Monday, August 01, 2011

Why Buffalo is your future, no matter where you live

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo. from PreservationNation on Vimeo.

"Oh, you're interviewing for Buffalo Unscripted?" said the Five Points Bakery owner to the customer. "Then you get a free loaf of bread!"

"Really?" she said.

"Really," he answered. "We posted it on our Facebook wall. Everyone who participates get a free loaf of fresh cinnamon raisin bread. Because we love this project and want everyone to come."

True story. Happened when I was filming in Buffalo (the reason I didn't post anything new for three weeks). It captures why I have fallen truly/madly/deeply in Buffalove. Not because I'm a carb addict, but because I'm a community addict. And Buffalo is my new drug.

I thought I was crazy when we ended filming and experienced sudden, acute separation anxiety from a city where I'd spent only 11 days. What about this old Rust Belt town was calling me home?

I wouldn't have put my finger on it if I hadn't just finished reading The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. (Cliff notes TED talk here, but really, this is a fantastic read and you should get the whole book.)

Drawing on the wide field of brain science, Brooks explores how our unconscious impacts all aspects of our life, from academics to politics to neighborhoods. At one point, he talks about the "shallow view" society shaped by a 20th century emphasis on material development that ultimately broke down the "social and emotional development that underpins it."

Other forces were at work too:
  • The cultural revolution broke down old habits and traditional family structures.
  • The economic revolution replaced downtowns with sprawl.
  • The information revolution replaced face-to-face community organizations and instead sent people alone in smaller, more self-selecting, more identical communities. (As Brooks puts it, "like found like.")
All these combined to dissolve the "webs of relationship" that gave society a deeper, richer social fabric. And with those webs disintegrated, people's social capital diminished and they were left rootless.

But not in Buffalo.

As interviewee after interviewee for our project pointed out, Buffalo's economic hardships in the latter part of the 20th century saved the elements of its society that support its revival today. Case in point:
  • They never knocked down their old buildings or houses to build new ones.
  • They kept their park system largely intact.
  • They came to rely on grassroots organizing to achieve community-centric goals.
  • They made a point of knowing and relying on their neighbors.
The result: Buffalo greets the 21st century with community solidarity, a can-do attitude, a reasonable cost-of-living, and a strong sense of place.

Now, it's not all rainbow-farting unicorns. The metro area is still in search of a new post-manufacturing economy. Their medical corridor holds promise, as do the energy and arts sectors, but none have emerged as the winning ticket just yet.

That said, the city has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its depth of community. And that's precisely what had me checking real estate listings by the end of the week. Something deep in my unconscious suddenly realized it was tired of transience, of living in a place with a shifting, nondescript point of view. And it got really, really excited about the idea of supporting local artists. Of joining a block club. Of knowing my mailman's name.

In my opinion, Buffalo shows us how we can reinstate the social systems that hold us together and meld them with the march of progress. When Buffalonians look at their city, they don't see the Rust Belt/snow-encased stereotype the rest of the country pokes fun at. They see neighbors working together. They see progress and reinvention. And they see it all all happening right now. Not in some distant, amorphous future, but in real time, as we speak.

Buffalo is a city well under way. We need to keep an eye on it. Better yet, we should participate in it, whether there or in our own communities. As native Meg Baco commented to me before, "Remember, my one word for Buffalo is POSSIBLE. Anyone can be a Buffalonian, no matter where they are."

It's time to discard the shallow view. It's time to be the Buffalo.

Note: This week's prayer is dedicated to all the generous, helpful, hopeful people we've met thus far who make our Buffalo Unscripted project -- and their hometown -- such a joy to be a part of.

Prayer #174: Rooted

I have no leaves, no branches, no bark or stem or petal. But I have roots that go deep, back to some primordial cave where individualism was not yet invented and connectedness was king.

My roots start at the spot in my chest that leaps when I near home. They snake through my legs and grip the soil in places that make my heart sing. They radiate out -- stealthy, subtle sentinels -- in constant search for others' cords to earth. For we are designed to be entwined.

Source of all things solid and growing, help my roots go deeper. Tangle them in knots and twists so I am that much stronger. Show me what it means to truly stand with others.



  1. We couldn't be more grateful to you and your team for taking the time to really understand Buffalo, and for working to spread the word about how wonderful our city is.

    Keep your eyes on those listings. We would love to have you!

  2. Words cannot explain how much I love this. This is what Buffalo is all about--making everyone feel welcome. You always have a couch here Julia if you want to come visit! #cheapflightsfromBWI

  3. As a part time Brooklynite, part time Buffalonian (I choose not to go with "ex-pat" because I feel that sounds too permanent *cringes*) this one really struck a chord with me. As a teacher and historian, the jobs are scarce, but I constantly wish I could find a way back instead of watching all of the activism from a far. I think of what I could offer to the progressive spirit of the city if given the chance and hope one day I'll be able to do so.'Til then, I too spread the Buffalove and rejoice when the eyes of others are opened to it as well.

  4. It's what I've been saying all city, best neighbors, best food....;-)

  5. Wow. Thank you. Amazing prose and poetry. Didn't realize you were so impressed. Buffalo, and the world, could use a thousand more just like you.

  6. Anonymous5:06 PM

    ...what one sees from this article is what has been here all along. Buffalo; the Niagara Frontier; and WNY is, and has been, a perfect spot for bringing up a family and sharing a real sense of what cosmopolitan really means. The only thing missing is a new title, Metropolitan Buffalo ! Some of the "fiefdoms" (suburbs) have to absorb/morph into a consolidated one. There are just way too many politicians.

  7. Anonymous11:31 PM

    We were honored to have you here capturing the essence of who we are.

    And thanks for such a wonderful blog post that eloquently articulates what keeps me here. I moved her expecting to stay a few years..20 years later I'm still here and loving it.

  8. Anonymous7:53 AM

    I, too, love Buffalo.

    However, Buffalo can be a tough place-at times, it reminds me of a post-communist block country. Resources are very thin, which inspires people to live under a freeconomy (which can be a cool result) or people look to protect their own piece of a dwindling pie. City of good neighbors? Yes, until there is any type of money involved. Collaboration had all but died among non-profits/grassroots organizations, until recently. And, we really do suffer from one of the worst political "leaderships" in the country. Our Mayor is currently under investigation for improper dealings (real estate development collusion with East Side churches), and we have one of the worst performing public school systems in the country.

    So, while I do appreciate that you have fallen for our great city, as there are MANY positive attributes, I think it is important to also see the (very) rough edges as well. I love all this gushing ("Buffalove"), but sometimes it seems to skim over some of the dire realities: Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the nation, and with that, comes some stark realities. I agree with an earlier commenter: we need about 10k more young, creative and activist individuals like you.

  9. Please come back, and ....

    Welcome Home!

  10. I have houses picked out for all three of you.

  11. Anonymous9:24 PM

    Buffalo didn't preserve their park system. Only Delaware was maintained and they put an expressway through the middle of it.