I like Buffalo. The lake's polluted. The elms are blighted. The weather is Gothic. The place is full of the phosphorescence of decay. John Barth
HAIL BUFFALO! City of snow, the nation does you wrong. Your houses (cheap!) have enough wainscoting to make Washingtonians climb their $200,000 walls. Your pizzerias deliver. And what pizza! Just the memory of your chicken wings, beer-battered fish fries and beef on kummelweck makes me weep with hunger. True, your downtown looks like postwar Dresden. But you have neighborhoods where priests still hear confessions in Polish, great bars (more per capita than any other city in the country) and white Christmases.
Now I live in Washington, closeted in an apartment that would fit into my old living room, homesick as I watch a blizzard bring the capital to its knees.
People find it amusing that I once lived in Buffalo, the nation's armpit. A most beloved armpit, I tell them. Being from Buffalo is like being Polish or Jewish: You can poke fun at it yourself, but outsiders watch out. When CBS newsman Morley Safer reviled Buffalo restaurants on the air two years ago as specializing in "greasy, impenetrable eggs, burnt bacon and slow service," the mailbags at CBS headquarters overflowed with more than 2,000 outraged complaints from Buffalonians. Safer, whose boss is from Buffalo, was prodded into making a public apology -- in Buffalo -- where he tried to undo the damage by explaining that "Buffalo is just one of those buzzwords."
But while the rest of the country chuckles at Johnny Carson's blizzard jokes (and where do you think his suits are made? That's right.), Buffalonians have the last laugh.
"I had some friends come down from New York and they were thrilled. They were able to get the books they wanted because they weren't sold out. They were able to go to all the movies they wanted and not wait in line. Some of them are making six figures -- and I live much better than they do. They're all envious of me because I live in Buffalo. See, I live in a neighborhood where I can walk around at night. Esthetically, I live like a millionaire. My house would cost half a million in Washington. So I'm not playing in Washington's philharmonic. Believe it or not, the Buffalo Philharmonic is just as good. Monte Hoffman, cellist, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and 20-year resident of
Buffalo. A millionaire businessman and philanthropist from Buffalo named Max Jacobs once told a reporter that his three favorite cities in the world are Jerusalem, New York and Buffalo -- not necessarily in that order. "You think this city is nice?" An 11-year-old boy challenged every Israeli he met during his father's one-year sabbatical in Jerusalem. "You should see Buffalo."
Leaving Buffalo is one of the worst fates that can befall a Buffalonian. I know a federal train inspector, promoted to a prestigious job in New York City, who contemplated quitting before reaching a compromise: he commutes on weekends to Buffalo, much to the disbelief of his coworkers who think they live in the world's greatest city. Last year, a group of Buffalo lawyers exiled to Texas celebrated a Bills-Cowboys game with three pizzas, chicken wings and kosher corned beef all flown in from Buffalo.
"I was thinking y'all might call this story 'The Spirit of Buffalo Lives On.' We moan for a good slice of kielbasa. They just don't know what pizza is here. Terrible stuff that tastes like cornmeal. And no one's ever heard of chicken wings as an appetizer. And you know what I miss the most? John and Mary's submarines. God, what I'd give for a good hard Italian roll and the onions and the peppers. You know how they fry it up like that? Larry Wolfish, lawyer, 1982.
I know, Larry.
My husband and I left Buffalo last November after 31/2 years -- and only because the newspaper that employed us both, the Courier-Express, folded. We were devastated, but it never occured to us that we should abandon our careers for a life in Buffalo. Friends, however, were shocked that we would leave. "You have to leave Buffalo?" one woman asked incredulously, on learning that my husband had accepted a job offer in Washington. "I am so sorry." When I told my dentist, he only grimaced and said, "Good luck, you're going to need it."
