The Crystal City’s Gaffer District

Enjoying a warm weather day at Centerway Square
story and photos by Cindy Ruggieri

I love visiting Corning. In addition to taking in the Museum of Glass and the Rockwell Museum, I enjoy a stroll in the area named in honor of the glassblowers, the Gaffer District.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this lovely area features small businesses, gorgeous old buildings, great food and friendly shopkeepers. Everything’s walkable: a pedestrian bridge connects the Corning Museum of Glass to the Riverfront Centennial Park, the Centerway Square and the famous clock tower. In the spring, a profusion of tulips bloom in front of the Corning Glass offices. Wisteria hangs from the trellis in Centennial Park. Outside seating fills Centerway Square for relaxing during warm weather, and an information center is located nearby. Brick sidewalks lead to storefronts and colorful banners hang from lampposts. The bustling downtown offers something for everyone.

The area was devastated by the flood of 1972, when waist-high water covered all of Market Street. As the result of recovery and restoration efforts, the Gaffer District blossomed. The beautiful old buildings in the vibrant business district were lovingly restored, and tell their stories on the round plaques that hang on them – part of the “Buildings Alive” walking tour. Even the alleys have a story, with walls covered with colorful student artwork, called the Alley Art Project.

The district features retail shops, art galleries, financial institutions, antique shops, salons, and enough restaurants to please every taste. An optimistic sign – “This building is not empty, it is full of opportunity” – decorates the rare empty storefront.

Jim Bacalles of Jim’s Texas Hots has worked at his diner for 38 years. “I come from a family of Corning business owners, starting with my grandfather who emigrated from Greece in 1890,” he explains. Jim works the counter serving hot dogs every which way, as well as plenty of sandwich options. “We have the best milkshakes in town,” says Heather the server.

I chatted with Terry Smith at Brown’s Cigar Store next door, a family business he co-owns with his brother BeJay and sister Sue. “This store has been around since 1889,” he explains. “Our father took it over in 1946, and it was passed down to us.”

Brown’s is full of vintage pieces, including zinc-lined cases used to store cigars. The clay bricks used to humidify the cases are soaked daily in water. Others have been slightly modernized with an electric humidifier.

The neon sign in the front window was created around 1953. “One of our customers was the head of glass tubing at Corning Glass. He was looking for additional uses for the tubing, and created this sign for us.”

Old cans, a traditional wooden Indian, yellowed newspaper clippings, and a chair for chatting visitors add to the nostalgic feel of this longtime business.

One of my favorite buildings is marked with a plaque that says, “Building 13.” It’s Holmes Plate 54, a restaurant and pub serving local craft beers and delicious food. It was built in 1863 as a hotel and carriage house, and features stone walls, high ceilings, and windows on a pulley system. They’re open on warm days to give patrons an open air sidewalk overlook. It’s a pretty cool place.

There’s no shortage of food and drink choices in the Gaffer District, and my dilemma when I visit is deciding if I want to try something new or revisit a favorite find. I’ve eaten on the topside patio of Market Street Brewery and restaurant, another beautifully renovated building that also has great food and a great street view. I’ve grabbed a sandwich at the Old World Café along with an ice cream cone; sitting outside on the square on a warm summer day. I’ve relaxed in comfy chairs with a cup of flavored coffee at Soul Full Cup, a coffee house that offers its own delicious roasted coffee with plenty of flavors to choose from. At The Source, I’ve filled my mouth with its homemade flavored marshmallows – so soft and so good – and brought some home with the flavored cocoa for those wintery hot-chocolate days. I’ve tried the wholesome sandwiches at Poppleton Bakery and Café; sitting at the counter overlooking the street, and salivated over the oh-so-good cupcakes (yep, brought some of them home, too). My sweet tooth was doing a happy dance when I tried the best-ever truffles at the Sweet Shop in Connors Mercantile.

There are so many choices ranging from sandwiches to salads, pizza and burritos, diners to upscale fancy fare, and early morning to late night restaurants and pubs. It’s a go-to place for foodies of all tastes.

I really enjoy visiting the shops and galleries. Each store has its own style, and the shop owners are friendly and helpful. I always stop at the Vitrix Hot Glass Studio to watch an up-close demonstration of the latest glassblowing project. “It opened in 1979, and I came to work here in 1985, where I learned everything about glassblowing,” owner Tom Kelly told me. “I bought the studio in 1996 and have been here ever since.”

His gallery features a mix designs – his own, and some from outside artists. “I like to show off the creativity of other artists also.”

It’s always a pleasure to browse through shops with their unique décor and merchandise: Bacalles Glass Shop with its huge selection of fine-quality puzzles, Connors Mercantile with gifts for home and family, Dish and Co. with everything for the kitchen, and Market Street Apothecary – a whole lot more than a drug store.

Special events are held throughout the year. GlassFest, during Memorial Day weekend, is now in its ninth year. Market Street closes to traffic and becomes filled with glassblowing demonstrations, art vendors, food booths, music in the park, and Saturday night fireworks. It’s a four-day, not-to-be-missed celebration of all that shines in the Crystal City.

The next time you are thinking about a getaway, make plans to visit Corning to experience all that the Gaffer District has to offer.

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