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Bloomberg is right and oh so wrong

It never fails. We always take the bait.

Knees jerk, fires are lit and the sound of venting is everywhere.

Let some A-lister in America, whether Johnny Carson or New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg or whoever, so much as look at Buffalo cross-eyed and we're ready to congregate around their digs with torches and pitchforks.

And who on earth could blame us? So much rank stupidity has been uttered in our name. It's incredibly tiresome to hear people who don't know why Buffalo can be a rather wonderful place to live, take a cheap shot meant for an audience of people hungry for cheap shots (which has increasingly described America itself in the past 20 years).

As everyone knows, the last little go-round involved Bloomberg talking to a forum of New York City developers and bemoaning the dearth of New York classrooms, roads and housing.

"There's an awful lot of free space in Buffalo, N.Y., if you want to go there," he said, adding, "which I don't think you do."

"Buffalo would love to have our problems, and one of the challenges of this country is, how do we help a city like Buffalo?"

Let us freely admit that Bloomberg's ill-phrased sideswipe scaled the heights of tactlessness from the mayor of one of America's richest and biggest cities when talking about one of America's more hard-pressed ones. Mayor Byron Brown, understandably, pronounced himself "pissed" and desirous of an apology, which, of course, he got.

But then New Yorkers, as a tribe, have long been fabled for heedless bluntness and there's no reason why their undersized billionaire mayor shouldn't be anything but representative of the city he governs. If ever a human condition would encourage blunderbuss candor, it seems to me "billionaire mayor of New York" might. Drowning in such entitlement, diplomacy would be unlikely to leak in.

Geographical slander is one of America's great folk arts. We all do it. We are always insulting someplace else for not living up to our standards. Bad comedians in comedy clubs warm up audiences that way. "Where you from?" they ask. Someone in the audience answers Montana or Oklahoma or Colorado or Wyoming or North Dakota -- whatever, as long as it's Western and not very densely populated.

And the comedian can instantly say "where men are men and sheep are nervous." It's all part of a classic folk form in American discourse.

Unfortunately, nothing Bloomberg said was the slightest bit inaccurate, however gauche. Denise Jewell Gee's excellent Monday column explored one aspect of it that I couldn't help noticing myself on Friday.

I went to the Regal Theater on Transit Road to review the hit "Limitless" for Saturday's paper. A massive deserted big-box store was just a block away from the theater in one of the most commercially successful neighborhoods in the entire area (the Transit Road Regals do gigantic business on ordinary weekends).

It's one thing to see deserted shells of buildings on Main Street, near downtown Buffalo. It's another to see empty giants on busy Transit Road (or, for that matter, empty stores on busy Elmwood Avenue). "An awful lot of space" indeed.

Why someone might very well want to "go there" nevertheless is a separate issue that has never been easy to explain and still isn't.

Buffalo, heaven help us, is a complex city. In a dumb-down era that wants everything simple enough to be explained in a very bad sitcom, you can't do it justice. So too many residents content themselves with a sitcom stereotype Buffalo -- blue-collar, industrious, ethnic, sports-loving, wing-eating and that's that.

All of which it is, but that is only a fraction of the story. The other crucial part is that cultural progressivism has been in its DNA since the Pan-American Exposition and it's still there, no matter how and where it's manifested (even if that's not in the county executive's office). The Buffalo of Charles Burchfield, Hallwalls, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Irish Classical Theatre, Babel and so on isn't easily explained to a New York City mayor who couldn't care less, much less to developers he might be talking to who might find the city congenial if, in fact, they were to "go there" -- accidentally or on purpose.

Buffalo, to be sure, is not New York City.

It's not far, though. And one thing many of us have known for decades is this: It's one of the best places to be when you're observing New York City.


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