Visitors don't always see the attractions of this city. No wonder -- its grain and steel mills are largely abandoned and many of the buildings on Main Street are window- smashed and inhabited by pigeons. But these visitors fail to look beyond the obvious -- past the eight months of winter and the Chamber of Commerce's frenetic "Talking Proud" campaign ("Four distinct seasons! Buffalo's air is more than twice as clean as Houston's. Visitors can sample a different restaurant every night of the week for more than five years without returning to the same place.")
No matter what the chamber says, Buffalo is not a good city to visit. It is meant to be lived in.
It is a city of neighborhoods: Polish, Irish, Black, Italian. It has pockets -- big ones -- where the English language will get you nowhere. Turn a corner and you'll run into a Polish restaurant serving czarnina, duck blood soup. Turn another, and you'll find one of five houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1903 and 1908. Mark Twain was once editor of The Buffalo Express, which later merged with the Courier to form my now-defunct newspaper. Though he later described that year-and-a-half as the worst in his life (his wife gave birth to a stillborn child in Buffalo), he retained enough feeling for the place to bequeath the original manuscript of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to the city's library.
Twain enjoyed rowing on Lake Erie and the Niagara River -- so much so that Charles Brady, former chairman of the English Department at Canisius College in Buffalo, says, "I always had the feeling that something of Lake Erie and the Niagara got into the Mississippi of Huckleberry Finn.
The City of Buffalo has 350,000 people, 105,000 fewer than it did in 1970. It was founded in 1800 by Germans and Alsatians (who are generally held accountable for the nasal twang in the classic Buffalo accent -- a Buffalonian is from "Buff-low"), incorporated as a city in 1832, and, in between, burned by the British after the Americans burned York, the capital of upper Canada.
Buffalo has sent two men to the White House -- Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland. William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901. It is the home of actress Katharine Cornell, who opened a new play in Buffalo whenever possible, Buffalo Bob "Howdy Doody" Smith, humorist Mark Russell and funk star Rick James, who maintains an estate in a nearby wealthy suburb.
It is also the home of the roll-top desk, the Pierce-Arrow car (America's short-lived answer to the Rolls-Royce), the air conditioner and the electric chair. The first man to be electrocuted in that chair was from Buffalo. And, in 1896, Main Street, Buffalo, became the first street in the United States to be lit with electricity.
Today, anyone with a job can live like a king in Buffalo. Less than $60,000 buys a sturdy Victorian house with stained glass windows, a turret or two, fireplaces, butler's pantry, beamed dining room ceiling and sliding oak doors. One Washington couple was forced to buy a mansion when they moved to Buffalo last year, simply to avoid the capital gains tax from the sale of their Capital Hill townhouse.
There are other amenities. Buffalo has one of the nation's finest modern art collections. Its philharmonic is first-rate. Delaware Park's 367.61 rolling acres were laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park and Buffalo itself was designed by Pierre de L'Enfant, the same engineer who designed Washington, D.C. The public schools' "magnet program" is fast becoming known as one of the country's most successful at creating integrated classrooms. There is a renown cancer clinic and children's hospital. Its football fans are maniacs; the Bills draw among the largest crowds in the National Football League. When they complain about their city, Buffalonians usually point to the absence of a major league baseball team.
The weather -- which is awful -- doesn't bother them. Only Caribou, Me., Syracuse, N.Y., Sault Ste. Marie, Mich, Muskegon, Mich., Flagstaff, Ariz. and Lander, Wyo., receive more snow than Buffalo, according to the record books. But when "Best Friends," the movie starring Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds, was filmed in Buffalo last February, it was baseball weather outside. The filmmakers had to rent snow-making equipment from nearby ski resorts to meet the demands of the script. When Denver was buried under snow on Christmas Eve, it was 64 degrees in Buffalo. Did the national networks, those meticulous chroniclers of eveyr snowflake that falls in the "Blizzard Capital," take note? Nooooo.
Buffalonians eat up the cold. Ice rinks are booked solid 20 hours a day, seven days a week in winter. An inch of snow may close Washington National Airport, but Buffalonians drive through anything. Only once were they forced to walk. That was during the Blizzard of '77, when hundreds of cars were buried under 12-foot drifts and the U. S. Army banned cars from the street.
