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Sunday, March 10th, 2013

Replay: Are You a Consumer or a Producer?

Cities like New York offer a nearly unlimited range of pastimes, diversions, and consumption activities. If you want to have a good meal, see a top notch arts performance, shop, etc., this is the place for you. You can get more quantity of quality in the world’s biggest cities than you can anywhere else.

The question I often ask though, is whether most of the people living there and partaking of what the city has to offer in fact are part of helping to create those things apart from spending money on them. While anyone with a job or who does anything is a producer nominally, how many people in these cities are actually part of making the creative energy that flows there a reality? I’d suggest not many. The vast bulk of the people there, residents and tourists, are consumers, not producers. They work in average jobs and recycle their wages into the creative sector via consumption, an important economic activity to be sure, but they don’t directly produce anything there.

I thought of this while reading an article in New York Magazine this month titled, “What Could Make Someone Want to Leave New York and Move to Buffalo?” The author spends time in Buffalo talking to New Yorkers who’ve left or are thinking of leaving, checking out the scene and trying to figure out what caused them to make the switch.

The answer is partially the unsurprising one that it is cheap there and the quality of life can be high compared to the stress of New York. As the author notes, “Buffalo has qualities that tend to attract creative people: cheap rents, derelict industrial buildings, the romantic aura of a faded empire.” It’s biggest problem there is that it is competing against a number of other Rust Belt cities with more or less the same value proposition.

But the surprising second answer for many of them is that moving to Buffalo gives them a better opportunity to participate in society as a producer, not just a consumer, than they would ever get in New York. While testing yourself against the good and the lucky to try to make it to the top in the most competitive city in the world has its appeal – indeed, it’s what brought many of them to New York in the first place – it sometimes comes up wanting versus Buffalo where you can actually do and accomplish things.

Quoting:

“Some people will read this as a story of defeat. They will look at Herbeck and Cloyd [relocators] and think, They came; they couldn’t cut it; good riddance. That’s also a familiar New York narrative, one that’s especially comforting to those of us who stay and stick it out. Because, sure, stained glass and spare bedrooms are nice and all, but no one moves to New York because they think they’re going to get a great bargain on an apartment. You move here because you want to live in New York City.

“But I am here to tell you that this is not a story of defeat. Rather, it’s a story about choices. It’s a story about reaching that pivotal moment when the dream life you imagined for yourself in New York no longer seems attainable or attractive, or simply no longer seems worth the wearying chase. It’s a story, admittedly, about the kinds of people who have the luxury to move away, just as they once had the luxury to choose to move here; that is, people not pulled to one city or another by family obligation or job transferral, but rather by some grander idea of who they are and where they might best fit.”

Buffalo is not just the land of cheap rents, it is the land of opportunity. The place where you can actually play with the raw materials of the urban fabric and shape them to your own vision. A place where the productive avenues have not been foreclosed behind the walls of fortresses of money or connections.

“We tend to think that one of the consequences of leaving New York is giving up all sorts of opportunities. And yet, one quality common to everyone I meet in Buffalo is that, like Nussbaumer, they see opportunity everywhere. Where you see a boarded-up building, they see a future arts co-op. They use the phrases blank canvas or blank slate a lot.”

The article gives several examples of people who’ve taken the raw material of Buffalo and made something of it, including Newell Nussbaumer.

“You can bike around Buffalo and point to a lot of things and say, ‘Newell Nussbaumer did that.’ That week he’d been to City Hall with a group of cycling advocates and had persuaded the city to convert some of its old parking meters to bike stands, which is part of his grand scheme to make Buffalo the most bike-friendly city in North America. (Current title holder: Portland, Oregon.) Later, at the offices of Buffalo Rising, Nussbaumer explains how most of his staff are unpaid interns, who work for free not because they’re hoping to scrabble their way up some media ladder (in Buffalo, that ladder has no rungs) but because, as he says, ‘they know they’re helping to create this city where they want to live.’ I think of the many valiant unpaid interns I’ve known in New York, and while most of them were working hard to create their own lives, not one of them (or at least not the sane ones) imagined they were helping to create New York City.”

A city so far fallen that it has become nothing less than the new American frontier, the place where you can reinvent yourself and reinvent the city.

