Taking a walk through Oakwood Cemetery in downtown Niagara Falls, New York, you might notice the presence of many Armenian surnames like Sarkisian, Gamboian, and Stepanian: in fact, there are over 400 in this cemetery.
While the city is known for the vibrant cultural heritage of its African American, Haudenosaunee, Italian, and Polish communities, there is another lesser-recognized historic ethnic group who have called the city home since the early twentieth century: the Armenians.
Survive, Remember, Thrive: Armenian Traditions in Western New York is a documentary video series produced by the Folk Arts Program at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University that celebrates local expressions of Armenian culture and heritage.
Survive, Remember, Thrive preserves the traditions, memories, and stories of the local Armenian community through a short film and video series highlighting Armenian churches, oral history and family narratives, food traditions, family owned businesses, artistic crafts, music, and more.
The series will debuted to the public in the spring of 2022 at the Russell J. Salvatore Dining Commons on the Niagara University campus, with a limited series screening of a short film by the Buffalo Documentary Project, produced by the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, and a selection of five short videos created by the Castellani Art Museum.
Documentation of local festivals and participants continues through the end of 2022, culminating with a final full release of an 11-episode series in Spring 2023.
If you are interested in more information about this project please contact the Project Director, Edward Y.J. Millar.
Armenia, a nation with an ancient history, is located in the South Caucasus region – an area of frequent conflict between the Byzantine, Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires throughout history. Western Armenia was influenced by the Ottoman Empire, while Eastern Armenia was influenced by the Persian and Russian Empires. Western Armenia and the Armenian community within the Ottoman Empire were considered a millet (nation) and Armenians were found throughout all levels of Ottoman society: from agriculture to trade, to foreign affairs and the scholarly class.
The twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, uprisings in the Balkans, and conflicts with the Russian Empire in Circassia led the Ottoman Armenian community to be viewed with suspicion. Ottoman Armenians were targeted and brutally persecuted, suffering through the Hamidian massacres of the late nineteenth century and the Armenian Genocide in 1915. During the Armenian Genocide, an estimated 1.2 million Armenians were killed and an additional hundreds of thousands deported by the Ottoman Empire.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915 resulted in a massive displacement of Armenian survivors and the formation of a significant diaspora refugee community throughout the world, including one that formed in Western New York.
In the early and mid-twentieth century, Niagara Falls, New York and the Niagara Region in Canada became a home to many resettled genocide survivors. The resettlement of families and individuals was made possible through the efforts of local organizations like the local chapter of the Armenian Relief Society, founded in 1913 by Lucia (Mardirosian) Safarian and other charter members including Asnif Tomasian, Satenig Sarkissian, and Anna Sahagian.
While families settled throughout the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area, the East Falls Street neighborhood in the City of Niagara Falls – in particular – became the major hub for the local Armenian community. This hub status was solidified through the building of two churches and a community center in the mid-20th century: St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church (1949), the Armenian Community Center (1951), and St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church (1951).
In addition to the establishment of two churches and a community center, Armenian families founded multiple businesses throughout Niagara Falls, from restaurants (the Park, the Club, and the Main), to grocery stores (Avdoian Bros. Grocery), to carpet and flooring companies (the Mooradian Rug Company). Armenian immigrants and first generation families worked throughout the major industries of Niagara Falls, from construction and tourism to automotive garages and chemical factories.
The cultural heritage and traditions the Armenian community brought with them to Niagara Falls added to the vibrant ethnic heritage of this area. Traditional dance, food, music, crafts and more from the South Caucasus found itself practiced and continued, over 5000 miles away in Western New York.
By the mid-twentieth century, the community had grown to a significant enough size that the City of Niagara Falls, NY hosted the Armenian Youth Federation Olympics in 1957.
While the community has shrunken numerically from its peak in the mid-twentieth century and is more spread out throughout the region into neighboring towns, it remains a tight knit community dedicated to perpetuating and preserving Armenian culture locally for future generations. Family recipes are handed down; traditional crafts are passed on; and oral histories are told.
For nearly 60 years, annual picnics and community gatherings organized by the St. Sarkis and St. Hagop congregations, continue to bring the community together. New local festivals and celebrations are organized by a new community organization.
On top of the historic community, a more recent influx of immigration from Armenia to Western New York – settling primarily in Buffalo & Erie County – followed especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union and conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.
As with the first Armenians settlers, the newest members of the community bring further traditions and traditional knowledge with them to the area.
Survive, Remember, Thrive: Armenian Traditions in Western New York is made possible through the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, NYSCA Living Traditions, and Niagara University.
Special thanks to Dawn Sakalian, the Buffalo Documentary Project team including Mani Mehrvarz and Maryam Muliaee, and Gianna Lopez. And all of our collaborators and participants in this project, who’ve helped with outreach and guidance: Ani Avdoian, Kathy Peller, Albert Amato, Debbie Avdoian Amato, Anjelika Abrahamyan, Laurice Ghougasian, Art Garabedian, Lisa Ohanessian Mies, Lori Ohanessian Hurtgam, James Ieda, Alex Dzadur, Sonya Gregian, Rachel Aversa, Tony Mooradian Jr., Mike Petrosian, Tom Mooradian, Ophelia Adjemian, Mary Movesian, Gayane Ghukasyan, Butch Kazeangin, and more.
Project Director, Edward Y. J. Millar
Assistant Project Director, Dawn Sakalian
Community Support and Outreach, St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church, St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church, and Western New York Armenian Community (WNYAC)
Cinematography, Buffalo Documentary Project
Film Production and Editing, Buffalo Documentary Project
Videography, Gianna Lopez and Edward Y. J. Millar
Video Production and Editing, Edward Y. J. Millar
Marketing & Museum Communications, Tara L. Walker