It’s official: We’ve decided to like cities again.
Congratulations to us.
The suburban-urban divide that has defined political life in Western New York for decades is revealing a few hairline cracks. Here and in other post-industrial American cities, capital and young people are pouring back into the anemic urban core like a sudden rush of blood to the brain. And not a moment too soon.
But in the elation of this invigorating head-rush, some of us are starting to lose a grip on our urban senses. Developers and decision-makers, blinded by dollar signs, branding campaigns and disingenuous slogans promoting such chilling Orwellian notions as “The New Buffalo,” have been quietly working to homogenize Buffalo’s culture and streetscape in deference to suburban sensibilities.
How are local power-brokers working to paint Buffalo a bright shade of beige? Let me count the ways:
• Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs, who proposes to move Erie County’s bar closing time from 4 to 2 a.m. for no discernible reason, and certainly with no credible data to support his argument. As my colleague Jeff Miers eloquently suggested back in August, the move would merely punish Buffalo’s thriving local music scene in order to make aging city residents and property owners feel marginally safer. In addition to which, it would remove a distinctive feature of the city attractive to the very millennial residents it purports so much to value.
Chris Hawley, speaking as a local preservationist and not in his capacity as a city planner, called Buffalo’s 4 a.m. closing time “reflective of locally distinctive culture derived from the city’s blue-collar heritage.
“In this homogenizing global economy,” he continued, “Buffalo must capitalize upon anything that sets it apart, even if it is simply preserving the opportunity to buy a brewski close to sunrise.”
I’ll drink to that. Until 4 a.m., if necessary.
• Downtown Buffalo is a compact architectural wonderland, replete with textbook examples from the 20th century’s great practitioners of the form. To this peerless tapestry of internationally regarded design achievements, the Buffalo building boom has added almost no structures that even attempt to build on the city’s legacy of innovation. Thus we are watching our utterly distinctive skyline fade slowly into the smooth, so-so sameness of the American landscape, one unadventurous glass courthouse, jacked-up Walgreens-derivative and six-story parking garage at a time.
• In Allentown and elsewhere in Buffalo, rising property values based on speculative enterprises like the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the Solar City plant are threatening to make life difficult for longtime residents and businesses.
But as in so many other cities, with important exceptions, few attempts are being made to prevent the slow devolution of interesting thoroughfares like Allen into bland monocultures based on one or two activities. (See: the recent departure of Rust Belt Books and College Street Gallery from the hood.)
To be fair, the code does include provisions that remove hurdles to and encourage, rather than mandate, the construction of affordable housing. But it’s hard to envision developers doing so out of the goodness of their hearts.
• Name a city or suburb where you can get two artisanal cocktails and half of a farm-to-table chicken for the low, low price of a car payment: everywhere.
Name a city where you can get 50 wings, a beef on weck and a bucket of Labatt Blue for less than the fancy places charge you for blinking: pretty much just Buffalo.
While the former is a heartening addition to the local dining scene, let’s not lose the latter in the process.
The list of little changes, each of which deadens the urban experience by imperceptible degrees, could go on and on. And I realize I probably sound like a bit of an alarmist or reactionary here, when so much positive change is happening in this city’s narrow but very real economic revival.
Even so, it’s important to push ourselves beyond simplistic ideas like “The New Buffalo,” a phrase that captures our spiritual if not material journey away from the image of a downtrodden, snow-swept hellscape of plywood and poverty that defined this place for half a century.
Our city, any city, should be a space for innovation, for idiosyncrasy, for the celebration of the different. We can make it better without diluting what made it great in the first place.
Which is just to say: Change is good, but not all change is good change. Before the renaissance goes any further, let’s try to learn the difference.