“When we think about leaving New York, we usually think about what we would lose, and rarely about what we might gain. To that end, prospective destinations are measured by how similar they are to here. Philadelphia is New York, but cheaper. San Francisco is New York, but gentler. It’s the “squint” factor: Well, if I squint, it’s like New York, sort of, and I guess I can live with that. When I went to Buffalo, I expected that to be the sales pitch: It’s a mini big city with parks by Olmsted, a few very nice neighborhoods and a really good museum. It’s pseudo–New York! This, after all, is how struggling cities sell themselves, especially in the post–Creative Class world, as though they’re designer-knockoff versions of more attractive destinations. We’ve got many of the things you love, at a fraction of the price!

“But that’s not what I found in Buffalo. I found it appealing for a different reason: not for how similar it is to New York (which is not very), but for how different. New York will always offer you the singular opportunity of testing yourself against the best, of sharpening yourself against the city’s fabled grindstone. Hopeful people will always scrape together their savings to come here, to split a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, whether that’s in Greenwich Village (then) or Bushwick (now). But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater. They moved looking for opportunities. They moved for the chance to build a new life for themselves.

“This, ironically, has always been the siren song of New York City: the chance to turn yourself into someone new, to live the life you’ve always imagined. But what a city like Buffalo offers is a very different promise of what could be. It offers the chance to live on the cheap and start a nonprofit organization, or rent an abandoned church for $1,000 a month, or finish your album without having to hold down two temp jobs at the same time, or simply have more space and a better view and enough money left over each month to buy yourself a painting once in awhile. A city like Buffalo reminds you that, beyond New York, there are still frontiers.”

A very worthwhile article and one that every Midwestern city should consider as it tries to figure out the value proposition it is offering. I’ve often said, trying to emulate America’s biggest cities is a fool’s errand for smaller places like Buffalo. What they need to do instead is to find their own unique niche and vision of what they can be. Ultimately Buffalo would never be a very good substitute New York City. But it can figure out how to be a great Buffalo.

This post originally appeared on September 12, 2008.

9 Comments
Topics: Talent Attraction
Cities: Buffalo, New York

9 Responses to “Replay: Are You a Consumer or a Producer?”

  1. Lou says:

    I couldn’t help think to myself when reading this article that these people should just move to Philly. Its closer to NYC (for visiting), better weather than NYC and Buffalo, great arts, culture, transit, history, a great downtown. Its not as crowded (in a good way). Traffic is still bad (no reason to own a car in the city (just walk or bike on the tiny little streets)). Its more expensive than Buffalo but isn’t everything? Plenty of Abandoned Factories and row homes within biking distance of Center City. Plus all the universities for post grad work. I guess people like saying their from NY even if it is far flung New York State.

  2. Rod Stevens says:

    The unstated question in these places is whether you will be accepted and able to make change. One of the miraculous things about New York, San Francisco and other creative places is their openness to new people. Is Buffalo one of those rare places that will simply let people come in and act? One of the problems in Portland during its great recession of the 1980s was that it was not very open to new people: it took a critical mass of them, and a gradual movement towards change, to get the flywheel moving.

  3. Richard Lewis says:

    I am bemused by the thought that Buffalo’s “rising” will be powered by making it the most bicycle friendly city in the U.S. Heaven forbid that the “frontier city” should consider endeavors that would mean dirt under fingernails or sweat. The Buffalo of yore was steel and chemicals and grain milling and railroading. But that is all beneath the modern New Yorker’s contempt.

    One need only follow the reports of New York’s frantic opposition to developing natural resources such as natural gas to understand the mindset that will preclude revival of Buffalo or other such cities in the state. The “creative” vortex that denizens of New york City consider its raison d’etre sucks the very life out of ordinary citizens’ pursuit of the prosaic basics of life: religion, work,and family. Those were the foundations of Buffalo.

  4. Thanks for posting this again. I first read this piece a year before I left Buffalo to pursue graduate work in Europe. It was spot on and inspiring then, and is even more relevant now. As I come to the end of my studies in the UK, I’ve already moved back to Buffalo for precisely these reasons. Fitting into someone else’s corporate box is not my idea of a purposeful life. The city (and others like it) continues to draw an ever-increasing number of pioneers/innovators/etc. These people have often tested their mettle elsewhere (NYC, London, Oxford, Harvard) and realized that real challenge and meaning are not to be found in those places…but rather by taking aim at what have become seemingly intractable problems in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. The fruits of this labor are unlikely to be measured in patents or corporate profits, but rather in the novel social, economic, and political structures that emerge from those places that have been bypassed by decades of globalization and now have access to idea and information flows that characterize the shattered geographies of the twenty-first century.

