Tag Archives: Buffalo: For Real

And An Elevator To the Moon

23 Oct

Not real, authentic (This Stadium Matters; Stadium, For Real)

Way back in late 2004/early 2005, one of the first Buffalocentric topics about which I decided to write was an NFTA debate that was then brewing over three competing plans for Buffalo’s beleaguered, forgotten Outer Harbor. Eight or so years later, it remains almost equally beleaguered, with some aesthetic and functional improvements in access, but still amounting to grass and weeds. Eight or so years later, the NFTA still controls it, while the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and the City of Buffalo bicker over who should control its development, and the contracts and jobs that go with it. 

What else have we seen? We’ve seen that while civic debate focuses on extremes, we are capable of reaching compromise when necessary. For instance, attracting a Bass Pro to the waterfront – it wasn’t at all a bad idea. Putting it in the Aud, on the Aud site, or even right up against the water at the foot of Main Street – none of those were per se bad ideas. But Bass Pro isn’t coming, and that, too, is OK. We don’t need it, but it wouldn’t have hurt. On the other side of the argument, we had the armies of preservation demanding green space, no buildings against the water, “authenticity” as defined by them, and now a fetish for defunct grain elevators and warehouses that haven’t been demolished because there is no one to pay to demolish them – haven’t been used because they are economically difficult to justify re-using. In spite of the Fred Kent placemaking sideshow scam, Buffalonians seem pretty happy with the compromise Canalside being built, the Pegula hockeytorium, and the other incremental – but, finally, visible and palpable – improvements being done to the Inner Harbor. 

So, we look again to the Outer Harbor and we have a new proposal being trial-ballooned whereby we build a billion-and-a-half-dollar stadium for the Buffalo Bills with a retractable roof, a new convention center, a hotel complex, and 5,000 parking spots. Of the silver bullet proposals to come down the road, this is the silveriest, bulletiest of them all.  This has a former county comptroller candidate involved in commissioning an epic set of images showing off our newest Elevator to the Moon, complete with a sports museum to be built and run by the people behind Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play. 

Neighborhoods crumble under the weight of economic decay and desperation, and we have $1.5 billion to spend on playing catch? We struggle to make ends meet with Medicaid funding, heating assistance, and day care for the working poor, and we’ll throw a billion dollars at a hotel and Buffalo Skydome? Is there even a local corporate sponsor who will buy naming rights, or will we just name it after Ralph Wilson, too? Renovating the Ralph is estimated to cost $200 million, which is also a tremendous sum of money for this area, and even that is a deal not yet done. For decades this region has been trampled underfoot by opportunistic politicians with toxic policies, and we have yet to devise an attainable vision for the future and a concomitant plan to get there.  But, hey – domed. Stadium

Functionally, the Outer Harbor is a geographical bottleneck – accessible by Skyway or on Route 5 from the South or in from Tifft Blvd from South Buffalo.  Three points of entry to get to 5,000 parking spots to service a stadium for 72,000 people. Arithmetically, the people behind this proposal think that the state will pony up $400 million, and that the NFL will provide between $200 to $400 million. That leaves a gap of $700 to $900 million that needs to be filled by private investment and, presumably, county money. That kind of money approaches the county’s entire annual budget. As a practical matter, the soil on the Outer Harbor is toxic and in need of multimillion dollar remediation. 

But we’re still debating the likelihood that the Bills stay in this region after their owner inevitably passes away in the near future. The team is more than just a sports franchise – it’s a powerful symbol reminding Buffalo that it was once in the major leagues; a legacy we cling to by a thread.  Does this area have enough idle money lying around to (a) enable local investors to buy the Bills and keep them here when Wilson dies; and (b) fund a massive stadium project for the Outer Harbor, which would effectively prohibit any other kind of development from happening there? 

