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100 Things Every Western New Yorker Should Do: The City Hall Observation Deck

Imagine it – Buffalo, at your feet. On the southern horizon, wind turbines turn lazily. Look east, and you see a panorama of avenues and church steeples. Then there’s Lake Erie – miles and miles of blue.

That is the view that awaits you at the top of City Hall. It’s amazing how few Buffalonians have savored it.

“It only took me till I was 64,” joked Paula Kerr, who made the trip Tuesday for the first time.

Kerr grew up literally in City Hall’s shadow. She went to school at St. Anthony of Padua, inches away. She and her friends used to cut through City Hall on their way to downtown shopping. And still –

“I’ve been to the Empire State Building. I’ve been to so many national parks. But I’ve never been here,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

So absurdly grand is Buffalo’s City Hall that it easily eclipses most state capitols. After walking in, turn and look at the mural over the doors. It shows Buffalo, portrayed as a beautiful woman, accepting the homage of the United States and Canada. An inscription reads: “Frontiers Unfettered By Any Frowning Fortress.”

Time your visit for noon, so you can join the tour that meets in the lobby on weekdays. It has been called the best freebie in Buffalo. Friday, volunteer docent Rich Smyth showed us everything from the mayor’s office, with its portraits of the city fathers, to the Common Council chambers, where we sat beneath the dazzling stained-glass sunburst.

Our final stop, he announced, would be the observation deck. Brittany Perez jumped up.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been waiting for this.”

Perez, 28, lives on the West Side and came to City Hall with a friend visiting from Madrid, Spain. Most locals, it seemed, were here because of a guest. Our group included Rula Shubeita, an Israeli tour guide; Gino Biondini, a docent for the Darwin Martin House; Coral Caporale, a New York City attorney; and noted poet Alberto Cappas, whose work graces the Allen Street Metro Rail station.

All of us, from poet to peasant, piled into an ornate elevator.

“My ears are popping!” one little boy rejoiced.

From the 25th floor we clambered up three flights of stairs. “Watch out for spiders,” Smyth warned. Arriving at the observation deck, we saw he wasn’t kidding. Huge arachnids hung in the torpid air, observing us observe the city.

It’s too bad the view was through Plexiglas, which is inevitably smudged. But this was a time for pride, not complaints.

“I love the city,” said Biondini, a native of Italy. “And I love the views from here.”

“This is America. We need to appreciate what we have,” said Caporale. “As a lawyer I know we have foibles in our history, but we have so much beauty.”

The Adam’s Mark fountain sparkled. The Skyway traced a graceful “S.” Waterfront condos resembled Monopoly houses. The Colonel Ward Pumping Station and the Connecticut Street Armory looked like palaces.

Smyth pointed out Joseph Ellicott’s radial street pattern, the streets heading into the horizon like the spokes of a wheel. If the day weren’t so hazy, he said, we would see the mist from Niagara Falls. But all days make for vivid memories. “I’ve taken people up here in blizzards,” he said.

In blizzards? What can you see?

“You can’t see anything,” he said. “But it’s winter.

“It’s Buffalo.”