We’ve all heard the famous line, amplified in this digital age: No press is bad press, meaning it doesn’t matter if what someone says about you is good or bad …
The important thing is that someone says something at all.
By that measure, questionable as it might be, Buffalo was golden long before Facebook and Twitter.
Today, we’ll take a look at the five nicest things ever said about Buffalo. That’s a completely personal ranking, so feel free to contribute any famous quotes you especially love. This is the happier flip side to a column earlier this week, involving the five meanest things ever said about the city.
The notion came from Bruce Andriatch, my editor and an old friend. We're both native Western New Yorkers, and as we grew up we realized a larger truth: If a community has a rich and distinct personality, it will generate strong opinions - one way or another - from any visitors, passing through.
Few would dispute it: Buffalo is certainly a place with a rich personality. The other day, we did a piece including quotes from observers who weren't so enchanted with the place, to put it mildly; we collected the toughest shots and insults about the city we all heard while growing up.
Choosing from the top five options for great quotes wasn’t easy, because there are so many choices: Renowned vocalist Aretha Franklin offering a childhood memory of “towering trees,” or a reflection from decorated Vietnam War veteran Stephen T. Banko III on the delicate beauty of a Buffalo winter, or famed architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable speaking of the magnitude of Buffalo’s architectural heritage.
Author Gerda Weissman Klein provided this particularly beautiful reflection: She spoke of Buffalo as her "American home," the place that nurtured her after she lived through the Holocaust, the genocidal madness inflicted by Nazi Germany.
Those words seemed too powerful, too sacred, to include in a list of top five quotes, done for fun.
Yet certainly they speak to Buffalo - and the ideal of community - in highest form.
Van Ness found a treasury of quotes about Buffalo, provided by visitors and observers from around the world. Those thoughts exist for a simple reason: For almost 200 years, people have had plenty of reasons to reflect upon the city. Historically, the Erie Canal – and later the railroads – made Buffalo a critical pivot for the passage west. It was also a major jumping-off point if you were headed for nearby Niagara Falls.
In the 19th century, Buffalo emerged as an industrial boom town, attracting some of the great innovators, architects, artists and educators in the nation. For a time, it turned into one of the 10 or 15 largest cities in the United States.
That had people talking. Then transportation changed, and the economy changed, and the legs went out from under Buffalo …. and in that descent, too, the city generated plenty of conversation. Buffalo was just big enough that a lot of people still passed through town, causing the community – with its often earthy nature - to serve as a reluctant punching bag for comedians and other observers.
Yet the bones and spirit of the great city, always, still were here.
In the past decade, that heritage – reinforced by an influx of youthful true believers – fueled a sense of turnaround, of change, leading to an explosion of more welcome reflections. Such as:
That’s Robert Landon, in 2014, writing in Metropolis Magazine.
Indeed, Van Ness – who wrote her book of great Buffalo quotes in 2011 – has plenty of new material whenever she wants to update her collection. Just this week, as Nick Veronica reports, The New York Daily News described Buffalo as a city that seems to be "on the cusp of something big."
Consider the psychic power of this Terry Pegula quote, from a press conference in 2014, after Pegula and his wife Kim, purchased a professional football team that many of us were certain was about to be purchased by some buyer from somewhere else. It was the kind of Western New York fatalism many of us wear like protective armor, and Terry Pegula went right to the heart of it:
“We all just bought a team. Our team. The Buffalo Bills. The name of our team will not change. It will stay the Buffalo Bills.”
I made that No. 5 because it still feels so good to read, and then went with four classics from the Van Ness book. Yet there have been plenty of other wonderful things said about Buffalo in the last few years: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo described the city as a “turnaround phenomenon,” and George Bailey of the Toronto Sun wrote of a place that makes “a statement about style and sophistication,” and many in the national media weighed in on the notion of renaissance.
Still, going to that tightrope of truth between euphoria and despair, the Rev. William Gillison of Mount Olive Baptist Church struck a critical nerve with this 2015 quote in The Gothamist:
In those words, a city’s dream.
Now. If Terry Pegula’s quote is number five, and if we give the Gerda Weissman Klein quote a stature of its own, here are the four nicest things ever said about Buffalo:
4. “There is nothing solemn about Buffalo’s prosperity. It has a joyous quality which occurs all too seldom in the great sober country west of New York, north of New Orleans and east of San Francisco.” – Frederick L. Collins, journalist, American travelcharts and travel chats, 1928.
I love this one because, in good days or hard times, Buffalo is anything but a solemn place.
3. “When I come to Buffalo, I think that this city and your sister city of Detroit probably can be held up as examples of just what this country is striving for … in relations between all the nations of the world.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940, remarks at Buffalo.
Poignant, because of the industrial troubles both cities would endure. Yet Roosevelt captured the essence of the notion of a “City of Good Neighbors.”
2. “(Buffalo) … is the best planned city, as to its streets, public places and grounds, in the United States if not the world.” – Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, 1876, Frederick Law Olmsted papers, Library of Congress.
This quote from one of the world’s great visionaries about the “public space” has become a stake in the ground for generations envisioning a civic revival.
1. “Buffalo is destined to be the greatest city on this continent.” – Arthur Kelly, journalist, 1899, The New York Times.
It doesn’t get any better or evergreen than that one. In 1899, when Kelly offered this prediction, city planners viewed greatness as a measure of population, of smokestacks and expansion.
Almost 120 years later, for Buffalo, the dream remains the same. The real quest, in this young century, lies in the definition.
The one guarantee: Plenty of visitors, amid that search, will tell us what they think.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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