Saturday, September 15, 2012

Buffalo Chic

Before Rust Belt Chic, there was Buffalo Chic. A reader alerted me to a Dar Williams song, asking if it could be considered Rust Belt Chic. "Southern California Wants To Be Western New York." Plastic LA wishes it had Utica's soul. Did Williams really mean it?

Answering that question was beyond the means of Google. Way back in 1996, a piece in the Buffalo News had the city "adopting" the song as an anthem. Turns out that the muse was Utica. The sentiment applied equally well anywhere Upstate:

"Western New York is the epitome of something," Williams said this summer in a phone interview from her office in Massachusetts following her European tour. "That something is what I write about: true life, unmeditated. Cues taken not from TV, but landscape and history and tradition and architecture.

"That phenomenon of reality is found in Western New York."

Of course, Utica isn't usually included in the Western New York area. But the values of both areas are quite similar: Both Western New York and areas such as Utica and Binghamton -- another source of inspiration for the song -know the importance of history and find beauty in that tradition, she says.

Who cares where Western New York ends and central New York begins? That isn't the point. The point is that where tradition is found, so is a deeper understanding for one's self -- and the notion that heritage is more important than a new minimall. And, Williams added, she did drive through Buffalo once.

Maybe she groups the two areas together because compared to Westchester, the New York City suburb where the singer was raised, Utica is Western New York.

Whatever the reason -- if all else fails, call it artistic license -Williams found a beauty that most people don't see. She describes the coffee house with an affectionate tone to her voice:

"The house was creaky," she says. "There were soggy marks on the wall from the spring thaw, and rust stains under the faucets. And the owners didn't apologize."

Words that may seem insulting instead convey thoughts of security and comfort.

"Things that were usually called messy or cluttered or imperfect were more beautiful and had more meaning," she says.

Want to absorb the true beauty, poetry and charm to her song, and at the same time see Western New York in an entirely different way? Put it on the car stereo and drive through the streets of Buffalo. It's like a living video taking place outside your car window.

Williams describes an urban aesthetic that I have traced back to 1970s New York City. I write about the history of Rust Belt Chic in a just-released anthology that explores the concept through a Cleveland lens. To me, Buffalo Chic bridges the gap between the violent urban frontier of New York and the return migration gentrification of Cleveland. In New York, Rust Belt Chic was an ironic appreciation of blue collar culture that caused Harvey Pekar's wife to use the term as a derisive epithet. Via Dar Williams, Buffalo natives took ownership:

Lockport native Tim Wendel, senior writer at Baseball Weekly, saw her solo acoustic show at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier this year.

"She did the song, and she blew us away," says Wendel. "We suddenly felt we were back at the Anchor Bar or staying up late on Elmwood Avenue. She hit all the bells and whistles, especially that part about the raised tubs."

"I think the crowd was split between those who knew Western New York and were emphatic with their applause, and those who were scratching their heads over it," he says.

Wendel says he has given "Mortal City" to friends he knew in Buffalo who have moved away. At least once, the song has brought tears to their eyes.

If you are from there, you get it. Rust Belt Chic is best understood by the people who left and miss home. Why does Buffalo, of all places, exert such a strong pull on someone's soul? That personal connection is now enjoying a broader appeal. That broader appeal has informed a critical backlash.

Ruin porn is not Rust Belt Chic. Being proud of your hometown, moved to action, is not exploitation. To Buffalo ears, suburban brat Dar Williams isn't a phony. The griping about trendy Rust Belt cities is petty and pointless. Buffalo isn't for everyone. But for those who can appreciate the city's charms, it can be a special place to live.

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