The blizzard. Buffalonians try to shrug it off. They've even commemorated it with an annual "Blizzard Ball." But the blizzard has sunk into the city's consciousness. Four-wheel drives became mighty popular after the blizzard. Some Buffalonians get testy when the word "blizzard" is mentioned.
"The blizzard? The blizzard? What about the blizzard? What about earthquakes and volcanoes out west? Why is their reputation any better than ours? This is something I dont't understand. I'll tell you a story. A few years ago, there was a boy outside on the street. He walks by my house and uses the nastiest word, so I say to him, 'There's no reason to use language like that.' But he says the same four-letter word to me again. so the boy on the porch next door gets up and says to him, 'Don't you talk to my aunt like that.' And I'm not his aunt, I'm his neighbor. But that's Buffalo."
-- Josephine Bonda, Buffalo resident for 70 years, since leaving Isnello,
Italy, at 41/2 years old.
So what's the problem? You say the whole country wouldn't be laughing if Buffalo was such a hot-shot city? You can't stomach the idea that you haven't lived unless you've lived in Buffalo?
Well, Buffalo does have problems. Big ones.
It is a city where old friends renew acquaintance on the unemployment line. Joblessness is now 15.5 percent and that doesn't include an additional 3,900 steelworkers, many of them Buffalo residents, who face permanent layoff sometime this year when Bethlehem Steel ends all steel production in nearby Lackawanna. In the last year, Mobil Oil closed its Buffalo refinery. The death of the Courier-Express put 1,100 people on the street. Two downtown department stores have closed. So have dozens of small businesses.
Soup kitchens and emergency food pantries are flourishing. One sociologist says that one of every three people in the Buffalo area is directly on public assistance or in a family with at least one major wage earner unemployed. That makes welfare the county's only growth industry.
The city is trying to turn itself around. There is about $1 billion in new construction downtown. Half is for a subway along Main Street. The city is betting this will bring the public back to Buffalo's business district. The rest of the money is being spent on waterfront development, a new hotel and two new office buildings.
But the city is bleeding. I'll never forget a walk I took up a deserted Main Street one Saturday afternoon last year. It was a ghost town. For a mile, my only company was a pack of wild dogs.
For the first time, friends wonder if Buffalo will pull out of its slump. They are bewildered. The city has suffered one blow after another. The immediate tragedy is that thousands of people are hungry or out of work. Over the long term, a style of life that people from the big city don't understand is threatened. For Buffalo offers balance. It has backyards. The country is 10 minutes away. One can comfortably raise a family there and still enjoy the cultural advantages of city life.
"I can walk the 11/2 blocks from my office to the courthouse and say hello to 10 guys I went to school with. That has a value. You can pick up the phone and make an oral arrangement with another attorney -- you don't have to have a signed sworn stipulation to do everything. If your word isn't worth something, that's very soon discovered. The courthouse is just around the corner from the BAC (Buffalo Athletic Club), so I can have a workout during lunch. The BAC is one block from the parking deck, so my little world is pretty comfortable. By the time I get out of the BAC after work, traffic is clear and I suppose the reduced stress level is worth something, too. Bernard Brodsky, University of Buffalo law school graduate who practised in Washington, Atlanta and Hong Kong before re turning to Buffalo for the "quality of life."
Buffalo is a little big town where real estate agents can drive through familiar territory and identify each house by owner, price tag and present marriage. When my husband and I bought our house, the seller turned out to be buying his new house from our lawyer. To complete the cycle, the lawyer had just bought his new house from a woman who was bidding against us for the same house that we eventually purchased.
This, in a city of 350,000 people. But that's a typical Buffalo story.
Another: When my husband and I lost our jobs last year, my son's nursery school immediately offered him a scholarship. A scholarship for a 2-year-old! That he should have grown up in Buffalo.