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The Idea of Buffalo

This past Sunday, displaced Buffalonians in cities such as Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Charlotte, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., and Manhattan gathered at tavern tables, stared at flat screen television sets, and engaged in a pastime that’s become as comforting as a Bills win (albeit amid a Bills loss). Over an afternoon full of Labatt pitchers and plates of chicken wings, they talked about how much they miss Buffalo—and how they wish they could come home.

There are a variety of culprits they’ve determined responsible for keeping them from returning home, the same problems cited by wandering locals for decades. There are absolutely no jobs; the politicians are corrupt; downtown crime is rampant; the city schools are terrible; the winters are unbearable; economic development is lagging; there’s just not enough exciting things to do in the dilapidated region. Yet still, despite this laundry list of complaints, natives gravitate to foreign pubs on NFL Sundays to seek out allies who want to wax poetic about their birthplace and roots. Buffalo is the greatest place on Earth, but they’ll never move back.

Because they can’t.

Was I in any of these cities on Sunday to hear these conversations? No. But, for the last 11 years, I was leading them from a variety of barstools in Boston, Massachusetts. I even spent three years of my life writing a novel about the internal, vexing struggle many removed western New Yorkers feel either every day—or once they’ve had a dozen beers. But, there’s this prevailing and, for some reason, acceptable stance that the young adults trolling around the streets of Denver or Philadelphia are there not because they want to be, but because Buffalo has given them no other alternative. Our downtrodden homeland of burned-out warehouses and weed-strewn boulevards has brutally cast its young into the arms of better jobs and restaurants and transportation and nightlife available in other cities. This account may very well be true in some cases. In others, though, this exaggerated depiction might just be an excuse held by sentimental individuals who’d rather cherish a romantic idea of Buffalo elsewhere than invest inconvenient effort toward building Buffalo into the thriving city it could become.

Buffalo, NY
Once again, I’ll state that I waltzed around as one of these sentimental souls for over a decade. I spent countless nights getting drunk on memories while leaning back against the misconceptions removal from my roots afforded me. I’d convinced myself I couldn’t move home. Sure, I loved South Boston and my life there, but that wasn’t why I was living there. And, sure, my wife is from Boston; my graduate school is in Boston; my job as a sports reporter for the Boston Herald was in Boston; and both rock clubs I tended bar at were within Boston’s city limits. But, these weren’t the reasons I was really in Boston. No way. When I swiveled around on those rickety barstools on Portland or Causeway Street, I truly believed the real reason I lived in Boston was because Buffalo’s failures made me stay in Boston.

The longer you’re away from Buffalo, the more cherished (and distorted) your idea of it can become. It can become as romanticized as your past, with details and descriptions changing to suit whatever feeling you want to have about it. If you’re from the Southtowns, you’ll talk about Blasdell Pizza like it’s a panacea for depression; if you’re from the Northtowns, you’ll talk the same way about La Nova. You’ll remember Buffalo winters as ivory mosaics, and summers as yellow-hued embraces. You’ll reminisce about the Bills dominance in AFC championship games, then find some optimistic angle to explain away their four crippling Super Bowl losses. And, the longer you’re away from this city or region, the more likely it is that this idea you’ve created will become so comforting that you’ll never dare shatter it by ambitiously merging the idea with the risk-filled reality of returning.

This was something I had to consider last spring, back when I was presented the unexpected chance to replace my idea of Buffalo with the actual reality of Buffalo. My wife was accepted into SUNY Buffalo’s Urban Planning graduate program, thus delivering the opportunity to decide on a transition back into the actual day-to-day experience of my hometown. Over the years, I’d grown to cherish my concept of Buffalo. It got me into peaceful exchanges with friends and screaming matches with strangers; it kept me up nights and depressed me through days; it incited nostalgia and anger, one after the other on a rotating basis. But, somewhere underneath my contrived idea of this city was an understood reality, one every nomadic native knows very well. It bounced around my head as I sat in Boston bars; it gnawed a hole in my stomach as I sat in Cambridge coffee houses. For the rest of my life, regardless of where I lived and worked and breathed, I knew one simple truth: Buffalo was attached to me. With all its beauty and blemishes, it’s the only place I’ll ever be able to genuinely claim as mine.

