Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Replay: Buffalo, You Are Not Alone

It hurts. When a bigtime Harvard economist writes off your city as a loss, and says America should turn its back on you, it hurts. But Ed Glaeser’s dart tossing is but the smallest taste of what it’s like to live in place like Buffalo. To choose to live in the Rust Belt is to commit to enduring a continuous stream of bad press and mockery.

I write mostly about the Midwest, but whether we think Midwest or Rust Belt or something else altogether, the story is the same. From Detroit to Cleveland, Buffalo to Birmingham, there are cities across this country that are struggling for a host of historic and contemporary reasons. We’ve moved from the industrial to the global age, and many cities truly have lost their original economic raison d’etre. Reviving them requires the hard work of rebuilding and repositioning them for a new era, a daunting task to be sure.

But beyond their legitimate challenges, these cities also face the double burden that they are unloved by much of America, and all too often by their own residents. They are forlorn and largely forgotten, except as cautionary tales or as the butt of jokes.

These cities aren’t sexy. They aren’t hip. They don’t have the cachet of a Portland or Seattle. The creative class isn’t flocking. They are behind in the new economy, in the green economy. Look at any survey of the “best” cities and find the usual suspects of New York, Austin, San Francisco. Look at yet another Forbes “ten worst” list and see Cleveland and Toledo kicked again when they are down. They are portrayed as hopeless basket cases with no hope and no future.

But I reject that notion. I do not believe in the idea that these cities are beyond repair and unworthy of attention—or affection.

Someone asked me once why I bother. Why does it matter that these cities come back? Why not just let nature take its course? Why not let Buffalo die, and its people scatter to the winds?

It’s because it doesn’t just matter to a few proud people in Buffalo, it matters to America. The idea of disposable cities is one that is incompatible with a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. Fleeing Rust Belt cities for neo-Southern boomtowns is nothing more than sprawl writ large. Rather than just abandoning our cores, we’ll now abandon entire regions in the quest for new greenfields to despoil. We can’t have a truly prosperous and sustainable America with only a dozen or so superstar cities that renew themselves from age to age while others bloom like a flower for a season, then wither away. An America littered with an ever increasing number of carcasses of once great cities is not one most of us want to contemplate.

But beyond that, it’s because I believe we can make it happen. Look closely and the change is already in the air. Globalization taketh away—but it also giveth. Cities like Buffalo or St. Louis now have access to things that even people in Chicago didn’t not that long ago. Amazon, iTunes, and a host of specialty online retailers put the best of the world within reach. Where once you couldn’t get a good cup of coffee, there are now micro-roasters aplenty. Where once your choices were Bud, Miller, or Coors, an array of specialty brews are on tap, often brewed locally. Restaurants are better, with food grown locally and responsibly. Slowly but surely the ship is turning on sustainability, with nascent bike cultures in almost every city, LEED certified buildings, recycling programs, and more. House by house, rehab by rehab, neighborhoods in these cities are starting to come to life.

Where once moving to one of these cities would have been likened to getting exiled to Siberia, it’s now shocking how little you actually give up. And for every high-end boutique or black tie gala you miss, you get something back in low-cost and easy living. The talent pool may be shallower, but it’s a lot more connected.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a long and hard journey ahead. And not every place is going to make it, particularly among cities without the minimum scale. We have to face that reality. But more of them will revive than people think.

That’s because a new generation of urbanists believes in these cities again. These people aren’t bitter, burdened by the memories of yesteryear and all the goodness that was lost. The city to them isn’t the place with the downtown department store their mother used to take them to in white gloves for tea. It isn’t the place full of good manufacturing jobs with lifetime middle class employment for those without college degrees. The city isn’t a faded nostalgia or a longing for an imagined past. Most of them are young and never knew that world.

No, this new generation of urbanists sees these cities with fresh eyes. They see the decay, yes, but also the opportunity—and the possibilities for the present and future. To them this is Rust Belt Chic. It’s the place artists can dream of owning a house. Where they can live in a place with a bit of an authentic edge and real character. Where people can indulge their passion for renovating old architecture without a seven-figure budget. Where they have a chance to make a difference—to be a producer, not just a consumer of urban life, and a new urban future. Above all, these people, natives or newcomers, have a deep and abiding passion and love for the place they’ve chosen—yes, chosen—to live.

Still, it can get lonely, and often depressing. It so often seems like one step forward, two steps back. Making change happen can seem like pushing a rock uphill, like you are up there on some far frontier of the country alone, fighting a quixotic battle. Every historic building demolished, every quality infill project sabotaged by NIMBY’s, every massively subsidized business-as-usual boondoggle, every DOT-scarred transport project is a discouragement.

