Christopher Graper has a message for Buffalo.
Graper, you might recall, is the tour guide recently featured in the Wall Street Journal for the unusual juxtaposition of the tours he leads in North Korea and Buffalo.
Needless to say, a few people felt slighted by being lumped in with a totalitarian regime better known for isolation than tourism.
I called Graper not because I wanted to rehash the city’s portrayal in the national media, but because there was something genuinely sweet about Graper’s approach to showing off the Buffalo region – urban decay and all.
“The one thing that I would hate for people in Buffalo to think is that I’m just someone coming from outside trying to showcase things that are blighty and awful and then leaving,” Graper said. “I don’t conceptualize the project in any way like that. I really think Buffalo is great. I think there is amazing stuff there that I think very few people in the United States or overseas would ever realize exists.”
Graper, 35, talks with the polite cadence of a Canadian, but he counts himself among the Americans, too. Growing up, he said, he split his time between Montreal and Schenectady.
For two years, Graper has explored Buffalo, a city he sees as “otherworldly” in the way some people might describe the relics of their grandmother’s attic. He’s fixated not on the revitalization of the waterfront or the resurgence of the city, but on the ways in which the region has stood against time.
And while that, sadly, means boarded-up buildings in Buffalo and overgrown fields in Love Canal, it mostly means showing off many of the things we cherish – beef on weck at Eckl’s, Teddy bars at Ted’s, dancing on Dyngus Day, the Broadway Market in the off-season, the ice cream parlor at Parkside Candy, wings at the Nine-Eleven Tavern, the list goes on and on.
His small-group tours – mostly limited to twice-a-year, four-day jaunts and occasional weekend excursions – hit many of the architectural landscapes that Buffalo has worked hard to preserve, including the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the Darwin Martin House and the Central Terminal.
“We believe Buffalo is filled with magnificence that is worth showcasing to the world,” Graper wrote on his blog, vignettetours.com, after the Journal story appeared.
Graper described his tours as a firsthand view into the effects of economic contraction on a postindustrial city – a complicated story line that is at once nostalgic and dark. It’s also a tale that can feel a bit tired if you’re living it.
But let’s face it: There’s fascination with the physical remnants of bygone eras, so much so that an entire genre of photography – “ruin porn” – has popped up to document it. Graper has just found a way to turn that into tourism.
If it means people from around the world are spending five nights and four days in town visiting our landmarks and spending money at local joints while glimpsing a few of those vacant buildings, that’s not such a bad thing.
“What I’m doing here is a very sincere effort,” Graper said. “I’m trying to capture this beauty and what I think is really incredible about the place.”
Comparisons to North Korea aside, Graper’s tours capture one of the things that define Buffalo. It’s not that we’re living in a time capsule. It’s that we’ve held on to the character that makes us unique.