Politicians Will Do Just About Anything To Promote Tourism

Why would New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a 71-year-old with a net worth of at least $27 billion, agree to compete in a whitewater-rafting race against the governor of New York? Andrew Cuomo and Bloomberg haven’t always seen eye-to-eye but tourism promotion can make for strange bedfellows. The pair found themselves squaring off in six-man rafts in a race down the Indian River on Monday in an effort to boost tourism in New York state’s Adirondack region. Cuomo’s team smoked the New York City mayor and his crew by 18 seconds but the PR for the Adirondacks was unbeatable.

Bloomberg and Cuomo aren’t the first politicians to take part in a publicity stunt to promote tourism and they surely won’t be the last. President Obama took a swim in the Gulf of Mexico with daughter Sasha, then 9, in the wake of the BP oil spill in 2010 and got whipped by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in an arcade football game while on a post-Hurricane Sandy visit to the Jersey Shore designed to promote tourism in May. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled all over the world to promote California as a tourist destination, even posing for hokey photos with clusters of grapes or with his mouth stuffed with oranges.

Other tourism promotion efforts haven’t been as successful. For example, in 2010, Virginia’s Governor, Bob McDonnell, had to apologize after declaring October “Confederate History Month” to promote tourism while failing to mention slavery in the proclamation.

Local and national tourism boards and private companies have also used peculiar promotions to boost destinations: South Korea is using pop star Psy of Gangnam style fame as an unofficial tourism ambassador, Chinese authorities had dozens of bikini clad beauties square off in a Gangnam style dance competition for the honor of promoting Chinese tourism, regional tourism boards in Australia have used “best job in the world” contests to promote tourism and the hotel chain Travelodge offered a free Christmas time stay to married couples named Mary and Joseph. By comparison, the brief race river race in the Adirondacks seems downright old school.

Love In The Civil War At The New York State Museum

The Civil War is the subject of numerous exhibitions and special events these days as the country commemorates the war’s sesquicentennial. Most study the battles and politics, but one at the New York State Museum in Albany is focusing on how the war affected the relationship between two lovers.

“I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell” opens today as part of “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War,” a 7,000-square-foot exhibition that examines New York’s role in the war.

Doctor and Mary Tarbell were childhood sweethearts who got separated when Doctor Tarbell went off to war with the Union army. They kept up a regular correspondence until the doctor was captured and sent to a Confederate prison.

Mary heard nothing from him and didn’t even know he was alive until he was released in February 1865. The doctor wasted no time getting leave to go home and marry his true love.

The exhibition tells of their enduring relationship with letters, diaries, photographs and Mary’s wedding dress, giving a personal and emotional side to a period of history so often concerned with death and violence.

Both exhibitions run through September 22.

[Photo courtesy Tompkins County History Center]

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]

Civil War New York Subject Of New Exhibition

During the Civil War, New York was the wealthiest and most populous state on either side of the conflict. A new exhibition at the New York State Museum in Albany examines the important role New York played in preserving the Union.

“An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” features more than two hundred artifacts, documents and images centering around the themes of Antebellum New York, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and Legacy. Artifacts on display include a Lincoln life mask from 1860, the earliest photograph of Frederick Douglass, and the only known portrait of Dred Scott. There’s also a slave collar from c.1806 to point out the often-overlooked fact that slavery was once common in this northern state.

The exhibition examines various aspects of the war and home front and has a section dedicated to the Elmira Prison Camp, dubbed “Hellmira” by the Confederate soldiers interned there. Nearly 25 percent of them died from malnutrition, exposure and disease.

In a press release, the museum stated that the exhibition’s title was inspired by an 1858 quote from then U.S. Senator William H. Seward, who disagreed with those who believed that the prospect of war between the North and South was the work of “fanatical agitators.” He understood that the roots of conflict went far deeper, writing, “It is an irrepressible conflict, between opposing and enduring forces.”

“An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” starts today and runs until September 22, 2013.

[Photo of noncommissioned officers’ mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry courtesy Library of Congress]

Conned By The Amish?

