Stationary Landscapes and Personal Effects: Buffalo's Freezer Queen after closure
Three years ago I had the opportunity to visit a building on Buffalo's south waterfront that for many years had been home to the Freezer Queen manufacturing plant. Freezer Queen's business was frozen foods, and in particular frozen dinners for major grocery retailers like Walmart. While narratives of Buffalo's rise and fall have always focused on big industrial complexes like the steel mills at Lackawanna and the First Ward elevators, the importance of smaller manufacturing facilities like Freezer Queen should not be discounted.
Before its closure, Freezer Queen had employed 175 Buffalo residents in a complex occupying one of the slips on the outer harbour. Taken together, smaller manufacturers represented and continue to represent a major pool of blue collar employment in Buffalo, and their social role has been equally important. When we were researching Elevator Alley, we learned that the wife of one of the elevator workers we talked to had worked at Freezer Queen back in the 1970s. For many families, employment at this plant helped to secure their financial stability, to even out the seasonal or cyclical nature of employment in the grain and steel industries, or to open up a second income that improved their household flexibility in other ways.
Freezer Queen became a national supplier of frozen meals, but it began in Buffalo in 1958, founded by a guy named Paul Snyder, one of the city's more significant local businessmen in the latter part of the 20th century (he also founded the Darien Lake amusement park and owned the Buffalo Braves NBA franchise that later became the L.A. Clippers, and today his holding company owns the Hyatt Regency and two conference centres in the Buffalo area). Snyder sold Freezer Queen to Nabisco in 1970, and it would subsequently go through a succession of conglomerate owners.
In July 2006 the company's final parent, Home Market Foods, closed the Buffalo facility after it failed a USDA food safety inspection, and auctioned off all the saleable equipment -- when we visited there wasn't much left of the manufacturing and packaging lines. Were it not for a display of product packaging in the front office, and a wall of label stamps left over from the seasoning line, it would be difficult to guess the building's former role (although the classic, 'cold storage' appearance of the building exterior gave a big hint).
[The property itself was purchased in 2007 for $3 million at foreclosure auction by a development company called Queen City Landing, who this fall were seeking a corporate anchor tenant for what they're describing as a future office / retail / hotel project on the site. The brand lives on, now produced at Home Market's various other manufacturing operations.]
While the auction had obscured the production functions of the building, it left another piece of the company's internal landscape largely untouched. In the offices at the front of the facility, and in the machine shop and foreman's office well back amid the warehouse and loading bays, the detritus of decades of maintenance and management lay largely untouched (or in the case of the IT department, left on the floor in an enormous pile). I wish that I had had days to catalogue everything that was left---as it was I only had time to photograph whatever jumped out at me over the course of a few hours. While the winter wind howled off the lake outside, carving new snowdrifts in the facility's abandoned parking lot, I was inside taking pictures of desk drawers.
At a facility like this one, the machinery of production almost always retains some value. The front office contents however, especially in a fairly small liquidation market like Western New York, are apparently largely worthless. Even some of the photocopiers appear to have not been worth enough to sell at auction, despite being tagged for the sale (as was much of the other furniture).
Office workers, even if their office is a machine shop or parts supply, leave an incredible quantity of things behind. At Freezer Queen, this workplace archaeology ran the gamut from the expected supplies of stationary and now-apparently irrelevant manuals and paperwork, to computer software, diskettes, personal photographs and, most tragically, house plants. The idea that, after watering some of these plants for years, people would just leave them to die of thirst and cold has always bothered me, but it seems to be an almost universal facet of the trauma and culture of abandon that accompanies a closed office and factory.
So I present here a collection of views inside the desk drawers, filing cabinets and esoterica of Freezer Queen. Without an interpreter from the last years of the company's Fuhrmann Boulevard operation, it's only possible to make so much sense out of what I found and photographed, but the view at least hints at something that has mostly gone unappreciated: the deep internal topography of a company's mundane operations. Irrelevant to the brand's owners and the laid-off workforce after the plant's closure, these paper sediments and tech fossils were not ephemeral enough to be easily trashed. Instead, they clogged the unwanted office furniture and work benches, an interior stickiness that defied the quick and half-hearted effort that had been made to clear and liquidate the building's contents.
We had a rare chance to see this material as outsiders before it mouldered and fell apart under the quick assault of water and fluctuating temperatures (in just six shuttered months, the building's roof and plumbing had already begun to leak; paperwork and supplies are not nearly this crisp in buildings abandoned for two or ten or twenty years). Hopefully this sketch of a study can communicate a fragment of the workplace culture that once existed at Freezer Queen, and inspire other efforts on similar lines.
Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.