Tag Archives: National Trust for Historic Preservation

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.

The Sausage-Making of a City’s Remaking

26 Oct

Do you think Mark Sommer even waited for the conference to happen to declare it a success? Or did he write the article weeks ago and just held off on plugging in quotes?

I tease, but only a little. By all accounts, pre-ordained or not, last week’s National Preservation Conference here in Buffalo was a great event that met its key objective: impress lovers of architecture who are in a position to influence other lovers of architecture. This makes me genuinely happy. I have heard about this conference nearly continuously since I moved back a couple years ago, and I hope it was everything its organizers wanted it to be.

But our community’s collective multi-year focus on the economic potential and saving grace of one conference still unsettles me. I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Colin Dabkowski, the outspoken arts columnist at the Buffalo News. Dabkowski and I rarely see eye to eye – ten days ago he did all but declare the future of the local arts scene contingent upon this November’s County Executive race. (If our culturals are truly in existential jeopardy from a $500K cut and change in funding priority, then they can’t be near as robust as we’re led to believe. And while we’re at it, why only bash the county when the city is running a surplus too and has zero arts funding mechanism? But I digress.)

And yet, despite these past differences, Dabkowski hits the nail on the head in his latest column in this Sunday’s paper. Venting a bit of frustration that the current arts scene “floated under the radar” among conference attendees, he notes that without “Buffalo’s active culture” (emphasis his), then “our storied edifices would serve merely as pretty headstones.” Or to put it another way, we should invest “not only in what makes our city look good, but in what makes it breathe.”

Image courtesy bestsoylatte.blogspot.com

Dabkowski is an advocate for the arts, so he is standing up for the theaters, small galleries, and indie performers. But any active current culture could substitute – sports, business, entrepreneurial, outdoor, foodie – and his point would remain. I have argued for a while that what happens inside the buildings is at least as important as the buildings themselves, and it’s this matter of emphasis, brick vs blood, that has lain as a subtext of many Buffalo debates the last ten years.

Ironically, some architecture buffs agree – the pulled out, bolded quote from Sommer’s piece was from conference attendee Denis Superczynski, city planner from Frederick, Maryland: “I’ve lived in a lot of cities in the United States, and Buffalo is a special place. And it’s because of the people.” A throw away compliment is nice, but this wasn’t the National Trust for Special People coming to visit, and the Buffalo boosters aren’t selling cultural tourists on the opportunity to see a bunch of nice folks. The point is the pretty edifices, and Dabkowski is right to note that we should focus on what being is created here now, not just what is left for us as a legacy to enjoy. 

Dabkowski has an uphill battle, however, as do all not firmly (solely?) on the architecture bandwagon. In Sommer’s article, conference attendees noted that cab drivers and wait staff at local restaurants gave impromptu tours and history lessons. When did we become such an architecture-phile city that such a thing is possible? In stereotypical New York and LA, every waiter and waitress is an out of work actor looking for their next big break. Is Buffalo now a city of cornice buffs, where our equivalents are docents in waiting?

City’s have distinctive flavors and cultures, even our over-homogenized America, and I find watching Buffalo transform itself an endlessly fascinating exercise. It’s messy, it’s argumentative, and the process is without rules, standards or easily identifiable goal posts; perhaps a reason this conference, as a distinct measurable event, drew so much interest. How do you remake a city? Who gets to decide what a city becomes? Pittsburgh is regularly lauded for transforming from a steel town into the first Eds & Meds Rust Belt success. Who got to decide Pittsburgh was throwing in with its hospitals and universities, and not another industry? Who sets the agenda?

Image courtesy kitchenproject.com

Buffalo certainly used to be a hard working manufacturing mecca, and we still do make a lot of stuff.  But white collar jobs have out numbered blue collar ones around here for quite a while, and that self-image is hard to shake. As we wallow in past identities, former glories, and a wishy washy future, how did architecture stick all the way down to our cab drivers? There have been other efforts, other successes, that could have captured our imaginations. Dabkowski wants Buffalo to be known as a Rust Belt-chic funky arts town. We have our own constantly under-appreciated Eds & Meds effort, one that has generated far more economic development than architectural tourism, but is largely overlooked in plain sight. Newell Nussbaumer has tried to get the College Town label to stick on Buffalo, but some student housing ventures failed to take off, his estudentnetwork.com site morphed into Navigetter, and no matter how correct the statistics (70K+ total students), unfortunately the vibe never resonated.

A place as large as New York City can afford to claim a number of identities: cultural capital, Wall Street, immigrant melting pot of opportunity. A provincial city like Buffalo doesn’t have the resources to invest in a number of images. There is a finite supply of capital, our best and brightest only have so many hours in a day, and our collective imaginations have a short attenti0n span. If Architectural Queen is what we’re going with, there won’t be lot of room for other nuances. If tourists are going to come see our crumbling castles (read: grain elevators), then it’s good our cab drivers have been studying up.

Ultimately, given a certain level of economic freedom to be mobile, each individual needs to decide what kind of city they want to live in. Buffalo is becoming an architectural destination. Renovations and restorations are going to (have been, continue to) divert political and economic oxygen from other projects and initiatives. No matter the personal reality you create – your family, your house, your job, mite hockey games on the weekends and a show at Shea’s when “Wicked” comes to town – the public discourse in the Third Room is increasingly about architecture. If an entrepreneurial spirit and access to venture capital is most important to you, I am sorry to say Buffalo is not trying to transform into Silicon Valley. I wish we had a broader outdoor culture, we are making real important gains, and I try to do my small part to encourage it, but Buffalo’s isn’t becoming Boulder or Santa Fe any time soon. If you love progressive politics and electoral reform, may I introduce you to Seattle. The bike rack bound for Portland is on your left.

Buffalo is morphing before our eyes, and while the messy sausage making in the middle is not complete, it is becoming clear to me that our community is on board with the final destination.