It’s taken awhile since my return from Western New York on November 9th to process all the sights and sounds experienced while back in the homeland. The trip was meaningful for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to check out all that is happening downtown. Incredibly, it ended up being even more enlightening than anticipated.
The last time I walked in the area now referred to as ‘Canalside’ was during the winter of 1982 after attending a Sabres game at The Aud. Having already made plans to leave WNY after my last semester at the University at Buffalo, I decided to take a walk around the area, as I knew it would be my last for a long time.
The place was littered with garbage blowing through empty lots and lost dreams. I remember thinking how different it was from my grandmother’s description of her first impressions after arriving in South Buffalo in 1904. Gone were the vibrant neighborhoods of immigrants seeking a better life. All that was left by 1982 were the remnants of a dying steel industry and polluted waterways.
I didn’t really want to leave, but like many in my generation the opportunity for career advancement was severely limited. It didn’t help that like my father, I was solar powered and felt like a hibernating bear every November with short days and dark skies.
When the chance to move into a position that would take at least ten more years for me to acquire working as a New York state employee at Roswell Park, the lure of sunshine, lower taxes and mild winters in New Mexico was a no-brainer. So off I went on a life adventure that would also take me to Oregon and Montana, before finally settling permanently in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
So when I returned and stayed in downtown Buffalo for the first time since leaving WNY, it was certainly a shock to see revitalization going with such intensity. No amount of preparation from seeing pictures and reading articles about the rebuilding of downtown Buffalo prepared me for what I saw happening while I was there. What’s happening downtown and all over WNY is nothing short of astounding.
However, as fabulous as the physical rehabilitation of the area is looking, it’s the people of WNY that have changed their attitude the most from my perspective. Everywhere I went (and I did a lot of walking around the city), there was a sense of optimism and joy that was absent when I lived there.
Make no mistake, Buffalo has always been welcoming place with wonderful people. However, by the early 1980s the decades of decay were at the very least challenging to the collective psyche of a region in despair. I felt guilty leaving Buffalo behind, like so many of my peers at the time.
So the fact that I was celebrating an upcoming 40th anniversary as an oncology nurse and simultaneously entering the last chapter of my life made this trip an especially emotional one. I decided while flying out of Wyoming that it was time to check out the city in a way I had not done since leaving WNY.
What I found was that the physical changes were even less dramatic than the change in the collective psyche of the people that make the city of Buffalo and WNY a great place to live. I purposefully selected the people I wanted to meet.
What I learned was remarkable in many ways. Arguably the most poignant lesson I learned is that for all the good that social media can do, it certainly does little justice to reflecting reality as far as creating accurate impressions of people. It was a very valuable lesson that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
First up, let me begin by thanking Del Reid for taking time to meet at the headquarters of @26shirts.com. He was so generous with his time, and personifies a new attitude of joy and optimism permeating WNY. As @26shirts expands its effort to raise money for families with medical needs in other cities, Buffalo will always be the proud birthplace of extraordinary love and generosity, and @26shirts is just one example.
Next, while spending a morning touring the Naval Park I met a remarkable man. He is a homeless veteran who spends his days cleaning the park and making sure visitors understand all that goes into creating and maintaining the many monuments to WNY veterans of war.
He explained that it was his choice to live on his own, and refused help from anyone because he felt other people were more in need of assistance than he needed at this time. We spent about an hour together talking about Buffalo, and he had nothing but good things to say about how local businesses always made sure he had a warm place to stay inside when the weather turned nasty. Yet another example of WNY compassion. Nice to know that we still look out for one another.
Arguably the most poignant lesson of the trip was coming to grips with how poorly social media conveys what people are really like in person. This was a very important lesson for me for many reasons.
I stopped by a local watering hole on Elmwood to wish WKBW’s Joe Buscaglia a happy birthday. There were several local media in attendance, and I was fortunate to have a chance to chat with Tim Graham, Matthew Fairburn, Tyler Dunne, and our very own Mike Rodak.
Let me state that like many others, I pigeon holed a few of these guys like other Bills and Sabres fans over recent years. When I first started participating on Twitter, I had a lot to learn about how people navigate social media. When I first opened my Twitter account, I thought Tim Graham was one of the rudest journalists on social media.
I found his constant sniping toward fans kind of eyebrow raising and did not understand why he would be on attack mode until I read through his timeline. Twitter can be cruel place. Unless you find a way to deal with abject rudeness, it can drive one crazy if you don’t have a game plan to deal with “trolls”. I quickly learned it can be a necessary tool for survival.
Mr. Graham would probably prefer the general public not know this, but in reality he is a kind and generous man who seeks to make a difference by being willing to state what others lack the guts to say. Sometimes the message is strong, but he gives us the opportunity to buck up and face a reality many of us might prefer to avoid.