But Buffalo, you are not alone. It’s not just you, it’s cities and people across across this country, from St. Louis to Pittsburgh to Milwaukee to Cincinnati to New Orleans to Birmingham, fighting to build a better future. There’s a new movement in all these cities, made up of passionate urbanists committed to a different and better path. Sometimes they are few in number, but they are mighty in spirit— and they are making a difference. Together, they and you can win the battle and make the change happen.

It won’t be easy. The road will be long. Some, like the great cathedral builders of Europe, may never see completely the fruit of their labors. But the long-ago pioneers who founded these great cities never got to see them in their first glory either. We’ve come full circle. We are present again at the re-founding of our cities. This is the task, the duty, the calling that a new generation has chosen as its own, to write the history of their city anew.

Go make history again, Buffalo.

This article originally appeared in Buffalo Rising on June 14, 2010.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Buffalo

23 Responses to “Replay: Buffalo, You Are Not Alone”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    The cities mentioned here are not one class of metros. Birmingham grew by more than 7%,cincinnati by more than 6% in the last decade, St. Louis 4.5%, and Milwaukee about 3%. Buffalo and pittsburgh have lost more than 3% along with cleveland and detroit. Those are large demographic differences. Theses metros are not all in the same boat demographically or economically. Ironically it may be easier for those that have lost the most and have less left to defend to create something fundamentally new for the future.

  2. Dee says:

    … and not all of them are cultural backwaters. I grew up in Detroit and although my dad – from NYC – always thought it was lacking, I found that it had excellent ethnic and fresh locally produced food, wonderful museums, great live music, and a vibrant art scene. Having lived in three countries now, I still have a lot of respect for Detroit’s local culture and I love going back there.

  3. Charley says:

    I’ve always wondered why rust belt cities don’t end up profiting the way southern sprawly cities do from high rents on the coasts. Economically they share the same characteristics that attract both people and employers to the south, with the added attraction of an urban environment. Even if it’s only people and not employers thinking about walkability, employers should still be moving to these cities for the costs alone.

    And of course some industries thrive on being in a centralized downtown. Why is there a secondary financial center growing in Charlotte instead of someplace like Pittsburgh?

  4. DBR96A says:

    Part of it is because the northern Appalachian Mountains form a psychological barrier that people in the Northeast megalopolis have only recently begun to test. It used to be that people just slid down the Piedmont instead of going over the mountains. But now that energy costs are getting higher and there’s more interest in rehabilitating older urban areas, I think people are starting to look over the mountains because those areas are closer by. Pittsburgh is the first major MSA west of New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC/Baltimore, so I imagine that it’ll reap the most benefits. (Buffalo and Rochester are a more out of the way, although they could conceivably benefit from some New York and New England spillover.)

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    Buffalo is a lot closer to Toronto than Pittsburgh is to DC or Philadelphia; Toronto is larger than both with extremely high living costs. There are certainly no mountains to cross. One might suggest Buffalo look north, as its NFL owner already does.

  6. JoeP says:

    It makes sense for the Bills to want fans in Canada, but that’s not the same as easily attacting people from another country, even if that country is right there in front of you and that country is Canada.

    “Why is there a secondary financial center growing in Charlotte instead of someplace like Pittsburgh?”

    Charlotte banking grew through a combination of reasons. However, already large PNC came through the recession much larger and BNY Mellon is significant to Pittsburgh as well.

  7. Ed says:

    In a previous era manufacturing thrived in the midwest because the natural advantages of shipping goods cheaply across great lakes and from an excellent transportation system consisting of canals, waterways and railroad connected resources in the area cheaply. Coal could by shipped cheaply from Appalachia, Iron ore could be shipped cheaply from deposits near Lake Superior. During this era the area could pay fairly high wages for blue collar work which grew the blue collar economy.So these area developed large less well educated blue collar workforces. More recently as the US started exporting financial instruments instead of manufactured goods, the dollar rose in value against other currencies and the midwest manufacturing sector no longer enjoyed the advantages that it did in previous generations.

    Today the economies of the midwest are restructuring. Places that had smaller initial manufacturing sectors re-adjusted the quickest. That is why regions like the Twin Cities turned around faster than say Detroit or Cleveland. Cities that began the process earlier like say Pittsburgh are further along the process than cities like Detroit. The steel industry collapsed more completely in Pittsburgh than the auto industry did in the 1970’s and 1980’s and that meant, that the blue collar work force in Pittsburgh aged, moved away or retrained much more than in Detroit where the auto industry has had a series of mini-revivals over the past 30 years.

    In the next decade the metro areas of the midwest probably will continue to shrink as manufacturing base continues to shrink faster than other parts of these regions economy grow. But as these economies diversify further than we will see growth returning to these regions. But it takes time to retrain a workforce and to start and grow new industries.

