Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Critique of Downtown Buffalo (NY)

I have this to say about Downtown Buffalo: City Hall (pictured above, left) is very impressive, and I might even say it’s beautiful.

Although the top is shrouded in scaffolding, the building is remarkable. Standing tall alongside a handsome rotary / roundabout, its grandeur impresses. On the façade above the grand stairs, friezes depict industry and agriculture. At the base stand statues of political luminaries, including Grover Cleveland, one-time Buffalo mayor, two-time President. Buffalo City Hall is bigger than I imagined city halls would be in medium-sized cities such as Buffalo, but perhaps that’s because I’m accustomed to governmental sprawl, the municipal offices of other towns and cities spread as they are across multiple sites.

A few blocks away, the Erie County Hall (pictured above, right) is worthy of attention.

On Main Street, the mirrors of the M&T Center and the reflecting pool across the street were together a welcome foil to the non-gameday bleakness of the HSBC Center. There was a certain utilitarian beauty in the above-ground commuter rail line running the length of Main Street, powerlines overhead like Boston's Green Line (below, right). The gilded dome of the old Buffalo Savings Bank (below, left) is a non-sequitur on this decaying avenue.

Beyond the few glimmers, Downtown Buffalo is one of the most depressing urban centers in my memory.

On more than one occasion, I had to double-check: "Today is Monday, right? It’s not a bank holiday, is it? Where the hell is everybody?"

I was struck by the volume of boarded up stores, sometimes entire city blocks. The streets were peopled with smokers puffing away beside the entrance to their offices, and few others. Now, I wasn’t looking for touristy venues—I realize Buffalo is not a popular tourist destination, except for the Falls, which rush twenty-odd miles away—but I would have been content with a few shops, maybe a local restaurant offering wings and a beer. I saw one café, in the corner of the first floor of the Liberty Building, which has replicas of the Statue of Liberty atop its two towers, but it failed to lure me in, partly because I expected to find another establishment a block down the way. No such luck. When the sign of life is a fan-powered inflatable stick figure outside the Nextel store, you know you're in trouble.

In my weak attempt at “becoming local” here in Buffalo, I tried one a hot dog (they’re white here) and a can of “pop” from a street vendor. It was the highlight of downtown. Finally, I found myself a Starbucks, ordered a cup of Earl Grey, and lost track of where I was.


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