Buffalo is Rising

If you are not in Buffalo right now, you may be unaware. Buffalo is revitalizing. Buffalo is coming back.

Allow me to describe some context: When I left Buffalo in 2010, the story that residents told about the city was of its fall. There were a lot of “used to be”s in the city’s description. Buffalo used to be an industrial city, Buffalo used to be where the most millionaires per capita lived, Buffalo used to be on the forefront of technology, and Buffalo used to be where it was at. People would point to the crumbling East and West Sides, vacant downtown, rampant poverty, and say how it used to be a nice place to live; alas, look at it now.

I grew up in the greater Syracuse metro area. Syracuse is like Buffalo’s younger brother. Similar circumstances but a smaller city. After 18 years in Central New York, and 6 years in Western New York, I felt that I needed to get out to be successful and left for Seattle, WA. I do not regret it. Being on the West Coast broadened my worldview in so many ways. I was there for three years.

Another half year in Syracuse and Will and I moved back to Buffalo. Guys, the story changed.

Buffalo is coming back.

That is the story we are telling to ourselves and to anyone who will listen. Buffalo is coming back. Look at downtown. Look at the West Side. I work next to a site with TWO CRANES, and they is not a wrecking ball to be seen. Heck, the East Side might be getting converted to countryside but those gardens and farms are much nicer to look at then the vacancies. How about some Buffalove? We claim the vacant buildings like they are treasures waiting to be rediscovered instead of blight.

Buffalo is on the rise.

We tell these stories, and we believe them.

On some levels, whether these stories are true does not matter. We act on what we believe. I think Buffalo’s rise is going to happen in part because people believe it will. We moved here on a remote worker’s salary. There is an energy here which is infectious, and this is a rather nice city to live in. We could have lived anywhere. Several people have told me that they came back because they wanted to be a part of Buffalo’s rebirth. Like the person who pursues a higher calling to be a part of something larger than themselves, folks do move to Buffalo seeking to have a hand in its improvement. These are people with potential, and people with passion. These are the people who would have improved any community that they resided in. They came here.

Buffalo’s going to rebirth because the belief that it will is drawing in the folks who will make it happen.

There are worse ways to tell a story.

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A Pile of Rubble

It took a long time, but it happened so fast.

There’s a church on Main Street that has my fancy. It’s a stone’s throw from one of Buffalo’s cultural institutions, the Anchor Bar, known for being the origin of “Buffalo” chicken wings. Built in 1898, it’s been vacant since I was seven years old in 1993. Her name is Our Lady of Lourdes. Here she is.

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She’s as stunning as she is decrepit. The beautiful sandstone exterior, which has weathered 21 years of unoccupied winters, shields an empty inside. As you can see here in FixBuffalo, her interior lacks the beauty that churches used to have. Everything of value was stripped and sold. I never saw her when she was a church. She died before digital cameras became ubiquitous and the Internet became popular, so all of the pictures of her reflect her current state. I do not know what she would have looked like with the stained glass that certainly must have been in those giant windows, and the oak paneling that I understand used to exist there.

It is common for Catholic Churches in Buffalo to be on campuses including schools and rectories or convents. Buffalo used to be a very Catholic city. These buildings were filled with people. Our Lady of Lourdes is no different: it has a rectory and school. They were structurally sound, though they’d been vacant for some time as well.

Were.

I work within sight of this structure. On Tuesday, I went for a walk on my lunch break and decided to head to the church. I rarely do this. I wanted to see the campus. This is what I saw.

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I recognized that type of equipment – I don’t know what it is called – but it is used to snip apart a building. This is a demolition being planned. I posted that picture to a Facebook group of preservationists, and a flurry of energy began. People who are connected to people in the know found out that there is a demolition order not on the church, but on the structurally sound rectory and school. Two weeks was what we were told. It would be two weeks and these pieces of Buffalo’s heritage would disappear.

It turned out to be closer to two hours.

