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Seeing the city in a new light After years away, author Lauren Belfer barely recognizes the Buffalo of her childhood

Friday, March 4, was a rain-lashed evening with a chill in the air. Umbrellas held close, my mom and I reached the Indigo Art Gallery on Allen Street well before the 6 p.m. official opening. The gallery was featuring an exhibition that combined my mom's work with that of her students, and by arriving early, we were hoping for a quiet moment to dry off before greeting friends.

No rest for the soggy, however, on First Friday in Buffalo: The gallery was already packed when we arrived, and it stayed that way all evening. When the earliest visitors departed for other Allentown galleries as well as events around the city, newcomers arrived to take their place, including a large group from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at the conclusion of the Albright's First Friday event. At Indigo, the buzz in the air was palpable -- "Have you seen ...? Are you going ...? Have you met ...?" When my mom and I left Indigo at 9:30 p.m., the gallery next door, Buffalo Big Print, was still crowded with visitors celebrating a terrific photography exhibition.

What a change from the Buffalo of my girlhood. The city of the late 1960s and early 1970s was bleak and, to a bright-eyed teenager, seemed to offer few options. Drives down Delaware Avenue were haunted by the Butler Mansion, boarded up like a ruin. Elmwood Avenue had several bars and restaurants, a few shops, but little sense of community. Downtown was beginning its long decline.

The devastation of Dutch elm disease, felling the beloved giant shade trees in gardens and streets, was a metaphor for the larger devastation that struck the city as factories closed and unemployment ran high.

I attended public schools through eighth grade, graduating from P.S. 64, and for high school, I attended Buffalo Seminary. My high school friends and I talked incessantly about how and when we were going to escape Buffalo. We decided that any place, even Cleveland, would be better.

And all my close friends from high school did, indeed, move away from the city as they searched for jobs and opportunities. I, too, left Buffalo, eventually settling in New York City. For an entire decade, I didn't once visit my hometown. Instead I saw my family during their trips to New York.

But in the past 10 to 15 years, I've sensed that Buffalo is changing. Energy, verve and hope now fill the air. When did I first notice the shift from the beleaguered city of my girlhood to the vibrant city of today? I guess it must have been the first time I was invited into the home of a complete stranger.

I was in the process of writing "City of Light," and one afternoon I went searching for the monumental Coatsworth House on Cottage Street. I knew the house from photographs, but I wanted to see it in person. Driving through a maze of one-way streets, I couldn't find it -- until suddenly there it was, rising in all its Second Empire glory amid the cottages that now surround it. By happenstance, a moving truck was parked in front.

"Oh, no," said my 6-year-old son, who was with me. I hadn't said a word, but already he knew my thoughts. "The answer is no. I'm not going into that house. I'm not getting out of this car, Mom, and you can't make me."

I'm an overprotective mother, but I've also learned that my son reacts best to countersuggestion. "Suit yourself," I said, pulling over to the curb and parking. I got out of the car, and he hurried to follow, as I knew he would. Walking over to the movers, I said, "Excuse me, I'm researching a book about the history of Buffalo. I wonder if I could look inside the house?"

"You have to ask the lady over there," replied the most burly of the movers, pointing to a lovely young woman who stood at the curbside supervising.

When I repeated my question to her, she said, "Sure, come on in." And so she led me up the backstairs on a journey into the past. Her top-floor home had retained its original decorative moldings, wood paneling and archways. She gave me a tour and told me the history of the house.

When I was a girl, no one seemed to know or care about the city's remarkable past, but this young woman was passionate about it. The apartment's casement windows provided a wide, unobstructed view of the glittering Niagara River. In "City of Light," I turned this apartment into the architectural studio of Francesca Coatsworth, my protagonist's best friend.

"Come on in" is a phrase I hear constantly from Buffalonians as they invite me into their homes and, cliched as this may sound, into their hearts. I love to explore Buffalo's neighborhoods on foot. When I spy a house I want to visit, I wait until I see someone retrieving the mail, throwing out the garbage, or returning home from work. I don't want to disturb anyone by knocking at the front door without warning. Once a resident is outside, I go over and introduce myself, and I express my historical interest in the home.

After a few decades in New York City, part of me always fears that people will call the police, but no. "Come on in," these warm and welcoming Buffalonians invariably respond.

In this way, I've been lucky enough to tour cottages on Irving Place and mansions on Lincoln Parkway. Last June, I walked extensively in the fascinating area around Johnson Park, ending on Rabin Terrace, amid a block of modern homes constructed in a 19th century style.

This made me curious. I waited. Sure enough, eventually someone came out with the garbage. I introduced myself. "Come on in," said the charming homeowner.