    In the 1960’s and early 1970’s Portland Oregon was having lots of trouble as its lumber industry was no longer competitive with cheaper Canadian lumber imports. Seattle Washington was having problems in this era as well because of problems with cutbacks after the end of the Vietnam War in orders for military planes. But in time new industries grew up around older ones and made each of those communities less dependent on there previous industrial bases. Today’s glamor cities were yesterdays cities of woe. I see the same process happening in the Midwest.

  8. JJP says:

    Buffalo has one thing going for it: Canadian cross-border shopping. Go to any mall parking lot and you’ll see.

  9. Walker Evans says:

    DBR96A – Really? The mountains are a barrier? I’ve never once heard that in my life. No one is blazing the Oregon Trail when traveling any more, so I have no idea why this would be any sort of barrier (physical or psychological) for anyone born after 1850.

  10. Justin says:

    “The idea of disposable cities is one that is incompatible with a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. Fleeing Rust Belt cities for neo-Southern boomtowns is nothing more than sprawl writ large.”


  11. DBR96A says:

    The mountains are a barrier. If they weren’t, then people in the Northeast megalopolis would not label Pittsburgh a “Midwestern” city while the rest of the country sees it as a Northeastern city.

  12. EJ says:

    Funny, I always thought of Pittsburgh as being part of the Midwest where I am from. It’s too far west and geographically isolated to truly be considered part of the Northeast with NYC, Boston, DC, or even really Philadelphia, save its association with the latter through an east coast-heavy Pennsylvania. Yet, Pittsburgh doesn’t really have much at all in common with Chicago, Milwaukee or Minneapolis either. I could say the same for Cleveland, Detroit, Akron and Toledo as well. None of the old “Steel Corridor” really seems to fit well with the Northeastern megaregion, or Chicagoland and beyond to the west. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for these cities with their common historic economic ties and struggles to establish their own regional identity separate from that of a Chicago-centered Midwest or a New York dominated Northeast?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Pittsburgh is the capital of Northern Appalachia.

  14. Dee says:

    It’s hard to imagine Detroit and Chicago being in different regions, as they are only 4 hours drive apart and were built up at around the same time. Also, Detroit is much bigger than any of the cities you’ve grouped it with – 4 million people in the metropolitan area. It’s almost as big as Toronto and it used to be the fourth biggest city in the US.

  15. Chris Barnett says:

    Anon beat me to it.

    Dee, Toronto metro has 5.6 million. It’s half again bigger than Detroit metro. More importantly, it has a staggeringly high percentage of the total Canadian population, 16.5%. (An equivalent share of the US population in a single metro would be 50 million, nearly the population of all the east coast STATES from Philadelphia to Boston.)

    JoeP, even before NAFTA lots of people crossed the Canadian and Mexican borders to go to work. Considering the cost of living differences, Buffalo has potential as a Toronto exurb with (cannot believe I’m writing this) high speed rail between the Niagara region and Toronto.

  16. DBR96A says:

    The core of the industrial Midwest is northern Ohio, southern Michigan, northern Indiana, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The cities therein share many similarities from the topography to the regional dialect to the built environment to the popular retail/restaurant options. Many of the goods that were manufactured in those cities were finished products as well, which is why deindustrialization in the Midwest has been a gradual thing.

    Western Pennsylvania is a different animal altogether. The only real similarities to the cities in the Midwest are the heavy industrial past and the use of “pop” to describe carbonated soft drinks. Otherwise, the regional dialect and the built environment are different, and even the retail/restaurant options are as well. Even the type of manufacturing was different, with Pittsburgh manufacturing raw materials like steel, aluminum, glass and chemicals. Its deindustrialization was more abrupt and more complete. In fact, it’s more like upstate New York and southern New England in this respect than it is the Midwest, and the built environment and regional dialect are more similar to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Cincinnati.

    There’s an accretion taking place between Pittsburgh and the rest of the Northeast. As I said before, Pittsburgh is the first major MSA west of New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC/Baltimore, and its top three gross migration flows are with each of those cities. The Appalachian Mountains are gradually becoming less of a barrier to the extra-large cities on the coast.

  17. EJ says:


    You may have something on the migration flows, but I must respectfully disagree that there is no significant and meaningful commonality between Western PA and Northern Ohio. There actually is quite a bit of economic overlap between Ohio and Pennsylvania–particularly NE Ohio and Western/SW PA–despite the differences you note in topography and regional dialect. Economically, Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank and the former National City Bank in Cleveland were major competitors in each other’s backyards. PNC bought out NCB in 2008 and now is the largest bank in Northeast Ohio. FirstMerit Bank in Akron has expanded in NCB’s wake to compete regionally in NE Ohio and in SW Penn. Akron based FirstEnergy absorbed Pittsburgh-area based Allegheny Energy in 2011. Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle has emerged as the largest dedicated supermarket chain in the Cleveland-Akron area and appears to be second only to Kroger in Ohio.

