George Olmsted thought he was introducing West Seneca to the West Side. He never imagined that in the process, he would inadvertently unearth some of the biases that divide the city and the suburbs.
Olmsted has been teaching history at West Seneca Middle School for six years, which he does while coaching wrestling, teaching rock 'n' roll and playing in a rock band himself. (And yes, he is a descendant of the renowned park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.)
Spend a few minutes with him and it's clear that he is a "cool teacher." He said he is constantly looking for ways to bring his lessons to life. A few weeks ago, he found one.
"I had just finished a unit on industrialism, teaching words like free enterprise systems, entrepreneurship, the American dream," he said. "I said, 'There is a place in our community where this kind of thing exists in a more urban setting: Elmwood Avenue.' So I asked them, 'Have any of you ever been there?' None of their hands went up."
He posted a sign-up sheet and said he would meet whoever wanted to spend a Saturday afternoon hanging out on Elmwood and doing some holiday shopping to put their names on the list. The kids had to get their own rides, but parents were welcome to stay as well.
On Dec. 2, about 45 kids and about 15 parents met up at Spot Coffee. Olmsted and his wife, Lysa, proudly led the group on a tour between Bidwell Parkway and West Ferry Street, explaining the neighborhood's history, introducing them to store owners and generally showing them a good time.
"This was about discovery, about awareness of your community, of choice and option, and partially it was about doing something for the kids," he said. "I think students respond so well when a teacher steps out of the bounds and says, 'I'm going to do something unique for you.' And that pays off in spades. I have them wrapped around my finger in the classroom."
The blog buffalorising.com posted a story about the day. People began posting generally positive comments. Then Buffalo Pundit weighed in.
"Shopping is now considered a field trip? Are you guys serious?" said Pundit, who maintains his own blog.
"Spot Coffee is nice, but I don't want my kid going to town to look at shops. We can do that on our own time."
In the blogosphere, everyone can hear you scream. So Pundit's mini-diatribe began drawing responses, pro and con. Some kids wrote in to defend Olmsted. Pundit posted an item about this on his blog and people posted comments there as well. On the extremes, the argument breaks down into two camps: The city is a crime-ridden cesspool versus The suburbs are a soulless haven of big lawns and eight-lane highways. Leave your nuance at the door.
Pundit, whose name is Alan Bedenko, said in an e-mail interview that he had gotten his "knickers in a knot" over what he considered the patronizing tone of several comments on buffalorising. He was particularly unhappy about a thread that started when a writer went after the area near the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga, using terms such as "environment of unadulterated ugliness."
In retrospect, Bedenko said his comments about Olmsted were partially based on a "weak reading" of the original piece -- he didn't realize it had been done on a Saturday, for example -- but he still didn't like the idea.
Olmsted finds the whole thing a bit ironic. His Elmwood outing was not a school field trip, but it turned out to be an educational experience.
"It's interesting," he said. "Sometimes you do something that provokes people to react and you don't even know it."