|Oct/Nov 2008 Travel|
My wife and I left our home in Boston and spent this New Year's in Buffalo with our families, where, as my joke went, we rang in 1990.
It's a cheap shot, I know. The sort of bitter humor that marks Those Who Left, my unofficial label for members of the Buffalo diaspora. Buffalo does that to you, leading with its grizzled chin, a self-deprecating has-been propped up by decades of empty promises and delusional hopes for a better tomorrow. Its miles of waterfront littered with the rusted hulks of a defunct steel industry speak the truth, as does its 30% poverty rate, its state-imposed economic control board, and its second-highest vacancy rate in the nation. With scarred face and cauliflower ears, Buffalo shuffles along in its Sunday slippers, pointing to old trophies and mumbling about glory days: the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the 1901 Pan Am Expo, Frank Lloyd Wright's construction of the Darwin Martin House in 1905, the H.H. Richardson Psychiatric Center... and on and on. What Buffalo was will always be more important than what Buffalo is.
Buffalo is steeped in its past because its present is bleak and its future bipolar, either the ramblings of developers promising silver bullet solutions—a new convention center, a downtown high rise, a casino, a Bass Pro fishing store-or the resigned cynicism of its diehards. These diehards have lived through decades of optimism and revitalization plans, and still their city continues to bleed and stumble. These diehards remember that billboard last seen in the early 80's, greeting visitors to their fallen city: Will the last person to leave Buffalo please turn off the lights.
And so I returned to Buffalo this New Year's, a prodigal son without the prodigy, to visit my parents and watch the world from the perspective of a city that feels the world has passed it by. I shopped in the usual malls and ate the usual cuisine from the usual haunts, and for the first time since leaving in 2000 I saw change. The usual haunts weren't filled with the usual faces. Now there was Yemeni and Ethiopian and Chinese and Korean and Sudanese. Buffalo is still economically depressed, but its economic depression has taken on an international flair, as though this Midwestern pocket of rust and grit has become a port city once more. And my anger, a symptom of the unavoidable frustration of Those Who Left, a red haze that clouded my vision of that long-suffering city, had since softened.
I saw a kind city without pretension. I saw a city struggling to balance its Midwestern ethos-a smile to a stranger, a waitress telling you how her day was-with a simmering xenophobia borne from decades of self-proclaimed inferiority. I saw an atavistic way of life in that City of Good Neighbors, a mixture of small town friendliness and urban grit moving forward slowly, on its own terms. Yes there is grit in Buffalo, as real as the shuttered homes along Buffalo's East Side, as real as the abandoned storefronts in its desolate downtown. But there is also the sort of friendliness one finds in places where the grind is not so grinding and the little things matter. Buffalo touts its lack of traffic and its preposterously cheap housing. Why the hell not. We have become so inured to hyper-gentrification that heavy traffic and million dollar condos are now desirable. Places like Buffalo serve as reminders of the old ways. They are cultural cave drawings. They are stalwart. They are necessary.
Disappointment remains a pathogen in Buffalo's blood. It floats through the hazy air above Lackawanna's rusted steel monoliths and it swims in the polluted waters of Lake Erie. Buffalo remains a city that never wins. Buffalo remains corrupt. Buffalo remains suffering. It also remains Buffalo. My Buffalo. Where the year is 1989 or 1994 or 2008. Where its struggle for respect speaks to our own struggles as we try to erase what we fear ourselves to be: a work in progress, propelled by delusional hope, trying to become something more than what we were.