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DOWNTOWN IS STILL THE PLACE TO BE

To slightly paraphrase the oft-repeated advertisement, I'm hooked on downtown. Having grown up in rural Maine, I will always be a "country bumpkin" at heart. (Where my horse is, there will my heart be.) However, a lack of familiarity with the urban setting has the definite advantage of leaving one unburdened by unnecessary and prejudicial fears about the city.

While I had a real naivete about the city, any anxieties I had revolved around one-way streets, parking tickets and undecipherable road maps. When I landed my first teaching job and it was downtown, at night, I was more afraid of the trip down the Kensington Expressway than the one from the parking lot to the school building. Fortunately, all that was needed to become a competent navigator of the city was a little knowledge and experience, which came quickly enough.

Familiarity with Buffalo is one thing. But, it wasn't until my school's Board of Education decided to move the school from its comfortable but isolated home in the suburbs and into Buffalo's Theater District that mere acquaintance with the city blossomed into a glorious affair.

I've enjoyed no working environment more than that of the heart of downtown Buffalo (with the possible exception of the horse farm where I worked during college). The most menial errands can become transcendent experiences simply by walking, rather than driving, to a destination. The changes of seasons and weather conditions become part of the rhythms of the day's routine in planning treks to the post office, bank or store. Surprisingly, on the freshest days, the scent of the air that skims across the lake reminds me of Maine.

My frequent strolls downtown have allowed me to get to know my business neighbors and to be part of cultivating a sense of community I've never experienced in the suburbs. I know when a new production is opening at Shea's even before reading the evening paper just from watching the trucks and buses unload. Our neighbors at the Genesee Picture Frame Co. have become unofficial benefactors of the arts by sending me away with an arm load of scraps for the school's art students each time I walk by. An early morning craving for a fresh bagel slathered with cream cheese is satisfied as quickly as a walk to the deli at Holley Farms.

In just a few short months of being downtown, the entire educational experience of our school has been enriched in both small and significant ways.

Although Vice President Gore did not select our school to visit on his trip to Buffalo last fall, his motorcade traveled down our street, offering the students a brief excursion out of class to witness the passing of the entourage and to wave at the VP, who cheerily reciprocated.

The school has "adopted" a city park where (weather permitting) students make a humble but visible effort to make our city a little bit cleaner and brighter. I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of passersby who stop, briefly, to thank us for our work before hurrying on.

Valuable educational programs for students offered, often free, by places like Erie Community College, Shea's and the public library are just a short train ride or even a walk across the street away.

People of all walks of life cross our paths in and around the building. A couple of the regular "street people" have afforded us the lesson that it is important to know not only the needs but also the names of the less fortunate.

When two suburban schools closed during the hold-up of a nearby Wal-Mart, I told my students -- only half kidding -- that luckily for us, we were tucked away safely in the inner city that day.

More important, though, are the reports from some suburban parents that their children have noticeably benefited from the increased responsibility of traveling to their school in the city by means of public transportation and learning their way -- even if only in small parts -- around the city.

The most valuable lessons about the city, however, take place in the school, in one building, where East Side and West Side, urban and suburban, black and white meet, a microcosm of what the Buffalo community could be and should be. When kids of all classes, backgrounds and experiences build connections and friendships, everyone's horizons -- and hearts -- are broadened.

This is the best that Buffalo offers.

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR is a Buffalo teacher and social activist.
Send submissions for this column to My View, The Buffalo News, Box 100, Buffalo N.Y. 14240.

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