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A compelling argument for importance of small places

In his remarkable new book "Borderland," the economist, historian and journalist Bruce Fisher sets out to reconnect Western New York to the wonder of its history and natural environment.

"There is a very potent and enduring myth that has oppressed my generation," he writes in the book's very first sentence, "which is that only big places are real."

It's not just Fisher's generation this myth has oppressed.

So many of us, having been raised in or around the downtrodden but often charming city of Buffalo, have been conditioned to think of the place we are from as small, limited in potential and, in all ways that count, insignificant in the big picture.

For a great many people my age and older -- at least until very, very recently -- this region has chiefly served as an example of what not to aspire to. It has been a place from which to flee as early as practically possible and thenceforth to treat with the same type of misty-eyed nostalgia and pity you might shower on a moribund pet.

Enter Fisher, the brave and bold chronicler, here to put on a wider lens and peel back the layers of history, nature and social activism that have made Western New York into the unique and inexhaustibly fascinating place it actually is.

The book is a collection of essays on topics as diverse as urban planning, art and architectural history, the Underground Railroad, Native American rituals, Chicagoland politics, Fisher's rowing exploits on the Black Rock Canal and the beauty of his grandfather's backyard.

Fisher, who writes a weekly column for Artvoice and serves as the director of Buffalo State College's Center for Economic and Policy Studies, has been around the block. In this collection, he draws from his experiences as a reporter in Chicago, as a scholar of Native American studies, as a Washington policy wonk, as an economist and as a devotee of rowing, fishing, bicycling and sundry other leisure pursuits in and around Western New York.

A reader might cringe (as I did) at the book's introduction, in which Fisher as much as compares himself to the great Florentine writer Machiavelli, shrewd author of "The Prince." But it's good that Fisher makes his eminent regard for himself clear in the opening pages. That prepares us to indulge his nearly constant self-aggrandizing throughout these essays not as delusional, but merely as the charming side effect of a fascinating life.

In "The Piarists, Slawinski, and Wright," Fisher produced a penetrating essay on the forgotten meaning of a piece of public art commissioned by Hungarian priests for Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff estate and later moved to the Buffalo State campus. Like the three or four masterful essays in this collection, it seamlessly weaves together the natural environment of the region with its social, artistic and religious history to excavate a completely buried aspect of the region's life and culture.

Perhaps Fisher's greatest achievement in "Borderland" is his account of his uncle's all-too-brief life, which took him from the village of Angola to the island of Iwo Jima and back, with plenty of soul-searching in between. That essay, "The protector," is a beautiful, meticulously researched and lushly painted account of a great life long-forgotten.

It also contains some of Fisher's best writing, as when he describes the soldier's home village: "It had become home to laborers who stoked furnaces up the lakeshore at Bethlehem Steel, tended cars for the beltway at Republic Steel, bent metal at the Ford Stamping Plant, all on a stretch of the lakeshore Erie Road that for most of the twentieth century was shrouded in gray air with a variously pink or yellow tinge from all the particulate iron and sulfur those works threw unrelentingly up."

Fisher is a wonderful prose stylist, especially when it comes to his nature writing, but his words sometimes carry him too far into the stratosphere. This happens frequently in Fisher's extended essay about his experiences during a Native American sun dance ritual, which seems wholly out of place -- in addition to containing another cringe-worthy statement about the ideal of humanity being "the joining of male and female."

If you can ignore Fisher's sometimes too-clever prose and near constant chest-puffing, it's not hard to see this book for what it is: a passionate, precise and lovingly crafted argument for the importance of such "small" places as ours.

"Borderland" belongs on the same shelf as Mark Goldman's "City on the Edge," Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy's "Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold," Michael Vogel, Edward Patton and Paul Redding's "America's Crossroads" and Peggy Brooks-Bertram and Barbara A. Seals Nevergold's "Uncrowned Queens" series as a book that fills in important gaps in our understanding of the history and hidden beauty of the place we call home.

Colin Dabkowski is The News' Arts Critic.



By Bruce Fisher

State University of New York Press

238 pages, $24.95