If you’ve been here long enough, you can feel it in your bones. It seeps into your psyche. It is built into your roots.
You do not shake the feeling that something will go wrong. You wait for the bad news that inevitably follows the good. You know, with 8 seconds left, the ball will not go through the uprights.
This, after all, is Buffalo, the hard-luck town that, for years, could not escape its decades-long descent into rusty nostalgia. The place that needed a jingle to goad residents into talking proud. A city more accustomed to broken promises than victory.
So when someone promises a billion dollars to remake Buffalo, there are skeptics, even before a federal investigation tainted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s economic development plan for the region.
Just ask the folks of South Buffalo, not far from where the Buffalo River snakes under South Park Avenue. They watched Republic Steel pull out. They remember the days before Donner Hanna shut down its coke ovens. Before Buffalo Color stopped making dye.
“It seems like Buffalo is the end of everything,” said Bernie Kuhn, 70, who was mowing his lawn on Boone Street on Saturday.
A few hundred yards away, across a city ball field and behind a line of houses, you could just see the top of the building where SolarCity will land, rising from what was once Republic’s industrial wasteland.
The $900 million solar panel plant, the main tenant in an “innovation hub” paid for largely with state money, is the centerpiece of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion plan. For months, the state project has also been at the center of questions about what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara might dig up.
Kuhn pays the plant little attention. Seeing is believing. Like others in the neighborhood, he’s waiting for the permanent jobs to arrive before he passes judgment on the Buffalo Billion. He’s heard promises before. Wait and see.
“If you’re a Buffalonian, there’s always a little skepticism,” said Joe Angrisano, 62, who followed his father to Republic Steel not long after graduating from high school, only to learn it would close a few months later. He was one of the lucky ones. For him, there have been other jobs.
There are two narratives in Buffalo today. There’s the city on an upswing, the place where people dine in new restaurants, work at new companies and ice skate in hip new hangouts.
And there’s the city stuck in time, the place where weeds grow in empty lots, houses crumble, and jobs are still out of reach.
We teeter between newfound optimism and a belief, grounded in decades of loss, that things can’t possibly go right.
Now, with questions about possible fraud involving the Buffalo Billion that reach up to some of Cuomo’s highest advisers, it’s easy to fall back on that same old story: Here we go again.
“People are apprehensive about anything coming into the city,” said Randy Morris as he finished a cigarette behind the Old Triangle bar at South Park and Germania. “Are you going to hang your hat on something that’s only going to be here five years?”
At 47, Morris carries the frustration of someone who came of age just in time to see the good jobs leave. He has decades of experience running a forklift, but jobs are scarce, and for now, he’s holding down a temp job as a machine operator. Guys like him, he said, can’t get jobs on the SolarCity site. He’s unruffled by the idea that someone in state government might have tried to rip off a public project.
But even for him, there’s still a bit of optimism.
You see, that’s the difference between the Buffalo of today and Buffalo of even just a decade ago. People have come to truly believe change is happening. And here’s reason to hope that’s true: Today’s comeback story isn’t just pinned on the Buffalo Billion or SolarCity. The seeds were planted well before Cuomo made his billion-dollar promise in 2012.
The direction at Canalside turned before then. The Medical Campus has been in the works for more than two decades. Grassroots groups were rebuilding Buffalo neighborhoods before this governor was in office.
In other words, the city’s resurgence is more than just one economic development plan, no matter how whopping the dollars behind it.
Back at the Old Triangle, Morris looked up the road Saturday, where cones marked the beginning of street construction on South Park Avenue in front of the SolarCity plant.
“This, I’m pretty sure, is going to last,” Morris said. Then he hesitated. “God, I hope so.”