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Remembering Sly: Group Raising Funds to Erect Bust of Well-Known Homeless Man in Bidwell Park

Updated: 6 days ago

(EDITOR'S NOTE — If you would like to contribute to this effort, a GoFundMe has been established. DONATE HERE.)

Sylvester P. Bennett Jr., known as Sly, was larger than life at times.


Known to frequent Elmwood Avenue streets and alleyways, Bennett was often underfoot, hustling for change or trying to sell the wares he’d picked up on his travels through the streets. And though he was without housing, it could be said, in some way, he was home.


Bennett was seen regularly in Bidwell Park sleeping — sometimes rising to ask for a cup of coffee or going into the café on the corner to continue his snooze. Neighbors would often hear him shouting well into the night by Jim’s Steakout and Elmwood Taco and Subs.


He was not well liked by many, and those who did sympathize with his plight couldn’t do much but shake their heads at his actions and try to mitigate the ill-will that surrounded him with some comment on the normality of Bennett’s presence: His inherent belonging in this time and place.


“We all knew Sylvester,” said Bob Ludwig, an area resident. “He was an interesting guy, and he had a very low, gravelly voice.”


Then Bennett died in early March 2020.


Before his death, Bennett was approached by Dave Derner, a local sculptor and Buffalo State professor, to pose for photographs which he intended to use as source material for a bronze bust. Then after Bennett’s passing, Derner made the bust and he, Ludwig and Asman Ndayisabwa asked the City of Buffalo Public Arts Commission for permission to install the artwork in Bidwell Park where Potomac Avenue, Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway met.


They were turned down.


“He was not dead for 35 years, yet. You couldn’t make a bust of him and set it up,” Ludwig said. “But we said, ‘That’s not what’s important!’ What’s important is we’re talking about someone who was a street person, a homeless person; and we wanted to honor (Bennett) as a representative of people who are neglected.”


Ndayisabwa started a petition at the end of July 2021 to try to move the commission to reconsider. In a packet of supporting images of the bust as it would look in Bidwell Park, Ndayisabwa stated: “Sylvester Bennett was a man of few words and a staple to the Elmwood Village. He interacted with everyone and always left an impact that resonated with all of our senses. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennett is no longer with us. In loving memory of our beloved Elmwood villager, Sly, we as a community must band together to berth a home for his memorial.”


The packet also included testimonials from those who knew Bennett. One person who identified himself as Robert L. said: “Sylvester was an important custodian of our ability to practice being human — he’d smile and ask you for a buck — and the test really was not the buck but being able to greet him. To smile back. He always acknowledged the greeting or smile with an accepting nod.”


Ultimately the petition failed, despite collecting more than 200 signatures, Derner said. But the three men pushed forward. 

Jennifer Bronstein, owner of Tipico Coffee and Derner’s landlord, agreed to host the bust at 1084 Elmwood Ave. Now, fundraising to erect the artwork and memorial has begun. The group is trying to raise $20,000 or as close as possible to install the bust. To be seen under Bennett’s sculpted face will be a bronze plaque with the passage:


“Sylvester P. ‘Sly’ Bennett Jr. Whether sidewalk or street, or café where we’d meet, as he slept ‘neath trees tall, he affected us all.”


Also, on the granite intended to hold the bust, another text is to be inscribed:


“This monument honors Buffalo’s street people, not just one man. It reminds all who come to look that everyone, even the most ‘down on their luck,’ deserve respect for their human dignity.”


Derner said he still remembers being driven to sculp Bennett as news of his death circulated.


“I hadn’t seen him for a few months. Everyone’s like, ‘Where’s Sly?’” Derner said. “Because every now and again he’d disappear for a while and then he’d pop up. Then I heard he had died, and I said, ‘Oh no! I wanted to do that sculpture!’ I just didn’t get around to it! But as soon as I heard, I got the armature, got out the clay. I still had the photos in my iPhone. I had about 16 of them.”


With a smile on his face, Derner remembered Sly.


“At first, he didn’t want to (sit for photos), and he goes, and this is classic, ‘What’s in it for me?’ And I said, ‘Sly I can’t give you any money,’” Derner said grinning. “And he said, ‘Well, OK, starving artist.’”


For more information contact Bob Ludwig at 716-200-1610.


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