They like us. They really, really like us.
OK, it has thankfully been awhile since our communal inferiority complex was at a Sally Field level; when we were so starved for compliments than any crumb of recognition was devoured with embarrassingly deep, dumbfounded “you really, really like me” Oscar-acceptance-speech gratitude. I remember the days of holding my breath on the rare occasions an event brought a horde of outsiders here. I hoped they wouldn’t slag us too badly over the weather, the glut of empty downtown buildings, the lack of decent hotel rooms or some small-time faux pas.
Those days, thankfully, are gone. When big events plop down here, we know that – barring a late-season lake-effect blast – we will bask in the glow of mostly good impressions.
That’s what I heard Saturday, talking with more than a dozen NCAA basketball visitors at a downtown hotel. Most of them had been here a couple of days, had never been here before and found in Buffalo more than they expected.
That’s right, uh-huh, uh-huh, we got this.
In the past decade, downtown buildings were resurrected, hotels went up, construction cranes recovered from the brink of extinction and visitors-bureau folks learned from mistakes. Chippewa Street’s emergence in the ’90s added a downtown bar/restaurant district.
It has all paid off. Visitors I spoke with Saturday liked our downtown. They like the close-proximity restaurants. They liked the late-night action. They liked our friendliness. They liked Metro Rail, which dropped them at the First Niagara Center door. They liked that there wasn’t, contrary to our bad-weather image, 2 feet of snow on the ground.
“Buffalo has been much nicer and more impressive than I expected, all of the parents are saying that,” said Ellen Farrell, whose son, Patrick, plays for Villanova. “Frankly this wasn’t our first choice, we were hoping for Raleigh or Orlando, someplace warm. But it’s worked out beautifully.”
Farrell lives on Long Island and arrived Wednesday for her first Buffalo visit. She checked out Niagara Falls on Friday and was headed Saturday for wings at the Anchor Bar and a peek at the circa-1904 Hotel @ The Lafayette, the crown jewel of revived downtown buildings.
“Some of the old architecture is beautiful, you get the sense there must have been old money here,” she said. “And the food has been really good.”
We may not be desperate for attention anymore, but validation is always nice – especially for a city that has long been kicked around. Revival brings many rewards. It is pleasantly startling, for instance, to hear from visitors that other mid-sized cities want to grow up to be just like us.
“You’ve got a lot more development downtown than we have,” said Patrick Castleman, a University of Dayton senior. “There’s a lot more to do here than in Dayton, with the arena and baseball stadium. And with the train system, it’s not a hard place to navigate.”
A couple from Toledo seconded the emotion.
“We’re working on building up to what you have,” said Brent Bernard, who came with his wife, Alison, for the games. “It’s nice, and we felt safe. We were walking around at midnight, going to the bars.”
Believe me, I’d rather bask in the glow when visitors come than brace myself for the worst. It’s a nice role reversal for Buffalo, which spent decades wishing it could be more like someplace else. It’s also a reminder that, with barely 250,000 people, we should compare ourselves more with the Daytons of the world, not mega-tropolises like Boston and Chicago.
“You’ve got a bigger, more livable downtown than we do,” said Alison Bernard. “We were very pleasantly surprised, it’s really nice. No graffiti. And your little train is cool.”
The kind words and good impressions are a reward for getting our act together. We still have a ways to go, from downtown to the waterfront. But the barren downtown landscape and blunders that marked our early forays into big-event territory are happily behind us. We learned from the nowhere-to-eat fiasco between sessions of the 2003 Frozen Four hockey tournament. Long buried are not-so-bright ideas, like the one – thankfully rejected – some official had years ago to charge visitors a buck to ride the free above-ground Metro Rail. Great. Pocket a few extra dollars on the backs of guests, and leave them with a lasting memory of a nickel-and-diming, backward burg. And we wondered why, for years, we couldn’t get out of our own way?
That was then, this is a different now. Even our unfortunately resilient blizzards-and-Rust Belt national image works for us. The weather bar is set so low, anything better than icy blasts and a foot of snow comes as a welcome surprise for guests.
“I really thought,” said Jen Burns from South Jersey, “that the city would be covered in snow.”
More good news: Not every visitor was here for basketball. I ran into a handful of worse-for-wear younger guys who’d let off some steam on an overnighter from Toronto.
“Buffalo is the best-kept secret within a few hours of Toronto,” said Mike Pesce, 31. “It’s really cheap, the drinks are double-poured, the food is awesome and the people are super-friendly. It’s a great place to come and mess around.”
Hey, whatever works.
Downtown is still a work in progress, the waterfront has a ways to go and revival has yet to find many neighborhoods. But I think we have, for the most part, cleared the big-event bar. After all of these years, it’s nice to make a good impression, to shed the cloak of defensiveness and apology. You like us? At long last, it’s no surprise.