Author: Maria Sebastian
I’m standing at the corner of Forest and Elmwood avenues, waiting at a daily-walk red light, back in the neighborhood I grew up in—in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village—feeling a strange mix of nostalgia, inevitability, sympathy, hope, and what I realize now is ownership—a function, one might say, of pride; it is home after all. But the more I walk this stretch of six or eight blocks and the art-filled surrounding streets, the more I worry it won’t be like this much longer.
And what’s not to be proud of—no, not just The Bills. Regardless of the area’s wear and tear, within Frisbee distance, near the grounds of Buffalo State College, is the Richardson Olmsted Complex—a gothic-towered former psychiatric center and national historic landmark, now a luxury hotel and conference center, go figure. Across from it on two sides hunch a small collection of cheap-eats multicultural restaurants and a gas station, and before me, all like-it-or-not, is the developing skeleton of a controversial condo / retail project replacing a string of beloved long-time small businesses—however in need of updating—housed in former flats with classic east-coast-style upper and lower porches. Shops like “Home of the Hits” records, “The Copy Cat” printer, and various boutiques that came and went over the disco, punk, and grunge eras are undoubtedly what natives still see when they pass.
As I continue by, I hear a radio playing somewhere between the probably-future-lobby and the probably-future-laundry room—some kind of modern pop I’m relieved not to recognize—everything Elmwood is not, was not, never should be, but is probably on the verge of. Of all times to move back to the old neighborhood, I had to pick now—during a virus—when even the businesses that made it all these years are in danger of extinction, and the Desperate Housewives are bound to invade with their Jersey Shore in-laws. (I’m just passing the “We Never Close” convenience store—and may it never—if only because it’s been open since before I could walk to it.)
Anyone of a certain age feels a door closing between tenses when they realize they only know familiar streets by what used to line them. They point, “That was my favorite dress shop,” or “That diner was tiny before!” By the end of the stretch they add, “Everything’s changed,” or “God I’m old,” or “It ain’t what it used to be,” if they cling to clichés—throw in the occasional “Everybody’s dead now.” Maybe that’s it—cliches—this area never was and never should be cliché. Or maybe it is. Maybe every city has an Elmwood. Maybe I’m just a John Lennon sentimentalist “clinging to a wreck” (even Ibsen is here). All of this morphs in my middle-aged brain as I pass more pizza and souvlaki. I was only twenty miles away the last 30 years, reluctantly in the suburbs, for family reasons. Had the pandemic not happened, I may have relocated as a new empty nester to a larger city like Manhattan, or to a long-time-crush town like Woodstock, in the Catskills, where I hoped to relocate one day, but what would those places be like in 2020? As a single musician and adjunct professor, with no gigs and college enrollment tanking, I was on the fence about relocating, afraid I wouldn’t find work–but I had to get out of Pleasantville.
The day after my second child, my son, left for the military, in August of 2020, I was all cried out and on the verge of leaving my physical belongings and relocating anywhere just to live near a Starbucks again. Serendipitously, my grown daughter called that very week and said she was moving back home. She recently landed a sweet tech job in northern Michigan and after “going remote” like so many businesses, they approved her request to work from anywhere, even Buffalo. It only made sense that she would move to the Elmwood area, and so would I, and we would parade up and down our favorite strip in memory of all those cherished characters who inspired us all my life and hers with their creativity–their music, their graffiti, their edge: Mark Freeland walking to some most-important-place-on-earth in a Native American headdress and spandex “fuck” pants—stopping me one day outside the Everything Elmwood gift shop to tell me our mutual bassist, Brian Burd, “…was singing one of your songs man–you should be proudathat!” –their entrepreneurship: Mark Corsi opening or closing Poster Art, one minute young, thin, tall, and long-ponytailed, the next, a middle-aged “Bro,” a fixture of the scene—those legendary spirits, many now just ghosts we mention with a smile in passing like everyone does who knew them.
Parts of the Elmwood Village are the Left Bank of Buffalo. I imagine Hemingway here holed up in a corner swearing about the blenders and writing in longhand at Caffé Aroma, the tiny coffee shop with year-round outdoor seating at the tip of Bidwell Parkway—the stately, well-maintained street I moved back for—”the other side of the tracks” from the poorer blocks I grew up on less than a mile away. Fitzgerald would have visited but bar-hopped mostly in nearby Williamsville, our Right Bank, if we’re still in Paris (he did live in Buffalo for a while as a kid). With the small, artsy shops dying out, and the sterile, Tony Walker types slowly creeping in, I’m hoping I remain patient and don’t skip town again to avoid the princesses and their concrete hubbies. It’s fun with my daughter nearby, and the Co-op should last at least our lifetimes. The comic shop and Thai place might be gone, but there’s still a line down the aisle for prepared ginger tofu, imported artisan ghee, and “locally-grown” blueberry crumble.
We meet halfway often, and when I see her walking toward me in her Freeland “Try” beanie and pink retro headphones, smiling past the alternative Shoe Fly window, I see all the art and music and creativity this neighborhood has poured into her and embrace a flurry of clichés: alive and well—surviving and thriving—living and learning—reinventing and resisting. Let them put their hotels on our Boardwalk. Nobody’s traveling anyway.