Most of us would admit, if administered truth serum or enough beers, that our relationship with Buffalo is love-hate. There are things about this city that are profoundly disturbing and deeply unjust: racism, segregation, dysfunction, and economic injustice, to name a few.
While all that would make it easy to leave, and many have, others stay – and even come here – convinced that Buffalo is worth investing in and worth fighting for. Why? In part because, many of us have found, there exists something ineffable about this place. Experiences of places, people, and happenings here can burrow deeply, past the psyche and into the soul, leaving an almost religious impression. They can provide the elevation needed to go back down into the trenches and fight for change.
Friday evening’s launch of Mark Goldman’s latest book, City of My Heart, was one of those experiences. Ingredients included the unvarnished urbanism of Fitz, music by the great Moshe Shulman, and supernal catering by daniela. And filling the space to capacity were guests representing decades of Buffalo leadership and change making.
But what made the deepest impression was seeing a book launch become a celebration of Mark’s half-century of writing and activism. All in the service of a city he initially found in decline, that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way, but that he stayed to make better.
Being in that space where Mark recounted some key events in that involvement, with many of those who were compatriots in those events, felt a bit like being in a time machine. It was a chance to get a firsthand glimpse into key moments in Buffalo’s modern history that I’d heard about but wasn’t here to witness.
Mark came here from New York City at that magic moment when an expansive governor’s investment in SUNY at Buffalo gave the school the nickname, “Berkeley of the East.” Pursuing a Ph.D. in history, he initially wanted to write about the Italian hill towns he’d fallen in love with, with their intact civic fabric and neighborhood culture. Then he discovered he could find something of that remaining in Buffalo. So he wrote his dissertation on the Black Rock neighborhood, a place which I can attest – after a half-decade of intensive research on the Scajaquada corridor – is Buffalo’s most endlessly engaging and fascinating urban village.
But as engaging as Mark found parts of the city, overall it was clearly in decline. He talked of shabby civic infrastructure like Delaware Park, where cars drove onto the ring road from the expressway. And just as lacking was the civil society infrastructure needed to fight the decline.
So, as Mark described it, a group of runners who ran in Delaware Park, along with others like Joan Bozer, Joanie Kahn, and Frank Koswky got together to advocate for the Delaware Park, the genesis of what became the Olmsted Conservancy. Dr. Kowsky would go on to be a nationally recognized Olmsted scholar, Joan Bozer would co-found the National Association of Olmsted Parks, and, along with Joanie Kahn, would co-chair 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor.
One of Mark’s fellow runners was Judge Curtin, who oversaw the school desegregation case that became the centerpiece for Mark’s book, City on the Lake. His deep respect for Curtin, who passed away four years ago, was evident as he became emotional talking about him.
But if there was a centerpiece of Mark’s talk – and, he might agree, his contribution to Buffalo’s renewal – it was the Calumet Arts Café. The Calumet was a gutsy move that began the dramatic shift in the, um, entertainment offerings on Chippewa. The dialog between Mark and Vincent O’Neill about how they took a risk on each other was a great bit of improvised theater. The Calumet was also home to “Bread and Onions,” which kept the flame for a neighborhood wiped away by “urban renewal.”
But my favorite part was Mark’s remarks about battles he’s fought over civic projects like Bass Pro, the Commercial Slip, and the Gorski convention center proposal. His guide star on such issues, he told us, is the “Grandma Rosie” principle. Most families, Mark posits, have someone with great common sense and accumulated wisdom like his own Grandma Rosie. Such simple sagacity should steer us to sensible solutions on civic issues. Mark recounted how he applied this literally, starting a conversation with Larry Quinn about Bass Pro by asking him, “What would your grandmother think of this project?” Larry admitted that his grandmother might not have been on board with it.
Talking about those battles, Mark eschewed the obstructionist label that many have attempted to pin on him. His emphasis was always on doing the right thing, and pushing for better. I can attest to that, having worked with Mark and others on the Symphony Row project in our neighborhood. We were never about stopping the project, but about demanding better – which we ultimately got.
I bet Grandma Rosie would have approved.
The Arc and the Covenant
But what resonates with me the most about Mark’s work is the arc, which he told me he acknowledges and discusses in his new book. I recognized his arc a decade and a half ago when what was then Mark’s Buffalo trilogy (with the new book it’s now a tetralogy, for those keeping score) was suggested reading for Buffalo Tours docent training. I not only read the books but wrote about them for the docent newsletter, describing the arc, which goes something like this:
The first book, published in 1983, was openly cynical about Buffalo, as you can tell just from the title, High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. (If you don’t get why the title is cynical, here’s an illustration: the response from then-County Clerk Kathy Hochul in early 2011 when I told her I hoped she would run for county executive because it would unite the party was, “Oh, don’t you have high hopes.”) Such cynicism is understandable in someone watching the city decline before his eyes, and one who perhaps still saw himself as something of an outsider.
