Feeling the Guts of My Hometown

This is the fifth pre-publication draft in my series of pieces (many of them memoir) about Buffalo, my hometown, that will be released in 2013.  If you liked this, you can find the other four in my April, May and June blog archives!

The place wasn’t big enough for all of us.  So the party at Gabel’s Bar, one of our old haunts, spilled out onto the street.  People came from near and far because, in part, St. Margaret’s Parish is closing its elementary school.  This was a happy way to mark an otherwise-sad occasion. 

Statistically, our government tells us, we are most like Detroit – that third world country located in Michigan whose imported cars we were reminded of at halftime during the last Super Bowl.  According to the government, Detroit has the nation’s highest urban poverty rate.   My home town is second.

I’m at Gabel’s half an hour before the crowd arrives.  Wade and the others behind the bar are solid men, younger than I, clear-eyed and pleasant, though all business.  When others begin to arrive, we try to figure out where we might know each other from when we ruled the streets, back in the 1970s.  What’s your name…  What school did you… What street did you… Oh, you mean you’re not one of those Todaros?  Laughter.  Hugs.  Sure!  You used to hang out with…  By the third such conversation, I’m very glad to be back in North Buffalo.  This will be a lot of fun.

Old things close more often than new things open.  Even in neighborhoods like my beloved North Side, where the storefronts on Hertel teem with business, the sidewalks are full of people, and other than some chipped paint here and there you’d be hard-pressed to find homes that have fallen into disrepair, St. Margaret’s must close their school. It’s been that way in Buffalo for about the last 50 years. 

Some of us have travelled across three or more state lines to be here tonight.  Others have walked three or more blocks.  The city has treated the people who hung around very well.  I say this because… look at them!  They have aged more gracefully than I have.  My brother arrives – he came from two states away.  His presence signals that it’s time for my third beer.  Or maybe it’s my fourth.

The day after the homecoming, I decide to take a ride.  Just a week earlier, I’d seen some YouTube videos of Detroit.  Awful, bone-chilling images of destruction and neglect.  The most grotesque American nightmare I’ve ever seen.  The government says my hometown closely resembles Detroit.  I want to see for myself. For three hours, I snake through the city streets, purposely going to all the places I know to be notorious…

The day after the homecoming, I sit with my aunt and uncle in the cafeteria at St. Aloysius Parish, eating ribs and chocolate chip cookies with a couple hundred other parishioners.  “Saint Al’s” is located in an inner ring suburb that is still nice, but beginning to show some wear and tear.   Once, its elementary school greeted 1,100 kids each school day.  My uncle explained that when enrollment tanked below 600, they just couldn’t keep it open anymore.  It’s been closed for three years or so. 

… Box Street.  Moselle Street.  Masten Avenue.  The University District.  Central Park.  The Lower West Side.  Humboldt Park.  Jefferson and Best.  Streets and nieghborhoods where, over the last twenty, forty, sixty years, people like me aren’t supposed to wander into.  People with white skin.  And I really am surprised by what I see…

The night after the homecoming, I’m sitting with Jim at an outdoor cafe, on Elmwood Avenue.   Jim’s family runs a chain of local hardware stores.  When we were in high school, the chain had nineteen stores.  Now, there are eight.  The shops and bistros on Elmwood are inviting, the June night is beautiful, the Upstate sunset just beginning.  People of all ages are everywhere.   My buddy tells me that his dad (God rest his soul) used to take him for the kind of rides around the city that I had just taken.  He says that the hardware chain’s sales numbers over the last couple of years make it easy for him to believe my descriptions of the city’s most infamous neighborhoods.

… there’s a house with an SUV in the driveway.  The house is old, but it has a fresh coat of paint.  There’s another one, right next door, with kids playing on the porch, and an adult supervising.  Ugh, that next house should come down.  But sure enough, the city has marked it for demolition; the telltale “gas cut off” and “water off” indicating that when the bulldozers come, it will be safe…

I’m looking for a junk-strewn wasteland.  Where are the gutted cars and bashed-in pleasure boats, like I saw in YouTube Detroit?  Where is all the evidence of hopelessness, of abandonment, of humanity gone mad?  I do see some sad things.  I remember Mom taking us to the Central Park Plaza as kids, but now it is forlorn; ten acres of stark emptiness in the midst of the city.  I see individual houses; sometimes even two or three in a row, that are obviously vacant and waiting to be leveled.  I do see the ugliness of abandoned factories, and I am sad to think that once these buildings provided jobs that sustained hundreds of families.  But I’m still more dumbstruck by a completely different category of life that awaits my discovery.

… there’s a whole new city block.  The houses, lawns and driveways are less than ten years old.  There are people in the backyard, grilling their Sunday afternoon dinner.  And it’s not just one new block; it’s an entire neighborhood of new homes.  And another, a couple of miles away.  And another.  I look at my car’s GPS.  Just as I suspected.  I’m driving on a brand new street, too new to show up on my map.

I can easily identify where old houses once stood.  In almost every case, they’re replaced with nice, neat grassy spaces.  Someone – the neighbors?  The city?  – is maintaining these green spaces.   I’m back on an older, narrow street and a horde of teens has taken it over.  I must stop the car.  A few of the street kings are eyeing me as though I’m from another planet.  A white planet.  With out of state tags.

I roll down the window and look at one of the street kings. “I’m on a one way street, aren’t I?” I say.

“Dave, I really think people are pulling together.  The place could be making a comeback,” Jim tells me over fancy Italian coffees and pastries on Elmwood.  “The state has committed a billion dollars over the next few years to the university, and the community leaders and the university are finally making plans together.”

I recall something a friend of mine, a young, Chinese-born scientist I met at an alumni event a year ago, told me.  “Do you know that in China, millions of parents who can afford to send their kids to the United States for college want to send them to Buffalo as their first choice?”

“Not suprised,” Jim says between sips.  “It’s a hell of a school.  Law… medicine… business… physics.  They’re committed to making it even better.”

The street king walks toward the car and points at a sign.  “Yes sir, it’s one way,” he says politely, smiling.  “You want to turn around?” 

He points ahead, to a driveway that is a little wider than the others.  It’ll be easier for me to get back into compliance with the law if I pull into that one. The street kings back off.  A couple of them snicker, the way young men do at old farts like me.

“I really tried to find the most hopeless streets I could find,” I tell Jim.  “But I kept seeing things that tell me the city is full of hope.  Gardens, new paint and windows, kids playing and their parents watching out for them – wherever I went.  Sure I saw bad stuff.  But newness was always there, too.  I was shocked.”

“There’s still a lot to do,” my friend answered, “but we’ll get it done.”

I left Buffalo a day later, the way I always leave it – wishing I didn’t have to go.  Hoping that the revival I saw in its guts will prove to be more than just a flash in the pan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *