It’s a stretch to say that one event can convey a tidal shift in communal fortunes, but Wednesday night came pretty close. If not symbolic of the New Buffalo, the Larkinville moment was at least a perfectly timed celebration of it.
Hundreds of people came to the resurrected district’s public space for the final weekly concert of the season. Hours earlier, the NFL’s finance committee OK’d Terry and Kim Pegula as the next Bills owners, further cementing the team here and ending a generation of separation anxiety.
A euphoric vibe was in the air as Lance Diamond – Buffalo’s resident soul man – and Caitlin Koch – the 24-year old siren of “X Factor” renown – joined intergenerational forces to close the show. Leslie Zemsky, who with husband and Larkinville visionmeister Howard compose New Buffalo’s power couple, joined Diamond’s band onstage. Channeling her inner adolescent, she kept a hula hoop spinning through the entirety of “Jailhouse Rock,” to the delight of a throng of partyers.
It was a classic Buffalo moment, the sort of unpretentious convergence of forces in the name of fun that I’ve loved about this place since arriving more than 30 years ago. Grins abounded as one of the wealthiest folks in town got down with a multigenerational, interracial, assorted-income crowd, the night punctuated by shout-outs from the stage for Pegula and the Bills. It was typical of the Musketeerish all-for-one, one-for-all mentality that characterizes the best aspect of this small city with the big heart – and that was even before Zemsky announced that, for the rest of the evening, the drinks were on her.
Good times, indeed.
There is a palpable euphoria in the air these days, as the city rises and resurrects on a number of fronts. The Pegulas’ lockdown of the Bills – with $1.4 billion cash, they crushed it – is just the latest development. I had long thought the team’s days here were numbered. The prospect seemed unlikely in the greed-driven NFL of finding an owner who would sacrifice millions in annual profit to keep the team here, instead of bolting for Toronto, Los Angeles or another NFL-covetous metropolis. Being wrong never felt so right.
The Larkinville site is, fittingly, part of the New Buffalo story. The district’s public space was designed by preservationist/urbanist Tim Tielman, at the request of friend and cohort Zemsky. Tielman has long been wrongly reviled as an “obstructionist” by mainstream corporate types. Businessman Zemsky, of Russer Foods fortune, is the trailblazer of a more enlightened corporate sensibility (although I’m not sure how many of his brethren are following). The Tielman/Zemsky mind-meld is a mold-busting collaboration of corporate muscle and New Urbanist mentality so unprecedented hereabouts that it borders on surreal.
The more typical such grass-roots/boardroom marriages become, the less often I think we will have to beat back such self-destructive civic proposals as, say, plunking a big-box retailer on the downtown waterfront.
But I digress. Larkinville – a neighborhood turnaround funded largely by Zemsky – is just one of multiple fronts of resurgence. From downtown to the West Side, from the Medical Campus to Canalside, gridlock has been broken, progress is palpable. We waited so long for any of it, it’s astounding to see so much happening at once. It’s as good a time as I can remember to be in Buffalo.
Yes, there are plenty of problems. The Pegula/Bills news came the same week we learned that half of Buffalo’s kids live in poverty. Securing a foothold in solar power at RiverBend doesn’t nearly balance five decades of manufacturing losses. The honeymoon with the Pegulas may end as soon as taxpayers see the bill for a proposed new stadium.
But we have been beaten, battered and beset by bad luck – some circumstantial, some of our own making – for so long, it would be communally masochistic not to bask in the current glow, celebrate the ongoing turnaround and marinate in the moment.
The West Side is reviving, downtown is being repopulated. We are building a critical cluster of health services on the Medical Campus. A new generation that’s jacked up by city life is, along with empty-nesters, reversing a half-century of suburban migration. Canalside has become a great, history-based public space. The outer harbor is finally being developed. And now the Bills, thanks to a recently minted multibillionaire with WNY ties, are here to stay.
Wednesday night in Larkinville, a music-infused gathering morphed into an impromptu celebration. It has been a long time since it all came together in this town, and there still is a ways to go. But I think we are well into the dawning of a New Buffalo. Let the good times roll.