Buffalo: The Subtle Joy of Being Out of Time
Consider this the third and final installment of an unintentional series.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the triumph of economics on the field of ideas, its rise to prominence as chief societal concern, and its dominance of consideration and public discourse, not for the better. We can’t seem to have a conversation today about art, or space exploration, or football without economics in the fore, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Last week, in honor of the successful Preservation Conference hosted in Buffalo, I wrote about our community’s collective prioritization of historic rehabilitation and the hoped for architectural tourism that would follow from it. Much of that article ironically hinged on economic considerations: the opportunity cost of pursuing preservation as a regional strategy versus other options (particularly on the economic activities within the buildings, not just the buildings themselves), the monetary cost of investing limited foundation and governmental grants in historic brick and mortar, the hoped for return-on-investment through tourism and quality-of-life, both for the citizens here and the businesses that might be lured by our aesthetic. The point was not overly groundbreaking or deep (Buffalo has spent considerable time, effort, money and political capital on preservation, and we’re about to spend a lot more . . . everybody good with this?), but as the lively comment section devolved into shouting and reflexive defensiveness about sidebar issues unrelated to the main point, I think a key comment by the Central Terminal’s Derek Punaro got lost. It stuck with me over the week, and after a bit of mental churning, yielded this article of reflection.
To paint with a very broad brush, conservatives focus on returning society to an idealized past (nostalgia for the Founding Fathers, biblical imagery of the shining city on the hill, etc), and progressives dream of an imagined future where workers are prosperous and rights are equal. In Balkanized Buffalo, we could divide our public commentariat into similar camps: those who love Buffalo for what it used to be (and the legacy of buildings that represent it), and those who desire a New Buffalo, one of a variety of flavors: new industries, new university, new growing population, new green code, new progressive politics that put aside the petty crumb hoarding, new buildings, etc. The bogeyman of one group is often the champion of the other: nostalgia and honoring our history is a worshiping of obstructionism and resignation to our shrinking status quo; a desire for growth and change is a sellout of our unique treasures and gluttony of parking lots and failed silver bullets.
Yes, before you comment, not everyone fits neatly. And don’t tell me that a preserved Elmwood Village is the key to a progressive green future. I get it. I over-generalize only to make this point – when you focus so heavily on the history of, or the future of, our current built infrastructure, you ignore the present of what people are doing now. The nostalgia buffs walk through Buffalo and see an architectural museum, ghosts riding in trolley cars on the old lines and ethnic social clubs on the East Side. Entrepreneurs and vision-makers see new tech firms and food trucks free of the oppression of City Hall. Green coders and urbanista designers may see the blend, revitalized 100 year old housing stock, walkable neighborhoods, glass and steel mirroring art deco, new retail built to the curb using the best planning guidance of yesterday and today.
But old or new or both – none are what Buffalo is now. And the tug-of-war, overloading the ever more extreme teeter-totter, doesn’t create a happy medium. It has produced fractures and vitriol, leeching into debates about regionalism, economic development, and schools.
I would submit that the city of Buffalo itself is partly to blame for the tension. In parts of America with less rich history and infrastructure, there is little to inflame nostalgic passions. In places with less untapped opportunity, less need, less poverty, less political dysfunction, the progressives have little foothold. Of course, our forbearers saw the potential here as well, and in a cyclical irony, it’s their investment that sparks the confrontation.
So let’s get back to the first two posts in this series and Derek Punaro’s comment and my answer, that got me to focus this week’s column on the present. Derek asked if our community’s focus on preservation could spark preservation industries. I replied that we already have them, and while I find subtle joy in their existence, I went on dismiss them as not an economic engine for growth. A progressive trap I fell into there. Putting aside the economics (as I try to do regularly but often fail), let’s appreciate for a moment the present, and the remarkable nature of what Buffalo is: a place where old world artisans endure.
The City of Light, site of the Pan Am Expo, was a city of the future – great temples to industrial progress were made of plaster so they could be torn down tomorrow, thrown out with the last century’s garbage. The City of No Illusions bottomed out as the manufacturing dream died, monuments crumbled, the Bills lost and pessimism ruled. As our sturdy bones now rise, a moniker for the present is still unclear. Our future-through-the-past model skips over today.
I look at today’s Buffalo with fresh eyes and see not a relic, or a museum, or a parking lot, or a time capsule, but a place out of time.
Pick an enduring image of our country from the last 150 years, a piece of iconic Americana, a foundational legend that we tell ourselves to define who we are, and you’ll find it in Buffalo; not preserved under glass, but enduring in the present. Grain still fills (some of) our elevators, and lumbering freighters still pull into port. Immigrants fill our ghettos, seeking opportunity and starting storefront businesses with bilingual signs. Old polish grandmothers, who still only speak the mother tongue at home, walk to the Broadway Market in their dark babushka’s everyday for fresh vegetables, sausages and rye bread from a multi-generational peddler. Jazz and big band music spills out of clubs that boast an incomparable pedigree. Tug boats push unsentimental industrial barges up and down the Black Rock Channel, family farmers bring slaughtered cattle to market, auto workers cast engines and car bodies, freight laden boxcars rumble down our rails. Latin fills our mass schedules and church bells ring out the time for neighborhoods. The national guard meets for drill in a castle. The same art glass firm that installed the windows a century ago will repair them for you now. These aren’t skills lost and rediscovered. This isn’t a food movement, or green movement, or a craft movement, or urban movement brought back to life. These things never went away. They never stopped existing here.
The dock hand. The immigrant. The craftsman. The farmer. The clergyman. The soldier. The artisan. The artist, the writer, and (until very recently) the Nobel prize winner. Butchers and rail yard workers. Barkeeps and raconteurs. If baseball players in shaggy wool uniforms, shrunken mitts and high black socks materialized on the grave of the Rockpile for an impromptu game, would anyone be surprised?
“Out of time” can have Pleasantville connotations. Is such an image one of Buffalo as shuffling undead? Has Buffalo become a museum to itself? Is it the memory of an echo long past? I differentiate between recreated history, costumed re-enactors playing the part, returning our history to us in faux canals and re-imagined destinations, and the legit endeavors that have simply persisted. Human endeavors, not empty structural shells and pretty edifices, overwrought historical markers that denote what used to happen within them. A sublime timelessness and continuity of lifestyle and werk.
I don’t know if this makes us unique, or For Real, or superior, or a good destination for tourists, or more likely to attract companies, or better or worse for start ups, or harder to build a new Bills stadium, or bad for a renewal of the STAR tax rebate. I do know its good for me as a writer, to receive influences from multiple centuries. When I walk around Buffalo I don’t see the past come alive, I see the past endure.
We can return to the economic discussions of the vitality of each endeavor on another day, about the growth required for their continued endurance, about whether persistence is another word for “slow decline” and poverty. I am content to leave those developmental, future considerations for another time. For now, in the present, find contentment in existence.