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“I Choose the City” – Two Decades Later

Author: William Graebner

In a pique of irritation over 20 years ago, I wrote “I Choose the City,” published in the Buffalo News April 1, 1997. Frustrated by the negative press coverage the urban core was receiving, even in the Delaware District where I lived, I declared war on the suburbs. I described them as a “living cemetery” peopled by cowards, the site of homogeneity, exclusion, ugliness, and sterility, and the city as multicultural, inclusive, elegant, and stimulating.

The reaction was revealing. Then-Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who had been trying to sell his home on West Ferry, told me he had been in his front yard when a suburbanite came up the driveway, my article in hand, determined now to move into the city. Days later, that suburbanite purchased Sam’s home.

There were cards and letters. “It made my day,” wrote Mayor Tony Masiello, “to come back from my Easter vacation to read your letter on my desk.” Stovroff and Potter realtor Judy Goodyear said she was sending it “to all of our managers and agents” so that those who didn’t live in the city would “understand the magic.” Civic activist Cynthia Van Ness, and her partner Vincent Kuntz, wrote they hoped “you could hear us cheering,” and Cynthia put the piece on her website, where it remains. Another city resident wrote, “all the things I don’t dare say to our suburban friends.” A couple who grew up in the suburbs and had chosen the city hoped “others will see the expansion of the suburbs in its true, numbing, destructive light.”

Not every response was positive. A friend took offense at my attack on the suburban cul de sac, because he lived in one. I received a number of unsolicited subscriptions to gay and leftist magazines, intended as insults. It gets worse. “People get out of the city to feel safe,” wrote one, “away from those filthy [N-word] and P.R.s…Wake up you jerk—Get out while you can still walk out.” Another, a suburbanite, insisted that my home—then on Chapin Parkway—was “as far away from the City as we are.” “Take a walk down Jefferson Ave you worthless s…. In 10 seconds you’ll be singing a different tune after having the s..t kicked out of you…Big Mouth Big Talk.” “Dear Idiot,” a postcard began, “Why hide out on Chapin when E. Delavan is so close? It’s full of [N-word] and crime….” A Tonawanda resident wrote: “What makes you think we want your ilk in the burbs anyway?” suggesting that, like the Captain of the Titanic, I should “go down with [my] sinking city!”

Today, living in a different city and in a different state of mind, I would like to believe that the op-ed I drafted in anger in 1997 was not only necessary, but that it played a role—even if minor—in jump-starting Buffalo’s 21st-century revival.  While the city’s “Renaissance” has been uneven, bypassing large swaths of the East Side, there has been demonstrable progress on the West Side and along the commercial corridors of Hertel Avenue and especially Elmwood Avenue, widely criticized in the 1990s, but now a dynamic community of on-street small businesses.  I would like to believe, too, that Sam Hoyt’s story foretold a new relationship between the city and its environs, a harbinger of the repopulation of downtown by the young and the empty-nesters, some of them, at least, from the suburbs.

I don’t doubt the city and region remain divided, along the lines drawn in my polemic as well as those suggested by the notes and letters I received. However, today I can acknowledge—in a way I couldn’t two decades ago—that Buffalo’s uneven public schools made suburbia a reasonable choice for those with children.

I can also acknowledge that several of those who responded with vitriol to my scree were right to call me out for hypocrisy, for living a life of Chapin Parkway/Delaware District privilege, one removed from the economic and social problems that beset the city then, and do today. I’m on West Ferry Street now, but I’m still living that life of privilege, a reality I encounter frequently, when I cross Main, heading east on my street.   

The other reality I encounter regularly is the new Buffalo—in fact and in spirit—that has emerged in recent years. On that issue, my critics were wrong. Buffalo proved to be more resilient than the steel-hulled but brittle Titanic. And I’m still here, with my wife of 53 years, on deck.

William Graebner is the author of Coming of Age in Buffalo, Patty’s Got a Gun (on Patty Hearst), A History of Retirement, and other books. He and his wife, Dianne Bennett, review films for Buffalo Rising and for their website, www.2filmcritics.com.    

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