When you've been around for more than 300 years, you can expect to pick up a few nicknames. Buffalo has a full assortment of slogans and nicknames, rivaling any city of its size. They range from the inspiring to the down-to-earth, from the ambitious to the long-forgotten.
Through the years, the city has answered to:
The Queen City of the Lakes.
The City of Light.
The Electric City of the Future.
The City of Good Neighbors.
The Nickel City.
The Bison City.
The Flour City.
The Beautiful City of Homes, Diversified Business and Progressive Outlook.
The City of No Illusions.
Some of the nicknames are almost literal. The Bison City is a natural shorthand for a place named Buffalo, even if it's not clear how the city ended up with that name -- the animal? A corruption of the French for "beautiful river"?
Others evolved as times changed. When Buffalo reigned on the Great Lakes, it was the Queen City. When the U.S. Mint issued the Indian-head nickel in 1913, the American bison on the reverse made the connection with the city.
But how did Buffalo end up with so many nicknames?
"I think we've gotten so many because we've been so many things through the years," says Tom Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise. "Cities that have been around for a long time, like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, all have their share of different monikers."
Kucharski is right. Cleveland has been called by many titles, including The Forest City, The Metropolis of the Western Reserve and The Rock 'n' Roll Capital of the World. The city is also affectionately called "The Cleve" and "C-Town," which reminds us that Buffalo has its informal equivalents in "Da Buff" and "B-Lo."
Unlike Cleveland, infamously dubbed "the Mistake on the Lake" during its economic woes in the mid-1970s, Buffalo doesn't seem to have any negative nicknames. Even "The City of No Illusions," which could be interpreted as implying that Buffalonians look at life with a jaundiced eye, doesn't really conflict with its sunnier titles, such as "The City of Good Neighbors."
Michael Morgulis, who came up with "The City of No Illusions" in 1977 while designing a logo for the American Studies Program at UB, says the phrase has been popular ever since because it "hits just the right note. It's sort of an ambiguous statement -- some people take offense because they think it's negative, but it really isn't. It's like 'it is what it is,' or 'what you see is what you get.' And it's funny, too."
Like "the City of No Illusions," each of the monikers reflected the city's culture at the time it was produced. "We've been described with references to size, history and geography," says Kucharski. "We were a center for innovation with electricity and we went through a bunch of transitions, from being one of the top 10 wealthy cities."
In rough chronological order, then, here's a look at what the city has been called and why.
*"Queen City of the Lakes." Cynthia Van Ness, director of library and archives at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, found this regal sobriquet in print in the 1842 Buffalo City Directory, published by Horatio N. Walker, who called his directory "an indispensable index to the rise and progress of our QUEEN CITY OF THE LAKES."
So wear that crown proudly, Buffalo! In his 1951 pamphlet, "Nicknames of American Cities, Towns and Villages, Past & Present," Gerard L. Alexander writes, "Consider that with respect to 'The Queen City of the Lakes,' (i.e., The Great Lakes) there are five or six populous, handsome, century-or-more-old cities on the shores of these five noble fresh water inland seas: could not the possessor of the proud title as justly be Chicago or Duluth or Toledo or Cleveland or Milwaukee or Toronto?" Yet it is Buffalo that has the name, along with one variation, "The Queen of the Lakes."
But what exactly does it mean to be "the Queen City"? Is it an indication of second-place status, as a queen walks behind her king? Or is it like chess, when the queen reigns supreme?
"Well, the question is, is any place called the king city?" asked Van Ness. After a brief search, she concluded, "I don't think 'the King City' is as much a city nickname as 'the Queen City' is."
*"The Bison City." This natural application of the shorter name for the city might be as old as Buffalo itself, although it's a bit erroneous. Bison and buffalo are actually two different species. The shaggy humped ungulates with the massive heads that we proudly claim as our namesake animal are bison -- American plains bison, to be exact, with the emphatic trinomial "Bison bison bison." How the word "buffalo" was applied to this country's bison is still being debated, although it might have come from European explorers who were familiar with lightly-furred, smooth-backed African and Asian buffalo.
