The Embodiment of Buffalo

27 Apr

Cities have and need symbols. Chicago has the Sears tower; San Francisco twisting streets and trolley cars. New York City was shaken by the 9/11 attacks not simply because thousands died, but because a main symbol of the city fell. Our recently vanquished hockey opponents (I’m still in denial, and like this version better) have a bell for their past, and the Rocky theme, complete with jogging montage up the famous steps, for their present.

What is Buffalo’s symbol? That is an honest question I’d like to hear your answer to. A simple, superficial answer might be a main building, as I chose for Chicago or New York. But we know this city far more intimately, so I think we can do better (and I am sure the residents of Chicago or New York would pick differently themselves). So answer a slightly different, deeper question: what embodies Buffalo 2011?

Let me suggest a few of the potentially more popular answers. Is it an architectural masterpiece, like the Darwin Martin House, showing how we celebrate the future by restoring the past? Is it the Broadway Market, emblematic of our cultural, ethnic, and religious roots? Is it the chicken wing? Niagara Falls? An art festival or Taste of Buffalo? Or perhaps this picture:

I verge towards the cynical when addressing “Progress” in Buffalo, and I have a few more sarcastic and conceptual options. Is it our massive phallus shaped City Hall, ironically over-big for a shrinking population, both in terms of its own sheer physical infrastructure requiring maintenance and also symbolic of our ineffective, over-sized layers of government (regionally). Is it the Wide Right kick or Hull’s No Goal – we get close, but never quite succeed? Is it BERC, adrift since the small time corruption scandal involving the One Sunset restaurant? Is it the American side of Niagara Falls, a comparative wasteland in the shadow of the mighty Canadian tourism machine? For many at this site, the obvious answer is the Canalside failure – we can’t get out of our own way to just build something nice people would want to visit, with hundreds of millions of dollars in hand.

Passing on all those answers, I think I have the perfect choice (other than the Butter Lamb Sabres logo), embodying all of Buffalo as it stands today: the ruin of the Fairmont Creamery.

No single structure in Buffalo combines as many hopes and failures, or as much political pettiness and small time crumb-scraping, as that poor abandoned building, passed daily by tens of thousands on a main highway artery. A gutted, century-old eight-story brick warehouse, it would be at home nearly anywhere within the city, discarded like much of our industry and left to rot. It is bounded on four sides by an over-large highway, the newish Elk Lofts, rotting steel of a potential casino, and parking lots, each of which individually could have been chosen as a potential symbol of Buffalo themselves. The former Creamery also lies proximate to HSBC Arena, the stagnant Canalside, and the Cobblestone “District” (two streets and three bars does not make a destination), all in their time touted as indicative of Buffalo’s bright future. Sandwiched as it is between the symbol of Buffalo’s population growth and renewal strategy  (loft living), our infrastructure built for a city of twice the size (highway), and the epitome of the power of the lawsuit by the few to stop the development for the many (casino), it could not lie in a better geographic location for selection in the poll, or for actual redevelopment itself. And yet it waits, like all of Buffalo, for market conditions to be right for investment. Will it be lofts itself? A hotel? Retail and offices? All of the above? We wait to find out, as we could ask the same question for much of shovel-ready and investment-ready Buffalo.

Even more than the physical characteristics, the political and philosophical conceits surrounding this building make the case for Buffalo 2011 embodiment. Owned by the largest real estate developer in Buffalo (and former embarrassment of a gubernatorial candidate), it’s current chief use is as holder of a billboard advertising an Inside Baseball political dispute with the publisher of the city’s dying newspaper, a rivalry the average citizen could care less about, and yet forced to endure as is occasionally spread across the front page by muck-raker style. Meanwhile, the property itself is the subject of legal action and incurs uncollectable fines for unenforced building code violations that the owner has the clout or simple will to ignore.

When the Fairmont Creamery is finally redeveloped, and cannibalizes tenants from other housing, retail or commercial real estate to fill, it will do so using a variety of tax incentives and grants to make the project economically viable. Then the care-taker mayor will hold a news conference, claim credit or victory, and hail the investment as yet another sign on the city’s rebirth. And we will all praise the news, without the perspective that many other cities have a Fairmont Creamery of their own, have already redeveloped it, and our having finally done so ourselves only brings us closer to average.

9 Responses to “The Embodiment of Buffalo”

  1. Tom Dolina April 27, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Carl plans to upgrade the building by taking down the billboard and replacing it with a high tech, networked, electronic sign. This will allow him to tweet his idiotic ramblings and have them instantly show up on the sign for all to see. He will also have animations built into the sign, so he can do things such as flip the bird to The Buffalo News staff. Of course, he’s first looking for incentives tax breaks from the city before such an undertaking…

  2. lefty April 27, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    While the Creamery is a great symbol…I think the rotting grain elevators are better.

    They show just how reluctant people are to let go of the past, how blind they are to the current state and how idiotic they are with ideas for future use.

    The idiots over at BRO suggest putting lofts in them…ignorant to the fact they are located in a highly industrial area and have nothing to offer someone living there.  That and keeping buildings for giant movie screens…that is a gem.

  3. Jesse April 27, 2011 at 9:10 am #

    Since I’m not feeling cynical this morning, I’d suggest City Hall.  Objectively that’s one hell of a unique building.

  4. Brian Castner April 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    @ lefty – worthy choice, and I like your reasoning.

    @ Jesse – I too briefly picked City Hall, but for the cynical reasons I cite, rather than yours.

  5. tom April 27, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    I vote for an ex-pat in Charlotte still hoping against hope that Buffalo can pull it together.

  6. RaChaCha April 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    Try this for an iconic image — I love this pic:

  7. al l April 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    Quick point of order – although SF does have trolleys, they arent really symbolic. Youre probably thinking of the cable cars, which are quite different and unique.

  8. Brian Castner April 28, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Thank you, Al, for always keeping the mass transit facts in line. I stand corrected.

  9. Jafafa Hots April 29, 2011 at 4:39 am #

    I think the one iconic thing about Buffalo is its name. The only major (or ex-major anyway) American city with the name of an animal, the buffalo.

    Throughout the Buffalo’s history everything from sport teams to foundries have used variations of an animal in their logos, letterheads… carved into their buildings. You could assemble an interesting book with images, many beautiful of past and present logos featuring this animal.

    What other city but Buffalo has that kind of iconography? What other city can evoke such identification through the simple but pervasive use of a picture or even just a silhouette of an animal, the bison? Bison, NY.

    Whoops. Yeah. Guess we screwed that one up too.

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