Eventually, I accepted this truth and decided to leave the idea behind. In July, I packed a Budget truck and came back to Buffalo.

Now, this isn't the part of the essay where I transition into a section that details how the streets of Buffalo are paved with gold. It’s not Xanadu; it’s a city with the same economic and social problems that most of the country’s urban centers face. This also isn’t the part of this piece where I tell you Buffalo is just as electric as Boston; it isn’t. It doesn’t have the overt hipster glow of Brooklyn or Portland; it doesn’t feature the balmy temperatures of Tampa; and it doesn’t offer the financial opportunities of Washington, D.C. I could try to regale you with tales of Buffalo’s famed "livability," its underrated Thai food, or the luxurious comforts of the Metrorail. I could gush about the Wrights, Richardsons or Olmsteds, or I could inform you about the low, low prices of homes or apartments for you and your family. All of these items are fantastic, but I won't waste your time with them. You’ve read about them all and, apparently, you don’t care. You’re still somewhere else, another city's resident who wears his Sabres hat to the supermarket. You’ll rationalize your exiled existence with complaints about Buffalo’s job market or other maladies, and you’ll find your local Bills Backer bar for another Sunday of lubricated longing.

But, on one of these upcoming Sundays—just as the Cowboys or Dolphins raise your anger to hallucinogenic levels—maybe you'll reach the point that I reached, one where you can no longer deny the intrinsic connection that silently nags; a clear moment when you're finally sick of complaining about inaction when the opportunity for action is within your grasp. Maybe you’re a cook in Texas who wants to open his own restaurant; maybe you’re an artist in Queens, looking for affordability and the embrace of a supportive community; maybe you’re a burgeoning entrepreneur who’s sick of his stagnant career and wants to start his own business. Or, maybe you’re just lost and searching for the regional identity you left behind. Thriving cities across this country expand by welcoming disconnected transplants from characterless regions. For the city of Buffalo to expand and bloom into the cherished idea of Buffalo, it simply needs to restock itself with its own displaced residents, ambitious Buffalonians who’d like to return for a stake in realizing this city’s potential.

Buffalo's Canalside
And maybe you’re one of these displaced residents, one who's ready for a change. One of these days, you’ll come back here for a weekend. You’ll walk through the Bidwell Farmers Market or stroll through Delaware Park. You’ll drive over the cobblestone streets around the Erie Canal Terminus or ride your bike into Niagara Square. You’ll stare at the fascinating art deco facade of City Hall or the intricate exterior moldings of the Lafayette Hotel, and you’ll notice signs of urban development not seen in these parts for decades. Then, you’ll stand in the middle of this lakefront landscape you once called your own, and suddenly, the idea of joining this city’s resurgent march will make an incredible amount of sense to you. You’ll return to the city that’s been harboring your hesitation before packing for Buffalo, that seven-letter word on your birth certificate.

When you get here, you’ll knuckle down, network, and find a job because you have to, just like you would have to in any other city. It'll be a risk, but finding a job in any city these days is perilous If you can’t find something accommodating, you can tap into the experience, ingenuity and independence you’ve developed elsewhere and add your own business to the Queen City landscape. Whatever the case, you’ll become a contributor to a cause we’ve all been born into; one that slips through our veins and beats our hearts; one that only Buffalonians seem to understand. And, when you find yourself living the realities you once spent Sunday afternoons pining for, you’ll realize yet another Buffalo-related truth: Becoming a cog in this city’s revival is a lot more fulfilling than praying for its resurrection from a neighboring state’s barstool.

After years spent praying, I finally left the barstool and came home. You can too.

(Author’s Note: This entry was finished while listening to Dan Auerbach’s “Goin’ Home”. And yes, I purposely waited until I was almost done to listen to this obviously appropriate song.)
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