This particular tour included the garden, which was how I discovered Buffalo's Garden Walk. The owners of the house on Rabin Terrace gave me a Garden Walk map, and during several visits to Buffalo last summer, I was astonished to see the transformation of entire neighborhoods by the literally grass-roots effort of planting gardens. I discovered streets I'd never before focused on, like North Pearl and Little Summer, havens of tranquility and beauty.

What an extraordinary investment in the future, to plant these gardens. The gardens conjure up a different world, and even more important, they show the community coming together.

This community effort isn't limited to the Garden Walk. Nowadays Buffalo seems to be bursting with natural beauty. When I was young, the Lake Erie shoreline was clogged with algae. Now the lake shimmers.

When I was young, the Delaware Park lake looked like a garbage dump, complete with an abandoned car or two. Now it's pristine. My cousin was married in the Delaware Park Rose Garden and had her reception at the former boathouse (Marcy Casino), unheard of when I was a girl.

More recently the park has been enhanced by new plantings along Delaware Avenue and elsewhere. Delaware Park and the city's other Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks have benefited from the work of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which didn't exist when I was growing up.

In part through community efforts, trees are growing in Buffalo again, replacing the tragic losses of the Dutch elm disease era.

These days, community organizations flourish in Buffalo. The Allentown Association is a resource for detailed information about this historic neighborhood. Preservation Buffalo Niagara acts as a clearinghouse for preservation issues and also sponsors walking, bike and river tours. I've taken many of these tours, and a quick look online at the 2011 spring/summer schedule shows Hamlin Park, the Central Terminal and the Erie Canal Harbor, among many others.

The Elmwood Village Association bustles with volunteer opportunities. Numerous websites provide information on Buffalo's history. Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper organizes volunteers to protect Buffalo's waterfront. PUSH Buffalo helps to organize neighborhoods to create affordable housing. The list goes on.

In addition, astute and far-seeing businessmen like Howard Zemsky are working to preserve Buffalo's remarkable architectural legacy, and the city's philanthropists give generously to Buffalo causes, as they did in the days of the Pan American Exposition. Symbolic of this, the Butler Mansion at North and Delaware, the haunting ruin of my youth, is now the scrubbed and polished Jacobs Executive Development Center of the University at Buffalo.

What would I show my far-flung high school friends, if we were reunited in Buffalo -- as, in fact, we're planning to be for our Buffalo Seminary reunion in June? Our first stop would be the new Burchfield Penney Art Center, which has quickly become a remarkable gathering place, with crowded exhibition openings and community-based lectures and activities. I remember an exhibition opening last September -- I stood outside on the second-floor terrace, in the early evening, as the glowing, raking yellow light made the Albright-Knox and Buffalo State College seem magical.

Buffalo has always been renowned for classical music (I was a Buffalo Philharmonic subscriber in my youth), and now the philharmonic's full schedule has been complimented by the Ramsi P. Tick Concert Series, organized through local efforts. My high school friends and I would certainly attend a concert.

We'd also tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House, and maybe we'd travel farther afield to see Graycliff, the Wright house on the Lake Erie shore. Neither was open to the public when we were growing up.

If the schedule allowed, we'd sign up for a walking tour with Preservation Buffalo Niagara. I'd learn about these and hundreds of other activities by checking online with two of the best sources for all that's going on in Buffalo, the websites of The Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising.

And when we needed a break, we'd enjoy a meal at one of the numerous terrific restaurants, in all price ranges, that Buffalo now boasts.

What is the measure of a city? The changes I've seen in Buffalo in recent years have led me to this: A city is its spirit. A city is its sense of community. A city is its people gathering together, their collective energy creating a sense of purpose as they work toward the future.

I'm not a sociologist, an urban planner, an economist, an investigative journalist or a politician. I can't offer statistics to confirm my reflections. I realize that during my visits I see only one facet of the prism that is Buffalo.

I know that many residents aren't able to share in the cultural and community life that I find so compelling. And I know that politics in Buffalo can be rough and tumble. I pay my taxes in New York City, and so I stay out of Buffalo politics.

Here's my favorite way to spend a Saturday in Buffalo, a way that didn't exist when I was young: I stroll along Elmwood Avenue, shopping at the boutiques and perusing the farmers' market. I browse the latest publications at Talking Leaves Bookstore. I have a snack at Caffe Aroma or Spot Coffee, sitting outside with my Buffalo friends when the weather is good, meeting the local canines and befriending their owners. (I'm an obsessive dog person, I admit.)

If my friends and I are in the mood for heartier fare, we drive to the marvelous Betty's, at the corner of Edward and Virginia. When I was a girl, I never would have dreamed of finding a European-style cafe at the corner of Edward and Virginia -- but nowadays I simply think, "Of course."

After all, I'm in Buffalo, the City of Light.

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