Monday, December 20, 2010

My old home town

Here's an attractive short boosting the charms of Buffalo, New York. Enjoy it! I picked it up from Chris Clarke with whom I share the experience of being a former Buffalonian.

Clarke used the video to explore his ambivalence about the place he had left behind. I can adopt his first sentence as my own and am intrigued by the rest.

In Buffalo my neighborhood was about five miles across. In Northern California my neighborhood stretched from Oregon to the Mojave. In Buffalo i was circumscribed, by parents and by circumstance but mainly by my doubts about my own value. Once I got to Berkeley those doubts started to dissipate.

[Clarke's friend who shared the video] is a Buffalo partisan. ... trash Buffalo in his presence and he just might flare up. I get it. He’s stayed there, he’s made the city his lifelong home as others abandon the place in droves, all of them talking about how the places they landed are far superior. There's a character judgment implicit in that criticism, an implied "why are you not smart enough to leave?" People who used to live in Buffalo are worse than most at trashing the Old Country, it seems. ...

I recognize myself in that. Considering I haven't lived there since the 60s, I think quite a lot about Buffalo. (I visited frequently as my last parent survived there until 1999.)

My roots in Buffalo are deep. My family settled in the then-far-frontier town about 1810, managed to preserve a house when the British and native Iroquois burned the place during the war of 1812 -- and launched their fortunes out of the war ruins, renting lodging and creating a tavern to serve the returning United States settlers. Throughout the 19th century they prospered along with the city, becoming substantial members of the emerging governing Republican business class. Their fortunes, like those of the city, peaked around 1900 when Buffalo was the eighth largest metropolitan center in the country and a fount of industrial innovation because of its lead in electrical power generation. They took part proudly in the great Pan-American exposition of 1901 which showcased the city -- if this is now remembered at all, it is for the assassination of President McKinley, come to turn on the lights. My mother described with pride marching in a celebration of Buffalo's 125th anniversary sometime in the 1930's.

Yet when it came time for me to go to college and find my own adult way, it never occurred to me that way would be in the city of my birth. By the mid-60s, there was already feeling of decline about the place. Although I couldn't have spelled it out at the time, I was sensing an objective reality. From 1940 on, each census showed a declining population. Prosperity had hinged on grain shipping on the Great Lakes, steel production, auto manufacture -- all industries that have simply dwindled away over my lifetime.

And with the dwindling industries, economic elites left too. The companies once launched in Buffalo were sold out to multi-national corporations whose economic decisions were made far away, uninfluenced by the bumptious local boosterism that had characterized 19th century industrial leaders. Workers were treated as dispensable -- and gradually the dispensable went elsewhere if they could, seeking opportunity they couldn't find on what still calls itself "the Niagara Frontier." I certainly didn't think of myself as one of those when I joined the mid-20th century brain drain encouraged by cheap higher education at the then-prospering University of California -- but I was one.

So nowadays I talk about my old home town as a demonstration of what happens when the people who have energy and imagination all have to flee, leaving those who don't or can't show initiative to run the place. As my mother aged there, she hated the many instances when her proud city became a national joke, as when Mayor Jimmy Griffin's parks commissioner seemed to be running a comically criminal enterprise.

Yet Buffalo remains an attractive historic city. The video doesn't lie. It has escaped becoming a wasteland of identical cookie cutter mall stores. These suffocatingly boring enterprises dominate not only suburbia but also too much of "successful" cites like my own San Francisco or the Upper West Side in Manhattan where I often visit. Buffalo has lots of cheap housing, now empty. The housing bust came there years ago and never ended. If anyone came up with an economic reason for Buffalo, it could boom. But how a Buffalonian can make a living remains the question of this century as of the last.

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