“That’s what we are – we’re story tellers,” Hahn said.