Saturday, March 13, 2010

Buffalo, the Queen city

Most native Buffalonians will tell you their fair city has an inferiority complex. Deep in the grassroots interior, I see little of this- at least not directly. It is the grassroots movements here that has so deeply affected me. I can only express to you my own opinions, colored by only the articles, books, and conversations I've had in my years here.

Every depiction of the city I've read and heard invariably makes mention of the city's seedier sides- the waterfront, the immigrant poverty, the characters who populated those areas.

But the thing is that Buffalo has a long, strong and important history- did you know, for instance, that Buffalo was burned by the British forces on Dec 30th, 1813?

I know, right?

By 1825 the Erie canal was finished, and it opened the small town to the world. Over the course of 8 years the population exploded from 2,400 to over 10,000. I think that might be termed a "boom".

Buffalo continued to explode through the mid 1800's, and the Erie canal was the major reason for it. Tourists and travelers passed through the Queen city, and the harbor was a massive source of income. Grain traveled here via the canal, and Buffalo was home to the inventor of a steam powered grain elevator named Joseph Dart. His invention allowed for faster unloading, which meant higher efficiency, and efficient industry is successful industry. For awhile, I heard, Buffalo was the biggest processor of grain in the nation. The Cheerios plant is visible from the 190- currently, all Cheerios shipped to the East Coast are produced in Buffalo.

Because of the hydroelectric power, Buffalo was once named the City of Light- for the same reason, our grain mills ran long and strong.

Buffalo was also a very important site of the Underground Railroad, one of the last stops before freedom in Canada. Since I don't know much about this portion of Buffalo's history, I cannot elaborate without sounding dopey. Sorry guys, don't mean to be exclusionary.

By World War II, Buffalo had hit a high point, low unemployment- railroad cars were being manufactured here as well ass munitions for the war.

Of course, I'm skipping the assassinations. Oh well, it's plenty talked about elsewhere- besides, who wants to be famous for important people dying here? There's so much more to this town.

But then, the first death knell for industry sounded: The Saint Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks and canals that by passed us entirely. It kind of made us moot. The worst part is, an American was a major voice pushing for it- Dr. N.R Danielian fought for it because it would greatly benefit the heartland, the bread basket of the U.S.

Why it was better than the Erie canal, I cannot say. What this development did was make the Erie obsolete, and it was a master stroke against the Buffalo economy.

By the 50's, suburbanization had taken hold. Middle-class white families trucked out the edges of Buffalo and settled en masse. By the seventies, we had become de-industrialized, and firmly ensconced in the Rust Belt.

There are political decisions made that I cannot talk much about here- the decisions not to incorporate the suburban townships around the city, thereby keeping the money they generate out of the city itself.

When I look at a map of Buffalo, I see a rose bush left too long untrimmed, unpruned. At it's edges flowers bloom prolifically, but at it's heart it is dying, ragged stems and thorns slowly browning. (This may be in part due to the radial city plan)

This spread outward has several implications- the one that scares me is the farming problem.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Falling in love with the Queen of the Rust Belt.

I've been living in Buffalo since 2001- almost ten years now, and I've just started to think of myself as a Buffalonian. I've discovered the retro-coolness, the kitsch, the heart, the fierce loyal determination that is the Buffalo vibe.

It's not the kind of city people travel to, not really- it's not NYC, it's not Toronto- but it is homey. It's about neighborhoods and history, and it's about a grassroots movement that sinks their teeth in crouches and growls when bureaucracy threatens.

We've got urban farms on the West Side, garden centers and parks and local artists pitching in to make pretty. People care. I know that there are movements like this in other big cities, but listen, those towns ain't Buffalo.

Buffalo, in my imagination, was the rusty giant of the industrial age, milling, toiling, blue-collar thick fingered Polack workers hunched over beers in dingy bars before going home, it was wide abandoned avenues of empty lots and old buildings painted inappropriate colors. (drive down W. Ferry, you'll see colors no house should EVER be.) It was big and grungy and disheartened. It was swamped with snow, and somewhere under there must be interesting people-overwintering the depression like heart grass under thick insulates of snow drifts.

I came for college, from a small town by the Delaware River. My family called me crazy. My teachers all asked the same damn question. "Do you like snow?" I didn't know how to answer without getting too deep into my theories of Buffalo, so I nodded and said yes. I explained that a city that dealt with it so much sure knew how to keep the roads clean and life moves on.

(I have to say after visiting elsewhere in winter- Buffalo truly is exceptional. Life sure does go on. If you can actually make it somewhere alive, however risky it may be, come on down. It's amazing. Eskimos with dog sleds would be more cautious.)

I would love to go back and tell everyone what I've found here- citizens that give a damn, love their city, fully believe in upholding the name, "The city of Good Neighbors." There are few areas in this city that you can say people have stopped caring- and I really mean that. They may be poor, they may be overworked and overwrought, but they still give a damn about their neighborhood and their city.

I've found a group of people who believe in a vision for Buffalo's future that involves urban farms and sustainable living. A revitalization of the city's empty lots and abandoned homes. And these people are willing to go round for round with city hall,too.

I have such admiration for Buffalonians, old school and new. I love it here.

And with fresh eyes, I take a look at Buffalo in February. Brigitte's theory of Spring coming soon.