Cynthia Van Ness was the person with the answers. I had set out on a quest: I wanted to find the five nicest things ever said about Buffalo ... as well as the five meanest things.
Yes, we all heard the same advice from our mothers: You shouldn't listen to what other people say about you.
Sorry, mom. If we're from Western New York, we're listening. The idea for the piece came from Bruce Andriatch, my editor and an old friend. We both were raised in Western New York. We agreed: We hear everything that gets said about Buffalo. We take these statements to heart, for better or worse. That's why we've been so delighted by a recent cascade of positive reviews from visitors who see a transformation in Western New York.
But we also have thin skin. We don't forget those, historically, who weren't so kind.
The rankings are mine. There’s no claim that this is a definitive list. Feel free to disagree or to offer your own thoughts. I decided to start with the meanest things because, well, there’s a certain harsh pride and humor in the awful stuff. Indeed, what makes the kind words of recent years feel so sweet is remembering, not so long ago, when we got kicked around.
Besides: In life, it’s always better to end with the good news.
So coming shortly will be another column, listing five of the nicest things ever said about Buffalo.
As for today, beware: The meanest things can get pretty mean. Here, for instance, is No. 5:
Whoa. That’s a 1912 reflection from Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft Community, an influential arts and crafts settlement in East Aurora. Van Ness unearthed that quote and included it in a book published in 2011, Quotable Buffalo: The most marvelous and maddening things ever said about the Queen City.
Van Ness was in a perfect position to come up with this material. She is director of the library and archives at the Buffalo History Museum. She walks every day into a landmark built as part of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.
In other words, she works inside a 115-year-old symbol of deep civic heritage, yet she makes use of such 21st century opportunities as Google Books. It provides digital access to “vast amounts of stuff,” she said, including the books in the New York Public Library.
Van Ness quickly realized that plenty of people had plenty to say about Buffalo, both awful and awestruck, over a couple of centuries. She’s got quotes in there from folks like Rudyard Kipling and John Quincy Adams, but those thoughts – while tremendously interesting – weren’t really mean enough or nice enough to make these greatest hits.
Before we go on, let me interject: When President McKinley was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, he reportedly said to his secretary, George Cortelyou: “My wife — be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her .... Oh, be careful,” which is certainly one of the most tender quotes in Buffalo history, not to mention a wise life skill, in general.
It does not, however, fall within nicest or meanest quotes about the city itself.
Van Ness is a Rochester native who moved to Buffalo in 1992 and “loves it to pieces.” She speaks of Buffalo and Rochester and Syracuse and all the old Upstate Erie Canal cities as “siblings,” forged by the same historical forces, giving them similar roots but very distinct personalities.
What she discovered about residents of Buffalo and Western New York is the unique need – OK, some might call it a flaming insecurity – that undeniably drives this column. This is a region that cares deeply about how it is described by other people. In 2012, for instance, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady guaranteed himself a lifetime of fury from Buffalo fans when he said, while speaking sentimentally of his father's willingness to travel in order to watch Brady play:
It was as if booking a room in Erie County was akin to Mufasa's plunging into a ravine filled with stampeding wildebeest on behalf of Simba, a great paternal hazard one would risk only for a beloved son.
Until Brady takes his final snap – and maybe for long afterward – he shall not be forgiven. The same goes for Willis McGahee, the former Bills running back who told The Baltimore Sun, in 2007, that going to Buffalo was “like hitting a brick wall,” that it was “no big city” – ouch! – and he even took a shot at women, in general, in Western New York, earning him this epic rebuke from Andrew Z. Galarneau, now News Food Editor.
Still, Van Ness came up with some quotes that make McGahee's words seem gentle. She doesn’t know if Buffalo absorbs more blows, in general, than other places – even if that is a traditional belief. “The potshots go way back,” he said, “but pick a city at random, and you can probably find potshots.”
Yet she agrees that people in greater Buffalo are very sensitive to what gets said around the nation about their city, and she also agrees that casual insults “can have consequences.” Before Van Ness moved to Western New York, a friend told her that Buffalo was an “ugly city.” She arrived with a sense of trepidation, only to find the exact opposite was true:
“We have amazing things here,” she said. She speaks of how liabilities can abruptly be seen as assets, a larger revelation fueling an ongoing sense of turnaround, and you’ll find some of that awareness in the nicest things ever said about Buffalo.
But that’s for another day.
Buckle up. Today, from “Quotable Buffalo,” here are some of the worst. Click on the right side or the left to move through the gallery.
Honorable mention, a statement about a trend we all hope is finally turning around: “I grew up in Buffalo, which is best known as a place that people like to leave.” – Jake Halpern, 2005, author, journalist, radio producer.
5) Elbert Hubbard, as discussed above.
4) “The falls are so beautiful and the city, Buffalo, is this deplorable counterpoint to nature.” – Joyce Carol Oates, 2004, legendary writer and Lockport native.
Yikes. The classic game-of-the-week-is-in-Buffalo-so-let’s-cut-away-to-shots-of-the-falls syndrome. A counterpoint to the deplorable counterpoint will be offered in the column about “nicest things.” As for Oates, whatever she says, she’s stuck. She’s one of us. And she did say some nice things about long-gone Freddie's doughnuts.
That's enough for me to keep her on my there’s-a-lot-of-famous-people-from-Buffalo list.
3) “A steady diet of beer and chicken wings has proven to retard human progress – look at the population of Buffalo, N.Y.” – That’s from novelist Benjamin Anastas, writing in “An underachiever’s diary,” in 1998. He goes on to say that everyone in Buffalo is “a drunk, a dentist or a pro football fan, with a few unhappy exceptions.”
Well, I’m no dentist. As for Anastas, he’s a native of Massachusetts. I wonder what he thinks of our hotels.
2) “Buffalo must be the armpit of New York.” – Christopher D’Amboise, 2002, dancer, choreographer. Not the most original shot, but nonetheless:
Painful, concise and emblematic.
Finally, brace yourself for an absolute classic, brought you by two guys with deep Upstate roots:
1) “I would always try to find ways to kill myself, but then I realized to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.” – Bobbie, whose character in "A Chorus Line" was portrayed originally by Thommie Walsh, a native of Auburn in Upstate New York.
The suicide line was part of his standup comedy routine, and he built it into the musical, whose creator had a deep Western New York sensibility. "A Chorus Line" was created in 1975 by Buffalo native Michael Bennett.
It’s cheating a little to use this quote, because it’s only referenced in “Quotable Buffalo” by National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg, during a laudatory take on Buffalo as birthplace of the coffee break.
Still: It’s the best (or worst) and has to be on top.
Again, no claim is made here to have an absolute list. I'm eager to hear other suggestions. If you have thoughts on any of this – or favorite quotes about Buffalo, in general – feel free to jump in with a comment, or email me at email@example.com.
And as I say, if any of this was painful to read, come back Friday and see just how brightly the sun can shine on Buffalo.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News
Story topics: Sean Kirst