    Most major retail and restaurant chains (Wal-Mart, Lowes, Applebees) are also present in both the Cleveland and Pittsburgh metros, just as they are anywhere else in the US. Walk into Target, a Wendy’s or a Wal-Mart in any suburban Pittsburgh or Cleveland retail mecca and you could easily be anywhere in the country. Locally, however, Cleveland and Pittsburgh both have their own unique establishments and venues, just like any other city.

    Socially and collaboratively, NE Ohio and SW Penn have developed and maintained ties through initiatives and events ranging from the Tech Belt and the Cleveland-Pittsburgh-Youngstown Regional Learning Network ( to the Super 60 All-Star Football Game. Speaking of football, (and admittedly this is anectdotal) NE Ohio may be second only to SW PA in number of Steelers fans, and likewise for Browns fans in SW PA.

    Industrially, Cleveland and Youngstown manufactured steel and cars. Akron manufactured tires and rubber products. Toledo manufactured glass and cars. They were all part of the massive industrial corridor running between Detroit and Pittsburgh with industries supplying each other throughout. The Akron and Youngstown areas sustained devastation through loss of industry on a level very similar to what Pittsburgh experienced, albeit on smaller scales. Akron seems to have rebounded around education and investment in new technology, much as Pittsburgh has, while Youngstown’s rebirth has been longer in the making. Arguably, Cleveland and Detroit’s enduring problems going down and coming back up have had far more to do with the absence of a cohesive vision for their future and strong leadership to see it through. By comparison, Akron and Pittsburgh both seem to have strong leadership and a clear vision of what they want to be in the 21st century global world.

    I’m by no means arguing that Pittsburgh/Western/SW Pa shouldn’t support the development of ties with the Northeast/East Coast. There seems to be a small yet emerging pattern of migration inland from the coasts, and Pittsburgh is not the only beneficiary of it. Will it endure? We do seem to have an emerging energy problem that could make travel much more expensive for quite a while, and those mountains are going to be around for quite a while longer. So I contend that proximity and distance will take on greater importance in the coming years. Pittsburgh ought to pursue ties with the NE/East Coast if it supports its development strategy, but I would strongly recommend that it not neglect the assets and relationships that are already present and much closer to the west.

  18. John Morris says:

    No time for a long comment. mostly I agree with what’s been said.

    Good news at least from my perspective is that there is starting to be more interest in regional information flow.

    A new visual art website launched called Art Hopper.

    “ArtHopper provides a forum for arts and visual culture in the greater Lake Erie region including Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit and beyond.”

    Up untill recently, Buffalo was sort of odd in that it was perhaps more socially open to outsiders (for example it has hosted regional shows and even a small art fare) even though it is much more geographically isolated in relation to the midwest.

    Up till recently, places like Cleveland were centrally located but much less interested in creating dialog and interaction.

  19. Jill says:

    This is worth a read if you live in a small town in the Rust Belt:

  20. JoeP says:

    DBR, other parts of the NE don’t think of Pgh as Midwest. I suppose some do because there people in every city that are isolated to their own little world. Some people confuse East Coast with Northeastern – of which the coast is part of and so is the interior NE which includes W PA and Western NY etc.

    Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage and being close to Ohio, the most eastern Midwest state obviously make the city have a “border” relationship, as does DC with the South.

    Pittsburgh has connections in both directions, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a Northeastern city.

  21. John Morris says:

    NY might have a pretty limited perspective but everyone I’ve met and talked there about Pittsburgh (who was not from Pittsburgh) saw it as part of the midwest. (In other words we are in fly over country)

  22. Walter says:

    “Buffalo has one thing going for it: Canadian cross-border shopping. Go to any mall parking lot and you’ll see.”

    Buffalo (and Cleveland, and Detroit, and Toledo…) actually has one very big thing going for it: water. Lots and lots of fresh water.

  23. John Morris says:

    Good news. The guy who started Art Hopper commented on a post I did about the site. Plans are in the works to include Buffalo.

    Not all of it is great or well supported but there has been a mini explosion of media aimed at creating dialog across the Rust Belt, Rust Wire, Brewed Fresh Daily, Changing Gears, Art Hopper etc…

    Amazingly, a lot of these projects seem to be coming out of Cleveland. I think that may indicate an important, mental shift.

    The other thing that stands is Chicago’s total lack of interest in anything but itself.

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