At first glance, the latest piece of national press about Buffalo looked like many of the others: Another Urban Outfitters ad dressed up as a piece of journalism.
“Millennials Are Moving to Buffalo & Living Like Kings,” the clicky-sticky headline on Gothamist proclaimed, instantly launching a thousand snarky Facebook status updates from Buffalo’s newly minted royal class. The lead picture was an illustration of some Williamsburg fever dream, circa 2005: a young woman posing in her snow-dusted backyard chicken coop, wearing a comically oversized denim parka and a slightly morose expression demonstrating the practiced attitude of nonchalant independence unique to the species known as Hipsterus North Americanus.
I let out a sigh before digging in, hoping against hope that the piece might actually capture some of the nuance and complexity of what has thus far been a rather one-note national consideration of the city’s multifarious efforts to reinvent itself.
By the end of the piece, that skepticism had almost completely melted away. Because someone finally got it right.
That someone was Jordan G. Teicher, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn (where else?) who made the most of his short visit here to produce the most clear-eyed and comprehensive summary of Buffalo’s opportunities and challenges to appear in a non-Buffalo media outlet since the invention of “Buffalove.”
Teicher accomplished this not by some gargantuan feat of journalistic ambition, but merely by going beyond the usual suspects and following leads into areas of the city not typically explored by notebook-wielding interlopers.
In addition to citing hard numbers about the city’s persistent struggles with poverty and population loss, he talked with University at Buffalo professor Henry Louis Taylor, one of the more vocal critics of Buffalo’s revival, who dropped this widely repeated bit of sentiment conspicuously absent from most recent stories about Buffalo:
“I’m not convinced that most folks here are anchored by a larger vision of the type of city they want to build. They equate a revitalized city with a bunch of white people doing their thing in it.”
If this sounds harsh, it was counterbalanced by succinct stories about successful young Buffalonians and the very genuine brand of optimism fueling the city’s extreme middle-class makeover.
Responding to Buffalo’s national press in any way is always tricky, because even the most deeply considered response counts, in spite of itself, as further evidence of our region’s innate insecurities. Whenever a writer so much as mentions Buffalo, a half-dozen think pieces instantly appear, followed by think pieces about the think pieces (i.e., this column). And the whole circular conversation gets so wearying that you wish for a fleeting moment that we could all replace our thin Buffalo skins with hardened New York City-style body armor. But then, that just wouldn’t be us.
Even so, Teicher’s piece seems to mark an important sea change in the evolving national understanding of 21st century Buffalo.
From reading some of the national press the city has received over the last two years, you get the impression that writers got the Dennis-Rodman-in-North-Korea treatment. That is to say, that their local handlers shuttled them among the city’s vibrant hot spots, glossing over the hollowed-out census tracts between Larkinville and the Elmwood Village, between the Hotel@Lafayette and the Central Terminal. Or, equally possible, that they decided of their own volition to focus on what they perceived to be positive developments.
(Amid these seemingly endless and occasionally mindless professions of Buffalove from far and wide, it’s easy to forget that there was a darker time, not half a decade ago, when the few national writers who deigned to write about our fair city made sure to pepper their prose with snide remarks about snow or shuttered steel plants. And in the rare case those remarks were not intended to be snide, we read them that way anyhow.)
Of course, the myopia and blind optimism about Buffalo’s hitherto narrow resurgence is not just a national problem. In the conversation about craft cocktail bars, hockey destinations and clean energy projects, what’s too often lost among members of Buffalo’s creative class is a sense of how the growth and optimism we’re seeing might be extended across geographic lines and socioeconomic strata.
Given the size of the problem, it remains tempting for progressive Buffalonians to throw up their hands at these problems – to characterize their pursuits of place-making or preservation as mere hobbies, exempt from the peskiest responsibilities of city-building. Or, even worse, to suggest that because no other city – neither Brooklyn nor Oakland nor Cleveland – has figured out how to solve these problems, Buffalo shouldn’t be expected to solve them too.
Because of pieces like Teicher’s, that defeatist line of thinking becomes much harder to sustain locally. The spotlight at this moment is now properly upon us, illuminating our opportunities and challenges in equal measure.
As the national narrative on Buffalo gets smarter, we’ll need to get smarter too. One day, if we smarten up enough, we may finally admit that the opportunities and the challenges are one and the same.