*"The Flour City." This description was applied to Rochester in the 1800s and later changed to "the Flower City" to honor the many seed-sellers and plant nurseries of our eastern neighbor. But several sources list Buffalo as "the Flour City," too. In his 1951 book, George Earle Shankle wrote: "Buffalo is designated 'The City of Flour' because of the facts that it is a great transshipper of wheat from the western grain fields to eastern and other milling centers, and it is credited with being the second largest flour-milling center in the United States." His source for this is a book from 1892, when this could have been true. But it's a reference that's now lost on people here.
*"The Electric City (of the Future)" and "The City of Light." Both of these terms were ambitiously applied to Buffalo around 1901, when the city boasted the dazzling, electrically illuminated wonderland of the Pan-American Exposition. The exposition's Grand Court was lighted by 200,000 bulbs, and the 400-foot-tall "Electric Tower" was studded with 40,000 lights. The power that lighted the Exposition grounds was generated at Niagara Falls.
*"The Nickel City." The Indian-head nickel, issued in 1913, was designed with a bison on the reverse and was also called "the buffalo nickel." Designed by James Earle Fraser, the coin, although attractive, had raised portions that were easily worn away. The design was minted for only the minimum 25 years and discontinued in 1938.
The crisp sound of the "Nickel City" nickname keeps it a local favorite. Valerian Ruminski, Lackawanna-born founder and director of Nickel City Opera, says he sought a phrase that reflected Buffalo but wasn't Buffalo. But as he publicizes the company, he finds that "not everybody understands what this association is. If you're from California, you are not going to understand what a nickel has to do with the city of Buffalo." The opera company's logo, which shows the buffalo from the coin, helps explain the link visually.
*"The City of Good Neighbors." This one is easy to nail down. Buffalo became the City of Good Neighbors on Jan. 23, 1940, when Mayor Thomas L. Holling introduced a resolution making the phrase the official municipal slogan and ordered "that said slogan be imprinted, if practicable, on all city stationery hereafter to be printed." The resolution passed, but only by a vote of nine to six, even though Holling promised to submit his next budget a month early and gave the council's Republican majority "a box of cigars as a token of good will," according to that day's Buffalo Evening News.
*"The Beautiful City of Homes, Diversified Business and Progressive Outlook." This mouthful of a moniker is listed only in Alexander's 1951 pamphlet. It never caught on. I wonder why not?
*"The City of No Illusions." Michael Morgulis, the graphic designer who operates New Buffalo Graphics, sat down in 1977 with a small group of students and professors from UB's Department of American Studies to design a logo for the department.
"We knew we needed something catchy," says Morgulis. "Somebody said, 'I just read this great novel by Ursula K. LeGuin -- 'City of Illusions," and it could be "Buffalo, city of Illusions!" ' and I said, 'No way! It's got to be City of NO Illusions!'
"I made about a dozen T-shirts for the program, and all of a sudden people started calling, knocking on the door and it just took off. I've been producing it now since 1977."
Morgulis said he likes the phrase for several reasons. "It works in terms of being a catchy phrase, but it also works because Buffalo is a unique and interesting place, aside from the weather and the chicken wings. We really do have a wonderful history."
Sales took off in 2005 when Brad Pitt was photographed wearing a shirt with the logo on it. "Everybody wondered how he got that T-shirt, and I don't know how it happened," said Morgulis. "But the photo was everywhere, including People magazine, and I sold so many T-shirts after that, all over the world."
Although he understandably favors his brainchild, Morgulis says he also likes "City of Good Neighbors" because it happens to be accurate. "I get a lot of people through my store who are from out of town, either former Buffalonians or tourists, and they always comment on how friendly everybody is and what a nice place Buffalo is."
Kucharski, of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, agrees. "That's the experience that most folks have. They say, 'Everybody here is so friendly! They look you in the eye, they say hello, they go out of their way to give you directions.' "
Although Van Ness likes the fact that each nickname "tells a different story," she doesn't favor one over the others for a simple reason. "I don't have a favorite nickname just because I like our real name so well -- I like Buffalo."