It takes courage to be blunt, and there is a necessary role in all communities for there to be a voice that speaks out and asks the tough questions. As a person that has filled that role in various ways throughout my own life, I have great respect for people that willingly take on that difficult task. Tim Graham does it well, and WNY is blessed to have his expertise.
I did miss meeting Jerry Sullivan and John Warwow. Mr. Sullivan seems to have evolved into a less caustic reporter over the years (pretty sure he’d consider that an insult :) Bills fans seem to have adjusted and accepted Mr. Sullivan as the kinder, more gentle curmudgeon of WNY. Now it seems there’s a new sheriff in town wearing the ‘villain’ reporter badge.
Mr. Mike Rodak has apparently acquired that honor in WNY these days. He’s a natural for the job, with his east coast personality and propensity to incite the local fan base with an occasional inflammatory post on social media.
However, news flash… Mr. Rodak is a really nice guy. As mind blowing as that may seem for some, it’s the absolute truth from my perspective. If you met Mr. Rodak out and about and did not know his social media history, most of you would really like this young reporter.
Furthermore, ‘villain’ reporters play an important role in any community. The attraction to what may be perceived as negative forces us to confront our personal biases head on. It’s important to understand our tendency toward developing inaccurate perceptions of people on social media because it forces us to be much more mindful that what we see is not necessarily reflected in the real world.
This is especially true regarding our role as sports fans. As the term ‘fanatics’ implies, by nature being a fan of any sports team is not a rational state of mind. Irrational thinking can create vulnerabilities when there are poor boundaries that separate our real lives from what is considered sports entertainment.
So what if a media reporter makes us mad by poking at our over-sensitivity to being fans of two teams with a strong history of losing, and not a single championship between them to show for it? Yes, what I am implying here is that as a fan base, we are way too sensitive about our losing legacy. This over-sensitivity is evident by the way we respond to reporters who tell us things we don’t want to acknowledge about ourselves.
Furthermore, our irrational responses are exactly what many ‘villain’ reporters seek. It creates a positive reinforcement in the form of clicks and stats that bring traffic to web sites and social media. Instead of folding right into the bait, wouldn’t we be better served to ask ourselves why this person irritates us so much?
So… what does any of this have to do with a trip back to Buffalo? Everything, as it turns out. This trip I decided to hang out and purposefully observe how people interact, and what was the general vibe going on around me. I’ve done this for years when I go on a solo jaunt anywhere outside my safe zone. It’s just how I roll.
What was strikingly different about this visit back to Buffalo compared to any other I’ve made in recent years was the collective smile that I don’t recall seeing while I was growing up in WNY. By the time I entered the world, the steel industry was just coming off the peak years during WW2. WNY got pegged the “Rust Belt” for obvious reasons, especially if you take a drive along Lakeshore Road.
Chippewa is now a robust neighborhood. The Hotel Lafayette serves a mean Lackawanna Lager. The changes happening around Canalside are astounding. People smile and talk positively about the future. There is a sense of thriving energy that produces a constant buzz wherever you go.
Buffalo now has two sports teams that are being infused with resources beyond what any previous owners provided. It’s good to see that optimism about their future be reflected in the faces of people living in the community.
WNY passionately loves its sports teams. We have always viewed them as a reflection of ourselves, and to some extent our self-worth as a community.
So instead of getting knotted up about what gets put out in the media, think about why it either makes you feel good or bad. When we learn to accept that there is a role and function for every personality around us, we lose the very thing that triggers the response the ‘villain’ media seek.
The reason this all flows together regarding my recent jaunt around Buffalo is that I now see and believe for the first time in my lifetime that Buffalo is in good hands. There are good people there minding the shop, and planning for a brighter future than I ever anticipated seeing during my lifetime.
It feels like the city and region are coming full circle. The green shoots of urban renewal are finally taking root and spreading throughout the region. The resurgence has reached a critical mass that will no longer be thwarted by narrow-mindedness, corruption, and negativity. I truly never thought I’d live to see this happen in Buffalo.
This just in, entering the elderly years provides a sobering opportunity for self-examination. As a retired person drifting around the last chapter of life, I haven’t felt this uncertain about what lies ahead since adolescence. The plus now is that life experience provides a great template for learning, if you harness wisdom from experience. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m on my way.
All I do know about myself at this juncture is that there are still things left to do. But one of those things no longer includes carrying around a certain sadness about what is happening in WNY. Thanks to every person I encountered along the way on this transformational visit.
Whether or not I ever return to WNY, I will rest easier knowing Buffalo is in good hands. Thank you, Buffalo.