Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rust Belt Chic: Buffalo

The era of the alpha global city is waning, the Soft City experience to be found somewhere else. Not New York City. People vote with their feet and the Creative Class is fleeing America's biggest, coolest cities. When you consider domestic migration, cities such as Chicago are losers. Big losers. Where are all these urban refugees going? To the Rust Belt:

After further consideration, I doubt I could become Newell Nussbaumer if I moved to Buffalo, because that job is clearly taken. And I have to admit that the small-town, everyone-knows-your-name thing doesn’t appeal to me—escaping this is, in fact, a big reason why people move away from a place like Buffalo and go to a place like New York. But we tend to think that one of the consequences of leaving New York is giving up all sorts of opportunities. And yet, one quality common to everyone I meet in Buffalo is that, like Nussbaumer, they see opportunity everywhere. Where you see a boarded-up building, they see a future arts co-op. They use the phrases blank canvas or blank slate a lot ...

... I found [Buffalo] appealing for a different reason: not for how similar it is to New York (which is not very), but for how different. New York will always offer you the singular opportunity of testing yourself against the best, of sharpening yourself against the city’s fabled grindstone. Hopeful people will always scrape together their savings to come here, to split a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, whether that’s in Greenwich Village (then) or Bushwick (now). But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater. They moved looking for opportunities. They moved for the chance to build a new life for themselves.

This, ironically, has always been the siren song of New York City: the chance to turn yourself into someone new, to live the life you’ve always imagined. But what a city like Buffalo offers is a very different promise of what could be. It offers the chance to live on the cheap and start a nonprofit organization, or rent an abandoned church for $1,000 a month, or finish your album without having to hold down two temp jobs at the same time, or simply have more space and a better view and enough money left over each month to buy yourself a painting once in awhile. A city like Buffalo reminds you that, beyond New York, there are still frontiers.

Somehow the urban frontier effect has eluded Richard Florida. He's busy chasing yesterday's city stars. The rise of places such as Austin also had a lot to do with providing a frontier experience. In the Sun Belt, blank slate geographies abounded (see Houston for the best example of a frontier political geography). And then the scene of opportunity shifts as the hipster cities mature (i.e. get more expensive). This is the fickle fortune of geographic mobility.

The Rust Belt is where creative pioneers are moving:

It's strange how I used to only want to visit the "cool" cities (New York, Austin, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco), or perhaps I'd consider Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC. Now my recent obsessions are Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland (and other places in Ohio), all of which I've barely seen, and getting back to Kansas City, Louisville, Minneapolis, and Omaha, none of which I've visited for years. I swear, I don't just plan my trips around how many abandoned buildings I'll find...Meanwhile, architecture/urban exploration contacts on Flickr continue to ruin me, giving me a strange desire to visit, for example, St. Joseph, Missouri; Cairo, Illinois; Wheeling, West Virginia; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Denver; Los Angeles...I wish I knew how to get a job out of all this.

Time to pack up the faux woody wagon, destination Buffalo. I reckon you need to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. Tell them Uncle Rich was trying to sivilize you and you've been there before.

No comments: