Sorry, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Guaranty Building. You don’t count.
Same to you, Larkinville, and everyone who has partied at the Central Terminal for Dyngus Day or dancing disco.
And dear, dear beef on weck: Forget your pink-centered, thinly sliced au jus deliciousness. You have been reduced to “a steak sandwich.”
Buffalo certainly has old buildings, and its concentrations of poverty have proven highly resistant to change, but most people who live here would be hard-pressed to locate the “gray monolithic boulevards” referred to by an out-of-town journalist, and the thousands of moe. fans partying at Canalside Thursday night probably left what he called our “pervasive sense of desolation” at home.
Still, it isn’t all that hard to find the parts of the city and its suburbs that make up the “City of No Illusions” tour, highlighted on the front page of Friday’s Wall Street Journal in an error-prone story by Jonathan Cheng that compares Buffalo to ... North Korea.
That is because Christopher Graper, the Canadian resident who leads the tours, also takes tourists to North Korea for a Beijing-based company. Cheng tries to weave the two destinations into one for the “quirky” daily front-page feature.
Friday’s headline? “Buffalo and Its Discontents Draw Tourists Who Want to Know What Went Wrong.” (It was softened online to “Visitors to Buffalo, N.Y., Find Beauty in Decay.”)
For starters, a couple things went wrong in Cheng’s story. Buffalo started booming big-time in the early 1900s, not the early 1800s, and the Erie Canal did not have power-generating capabilities. That’s Niagara Falls.
And yes, the short subway system is not heavily used, but comparing its low numbers with those of a city more than 25 times the size of Buffalo is definitely more a visual terms than a representative measure.
The question for local tourism officials is whether the tour is representative of the city at all.
According to Ed Healy at Visit Buffalo Niagara, the tourists paying $300 to $500 to see the Rust Belt at its worst had better hurry.
“Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, the premise for this tour would have been more accurate,” Healy said. “Now, the proposition is certainly outdated. The portrayal of the Richardson Complex (called “an abandoned asylum” in the article) is particularly unfair, considering millions of dollars have been spent on it and the Olmsted grounds are beautifully restored. The boutique hotel, which is mentioned in the article, will be open in less than 24 months.
“And while progress has not been as dramatic at the Central Terminal, it has a responsible steward and often acts as an alternative convention center, hosting a lot of events,” Healy said.
A quick online check shows that even tour operator Vignette Tours, based in Toronto, is not as harsh about Buffalo as Cheng is in the article. Graper calls his Buffalo tour an “urbex,” short for urban experience, and refers to “the beautiful, post-industrial city of Buffalo USA.”
It goes on to say, “Our tours to Buffalo will show you a part of American urban history folding irretrievably into memory with each passing day.”
The website also talks about the well-preserved downtown and “the grandeur of the city’s living architectural museum,” before lumping the concrete mass of the Robert Moses Power Plant and Niagara Power Project Power Vista, 23 miles to the north, into the mix as examples of Buffalo architecture – somewhat akin to saying Las Vegas looks like Hoover Dam.
Particularly perplexing in the story was the reference about the “gray monolithic boulevards,” mentioned as a similarity to North Korea.
“Quite the contrary, Buffalo is full of green, beautiful boulevards,” Healy pointed out.
The city does have a few “monoliths:” the slab-like bus station and the nearly windowless City Court Building on Niagara Square, which many considered the ugliest building in the city. But there is no real concentration of what the story describes as “the brutalist school of architecture that flourished in Buffalo from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.”
And those “70,000 abandoned properties” that the article says are concentrated on the East Side? Buffalo is no slacker when it comes to urban blight, with about close to 20,000 empty homes and acres of vacant lots, but it is the much larger city of Detroit that lays claim to 70,000 vacant properties.
Graper’s tours are no surprise to Eddy Dobosiewicz, Buffalonian and Dyngus Day promoter who also is co-organizer of the Forgotten Buffalo tours, which have been operating for years. He says he met Graper when he came along as a customer.
“He was on our tours a couple times, and then I took him around myself,” Dobosiewicz said. “He said he wanted to partner up with us and market Buffalo to Europeans and Canadians.
“Then I saw what they were doing with their tours, which was kind of like when people slow down when they see an accident, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t right. There is a positive momentum going on in Buffalo, and they weren’t interested.
“He likened (his tours) to looking at the pyramids and the Mayan temple ruins.”
Forgotten Buffalo covers much the same ground – minus the visits to Love Canal mentioned in the story – but for far less money and with far more history, covering local taverns, grain elevators, the Central Terminal and sites representing the city’s working class roots.
“We charge 50 bucks and that includes dinner and prizes,” Dobosiewicz said. “And I have never had anything but positive reactions. People flip out. They flip out. If they are people who have never been here, or who are coming back after a long time, they are blown away.”
While preservationist tours focus on Buffalo’s rich architectural heritage, Forgotten Buffalo embraces its cultural past for visitors from all over the country.
“People who come here know about Olmsted and the beautiful summers,” he said, “but not the other things that people did, how they lived. Their families didn’t talk about it, because it reminded them of their hard, scrappy lives doing hard, dirty work to get by.”
Rediscovering that way of life is the attraction for both kinds of tours. The difference is whether it is presented as past or present, or something else.
That is what artist and designer Michael Morgulis had in mind years ago when he described Buffalo as “The City of No Illusions” – a phrase he came up with for his copyrighted graphic prints and T-shirts.
Contacted Friday at his shop, New Buffalo Graphics World Headquarters, 1417 Hertel Ave., he was surprised to hear the phrase was being used for the tours. No one had contacted him for permission to use it, he said.
More to the point, after hearing about the tour’s focus on urban blight, Morgulis added, “I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“The phrase is ambiguous on purpose,” he said. “I don’t think illusions are good for any city. It means what you see is what you get, and in Buffalo, it’s kind of great these days.”