So here we are, with a massive silver bullet pipe dream to try and keep our disappointing football team in town. A shiny object to raise the hopes of the few not yet beaten down by inevitable cynicism; something to occupy hours’ worth of inane AM talk radio chatter, with angry people talking angrily about their anger over money and the crappy team. This has the appearance of being aspirational, but is really evidence of desperation. If we give the Bills this nice new home, maybe they’ll stay. Maybe they’ll stop sucking. On the other hand, we’ll have the self-appointed masters of authenticity decry any proposal involving sports, parking, roadways. We’ll have arguments about how we should spend a billion dollars to improve storefronts on Grant Street, or maybe to spend on more ancillary projects at the Darwin Martin House. We’ll hear how Buffalo is “real” and “authentic” and that this monstrosity does nothing to further enhance our standing as a tertiary stopover on the cultural tourism checklist. We’ll ultimately argue over how many trees and painted Adirondack chairs are available on the grass, whether the water taxi will be able to accommodate gameday crowds, and hey, how about a solar-powered carousel? 

But let’s cut through all the hype. The people proposing this have two things – a corporate entity and some diagrams. They haven’t talked to the Bills. They haven’t talked to the NFL. They haven’t talked to the State. They haven’t talked to ECHDC. They haven’t talked to the NFTA. They haven’t even taken a survey of the local population to vet the idea of a billion-dollar domed stadium on the Outer Harbor. So far, they’re scheduled only to speak with the City of Buffalo – an entity that has, and would have, no say in the matter whatsoever. We haven’t yet figured out how we’re going to fix up Ralph Wilson Stadium, and we’re already talking about out-Torontoing Toronto’s downtown Rogers Centre. 

This ought to be fun. 



Buffalo: The Subtle Joy of Being Out of Time

2 Nov

Consider this the third and final installment of an unintentional series.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the triumph of economics on the field of ideas, its rise to prominence as chief societal concern, and its dominance of consideration and public discourse, not for the better. We can’t seem to have a conversation today about art, or space exploration, or football without economics in the fore, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Last week, in honor of the successful Preservation Conference hosted in Buffalo, I wrote about our community’s collective prioritization of historic rehabilitation and the hoped for architectural tourism that would follow from it. Much of that article ironically hinged on economic considerations: the opportunity cost of pursuing preservation as a regional strategy versus other options (particularly on the economic activities within the buildings, not just the buildings themselves), the monetary cost of investing limited foundation and governmental grants in historic brick and mortar, the hoped for return-on-investment through tourism and quality-of-life, both for the citizens here and the businesses that might be lured by our aesthetic. The point was not overly groundbreaking or deep (Buffalo has spent considerable time, effort, money and political capital on preservation, and we’re about to spend a lot more . . . everybody good with this?), but as the lively comment section devolved into shouting and reflexive defensiveness about sidebar issues unrelated to the main point, I think a key comment by the Central Terminal’s Derek Punaro got lost. It stuck with me over the week, and after a bit of mental churning, yielded this article of reflection.

"From the Water" by Ken Root, courtesy kenrootart.com

To paint with a very broad brush, conservatives focus on returning society to an idealized past (nostalgia for the Founding Fathers, biblical imagery of the shining city on the hill, etc), and progressives dream of an imagined future where workers are prosperous and rights are equal. In Balkanized Buffalo, we could divide our public commentariat into similar camps: those who love Buffalo for what it used to be (and the legacy of buildings that represent it), and those who desire a New Buffalo, one of a variety of flavors: new industries, new university, new growing population, new green code, new progressive politics that put aside the petty crumb hoarding, new buildings, etc.  The bogeyman of one group is often the champion of the other: nostalgia and honoring our history is a worshiping of obstructionism and resignation to our shrinking status quo; a desire for growth and change is a sellout of our unique treasures and gluttony of parking lots and failed silver bullets.

Yes, before you comment, not everyone fits neatly. And don’t tell me that a preserved Elmwood Village is the key to a progressive green future. I get it. I over-generalize only to make this point – when you focus so heavily on the history of, or the future of, our current built infrastructure, you ignore the present of what people are doing now. The nostalgia buffs walk through Buffalo and see an architectural museum, ghosts riding in trolley cars on the old lines and ethnic social clubs on the East Side. Entrepreneurs and vision-makers see new tech firms and food trucks free of the oppression of City Hall. Green coders and urbanista designers may see the blend, revitalized 100 year old housing stock, walkable neighborhoods, glass and steel mirroring art deco, new retail built to the curb using the best planning guidance of yesterday and today.

But old or new or both – none are what Buffalo is now. And the tug-of-war, overloading the ever more extreme teeter-totter, doesn’t create a happy medium. It has produced fractures and vitriol, leeching into debates about regionalism, economic development, and schools.

I would submit that the city of Buffalo itself is partly to blame for the tension. In parts of America with less rich history and infrastructure, there is little to inflame nostalgic passions. In places with less untapped opportunity, less need, less poverty, less political dysfunction, the progressives have little foothold.  Of course, our forbearers saw the potential here as well, and in a cyclical irony, it’s their investment that sparks the confrontation. 

So let’s get back to the first two posts in this series and Derek Punaro’s comment and my answer, that got me to focus this week’s column on the present. Derek asked if our community’s focus on preservation could spark preservation industries. I replied that we already have them, and while I find subtle joy in their existence, I went on dismiss them as not an economic engine for growth. A progressive trap I fell into there. Putting aside the economics (as I try to do regularly but often fail), let’s appreciate for a moment the present, and the remarkable nature of what Buffalo is: a place where old world artisans endure.

The City of Light, site of the Pan Am Expo, was a city of the future – great temples to industrial progress were made of plaster so they could be torn down tomorrow, thrown out with the last century’s garbage. The City of No Illusions bottomed out as the manufacturing dream died, monuments crumbled, the Bills lost and pessimism ruled. As our sturdy bones now rise, a moniker for the present is still unclear. Our future-through-the-past model skips over today.

I look at today’s Buffalo with fresh eyes and see not a relic, or a museum, or a parking lot, or a time capsule, but a place out of time.  

Pick an enduring image of our country from the last 150 years, a piece of iconic Americana, a foundational legend that we tell ourselves to define who we are, and you’ll find it in Buffalo; not preserved under glass, but enduring in the present. Grain still fills (some of) our elevators, and lumbering freighters still pull into port. Immigrants fill our ghettos, seeking opportunity and starting storefront businesses with bilingual signs.  Old polish grandmothers, who still only speak the mother tongue at home, walk to the Broadway Market in their dark babushka’s everyday for fresh vegetables, sausages and rye bread from a multi-generational peddler. Jazz and big band music spills out of clubs that boast an incomparable pedigree. Tug boats push unsentimental industrial barges up and down the Black Rock Channel, family farmers bring slaughtered cattle to market, auto workers cast engines and car bodies, freight laden boxcars rumble down our rails. Latin fills our mass schedules and church bells ring out the time for neighborhoods. The national guard meets for drill in a castle. The same art glass firm that installed the windows a century ago will repair them for you now. These aren’t skills lost and rediscovered. This isn’t a food movement, or green movement, or a craft movement, or urban movement brought back to life. These things never went away. They never stopped existing here.  

The dock hand. The immigrant. The craftsman. The farmer. The clergyman. The soldier. The artisan. The artist, the writer, and (until very recently) the Nobel prize winner. Butchers and rail yard workers. Barkeeps and raconteurs. If baseball players in shaggy wool uniforms, shrunken mitts and high black socks materialized on the grave of the Rockpile for an impromptu game, would anyone be surprised?

“Out of time” can have Pleasantville connotations. Is such an image one of Buffalo as shuffling undead? Has Buffalo become a museum to itself? Is it the memory of an echo long past? I differentiate between recreated history, costumed re-enactors playing the part, returning our history to us in faux canals and re-imagined destinations, and the legit endeavors that have simply persisted. Human endeavors, not empty structural shells and pretty edifices, overwrought historical markers that denote what used to happen within them. A sublime timelessness and continuity of lifestyle and werk

I don’t know if this makes us unique, or For Real, or superior, or a good destination for tourists, or more likely to attract companies, or better or worse for start ups, or harder to build a new Bills stadium, or bad for a renewal of the STAR tax rebate. I do know its good for me as a writer, to receive influences from multiple centuries. When I walk around Buffalo I don’t see the past come alive, I see the past endure. 

We can return to the economic discussions of the vitality of each endeavor on another day, about the growth required for their continued endurance, about whether persistence is another word for “slow decline” and poverty. I am content to leave those developmental, future considerations for another time. For now, in the present, find contentment in existence.

Market Buffalo By Dissing Cleveland? Brilliant!

17 Jun

Here’s what Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the chairwoman of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors’ Bureau (or whatever its name is now), had to say about what a rousing success and great idea “Buffalo: For Real” is:

It is not intended to be local … It is not intended to create civic pride. It is intended for a targeted market that we think has a lot of value…

…“Unlike Cleveland that really just has the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to hang its hat on, we’ve got so many other assets to build off of,” Gallagher-Cohen said.

