It was the typical holiday nightmare. I sat in Washington Dulles Airport, cringing to hear that my flight home, which should have left at 8 a.m., would be delayed until the afternoon. The woman sitting next to me groaned, and then began telling me her story.
Laid off from her manufacturing job, she'd moved away to Louisiana, and now she was visiting her family for the holidays. "Why else would I be going to Buffalo?" she laughed. "That's the only reason anyone has to go there!"
At first I laughed. In the time I've been away from Buffalo -- four years to attend college downstate and one to sate my wanderlust by teaching English abroad -- I've occasionally made similar comments. After all, what motive do people have to come to this area, with its fiscal crisis, declining population and ever-present crime? I, too, have become cynical.
But then I considered her words some more. What were we actually saying? People may not be satisfied with the situation in Buffalo, but what good can come from denigrating your hometown?
The truth is that many people have good reasons to come to Buffalo. Two days before Christmas, I attended the first annual Buffalo Ball -- a gala charity fund-raiser for Roswell Park. The Statler's Golden Ballroom was filled with people of all ages, elegantly dressed in formal attire, eager to celebrate the holidays and contribute to a worthy cause.
As I greeted old friends, I was surprised to discover that many had decided to return to Buffalo after time away. When I visited some friends' spacious apartment on Delaware Avenue, I understood why. Where else could a recent college graduate afford such elegant surroundings?
On Christmas Eve, I returned to a place that has always been close my heart: St. Stanislaus Church, Buffalo's first Polish Catholic parish, situated in the poverty-stricken Broadway-Fillmore area. However, this was hardly the crumbling, nearly empty St. Stan's I remembered from my childhood.
The outside area had been cleaned; the parish hall was festooned with Christmas lights; the interior had been renovated; the old communion rail separating the congregation from the altar had been removed. And, to my utter amazement, the church was full.
I'd been aware of Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz's plan to renovate St. Stanislaus, but I didn't know that he was out to renovate the whole area. Grosz has expressed the intention of working with Hindu, Muslim and other Christian communities, as well as the Broadway Market and Central Terminal, to bring the long-depressed neighborhood back to life, beginning with the construction of three new houses near the church.
For years I've listened to people say that the East Side is beyond hope. Now, this one idealistic individual is seeking to show us that this neighborhood has not only a great past, but a promising future.
Buffalo does not need pessimism, complacency or citizens who denigrate themselves and the place where they live. Other rust-belt cities have reinvented themselves; why shouldn't Buffalo?
Buffalo needs the sort of idealism that Grosz and the parishioners of St. Stanislaus have shown. It needs people to take matters into their own hands, to rebuild their communities from scratch if need be, to resist the naysayers' pessimism with all their strength.
As for me, I can't say I know where I'm going. But I love the place I'm from.