In my opinion, Buffalo is one of the best cities in America for architecture. During it's heyday in the early twentieth-century, the area thrived, due to the Erie Canal and Buffalo companies, such as American Express, and Bethlehem Steel. The main industries were flour and steel, and the area was rich enough to attract some of the best architects in the country: there are five Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Buffalo, and I think they're actually building a new structure there from one of his designs. Driving around the city, you see many neighborhoods where it's possible to live in classic American homes for very little money. There is also one of the great art galleries in the country there: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Forbes lists Buffalo among it's "fastest dying cities" in America, and puts the population decline at 51,302 since the year 2,000. Most of the cities are in the "rust belt" and four of them are in Ohio. In the case of Buffalo, the local economy was devastated when Bethlehem Steel shut down its production in Lackawanna between 1977 and 1982. The economy has been in perpetual decline ever since.
In many ways, Buffalo resembles a hollowed-out version of our own city, Hamilton. When we walked around the local mall, looking for a washroom, about half of the stores were empty- they've tried to replace the departed businesses, but can't attract replacements. They stack empty boxes with the mall logo on them in the store fronts.There were almost as many security guards as customers there, and there's a weird security paranoia in general downtown. We were "trailed" by a security martinet who didn't like us taking pictures of each other near important buildings. Eventually, one imagines the shrinking population and post-9/11 paranoia will result in something like the buddy system in Buffalo, with one guard for each local.
The cultural issues are much the same: the drunks in public at 2 pm, people sleeping on park benches, teenage mothers, and the same casual domestic cruelty. Quote from a passing teenage mother to her six year old: "You slow down Stephanie, or I'm going to break your fucking stick legs!" As in Hamilton, you see a certain percentage of the adult population who seems totally unprepared for the demands of adulthood; actually, given the cultural similarities, I'd imagine that cultural decline is more widespread than economic decline. Many parts of Hamilton and Buffalo are very civilized, but walking around downtown Buffalo, I wondered what would happen to the more dysfunctional parts of Hamilton if our steel mills close. Where would these people go? What would happen to them? The culture in no way prepares them for such possibilities, and the economy is not improving.
There are many people who talk about revitalizing Buffalo. Certainly, the rebuilding has made much of the town gorgeous, and it's inspiring to see tree-lined, peaceful neighborhoods for blue collar black families. There have been some films shot here, such as The Savages, which we just watched, and which made Buffalo look miserable. Ani Difranco runs her record label out of Buffalo and has made a beautiful venue space out of a classic John Selkirk building. Given the cheapness of living in Buffalo, it could well become a magnet for cool young artists. On the other hand, even though people talk glowingly of bohemian urban renewal, can you really build an economy on indie rock bands and hipster websites?
Is it possible that Buffalo will finally die completely? The local government was so short on funds a few years ago that they started closing libraries and suspending the 9.1.1. service. It was something of a bluff- the state finally kicked some money to them. But I have to wonder if it wouldn't be best to start moving people closer together and closing off some of the neighborhoods. Certainly, they have already demolished a few houses to put in parks and gardens. Would it be best to run Buffalo as a large, very secure, nursing community and allow its aging community to slowly die out? Or would the psychological costs offset the economic gains?