Setting aside how conceitedly horrible the “Buffalo: For Real” introductory video was – the video that was designed specifically to define the underlying “marketing” campaign, denigrating another rust belt city seems hardly the best way to promote Buffalo.

Ask any average American if they’ve heard of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Chances are they’ll not only have heard of it, but they’ll probably also be a fan of at least one inductee.

Now ask any average American if they’ve heard of the Darwin Martin House, or the Albright-Knox. What they’ll have heard of is snow, wings, Bills, and Sabres. Maybe rust and decline, if they’re particularly well-informed.

Cleveland has 400,000 residents in its city proper. It has NBA Basketball, NFL Football, and ML Baseball – all within the downtown core. From its Wikipedia entry:

Cleveland is home to Playhouse Square Center, the second largest performing arts center in the United States behind New York’s Lincoln Center. Playhouse Square includes the StatePalaceAllenHanna, and Ohio theaters within what is known as the Theater District of Downtown Cleveland. Playhouse Square’s resident performing arts companies include Opera Cleveland and the Great Lakes Theater Festival. The center also hosts various Broadway musicals, special concerts, speaking engagements, and other events throughout the year. One Playhouse Square, now the headquarters for Cleveland’s public broadcasters, was originally used as the broadcast studios of WJW Radio, where disc jockeyAlan Freed first popularized the term “rock and roll“. Located between Playhouse Square and University Circle are the Cleveland Play House and Karamu House, a well-known African American performing and fine arts center, both founded in the 1920s. Cleveland is also home to the Cleveland Orchestra, widely considered one of the finest orchestras in the world, and often referred to as the finest in the United States. It is one of the “Big Five” major orchestras in the United States. The Orchestra plays in Severance Hall during the winter and at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls during the summer. The city is also home to the Cleveland Pops Orchestra. There are two main art museums in Cleveland. The Cleveland Museum of Art is a major American art museum, with a collection that includes more than 40,000 works of art ranging over 6,000 years, from ancient masterpieces to contemporary piecesMuseum of Contemporary Art Cleveland showcases established and emerging artists, particularly from the Cleveland area, through hosting and producing temporary exhibitions. The Gordon Square Arts District on Detroit Road, in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, features a movie theater called the Capitol Theatre and an off-off-Broadway playhouse, the Cleveland Public Theatre.

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That’s just the fine art stuff. The entry for other tourism attractions includes:

…the Cleveland Botanical GardenCase Western Reserve UniversityUniversity HospitalsSeverance Hall, theCleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the Western Reserve Historical Society. Cleveland is also home to the I. M. Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located on the Lake Erie waterfront at North Coast Harbor downtown. Neighboring attractions include Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Great Lakes Science Center, the Steamship Mather Museum, and the USS Cod, a World War II submarine. Cleveland also has an attraction for visitors and fans of A Christmas StoryA Christmas Story House and Museum to see props, costumes, rooms, photos and everything referenced to a yuletide film classic from the mind of Jean Shepherd. Cleveland is home to many festivals throughout the year. Cultural festivals such as the annual Feast of the Assumption in the Little Italy neighborhood, the Harvest Festival in the Slavic Village neighborhood, and the more recent Cleveland Asian Festival in the Asia Town neighborhood are popular events. Vendors at the West Side Market in Ohio City offer many different ethnic foods for sale. Cleveland hosts an annual paradeon Saint Patrick’s Day that brings hundreds of thousands to the streets of downtown. The glass house at the Cleveland Botanical Garden recreates a Costa Rican rain forest.

Fashion Week Cleveland, the city’s annual fashion event, is one of the few internationally recognized fashion industry happenings in North America. The show is considered by many to be the best in the Midwest—perhaps second only to New York for fashion weeks in the US. In addition to the cultural festivals, Cleveland hosted the CMJ Rock Hall Music Fest, which featured national and local acts, including both established artists and up-and-coming acts, but the festival was discontinued in 2007 due to financial and manpower costs to the Rock Hall. The annual Ingenuity Fest, Notacon and TEDxCLE conference focus on the combination of art and technology. The Cleveland International Film Festival has been held annually since 1977, and it drew a record 66,476 people in March 2009. Cleveland also hosts an annual holiday display lighting and celebration, dubbed Winterfest, which is held downtown at the city’s historic hub, Public Square.

