The World's New Gay State

A Final Thought on the Buffalo trip…

Posted in Uncategorized by thegaystateblog on December 8, 2009

Before I go on, a quick briefing on Buffalo.  Buffalo has one of the most peculiar histories in the larger American story.  Most people sadly are only familiar with Buffalo and its sad sack economy.  Or Buffalo and its legendary snow storms.  Or the city with the football team that always choked with “the big one.”  But in truth, it grew to one of the largest, wealthiest cities in American history and by the turn of the last century, there were more millionaires-per-capita in Buffalo than in any other city in the US.  And the glory about Buffalo is that its considerable wealth and prosperity came at a time before the income tax and before the automobile industry changed the way we live in America.

To this day, the downtown is a national treasure in architecture and urban planning.  Even the New York Times backs me up on this.  The streetscape one experiences along Buffalo’s grand boulevards and avenues is unlike any place else in this country.  An incredible amount of parkland is in Buffalo, thanks to so many extraordinary works by one Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park.  Sidewalks define the pedestrian nature of life in a long ago era.  Everything from the park benches throughout the city to its beautiful street lamps should be celebrated.  And the sidewalks help make it a human-centric, pedestrian, livable city.  And the mansions throughout the cities Westside are so great in number, there is not just one or two wealthy neighborhoods, but you simply cannot count all of the historic manses and the rich detail and history in each of them.

Then came the Depression.  The War.  The advent of the automobile and the national movement to flee to the suburbs.  The Welland Canal and its efficient connection to the St. Lawrence Seaway was another death blow that made the Erie Canal obsolete and further marginalized Buffalo’s geographic position.  The Race riots of 40 years ago and the ensuing “white flight” planted the perception that living “in-town” was no longer desirable.  Through the long economic decline and decades of neglect, Buffalo’s forgotten treasures were largely ignored.  It reminds me of the parallels with Charleston, SC; a city that is largely preserved because for decades it was a city “to poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.”  In 2009, a one room studio apartment can be purchased in Manhattan for $450,000.  That same amount of money will purchase one of Buffalo’s grand historic residences; perhaps 5 bedrooms, 4 baths, magnificent woodwork and architectural detailing.  A true home of distinction. 

Over the last forty years, the decline of Buffalo only worsened.  More than half of its population has left the city and it has been said the best news in Buffalo is that it had been frozen in time, preventing the bulldozers from tearing down its treasures.  During the “golden age” of the 1990’s Buffalo simply maintained.  But now it seems the long sleep is over.  Buffalo is awakening.  Real estate values are rising.  Things are turning around.

A pilgrimage to Buffalo should be required of all American architectural and urban planning students.  America would be better off if it learned some lessons from one of the best preserved major cities of the last century and begin incorporating its aspects into our newer, sterile and underwhelming urban cores.  Not to say Buffalo does not have its own urban problems.  Large swaths of the city have been abandoned and left to decay in poverty or abandonment.  Too many of the sub-urban dwellers have written off the city from their daily lives, living as if this very heart of the western New York region did not exist.

Yet the visitor should keep in mind the tale of two cities.  Buffalo and Toronto.  In the 1960’s, they were similar municipalities in so many ways.  Torontonians would travel to Buffalo for their nightlife and entertainment.  Over the years, Toronto chose a progressive path built on growth and diversity.  My take on Buffalo politics is, the power structure over the years was more concerned with protecting their little fiefdoms and securing patronage jobs for their cronies and political donors, that Buffalo became only a shell of what it was and what it could have been.  Toronto meanwhile, has exploded as one of the most dynamic cities in the world, often ranked as one of the most beautiful and livable cities on the planet.  Night and Day.  Rich man, poor man.

So upon reflection on my recent engagements to Rochester, Toronto and Buffalo, Buffalo is truly an interesting place to visit.  The rest of the saying of course is, “but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  So if you are on a driving trip.  And the weather is decent.  And you have an interest in architecture.  And history.  It wouldn’t be the worst vacation to stop in Buffalo for a few days.  You may very well be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

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