  5. Jacob says:

    The consumers vs. producers issue is tricky, because they have to be carefully proportioned in order for the for a city to have creative vitality. I currently live in Buffalo, and while it’s a great place to be an artist for the reasons mentioned (low cost of living, some solid arts infrastructure, etc.), the truth is that Buffalo’s a small town, and it often feels like there are too many artists for the city to support. Unless you’re one of the major arts orgs (Buffalo Philharmonic, University of Buffalo, Albright-Knox museum, etc.) it’s very difficult to draw a significant audience to arts events because there are too few people to go to them. An even more daunting issue is how to expand one’s audience beyond the same small group in a region that is not only small already, but shrinking every day. This is not a problem with Buffalo specifically, but with all cities similar to it in size.

    While artists in major cities like New York, LA, Chicago, etc. may complain that that they can’t throw a rock without hitting an artist (and the competition is admittedly much more fierce there), the massive size of those cities give them an economy of scale that allows a much better proportion of producers (artists) to consumers (audiences).

  6. Benjamin Mills says:

    I recently moved from Chicago to Norfolk, VA, and I’ve found a similar situation. Norfolk is a place that is starting to make itself. I’ve seen rapid change in the two years I’ve lived here. New local businesses seem to pop up every month. It feels like Norfolk is building an identity for itself, a reputation. It’s something that the people are doing for themselves, they aren’t importing identity from some other big city.

  7. George V. says:

    According to the article, it would seem that the primary advantage of Buffalo is that you can essentially buy more for less money, which is true in just about any decaying city. The article fails to prove in any meaningful way that people that move to (or back to) Buffalo actually produce more than when they were in larger cities, and I don’t think that was the intent, anyway. Yes, opening a coffee shop in an otherwise blighted strip in Buffalo may be cheaper and has more visual impact, but it’s statistically no more productive than opening a coffee shop in New York City.

    I think the consumer vs. producer angle is really nonsense here. What the article is in fact saying is that you can feel more important and self-fulfilled in Buffalo, a subjective viewpoint that nonetheless has some merit. There’s talk about how young people in Buffalo are inventing novel solutions to urban problems and stuff like that. Never mind that they’re mainly engaged with figuring out how to get suburbanites to a)spend money in the city and b)eventually move back to the city, a hardly novel approach. The only difference, I guess, is the latest generation of urban pioneers appear to be a little more successful at that approach, or at least have more power in the numbers. And that is something, no doubt about it. Bored with the blandness of the suburbs, we want to feel cultured, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan, and they’ve tapped into that desire quite successfully. Bravo, I say. Bravo.

  8. Rod Stevens says:

    I think there is something to this “just do it” attitude, in which younger people who can take risks are making communities and places for their own use, inside the shell of the former community. So much the better that it is for themselves and their own use, for who better than they know their own needs and wants? That is the essence of what happened in SoHo and Greenwich Village 60 years ago, in South Park in San Francisco 40 years ago, and along Congress Avenue in Boston 25 and 30 years ago. The people in these places weren’t trying to make themselves Yuppy centers or attract Starbucks; they had simply found a nice place to live and work and were rounding off the rough edges. The essence of the American frontier ethic is not trying to create a place for others but to find a better opportunity for ourselves and then add what is missing and would make this better.

  9. W.P. McNeill says:

    I have mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand I think the main thesis of Sternbergh’s article is excellent. People who leave New York City to have a better quality of life in Buffalo are not failures who couldn’t hack it. Even for us big city types, the rest of the United States outside New York/Seattle/San Francisco/LA is not a consolation prize. To believe that it is is to have a naive, parochial misunderstanding of the landscape of this country. Also it was fun to read about a can-do guy like Newell Nussbaumer. There’s a lot in here not just about what makes Buffalo good, but what makes cities good.

    On the other hand, I don’t like the way quality of life is expressed in terms of a division between “producers” and “consumers”, with the implication that the former are superior to the latter. If you work an “average job” and merely “recycle” your wages into the creative sector, you’re not producing anything. (No word about those portion of one’s wages that get recycled into other sectors, but I get the impression that’s not good either.) It seems like in order to count as productive you have to open an art co-op, or lay out a bike trail.These are good things, but your left with the impression that “producer” is a code word for upper middle-class liberal. Now I am an upper middle-class liberal and I love my upper-middle class brothers and sisters. We are good people, and make contributions to society that no one else does. (For example, all those bike trails.) But our values are not the only values, our folkways are not the only folkways, and our work is not the only work that counts. The proper term for someone who holds a job and raises a family without ever creating any novel artistic or intellectual artifact or having an affect on the world beyond their circle of loved ones and acquaintances is not “consumer”, it’s “human being”.

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