Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Buffalo thrice

Back side of Buffalo's magnificent art-deco city hall.

Mark Goldman has chewed over the same ground three times. In 1983, he published High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. In 1990, he followed up with City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York. And this year, he has added City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York.

As you may have guessed, Goldman is a Buffalonian. So am I by birth, though I haven't lived in the city for 40 years. But until 1999 I visited regularly because my folks lived there and I traveled back through just last spring. Like Goldman, I've spent much of my life asking myself, what's wrong with Buffalo? How could a city which was one of the nation's most prosperous, forward looking metropolises in 1900 become a prime example of urban hopelessness one hundred years later?

High Hopes is pretty much a straight history of major historical landmarks over the first seven decades of the 20th Century. Approaching the end of that period, Goldman is using chapter titles like "The Fear of Outsiders and Radicals" and "Praying for a Miracle" to describe the mood of the city. Buffalo had lost its main industries, its role as a transshipment point, and an increasing fraction of its population to rising suburbs.

City on the Lake is a far more positive look at the city; it describes how white Buffalo tried to come to terms with African American demands for inclusion in the admittedly segregated public schools in the 1980s. For a time courageous Catholic local leaders responded imaginatively and somewhat successfully. Racial tensions, continued deindustrialization and poor political leadership didn't help. But Goldman emerged from the decade cautiously hopeful.

City on the Edge goes over much of the same terrain again reaching through the depressing 1990s to the present. By 2000, the city's population fell below 300,000 for the first time since 1900. Goldman highlights downtown's obsession with accommodating autos to the detriment of communities. He reports that "the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, in what they said was the most comprehensive survey ever done, ranked Buffalo and New Orleans as the two worst run cities in the nation." Like most urban school systems, the public schools provide a snapshot of who was left in town: "the poor, the blacks and the Hispanics."

You don't write exhaustive, intelligent histories of a place if you don't care. Goldman cares about Buffalo. Although the city's history over the last half century comes across in his telling as bleak beyond relief, he reaches out for hope.

At the turn of the [21st] century, Buffalo did not need to be rebuilt; it needed to be healed. Its people needed comfort and reassurance that somehow something would be done to restore the root systems of their daily lives, which been weakened so badly by the effects of the past fifty years. ...Certainly history had been rough on Buffalo, and so much had been lost: neighborhoods, downtown, people, jobs, schools, elm trees, sidewalks, front porches, and all of those comforting qualities that are associated with the city as it was in the days before cars, suburbs, television, street crime, broken schools, and broken promises. ...

Community exists in the space where history and hope meet, where an awareness of the past and a belief in the future inspire people to identify with a place and dedicate themselves to its improvement. ...

That's an almost un-American idea, that community lives in a place and time dimension, that people might find each other in caring for a place. Much of our lives are organized around the illusion that unique places and particular moments don't matter; our settings are interchangeable. Try visiting any mall -- just like any other mall -- if you doubt this. For novelty we construct faux-historical, replica, buildings, clean, unweathered. Goldman's love of Buffalo seems an unhappy anachronism in our culture.

Yet as our unsustainable resource extraction economy trashes the planet, perhaps we'll learn that cherishing places can be an engine of community -- and that community trumps having, having, having more. A long shot, but what else is there?


Civic Center said...

A brilliant, confused essay. Our only hope is learning to live with each other in healthy communities, and that means first off no cars. I know that's a radical statement, but I grew up in the Los Angeles area and I know whereof I speak. It's our only chance of survival, and nobody's really talking about it quite yet.

janinsanfran said...

I admit to the confusion -- the subject is huge and intractable.

No cars, huh? I think if Goldman were more utopian (which no Buffalonian can afford to be), he might agree. He points out that one of the signature disfunctions of the Western New York area is that it combines mushrooming sprawl with declining population! Usually sprawl can at least be explained by increased numbers of humans, but not there.