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Grayer and wiser, Donn Esmonde pens his final column

The plane was descending into Buffalo on a bleak, overcast December day in 1981. I looked out the window on a tundralike, snow-inflected landscape of unrelenting whites and grays and – as excited as this downstate guy was to start a job in a bigger city – wondered exactly what I had gotten myself into.

What I was getting into, it turned out, was four decades of doing the most interesting job I can imagine in one of the coolest places on the planet. When I arrived, Buffalo was and, until recently, remained in the grip of a long economic beatdown that cracked its collective psyche but never smothered its sense of community, spirit or determination. For a young journalist, a down-on-its luck city of hidden charms and glorious attributes was a great place to work and – as it turned out – an even better place to live.

Buffalo fascinated me, although back then it was the minority opinion nationally and, sadly, even among some locals. My ’80s tour for visiting downstate friends included an after-dark jaunt up the I-190 to witness flames blasting from towering smokestacks near the Grand Island Bridge, the monstrous muscularity of grain elevators along the industrial Buffalo River, and the collection of 19th-century buildings – some world-renowned – that make an architectural museum of downtown.

[Donn Esmonde looks back on his favorite columns]

Snow piled 10 feet high, out-of-the-past corner bars and neighborhoods of 19th-century Victorians that you needn’t be rich to live in made this not just a special place, but a “real” one. The homogenization of America marches on, its proliferation of franchises and chain stores turning everywhere into Anywhere, USA. With its golden-age remnants, resolute untrendiness and heavy manufacturing bones, Buffalo stood apart from the pack.

I liked that it was large enough to lose yourself in, but small enough that one person could make a difference. For a guy from Long Island, where it’s easy to feel like another speck on the world’s largest anthill, that meant something. As a journalist, it meant everything. From nearly a decade in Sports, to a swing through Lifestyles, to metro columnist for the past 22 years – a journey from manual typewriter to Twitter – I loved what I did for a living.

Buffalo was a recurring theme in a decades-long column narrative, the prime character in an ongoing tale. Its struggles to regain its footing, to be known to the outside world for more than blizzards and Bills, to find civic and political leaders enlightened enough to justify the faith of its people – the striving and yearning was the stuff of countless columns.

A press pass is a master key to every door in the community. I’ve written close to 3,000 columns since leaving Sports, talked with thousands of people, entered countless homes and walked through every sort of neighborhood. People shared troubles, triumphs and tragedies, trusting a journalist to tell their stories as they deserved to be told. I hope that, more often than not, I rewarded that faith.

I loved the challenge of taking what I’d seen and heard, thought and felt, on any particular day and – as best as I could – sifting, shaping and condensing its essence into 750 words. As a columnist, I had the privileged mandate to tell the truth as I saw it, to cut through the bull and blather to expose the beating heart of a story.

I covered a lot of them. Lower Manhattan, in the days after 9/11. Flight 3407. The October Storm. The Bills’ Super Bowl journeys. Cynthia Wiggins. The wrongly imprisoned – Anthony Capozzi and Lynn DeJac – and, in Altemio Sanchez, the justifiably condemned.

What stuck with me as much as any larger event were acts of courage from ordinary people, everyday heroes I met whose “fame” didn’t extend beyond the end of their block. Battered women who stood up to their abusers. Gays who risked rejection by revealing their true selves to family and friends. A legion of decent people who stood tall on hard streets, even when it made them a target.

I’ve used the communal megaphone of a column to try to save the old buildings now widely acknowledged as resources. To pummel state officials into unearthing and rewatering of the Commercial Slip, now the historic centerpiece of Canalside. To stop the sacrifice of the downtown waterfront to a big-box retailer. To make a case for slowing sprawl and detouring growth to the city. To convey cries of pain from hurting neighborhoods. To bang away at politicians and officials who misplaced our trust.

There’s a common denominator to it all. H.L. Mencken said journalism’s role was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Or, more gently, helping people and helping the community. I wasn’t always right and I wasn’t always smart. But I’d like to think that my heart was always in the right place.

The most gratifying responses I got weren’t from readers who said they agreed with me, but from those who didn’t – but said the force of argument or way of telling the story had made them think.

Not that there weren’t clunkers. After moving in with my not-yet-wife, I lightheartedly mused about what to call the person you live with: Partner? Significant Other?

I learned that many in the heavily Catholic Buffalo of a quarter-century ago didn’t care – but cared plenty that I lived with a woman I wasn’t married to. Their suggestions on proper terminology were bruisingly noted.

I jumped on a story of women breast-feeding in public five years ago to suggest they do so discreetly. The idiotic take whiffed on the larger issue of unclean public restrooms – not to mention the myriad of health benefits from breast-feeding, of which I was intimately familiar as the father of two breast-fed daughters. I’d like to think that the typhoon-level blowback, and my subsequent mea culpa, elevated a few sensibilities (along with my own).

Most days were better, and happier times are finally here. After years of yearning, it is vastly gratifying to see Buffalo realizing its potential on multiple fronts. Much of it is the fruit of grassroots battles fought by many, and championed in this space.

From preservationist battles to save the buildings for downtown’s rebirth, to reclaiming the Outer Harbor waterfront as our communal front yard, to the “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” explosion of Canalside, there has been a monumental and welcome shift in the way we do things. Instead of a top-down force-feeding of mammoth ‘magic bullet’ public projects, usually hatched by a chosen-few business executives, there’s a new era of citizen-shaped plans and proposals. Having a few more enlightened public officials helps. But much of the leadership we long awaited ultimately came from informed citizens who insisted that their voices be heard.

From the immigrant-rich West Side to pockets east of Main Street, prosperity is encroaching on blight, reversing a decades-long pattern. From the growing medical corridor to plans for a 21st-century industry on – fittingly – the old Bethlehem Steel site, light is breaking through the economic clouds.

I’m glad that I lived long enough to see it. If prosperity were dependent on a community’s toughness and heart, it would’ve happened years ago.

All of which makes it easier, like one of MacArthur’s old soldiers, to fade away.

I’ll miss the friends I’ve made, the doors that opened, the stories I felt privileged to tell. I’ll miss the people who let me into their lives, often at the worst of times. I’ll miss the “what’s next” twitch of each workday. I’ll miss the cerebral gymnastics of transforming what’s in my head onto a blank computer screen. I’ll miss colleagues past, present and no longer with us who lit the way.

Thanks for your patience, indulgence and perseverance with what I’ve written over the past 35 years. If I’d known what I was getting into, I would’ve come even sooner.

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