As differences between places go, they couldn't be much different. New York and Massachusetts may share a border, but one might never suspect such a thing if never shown a map of the United States. To start, look at what these two entities call themselves: the State of New York and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Looking more closely, this time at these entities' largest and most well-known respective cities, reveals an even more stark contrast. New York City has the Yankees and the Jets/Giants. Boston roots for the Red Sox and the Patriots. New Yorkers define "wicked" as something evil. Bostonians use the word to add emphasis to adjectives (i.e. "It is wicked hot outside.") The list goes on and on. The two cities have always been at odds with one another and still are to this day. As a native New York State resident who spent a year in Boston, Massachusetts, I was able to see firsthand the importance of place. I also learned many important life lessons along the way.
Many native New Yorkers would be surprised to learn that Buffalo is the second-largest city in New York State. According to Google Maps, Buffalo and Boston are approximately 450 miles apart. In many ways, these two cities are seemingly traveling in opposite directions. Boston (area code: 617) is a vibrant, historic, and growing city of approximately 620,000 *i. It is one of the most densely-populated places in the country *ii. It features over 50 colleges and universities *iii, including Harvard University, Boston University, and Boston College, to name just a few. Getting around the city is made efficient thanks to the "T", Boston's extensive public transit system. The city also features numerous nationally-recognized museums and hospitals, and too many hip and thriving restaurants, bars, and theaters to count. It has the Charles River, the Esplanade, the Prudential Tower, the John Hancock Tower, Boston Common, Newbury Street, the Freedom Trail, a bustling waterfront, and the Patriots (yeah, I know). Boston also boasts 18 million visitors per year *iv.
Buffalo (area code: 716) has experienced a steady decline in population since the mid-twentieth century. Buffalo's population peaked in 1950 at approximately 580,000 *v. At last check, the figure was about 270,000 *vi. The last several decades have seen residents leave the city in favor of the suburbs, exurbs, or other cities or regions altogether. (It is important to mention, though, that Buffalo has recently made strides in luring residents, both new and former city-dwellers.) Buffalo is among the poorest cities in the United States *vii. It has an astounding 20,000 vacant housing units *viii. Buffalo's political leadership and integrity, as well as that of New York State as a whole, have been called into question on numerous occasions over the years. Until local sponsors came up with funding at the last minute, Buffalo's annual New Year's Eve ball drop almost didn't happen this past year. Buffalo's waterfront remains largely vacant; the Skyway and Route 5 still hamper efforts to make the waterfront more accessible. And the long-awaited Bass Pro project has officially been canned after a decade of posturing (perhaps a good thing, depending on with whom you speak).
^Buffalo Flash Soccer
Despite these differences, there are important factors that tie these two metropolises, and most other major cities, together. One factor is the importance of neighborhoods with unique, strong identities. A second factor is sports. As an avid sports fan, it has always been clear to me that professional sports are very important to a place, not only for attracting people and generating revenue, but more importantly in terms of identity and perception. Buffalo is very fortunate to have four professional sports franchises - the Bills, Sabres, Bisons, and Bandits. Although the Bills haven't made it to the playoffs in over a decade, the other three have shown occasional flashes of greatness in the last ten years. Like it or not, the performance of a city's sports teams seem to strongly reflect people's perceptions of that city, and often the two are intertwined (see Detroit and Cleveland).
In late 2008, I stumbled upon a novel. Perhaps it was by chance, perhaps by fate. The name of the novel - Running with Buffalo - is written by Queen City-native Michael Farrell, who now resides in South Boston. It chronicles a year in the life of a young man named Joseph Cahan, who was born and raised in Buffalo. Cahan leaves for college, returns to Buffalo, and when job prospects appear bleak, moves to Boston in order to pursue opportunities there. The book chronicles Cahan's struggles and realizations while living and working in Boston. The novel struck a nerve with me, and it quickly became one of my favorite novels. In fact, I firmly believe that anyone from Buffalo - especially those about to graduate from college as well as recent graduates - should read this book.