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That is the rectory now, now in the form of a pile of rubble next to Lourdes. I imagine the school will come down tomorrow, if it was not taken down after I left work. Gone forever. They say that the property, next to the growing Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, is going to become a multi-use facility and the church will be integrated into this project. The reputation of the owner is a bit mottled because I guess he’s torn down other historic buildings before and left them as parking lots? That is what I hear. Part of me wonders if the reason for the expedited demolition was to outrun the outrage. If so, it worked.

I cannot remember why I originally took such a liking to this structure. Buffalo has a lot of gorgeous old buildings, many of the more impressive ones are on the East Side. I rarely had a reason to go to the East Side, though I would use it as a safe biking route to South Buffalo or Lackawanna. It’s a poor area, mostly depopulated, so there were very few vehicles to dodge. I think my fondness must have been one part how Our Lady of Lourdes was on my more normative routes. I saw her a lot. I had many opportunities to admire her. Another part is certainly the beauty of its design and exterior. I am partial to buildings made of that sandstone.

I think the other reason I became so fond of this complex is because the fate of this church seems to mirror that of broader Buffalo. It is beautiful and it was rich in history. It suffered decline, it was abandoned and stripped for parts. The previous occupants did not take a holistic view of the building, they just pulled out what would work for them and damned the rest. There’s a metaphor for Buffalo civic life there. Yet the building keeps standing, winter after winter, and now it sits next to a great economic boon, and it too might come back. Coming back requires losing most of its former anchorings, in that the school, the rectory, and the surrounding neighborhood on St. Paul’s Mall are now gone, to be replaced by the modern “mixed-use” building. Buffalo already lost its anchors. The industry that employed so many are mostly gone. We are acquiring new industries as society acquires the net, and our economy will look completely new.

Otherwise you sit and you sit and you die a slow death.

The church has a possible redemption story, if anyone took the effort to redeem her. This is true of so many places in Buffalo. The West Side is experiencing a renaissance. I think my attraction to the East Side is the same draw towards hope of salvation.

I certainly hope the church itself is reused, as they say it will be. I am too weary from hearing high flung promises by other developers to keep that much faith. A thought occurred to me as I sat on my bike photographing the rubble, “You have to let go of the old to embrace the new.” Buffalo does need change, she needs new things. At the same time, we have an architectural heritage few other places have. I know that rehabbing buildings is ultimately just polishing jewelry; our jewelry is so beautiful that I do not want to let it go.

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Why Sharing the Road With Cyclists Can Be So Harrowing In Buffalo

I did not own a car for the three years that I lived in Seattle, WA. It is not to say that I never drove: I had a motorcycle and memberships in Zipcar and Car2Go. Heck, my husband drove me to the hospital in a Car2Go when I was in labor. The combination of the relative expensiveness of these services, having a bus pass, living in a mild climate which makes bicycling year-round desirable, and residing in delightfully walkable neighborhoods ensured that I drove very infrequently. Generally speaking, if I was on the street, I was walking or biking.

In Seattle, the greatest obstacle to bicycling is the terrain. It is hilly. Those hills are STEEP. It makes for places with stunning views of the surrounding lakes and mountains, presuming you are not too exhausted to enjoy it. The greatest obstacle is not the cars.

Drivers in Seattle are a courteous breed. If you get to a four way stop, it is not uncommon for everyone to signal to everyone else to go first… and no one moves. This Pemco car insurance commercial, below, was popular for a reason.

Cars slow down and signal to pedestrians that they will not hit them in crosswalks. Speed limits are followed. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians respect red lights. Pedestrians don’t jaywalk, which is one part the result of ticketing, and another part the result that you do not have to jaywalk to ensure that you will ever cross the street. You will have an opportunity. Cars will wait for you to clear the intersection before driving through. Overall, drivers in Seattle are polite and respectful. There are tensions  between cyclists and drivers, but it was my overwhelming experience that drivers and bus operators paid attention, paid space, and communicated with cyclists and each other. 