We like to believe in the inherent honesty and virtue of the Amish. They are devout people who eschew material comforts in favor of simple living. In a country where the almighty dollar is king, and the gotcha capitalist ethos of say-anything-to-sell-it rules, they stand apart, as craftsmen who sell what they make with their own hands at fair prices with no nonsense. Or do they?

I’ve been patronizing the Amish shops in Cattaraugus County for many years and have always believed that the Amish sold quality, handmade items at great prices. But I had an experience at an Amish shop recently that led me to believe that at least some of the Amish might be no less immune to deceptive salesmanship than anyone else.Two years ago, my wife and I purchased a small, supposedly handmade Amish throw rug from the Wengerd family shop on Dredge Road in South Dayton, New York, and, although the rug was very cheap, we loved it. It’s not a beautiful rug, but every time we look at it, it reminds us of a place we love and a people we greatly respect. In July, we were back in Cattaraugus County and made another visit to the Wengerd family shop, which is located on a desolate road, deep in the Amish belt, where horses and buggies outnumber vehicular traffic, 2-1.

I asked the young man with a characteristic Amish bowl haircut if they bought the rugs or made them on premises.

“My sister makes them right here,” he said rather convincingly.

Given the low prices- $18 for a small rug or $39 for a larger one, I should have been skeptical, but it’s hard to know how an Amish teen would value their own time and labor, and I wasn’t prepared to believe that the God-fearing Amish would lie like a rug.

I bought a nice, big multicolored rug and just as we were about to get into our car, which was parked at the end of their two-buggy driveway, a FedEx truck came barreling down the lonely road.

“FedEx comes out here?” I said to my dad. “But how can the Amish even order anything without phones or Internet?”

Rather than pull out right away, I waited to see where the truck was going, and, sure enough, it pulled up right in front of the Wengerd family’s shop. The driver hopped out and began to unload long, spherically shaped bundles that looked very much like carpets. The young man who sold us the rug had retreated into the family home after we left the shop in front of the house and didn’t come out to greet the truck. We wondered if he didn’t want to come out and sign for the bundles with us in sight.

The driver must make deliveries to the shop regularly because he went right into the unlocked shop and plopped the big bundles down. When he came back out, we asked him if they were carpets.

“Sure feels like it,” he said.

I drove off, feeling a bit shaken and confused. Were the Amish ordering carpets from China and passing them off as handmade? How would they do that without phones, cars or access to the Internet? How could I be so dumb to think I could get a handmade rug for $39?

I returned home and drafted a letter to the Wengerd family to ask them to clarify where the rug was made, because I was curious to see if they’d respond. Three days later, I received the following letters in reply.

Mr. Dave Seminara,

In response to your recent letter, about the rugs, our daughter and her husband make the rugs that we sell in our shop, that is correct. The blue rolls of fabric that FedEx unload that day came from Arkansas. It is quilt lining. We do not buy rugs from China or any other place. When my wife read your letter she was laughing so hard that I asked, What is so funny? I hope this explains it all, if not feel free to come out and see for your self. I want to thank you for writing about your conserns.

Levi Wengerd


You wrote about the rugs. I just had to laugh that you thought that we get our rugs through FedEx. The items we were getting when you were here was a wide fabric for quilt backings 118 inches wide. Our daughter Amanda makes all those rugs as our son told you. They have 2 looms and they weave these rugs through the winter and now they don’t have enough rugs for what we sell so they are busy with the looms again!

Elizabeth Wengerd

The handwritten letters immediately restored my impression of the Amish as an honest people who are unwilling to swindle people to make a buck. But why had I been so quick to assume the worst? As American consumers, we are subjected to so much false advertising and bogus sales claims that it’s easy to become cynical to the point where even the Amish are suspect.

Still, I was curious to know more about how Amish families like the Wengerd’s can do business without access to the Internet or telephones, so I sent them a reply asking to know more. Perhaps not surprisingly, they never responded. Sometimes the things that glitter really are gold but don’t expect the Amish to clue you in on all their secrets.