Buffalo, New York: The Best Maligned Place

Every year around this time we return to Buffalo, our wonderful, maligned hometown like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Buffalo is a city of exiles and I’m one of them. Up to half the people who grow up in the region leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere, but we remain fiercely loyal to the place. The rest of the country assumes that the Queen City is an armpit and treats us as such, but that only makes us love the place even more.

I’ve moved more than a dozen times since I left Buffalo for college at 17. I’ve traveled to more than 50 foreign countries and 40 U.S. States and have lived in five countries and seven states. But Buffalo is the only place that I return to at least once every year. My family keeps me coming back, but even if they skipped town, I’d still come back at least once a year. Why?

Since leaving Buffalo in 1990, I’ve been asked thousands of times where I’m from. When I tell fellow Americans where I’m from, I’ve never once had anyone say, “Buffalo, wow, you’re really lucky,” or “Buffalo, man, I have always wanted to go there.” Not at all. People often repeat the word “Buff-al-lo” slowly, as if digesting a chicken wing bone as a pained expression comes over their faces.

“It’s really cold there, snows all the time doesn’t it?” they’ll say.

This kind of response makes sense if you’re talking to someone from Arizona or Florida or California, but we get it from everyone. Chicago is my adopted hometown and it always astonishes me how Chicagoans, who endure long, miserable winters, somehow assume that Buffalo’s weather must be worse. I try telling people that while Buffalo gets more snow, Chicago is colder but no one believes me.

People who are trying to be nice will mention our weather but will shift focus to our other claim to fame: chicken wings. (We just call them wings.)

“Terrible weather but you’ve got good chicken wings, right?” they’ll say.

Men will also make some reference to the fact that our beloved Buffalo Bills lost in the Super Bowl four times in a row or the fact that we now have the longest playoff appearance drought in the NFL.

There is only one place I’ve been in the world where people were impressed by the fact that I was from Buffalo and you would have a hard time finding this place on a map. It’s a village in Sicily’s rugged interior called Montemaggiore Belsito. My mom’s family emigrated to Buffalo from this village and when I went there for a visit in 2005, everyone we met there knew about “Boo-fah-loh” and had a favorable impression of the place.

“Boo-fah-loh, that’s a beautiful place,” said a young man we met in a café. “My uncle owns Frank’s Sunny Italy restaurant on Delaware Avenue.”

I thought that this was a remarkable coincidence until we realized that everyone in the village had relatives in Boo-fah-loh, as they call it. But aside from Montemaggiore Belsito, Buffalo doesn’t get much love. In the ’80s we had a Buffalo’s “Talkin’ Proud” PR campaign (see video above) and before that we had “Boost Buffalo,” which audaciously suggested that Buffalo was “ideal in every way” with a “wonderful climate” (see video above), but in recent years many of us Buffalo natives have given up trying to convince others that our city isn’t so bad.

For years, I’ve tried to tell people that there is more to Buffalo than snow storms, failing sports teams and wings. Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tim Russert and Mark Twain lived in Buffalo at various times. Buffalo was the 9th largest city in America in 1900 and Delaware Avenue, one of the city’s principles thoroughfares, once had more millionaires than any other street in America. Many of the city’s architectural treasures are still intact; including six Frank Lloyd Wright designed structures.

The city’s population has been declining for decades but there’s a flipside to that depressing trend too: very little traffic and no parking hassles. Buffalo has amazing restaurants, the terrific Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a lively bar scene, and the least pretentious city folk you’ll find in the country. You can buy a nice house in Buffalo for the cost of a mediocre parking space in Manhattan.

The Frederick Law Olmsted designed Delaware Park is one of the finest urban parks in the country and Buffalo’s Art Deco City Hall is a showstopper. We have Niagara Falls, the Niagara Wine Region, a bucolic Amish country and some good ski resorts right on our doorstep. But this is not a list of things to do in Buffalo, because the city’s charms can’t be visited and ticked off like a shopping list.

If you haven’t spent time in Buffalo with a local as your tour guide, you probably won’t get it. A guidebook won’t help you. You’ll drive around in a fog and wonder what the hell to do with your time. You have to go with a local to Ralph Wilson Stadium for a Bills game in December. Sit in the end zone and share a gulp of whisky from your neighbor’s flask. Go ahead and hug some complete strangers when the Bills score – if the Bills score.

Go to a Tim Horton’s for donuts and coffee on a Monday morning and ask the guy at the table next to you how badly he thinks the refs screwed the Bills the day before. (We always get shafted, or at least think we did.)

Go to Gabriel’s Gate in Allentown, sit at the bar, order some wings and share a basket of popcorn and some conversation with the person sitting next to you. Break bread with us. Stay out until 4 a.m. with us at the bars. Commiserate with us about our sports teams. Ask us about our weather if you must. Help us push our cars out of a snowdrift. Spend some time here and you will like it. I swear. But if you don’t come, that’s OK too, because we don’t mind keeping Buffalo’s charms a secret.

[Photo credits: Elif Ayse, Yurilong, Jason Paris, and DMealiffe on Flickr]