This does not describe the driving culture of Buffalo.

The speed limit on the New York State Thurway is 65 miles per hour. The modal speed of drivers is about 73 miles per hour, I’d say, judging by the rates of which I am passed and the speeds I need to take to pass others. It is taken for granted that people do not follow the speed limits on Buffalo’s roads and highways.

Buffalo has a lovely parkway system, rife with stop signs. For every driver I’ve seen make an honest-to-goodness stop, there is another who employs the “rolling” variety, treating stop signs like yield signs. When I go to cross the street, I am often waiting awhile for the traffic to clear, because I cannot guarantee that, despite having the “walk” sign on the crosswalk, drivers will defer to me as is their legal obligation. At Elmwood Avenue and Chatham Avenue, for instance, there are almost always a car driving through the intersection when the walk sign turns on – a driver who blew a red light. Buffalo drivers hit the gas when they see a yellow light. Seattle drivers slowed down. I have a child with me most of the time, so I am not willing to be too assertive when crossing the road,  but I have to be. Merging on the 190 generally requires driving up to the bumper of the car ahead of  you in the leftward land and just moving over, because no one lets you in with enough distance to be safe. They’d rather you go behind them. Some folks just turn without bothering to communicate this plan to you with a turn signal.

Buffalo drivers are, in the aggregate, discourteous and aggressive. 

Why are we surprised that many of the cyclists are too?

First, many cyclists have cars. There is not a distinct bicycling culture separate from a driver culture. Those who bike to work tend to be either the least or most educated in society, and that second group most certainly have access to a vehicle. Second, you see the same sorts of behavior of drivers among bicyclists. Bicyclists treat stop signs like yield signs and blow through red lights when the traffic is clear. They do not signal to other cyclists, or pedestrians, that they are about to pass them, which you are supposed to do with either a bell or saying “on the left.” Cyclists irregularly signal their turns. At Delaware Park and on bike paths, they regularly go entirely too fast, making being on these paths an anxious experience for those walking with small children.

The differences in cycling culture was first apparent to me in the positioning. In Seattle, there is a particular position that some cyclists take at red lights that I’ve never seen done in Buffalo:

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If you are in the habit of stopping in traffic and sharing the road, this is the most efficient position to start moving again. Why is this not true in Buffalo? Perhaps Buffalonians don’t keep their brakes in as good repair as Seattleites do: the hills demand efficient brakes. So does this position. I suspect the other reason lies in the relative frequencies of actual stops at intersection.

I still follow the Seattle norms when I use my bicycle to get to work or run errands. I stop at the stop signs, I signal my turns (though I am not confident that Buffalo drivers understand what the arm signals mean, in particular the right turn), point straight if I am going that way, make eye contact, wave an acknowledgement if I am let in, and so forth. I would characterize my experiences on the roads of Buffalo as largely positive as a result. I notice that my behavior is not the norm, though I wish it were. Perhaps it is a function of fatigue: stopping a lot requires more strength than continuing to go. I suspect it is another facet of a discourteous driving culture. People say they are afraid to use a bicycle as a form of transportation for fear of cars. I have found that the experience is far less scary when one’s behavior is predictable to everyone.

If Buffalo wants her roads to be safe for everyone on them: cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, we need to change our road culture to a version that is far more considerate and patient. Laying the blame for unsafe roads exclusively on the behavior of cyclists or drivers is misplaced. Buffalo has a road culture problem, and it is time that we owned it.

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Picking Wildflowers

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My family lives within walking distance of one of the nicest parks in Buffalo. When the weather is good, we wander over. Today my daughter walked part of the trail with her own two feet, her hands happily in a hand of her parents. She stopped when she saw another small child, getting shy. She’d stop whenever she wanted to watch something. She stopped at one point to sit on the trail, which was not good because it gets a lot of traffic. She does not know park etiquette yet. She just knows that these walks are exciting. There was a large dog that made me nervous, so we wandered up the hill from the water and stopped for a bit. She ran and crawled through the grass, picking wildflowers from the clover, grinning the entire time.

