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Buffalo connections no longer surprise me

It seems no matter where I go, there's always a Buffalo connection. Four years of college in Virginia, and nearly each time I shared my hometown, someone inevitably had family or some sort of ties to the area. Insults about our winters and professional sports teams were common, too.

Last October, I spent a few days in Milwaukee, Wis. My last night downtown, as I walked back to my hotel, I met a friendly gentleman who, it turned out, was a recent University at Buffalo grad and former Amherst resident. I can honestly say Buffalo connections no longer surprise me.

Perhaps the best part about my time in Milwaukee was exploring on foot the vibrant downtown and two beautiful waterfronts. The first is Milwaukee's miles of parkland on the bluffs of Lake Michigan. This green space is balanced by the stunning architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum. A post-modern structure like no other, the MAM is dramatic angles and striking parallel white lines. The front hall of the building resembles a ship on Lake Michigan's shore, while sail-like wings can open and close along the top of the building. It has become the defining icon of modern Milwaukee.

The second waterfront lies along the Milwaukee River. Aptly named the Riverwalk, this three-mile mezzanine takes pedestrians past a fine assortment of museums, art galleries, dining, night life, shopping, breweries and historic neighborhoods.

I also found myself admiring Milwaukee's mix of architectural styles. All over downtown there are meticulously preserved historic buildings flanked with ornate details and a variety of cultural influences. Steeples soar heavenward from majestic decades-old cathedrals. All this history basks in the shadows of modern skyscrapers and high rises, each with its own unique design elements.

Milwaukee is a city similar to Buffalo. It is a Rust Belt city with a Great Lakes-influenced climate and its founding settlers were largely European immigrants. But while Buffalo has struggled to come up with a post-industrial renaissance, namely the redevelopment of our waterfront, Milwaukee seems to have gotten something right -- at least that's what I found myself thinking throughout my visit to the Brew City.

Then I read Donn Esmonde's column where he recapped his visit with John Norquist, a sustainable urban planner. He believes the concrete jungle should strike a balance with green space and pedestrian friendliness. Norquist was also mayor of Milwaukee during its boom and rebuilding years, and he was a champion for the Riverwalk. And here he is giving advice in Buffalo.

While I realize many of his ideas will take years and millions of dollars to implement, bringing him here is a good start. Milwaukee has so many of the same things going for it that Buffalo could have. One day Buffalo will have a pedestrian-friendly downtown that integrates seamlessly with its waterfront. Its majestic old buildings will be both functional and worthy of admiration. Dining and attractions will line the downtown boulevards.

It's almost ironic that I took a vacation to Milwaukee, discovered so many parallels to Buffalo and then learned that a former Milwaukee mayor is consulting with Buffalo's waterfront redevelopment team. For what it's worth I'd like to throw in one more irony: according to Esmonde's column, Norquist's wife is from East Aurora. It seems there's always a Buffalo connection.

James Richardson, of East Aurora, loves visiting cities where he can easily take a walking tour and soak in the local culture.

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