Two months after completing my Master in Urban Planning at the University at Buffalo, I decided to join AmeriCorps*VISTA, the national service program founded in 1965 and designed specifically to fight poverty. My reasons for making this decision were many. First, I was not yet ready to launch into a professional career. Second, the recession was significantly limiting my employment options. Third, I have a fairly extensive resume as it relates to community service, especially while in college, so AmeriCorps seemed like a good fit in that regard. Fourth, I had always hoped to live in a large metropolitan area other than Buffalo at some point. Fifth, one of my best friends, Patrick, had recently accepted an offer to join the Peace Corps in South Africa for two years. (This last point also helped me to rationalize my decision to live only seven and a half hours driving distance from home). Finally, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects that poverty can have on a city, its people, and its livelihood. This helped inspire me to stand up and try to do something about it, even if I would be doing so in a place other than Buffalo.
In April 2009, I was accepted to Massachusetts Campus Compact (MACC). Through the MACC AmeriCorps*VISTA program, members are placed on host campuses throughout Massachusetts to serve as community service and service-learning specialists. Through the program, I was placed at Northeastern University, located in the heart of Boston. At that point, it was clear that I would be spending a year of my life living and working in "Beantown". Immediately, I started drawing parallels between Cahan's experience and my own.
I knew from the start that my role as a *VISTA and Service-Learning Assistant Coordinator, working with students, faculty, and staff at a large university, was a bit off the beaten path for someone with a degree such as mine. However, what I learned from the experience taught me more than I could have learned in any classroom. In addition to developing a range of personal and professional development skills, one of the most important lessons that this experience taught me was the importance of place and of home, and the relationship between the two. I quickly learned that Boston was not that place; Buffalo was.
The morning that I left for Boston, I stopped first in Pittsford, NY, where I attended mass and then Buffalo Bills training camp at St. John Fisher College with friends. It was to be my last taste of a Buffalo product for some time. Only hours later, as I was making my way eastbound on the I-90, I received a text message from another one of my best friends informing me that his mother had just lost her battle with brain cancer. This shattered the good mood that I was in. It was difficult to be so far away from home when someone so close to me was undoubtedly in need of support. My fears and qualms about moving to a different city quickly brought me back to reality. The first tears since leaving home set in without effort.
My life changed in August 2009. I went from being an unemployed graduate student living with my parents in an almost all-white suburb of Buffalo, to working full-time (living at just above the poverty level) and sharing an apartment with three individuals (all fellow *VISTAs whom I had never met before) in a large, diverse East Coast city. I went from never having stepped onto a bus on my own to riding one almost every day during the week to and from work. I went from a situation where I knew someone in almost every neighborhood and suburb of Buffalo, and where I could go downtown on any night of the week and see at least one person that I knew, to knowing essentially no one in a city almost three times the size of Buffalo. This past year proved to be, as expected and hoped for, the most challenging of my life thus far.
^Michael Farrell and his book, Running with Buffalo
The past year presented many challenges. There were times when I wanted to quit, pack it up, and return home. Sometimes I didn't think that I would make it through; perseverance is not always an easy task. I was routinely placed in situations in which I had to deal with individuals with much stronger (and often times difficult) personalities as compared with my own (and lived to tell about it). There were countless struggles, stressors, and difficulties along the way. From two hour commutes, to $500+ in fees resulting from parking violations and towing, to disagreements with colleagues and friends, these experiences only served to make me stronger. Helping me through these challenges were frequent reminders of home, such as seeing the occasional brave soul wearing Bills or Sabres apparel, or hearing a Goo Goo Dolls song in an area bar or restaurant.