I am approaching the tasks of parenthood with the orientation that my job is to show her how to be alive. My job is to ensure that she knows how to do the basics functions, how to discipline her behaviors as to be a part of society, and most of all, how to enjoy living. My job is to show her how to be loving, how to be discerning, and how to appreciate these brief moments of life. My job is also to protect and care for her.

It has helped me.

In order to show my daughter how to love life, I need to be loving life. If I want to teach her to appreciate the nature, or know how to be loving to others, I need to appreciate nature, and be loving to others. This has been a wonderful spiritual discipline in stopping to smell the roses, admire the sunset, laugh with my husband, and not get lost in my head or caught up in something that is bothering me. If I am to protect her, I need to ensure that I am around to do it, as much as I can be. I am more aware when I make decisions, and I take smarter risks. Having a child has been good practice for my patience and practicing non-attachment to circumstances (though I’m far more attached to my loved ones). I am surprised by which I changed my own practices simply because they seemed like they had a higher calling involved. I worry less about the small details and think more about the big picture. I appreciate this.

My daughter is now  more akin to a toddler, and I remember when she was just a tiny babe in my arms, days old. My father told me this would be the case – the first year is the one where the babies change the most. Kiddo spent her first trip to a park, Green Lake Park in Seattle, sleeping on either my or Will’s chest as we laid on picnic blankets with our friends. Now she can pick wildflowers and to give them to her mother. She can lift herself up and take unassisted steps and signal to her daddy that she wants to be held. She has grown so much already. It is incredible to watch.

I have also grown in ways that I did not realize I would. Parenthood is making me a better person. I appreciate that.

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Unit of Analysis and Buffalo’s Revival

Buffalo Central Terminal, view of St. Stanislaus and Corpus Christi towers.

East Side of Buffalo as seen from the parking lot of the Buffalo Central Terminal in summer 2013. Not much has changed as of the last time I was in the area, May 2014.

The Congress for New Urbanism passed through Buffalo. It was a big deal, especially among the subset of Buffalo residents who care about improving this city.

Let me step back and explain something to my non-Buffalo readers. Right now the city has a contagious optimism that things are getting better. The problems in the city are discussed more as challenges than permanent states of being. There is widespread appreciation for the city’s assets. For instance, Buffalo has first-class architecture and fantastic parks. We’re on the shore of a Great Lake. Pieces of the city’s heritage, such as the Silo City Grain elevators, are becoming the setting for celebration. It is very obvious in the marketing. Promoters are using the increased popularity of food trucks to draw people to previously neglected architectural sites. There is a new radio station, one which plays the genre of music most to my fancy, that describes itself as “New Music for a New Buffalo.” If you drive on I-190, you’ll notice a giant wooden heart with “Buffalove” written on it, affixed to a vacant building. I have noticed that simply living in Buffalo is treated as though one were a part of something larger than themselves: the rebirth of a city. Some of this is commercial branding. Some of this is millennial optimism. I find all of it to be preferred to the defeatist pessimism that I recall when I was a student at the University at Buffalo. There is an anti-city bias among many suburban residents. So “Buffalove” is one part hip, and another part subversive because all things hip are at least a little subversive.

Buffalo is in the process of rewriting its land-use code. They’ve pared an 1800 page document down to 300 pages, with the hope that less complicated regulations will facilitate development and  what they call “in-fill.” Buffalo has lost half of its population, the effects of which are most obvious on the East Side. The East Side is currently like a bike-able, destitute suburb. It is rife with open space (from the demolition of empty houses) and it is the epicenter of poverty in Buffalo. More so than elsewhere, the East Side carries the burden of Buffalo’s destructive experiment in “urban renewal.” It did little to facilitate renewal and now those parts of the city barely qualify as “urban”. I heard the East Side referred to as “Inner City Suburbs”. After the last bike ride through, I’d have to agree: there is more space on the East Side than some parts of Amherst (First Ring Suburb). You’d have to drive to get to most amenities.

New Urbanism is a different approach to urban renewal. It prioritizes walkable cities with the fun bits of infrastructure like public transit and density. Folks of a certain stripe tend to appreciate these things. Colin Dabkowski, who attended the Congress for New Urbanism, notes that facets of new urbanism seem to prioritize making cities into playgrounds for the white wealthy classes at the expense of non-white, poor classes. (Fun fact: I am in the picture that is featured with the article. Wearing black, second from the left. I was on the Tour De Neglect East Side architectural bicycle tour given by David Torke.) This is hardly new: the powerful have always fashioned society and its geographic contexts to reflect their preferences and facilitate their advantage. Some urbanists have argue that Dabkowski’s characterization lacks nuance, and others have said that the ideas behind Urban Triage require a city circumstance which is more akin to Chicago than Buffalo.

My brother-in-law and I have a recurrent debate about how to revitalize a city. I argue things like rehabbing houses a la Buffalove Development are nice. They polish the jewels of the city. The trouble is that we don’t quite get at the root of why our jewels were so tarnished and broken to begin with – we have a terrible problem of poverty. I feel that the improvements that rehab projects bring to the city are overstated because they do not solve the human problem causing the city’s circumstances. Poverty is a problem impacted by the infrastructure, but the unit of analysis is the human being who is struggling with their material means. I argue that efforts to revitalize a city need to focus less on the habitat and more on those who are inhabiting the city because otherwise you just shuffled the deck of the well-to-do and draw them in from the suburbs. In Buffalo, most people of means live outside the city in the suburbs. We do not have poverty because we have derelict housing; we have derelict housing because we have poverty. It’s nice to preserve and rebuilt. It is certainly worth doing. It is not saving the city so much as it is making it more beautiful.

My brother-in-law argues that if you want a city to come back, you focus on the city itself. He sees infrastructural improvements and building renovations as important steps in this process. He acknowledges that gentrification will happen, but he argues that there may not be another alternative, and ideally the increase of wealth may benefit lower income people and the unemployed (of which Buffalo has many). There is a facet of his argument which is superior to mine: it is far easier to measure success with his definition. It is not just easier, it is possible, which is the fundamental flaw of my foundational argument. People move, but the city’s streets and boundaries stay the same. You can go back and look to see if Paderewski Street became less scary, if the Central Terminal (which is on Paderewski) has improved in condition. (It has.) It’s harder to know, in any aggregate measure, if the family who lived at 224* Paderewski Street is still there, still healthy and wealthy (if they ever were), and still in Buffalo. Far easier to see what house their shape is in. (The answer is “terrible,” like most houses in that neighborhood.) If you are an elected official in Buffalo, you are held to the measurable standards. Sure, we all feel a vibe of poverty and struggle among our fellow people, but it’s harder to measure and in some parts of the city, easy to ignore.

How do we find solutions for the problems that the unit of analysis is the human being? How do we know when we have been successful? How do we know when we need to do more work?

*A quick note: Originally I’d written 194, and @qrush on Twitter informed me that the property, which was there the last time I meandered that way, no longer exists. Also, apparently that part of the street is less frightening? Good news for sure, though it makes for inaccurate blogging. 

224 seems to be in bad shape still.

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Memento Mori

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Today my husband, daughter, and I went to couple state parks in Niagara Falls. We did not see the Falls itself; well, you can see the mist of the Falls from the Grand Island Bridge. We saw the consequences of the Falls: the deep gorge, sharply cut out of the rock. We hiked in woods. My daughter walked some of the way, with each hand in one of ours. She loves to travel that way: two feet on the ground, and her parents’ fingers in her hands. Her eyes sparkle and she smiles and squeals with joy.