By his second book, published in 1990, City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York, Mark was clearly seeing things differently. Set against the backdrop of the school desegregation case, he chronicled the way Judge Curtin and the community worked together to craft a solution that avoided some of the worst backlash seen in other cities. Mark related the story with such a deep respect, almost reverence, for the common sense and wisdom displayed (one suspects Grandma Rosie would have approved) that it makes clear he was coming to see Buffalo differently, perhaps through the eyes of someone who had committed to making the city home.
The third book, published in 2007, City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York, 1900 – Present, was by a Mark Goldman completely transformed into a Buffalonian and fully invested in the renewal that he could see signs of throughout the city. He even cited Buffalo Rising as an example of Buffalo rising. He clearly no longer saw Buffalo as just a cautionary tale or a case study in urban decline, but one with a second act, perhaps transforming from a city that consistently managed to defeat itself in the big leagues to one that could mount an exciting fourth-quarter comeback you want to cheer for.
With this fourth book then, where now is Mark on his arc? While I can’t say for sure until I’ve read it (when I do, perhaps a review would make a good sequel to this post), Mark’s talk and the table of contents offer some solid clues. For one, he made it clear that he is all done with cynicism. He also appreciates that the city is now rife with those who “get” urbanism and are ready to fight for it. That gives him the chance to step back a bit and enjoy spending time with his grandchildren, while still using his influence and connections, but now more behind the scenes.
Being done with cynicism suggests that Mark’s arc represents not just a shift in his view of Buffalo and his place in this place, but also a kind of spiritual journey. This is reinforced by the chapter titles in his book which include, “A New Yorker finds his Jewish identity in, where? Buffalo?” and “Discovering the Power of Faith, Family and Friendship.”
And indeed, a memorable moment of Mark’s talk was when he quoted from Jeremiah 29:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
This language isn’t new for Mark. The Google Books review of City on the Lake includes, “Like the Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s Lamentations, Buffalo was a dying city whose gates were desolate and whose people were embittered. It is here that Mark Goldman’s City on the Lake takes up its story.”
And toward the end of that book the reader is rewarded with an almost lyrical chapter, which deeply affected me when I read it, titled “New Gates for the Old City.” It tells the story of many of the Buffalonians dedicated to building a new city. It made me want to be one of them.
Lamed Vav Tzadikim
Last year, when meeting with Mark about a civic issue, he told me about a Jewish tradition which holds that each generation is saved by thirty-six righteous people, the Lamed Vav Tzadikim.
Friday evening, I felt like I was in a room with many of them.
In another passage in Jeremiah, God makes a covenant with the children of Israel living in a foreign land:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Buffalo has had her dolorous seventy years of decline. Mark has lived most of them, and chronicled all of them, initially as an outsider pointing the finger at those he found responsible but later elevating those he found working to turn things around. He found himself becoming one of them, no longer an outsider, but one of us.
Love it or hate it – sometimes, depending on the day – Buffalo is our city now. Most if not all of those responsible for her decline are now gone. Those of us now working to make it better are legion. And we can make it better – collectively when possible but individually when necessary – whether we’re still grappling with our cynicism or have come to terms with it.
Mark Goldman’s writing, and life, demonstrate this.
City of My Heart: Buffalo NY 1967-2020
by Mark Goldman
Publisher: Keller Bros. & Miller, Incorporated
Available in local bookstores such as:
Table of contents:
Forward: by Karen Brady
Introduction: A New York State of Mind
Chapter 1: A Brand New World – Buffalo, 1967
Chapter 2: An Italian Hill Town in Buffalo? How the neighborhood of Black Rock changed my way of thinking about life in the city
Chapter 3: Into the ‘Seventies – How people stared down decline and, with faith in themselves in the future of their community, rolled up their sleeves, went to work and got it done
Chapter 4: Into the ‘Eighties – How a teacher and his students discovered their city… together
Chapter 5: Judge John T. Curtin – Struggling with the challenges of a changing city, helped restore my faith in Buffalo
Chapter 6: The Calumet Arts Café – The arts as a tonic for an ailing downtown
Chapter 7: What Would Grandma Rosie Do? – How everyday wisdom brought sanity to downtown development plans
Chapter 8: The Buffalo Story – History and heritage as the building blocks of community
Chapter 9: Next year in Jerusalem – What? A New Yorker finds his Jewish identity in, where? Buffalo?
Chapter 10: Discovering the Power of Faith, Family and Friendship – In South Buffalo, I learned, you are never alone.
Chapter 11: In the End – The enchanted landscape of North Buffalo and Central Park
Epilogue: A healing heart: Buffalo, 2020