And what about that Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

  • Generates more than $107 million annually in economic impact.
  • Continues to draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to Cleveland each year; 90% of visitors to the Rock Hall come from outside of Cleveland.
  • Is the single, unique culture asset that differentiates Cleveland from other cities.
  • Has the highest attendance among halls of fame.

Try looking that information up for the Darwin Martin House.


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I’m not saying Buffalo sucks.

I’m saying Cleveland doesn’t suck.

For the region’s person-in-charge-of-attracting-visitors to basically insult a city 2 hours down the 90 and fronting the same lake is just ridiculous.  Someone please put some grownups in charge of our local convention and visitors’ bureau. Please someone depoliticize it, hire professionals based on merit and stop the embarrassment.


Toronto Trending. For Real.

4 Jun

Here’s Toronto’s latest tourism effort. “Toronto Trending” uses Twitter and live Foursquare checkins to show what’s literally trending second by second.

Shame they didn’t crowdsource a video about architecture and the city’s past glories, like “real”, “authentic” places do.

Knee Jerk? Not Real.

1 Jun

Having proudly derided “Buffalo: For Real” here, I was interested to read this defense of the now-infamous slogan, penned by one of its pro bono creators, Joe Sweeney from local ad agency Travers Collins.

First, it speaks to Buffalo’s authenticity. After conducting some significant research, VBN realized that “cultural tourists” are the folks they should target with this new brand—people who visit a place to learn something, to feel the weight of history, to be inspired by human expression. People who would be intrigued by the prospect of seeing work by Wright, Sullivan, Richardson, Picasso, Kahlo and Burchfield, in a Rust Belt city known mainly for chicken wings and snow. “For Real” speaks to them directly, positioning Buffalo as a place where all of the sights are genuine, and none of the parks are themed.

Second, the line implicitly references the rampant skepticism that’s out there about our city. For far too long, when we’ve told out-of-towners that we love it here, they’ve responded incredulously — “For real?”

Now we have a comeback. For real, we love this place. For real, it’s beautiful. For real, it will move you.

I’m still having trouble deciphering what an “authentic” sight, is as compared with an inauthentic one.  But apart from the silly existential argument – if I can see it, isn’t it “real” and “authentic”? – the reason why this branding was so ripe for mockery has to do with something Buffalo is great at:

Even when we think we’re promoting and puffing the region, we do it in an apologetic way.

Excuses, excuses. We’re not as great as we once were, but we’re too poor and depressed to have torn it all down to make way for new stuff! We might have a dead downtown, but hey – no chains!

But these lines, earlier in the piece, stuck out:

I get the criticism, to an extent. Lord knows we should be critical of anything purporting to help our city. If we didn’t make our voices heard, we might have a fishing superstore dwarfing our historic waterfront. Plus, it’s tempting to make fun of a new “slogan,” especially when it’s for a place that’s a go-to punch line for bad comedians.

I think “purporting” is the key word in that passage. That video and this slogan merely purport to help the city. But they don’t. For the very select few who love old, dead buildings and architecture, they’ll love this campaign.  I’d be willing to bet that lots of people would come to Buffalo for a day trip or weekend from within a 200 mile radius if they knew there was something to do. (Wing Fest, Allentown Art Festival, etc.). I’d be willing to bet that efforts to attract people already in Niagara Falls or Niagara-on-the-Lake would also be lucrative and easy.

We have crappy signage, poor tourism information at or near the border crossings, (Ontario has staffed welcome centers off the QEW and 420), and some sort of ridiculous conceit about being “real”. We’re critical of this campaign because the campaign sucks, not because it “purports to help the city”.

And because we “made our voices heard”, there’s absolutely nothing – no fishing store, no nothing – on the Inner Harbor Canal Side parcels right now. Just some benches, some grass, some ruins.

I hope this kind of knee-jerk pessimism isn’t the lasting legacy of this marketing effort, because I really like “For Real.”

And another thing. It wasn’t “knee-jerk”; it wasn’t reflexive pessimism. It was a carefully thought-out, considered negative reaction to something silly.