This isn't to say that I didn't have plenty of great opportunities that I wouldn't have had in Buffalo, because I did. I passed Fenway Park every day on the way to and from work (for many people this would be considered torture). I was fortunate to have done a significant amount of traveling. I visited several cities and towns in Massachusetts and most of Boston's many neighborhoods. I traveled to New York City, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. I also went to Laredo, Texas for a week during late winter to participate in a week of service with Habitat for Humanity alongside eleven students from Northeastern. The work that engaged in was most fulfilling. I was given opportunities to manage projects and to work directly with students, faculty, staff, and community partners, as well as and with the surrounding communities. This allowed me to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Having grown up in suburban Orchard Park, NY, I remember that even as a student attending Hilbert College in nearby Hamburg, I was terrified at the mere thought of driving into Buffalo by myself. This was not an issue of safety, but an irrational fear of one-way streets, traffic circles, and pedestrians. While I always felt a loyalty to Western New York, I didn't start to take up Buffalo as my own until in 2005 I took a course called Reading and Writing Buffalo, taught by Dr. Amy Smith. I later graduated from Hilbert and started working at HSBC in downtown Buffalo. Although the job was far from ideal, my love of Buffalo grew as a result of the experience. I was later accepted into graduate school at the University at Buffalo (South Campus) and I decided to rent an apartment in Kenmore, just north of the city. This forced me to interact with Buffalo on a frequent basis. Five years after taking Dr. Smith's course, I am once again working in the city. I currently live in the Southtowns, but I have aspirations of living in Buffalo in the near future. And while I have not ruled out a return to Boston or a move to somewhere else at some point, the long-term vision of my future is set in Buffalo.
The reasons for my loyalty to Buffalo were made more apparent to me on several trips home throughout the course of the past year; I truly experienced the best of what Buffalo has to offer. From the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving, to New Year's Eve, to Buffalo Bandits lacrosse games, I was provided with reminders of what our city has to offer that makes it truly unique. Although I found myself jealous of Boston's assets on many occasions (and still do), I was also reminded of what sets the two cities apart. For one, and despite a lack of scientific proof, I'm fully convinced that Buffalonians are significantly friendlier than Bostonians.
As Buffalonians, it is imperative to our city's image that we "sell" the Queen City at every opportunity, be it in Buffalo or when traveling/living in another part of the country or world. Believe it or not, we control many of the perceptions that others have about us. Buffalonians who criticize their city are only adding to outsiders' perceptions of Buffalo as a bad place to live, work, and/or raise a family. I had to stand up against many an obnoxious Bostonian in order to defend my native city against false stereotypes (example: it snows in Buffalo year 'round). Not surprisingly, most of these individuals have never been here.
Having gone through a year in which I gave up a significant amount in an effort to help wage the war on America's poverty, I also gained the opportunity of a lifetime, and learned some very important life lessons along the way. A year later, I feel much better prepared to deal with the challenges that I will undoubtedly face as I attempt to make Buffalo a better place. I certainly have my work cut out for me, but I can rest a bit easier knowing that I'll be working alongside others - both natives and transplants - who are just as loyal to the same cause.
For anyone interested in or thinking about a year of service, be it with AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or any other agency, you might be wondering what I gained. So what did I gain from my year of service? Personal growth. Professional growth. The opportunity to live, work, and play in one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the country. On a personal level, a renewed interest in and strengthening of my faith. I was reminded of the importance of relationships. I was also made aware of just how much of an impact that one can have on others.
I recommend a year of service to anyone willing to make the sacrifice. I must have received something from this experience - otherwise, I wouldn't be doing a second year of service with AmeriCorps*VISTA, this time back home with Habitat for Humanity - Buffalo. This is an organization with which I have volunteered extensively. I am excited to be back in Buffalo and working with such a great organization.
It has often been said that one does not fully appreciate how much s/he values someone or something until that person, place, or thing has been removed. After this experience, I can honestly say that I appreciate everything in my life exponentially more now that I have lived without these people, places, and things for a full year. The experience reinforced the reasons why I value what I value most - namely, faith, family, and friends.
After I finished reading Running with Buffalo for the first time, and before I learned of my Boston placement, I sent an email to author Michael Farrell seeking insight and advice about a possible move out of Buffalo. He suggested that it is useful for anyone to leave home for some period of time, in order to "see what's out there" as well as to realize what sets our city apart from all others - from our theater to our architecture to our sports teams. Only then can one truly understand why our Queen City is genuinely unique and a truly great place to live. As someone who heeded his advice, I have begun to give out similar advice to others. But Farrell also warned not to stay away too long. He recommended that one take everything away from their host city that they can, and then return home with that new knowledge and perspective. In other words, don't stay away too long. After all, once a Buffalonian, always a Buffalonian.
i U.S. Census Bureau
v U.S. Census Bureau
vi U.S. Census Bureau
vii Business First
viii U.S. Census Bureau