Walking America: Buffalo
A classic American city, punched hard, finds its legs again
Six years ago I spent weeks walking through Buffalo’s mostly African-American eastern section. The piece I wrote then focused on the poverty, addiction, and despair I found.
That despair was a result of Buffalo having lost most of its good jobs, then half its people, over the prior seventy years. It was a process that fell hardest on Buffalo’s Black residents, but it wasn’t confined to them. The whole city was horribly impacted.
Yet during those weeks I saw the glimmer of another side of Buffalo. A saw a dignity and pride that, despite factories leaving, despite almost a quarter of the city’s homes having been abandoned, despite the national jokes, stubbornly held firm.
I found bars, clubs, churches, mosques, and restaurants that held to their old sense of community, built on humans being human to each other, in person, without endlessly worrying about what was good for their health, their status, or their resumes.
Buffalo, despite it all, was still filled with places that were, in almost every way, the cliche of warm.
I was also drawn in by Buffalo’s under-appreciated aesthetic. There is something about the odd architectural mix (stretches of simple but colorful wooden homes, brick warehouses, set on wide streets, punctuated by a few absolutely magnificent buildings, some preserved, some crumbing) coupled with a low and heavy sky that gives Buffalo a transcendent feeling.
This isn’t a normal city, you are someplace special.
So I kept coming back, but only stayed a few night here and there whenever I passed by.
This time I came back specifically to spend three full days in Buffalo, and to walk across it from north to south.
My walk took me seventeen miles, from the middle-class largely white neighborhood of Tonawanda to the working-class largely white neighborhood of Lakawanna. Although white hides a lot of ethnic differences, such as Poles, Italians, Irish, Russians, and Germans.
Both neighborhoods, and many of those in between, are variations on a working class theme: Physical communities built around shared ancestry, religion, work, and sometimes, a shared distrust of outsiders.
All of them dealing with a world that now values physical communities less and individuality more. A world that cares less about if you are a good neighbor, good parent, and good congregant, dedicated to upholding local values, and more about fulfilling your own inner needs.
Whatever that might be, although more and more inner needs almost always is about making mint. Be yourself, bank buck, and live large (not in Buffalo though). Come on. It is simple. The American Dream!
That working-class community ethos, central to Buffalo, has long been out of national style, something you are reminded of all the time.
Walking through Buffalo, especially the largely African American sections, means dealing with long blocks with only a few remaining buildings stubbornly holding on, trying their best.
The rest are either abandoned, boarded up, or collapsed, or after having accomplished all three, been bulldozed and taken away. An overgrown plot, sometimes with a dirt path winding through it, is all that is left.
It means seeing scattered needles, crack baggies, and talking to desperate people begging for money. ‘Not for drugs. No sir. I don’t do that anymore,” they say, wobbling, tweaking, or pupils dilated from their last fix.
It means seeing ad hoc street memorials to the murdered — clusters of votive candles, Henesy bottles, printed pictures wrapped in plastic filled with messages of regret and sorrow. All of it weathered into a depressing trash pile by time.
Downtown Buffalo has the similar feel and look of a place on the wrong end of a decades long struggle, all while trying to maintain a brave face. There are wonderful reminders of what once was, beautiful and majestic buildings that fill you with joy, just to look at.
Then there are dreary stretches whose only conceivable goal was to paper over problems by filling a void with the least cost.
Every fad in urban renewal (convention centers, sports arenas, government towers) is on display, showing just how long Buffalo has been at this.
Just south of downtown is an anachronism, a reminder of what once held up the old Buffalo. A factory that makes recognizable things, in this case cereal. If you happen to forget it is there, the smell of Cheerio’s filling downtown reminds you.
The factory is a symbol of the real essential role manufacturing once played here, and of the enduring and powerful myth that it all might return one day. With just the right election, just the right politics.
Yet the days of walking out of high school into a steady job making tangible things, are long over, resulting in the void you still see all around you.
Some of those voids are now being filled by immigrants, continuing Buffalo’s tradition as a place for working-class communities built around shared ancestry, work, religion, and jobs.
Dotted along my walk are neighborhoods with people from odd sounding places (Bhutan, Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Myanmar), filled with simple homes of large extended families, houses of worship, and locally run businesses.
Despite their obvious differences, despite some occasional and clear animosity, they share older Buffalo’s ethos. They both believe in the fundamental value of local community, with a core emphasis on faith, family, and ancestry.
This sets both apart from the wealthier and better educated America. From the Front Row that values what you know, and what you imagine yourself to be, not where you come from. Often, whose only connection to immigrants, beyond claiming to support them, is not as neighbors, but as cheap labor.
By the end of my walk, unlike in my other long city walks, I am not surprised by what I have seen. I already knew Buffalo. So I said to myself.
Still, as I collapse in a bar, as I spend the next few hours sipping bad IPA’s (Et Tu Buffalo!), something is nagging at me. Something feels different this time.
I spend the next day walking as far, although with no goal. Instead I go from bar to bar, talking to everyone, relaxing, and try to put it all together, trying to figure out what feels different.
Then, on my seventh bar, while watching the Bills, it strikes me. I didn’t hear the constant sense of insecurity I was used to hearing. (“We aren’t as bad as everyone says!,” “give us a shot!,” etc).
Despite a lot of pain still out there, the pain doesn’t seem to be setting the tone.
Buffalo is happier now and feels ok. And it is ok. Both with itself and its place in the world.
Maybe it was always was and I had simply gotten it wrong before. Or maybe it was because the Bills were good now and that really matters.
Whatever the case, in a nation that values individuality above all else, more than ever before, Buffalo’s old school focus on organic communities has found its footing again. At least in Buffalo. At least as far as I could tell.
Why? Partly through survivor bias (most everyone who wants out, is out), partly through a refreshing immigration, but also partly out of fatigue.
As anyone who has been through a tragedy, or an addiction, or been on the losing side of whatever knows, survival requires eventually moving on. You can only worry so much what others think about you. At some point you just have to laugh it off and remember to live as you want to live.
That is what Buffalo feels likes now. A city fully in recovery.