When people ask me where I "come from," I usually answer, "my parents lived in Buffalo, New York." To the few who ask more about Buffalo, I add: "Buffalo is a sad, segregated city which lost its economic reason for being sometime in the 1940s. Most people with ambition and gumption got out, so it has been run ever since by those who couldn't or wouldn't leave." That's probably grossly unfair, but it is how it looks to this escapee who left in the 1960s and has since prospered on the Left Coast.
Knowing that I probably don't give my birthplace its due, I turned eagerly to Diana Dillaway's study, Power Failure: Politics, Patronage, and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York. Like me, Dillaway comes out of Buffalo's old white, WASP elite; like me, she moved on the west coast to learn about cities that work, or at least work differently.
I really wanted to like this book; I really wanted to learn more about what happened to my hometown than the nasty capsule summary I'd been offering people. I did learn some things, but not as much as I'd hoped.
Dillaway used her social connections to get access for interviews with the movers and shakers of Buffalo civic life in 1987 and 1996. She presents a catalogue of parochialism, lack of imagination and pure inertia on the part of those with power. I can believe these individuals did contribute by their mistakes to Buffalo's decline, but I wonder whether better leadership really could have done anything to stem the cascading tide of failure set off by economic irrelevance. Of the great rust belt cities, only Pittsburgh seems to have fared much better; Cleveland and Detroit are also studies in collapse.
In order to get her interviews, which are the linchpin of the book, Dillaway had to promise her subjects complete confidentiality. And she largely kept her promise, though there are hints about identities, especially in the pictures. This sort of bargain may work for an academic exposition of an abstract paradigm of urban failure, but in a more popular case study with a quasi-journalistic tone, it makes the book seem secretive, as if the author had something to hide. I don't think she is actually hiding something -- I just think she can't write the story as she really understands it.
After reading Power Failure I checked out what others had to say about it. Anyone truly concerned about the future of Buffalo might want to look at a thoughtful, if scathing, review by a couple of SUNY luminaries who charge that Dillaway, like the parochial class she derives from, has failed to situate the prospects for the city of Buffalo in the context of its economic region. The charge rings true to me. My father never stopped dismissively labeling the suburbs that enjoyed what little growth and prosperity survived as "the sticks."
Buffalo has an unfair, lousy rep -- all about snow and layoffs. That's too bad. It can be green and lovely in the right seasons. The small scale of civic life can be attractive. But the place needs an economic engine and it hasn't yet found one.