I am in awe of my daughter. I am in awe that she exists. I am in awe that Will and I made her. I am in awe that she’s grown so much. I am in awe that she smiles so frequently and that she seems to often experience unadulterated joy. This kid loves life. She loves exploring, she loves playing, she loves being around others. She has recently started kissing us, in exactly the way we kiss her. Lips and an exaggerated “Muah!” After she kisses me, her eyes get wide and she smiles with accomplishment… and generally goes in for another one.

She is going to be a grown woman some day. The gorge will be ever so slightly different, as the Niagara River cuts through the rock more and more…

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One of the sites was Schoellkopf Hall from the former DeVeaux College for Orphaned and Destitute Children. What a beautiful building. What a time-specific entity. We simply no longer have similar institutions for the orphaned. This building has been around since prior to the dawn of the 20th Century. We walk through the woods, and we hold someone very new among the trees, gorge, and architecture of a former era.

Today, the guest minister at UU Church of Buffalo spoke of the dimensions of culture. He said that Americans are the most individualistic in the entire world. He also said that our orientation towards time tends to be based on the clock, yet we are very present-oriented. Our perspectives do not tend to include much of the past or much of the future. I see some evidence that it is changing slightly, at least in Buffalo, with the way that preserving old buildings is becoming hip. It seems that people are holding on to the infrastructure of history, perhaps as a way to stay connected to it.

Nothing aroused my feelings of being mortal as having a child did. I now have a sense of belonging to generations, and a diminished sense of my relative importance. This has also brought me great peace. My time is limited, as it should be. I live remembering that I am going to die. Every moment seems sweeter, knowing that it could be my last. Hopefully not, but it is a possibility. Death terrifies me. I am comforted by the knowledge that my life is wonderful and I am doing things I value, spending my time with people I treasure.

Time goes on. Life burns out. Make the best of what you have with the time you have.

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Our Universalist Project

 

I have been contributing what little time I can scrounge to a really exciting project, Loved for Who You Are. The website, which launched Sunday, was Tim Atkins’s fantastic idea, and I was thrilled to be asked to collaborate. The website’s beauty and functionality, the social media’s compelling content and reach, and nearly everything else that is awesome about it is the result of the talents and efforts everyone else on the team. My goodness, they are all so good at what they do. I’m curating the blog’s essays, which means I am organizing the talents of everyone else. Let me say, it is a humbling experience in the best way possible. We are open to submissions, if you are interested.

The purpose of the website is to spread a fundamentally universalist message: we are all loved. By whom? Well, different contributors have different ideas of the source of that, and I’d recommend following the blog to learn more. And some of this project requires a discussion of what love is, especially in a theological context that  is a bit more uncertain. I am on the atheistic side of agnosticism, yet this resonates with me.  For me, it’s a sense of fundamental belonging, regardless of what foibles we engage in during our lives. It is an acknowledgement of the messiness of humanity, and a broader perspective than the thou-shalls and thou-shall-nots that so many religions have pushed forward as a way to structure society and control the people in it.

Religion can do so many things. It can be a force of social control, it can be a tool to make sense of life, and it can be a method to add meaning and sacredness to the everyday. It’s not all good nor is it all bad. My faith, Unitarian Universalism, at its best, has helped me make sense of some of the  more higher-order struggles towards meaning, and provided me with tools to ponder the question of what we are.

Loved For Who You Are is also a UU answer to a struggle I had four years ago. I’d written that at one point, I hit a wall, and I needed guidance to resolve something important to me. I could find nothing within the corpus of my faith about that particular topic. This is not exactly it, but it is along the lines of what I needed to read then. They say that you write the book you needed to read; here, we made the website we needed to stumble upon. I reckon that the sense of being unworthy, and the struggle to consider others worthy, is a nearly universal aspect of the human condition. Perhaps this will assist in a positive way. That is my hope and prayer, at least.

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