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The Wheel

Courtesy Joe Janiak

It’s been a busy week, and it’s Friday, so I leave you with a few things to mull over. 

In 2012, Buffalo Spree writer Julia Burke wrote this article comparing how advanced the bicycle infrastructure was in Madison, Wisconsin as compared with the slow pace of similar change in Buffalo. It was rather uncontroversial. 

A Buffalo native, Burke recently left Buffalo for Madison – a city where she had no job, no family, and no friends. She wrote a compelling article about the reasoning behind her decision to move. This caused a furor on Twitter and Facebook. 

Here are a few passages that stood out for me: 

I moved to one of the Midwestern cities that have made themselves attractive and viable not necessarily through “Rust Belt Chic” but through flexibility and adaptation, by addressing the underlying problems plaguing American cities––struggling schools, segregation, lack of public transportation, violent crime––confident that the “cool factor” will come from real effort and foresight, and the superficial stuff will follow. I’m not interested in urban decay porn; I grew up with it, and I’ve seen how it reflects a hopeless privilege that places preserving the “charm” of detritus above making neighborhoods more accessible, environmentally conscious, livable, and integrated…

…After a recent event involving late-night art exhibits and performance in Buffalo’s grain elevators, a prominent artist friend of mine posted comments on Facebook about how wonderful the concept was and how the event could be improved by emphasizing a higher quality, rather than quantity, of art. Another commenter added that the event, while exciting and visually stunning, was set in a location rather ill equipped for its several thousand attendees, and addressing safety hazards for children and the disabled might be a good goal for next year. One of the event’s organizers jumped in and, rather than thanking the commenters for their very reasonable suggestions, shot back, “Thanks for all the negativity!” 

Growing up in Buffalo gave me most of my best friends and many exciting work opportunities. It imparted to me the toughness and resourcefulness that come from living through harsh winters and making ends meet waiting tables, tending bar, and stocking retail shelves in a city whose thirty-year recession has been recast as “affordability.” It ensured that I will never take snow-plowed streets or writing gigs or the knowledge that I am surrounded by a progressive, liberal mindset for granted. And in Buffalo, where we joke that everyone in the “creative class” has three jobs, the people working against tangible and intangible obstacles to feed their passion are some of the most amazing people I have ever met.

They deserve better than burnout. They deserve to be surrounded by people who have no interest in settling, who want to see their city rise from the ashes and will cut no corners ensuring its long-term viability. They deserve representatives who have traveled and who know what is possible.

Every problem we have in Buffalo has a political cause, and a concomitant political solution. In response to a promising young former resident’s article calling out Buffalo’s complacency, stasis, and inability to react positively to criticism, a Vice President from the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s response was astonishing, claiming that the article was a “Dear John” letter; that it was “throwing mud” and she should “just leave”.  I had a Buffalo city planner repeatedly accuse her of writing criticisms she didn’t write, and which he wouldn’t quote when asked. He claimed that she was being disingenuous about the city’s walkability, which she didn’t criticize, the bus system, which she didn’t mention, and other things. 

I mentioned at one point that we have a bus system that doesn’t feature street furniture at stops which also displays “next bus” information. This is pretty much a standard issue thing in this day and age; even Rochester has this feature. Buffalo will never have it until one of the millionaire Lexus drivers on the NFTA board decides to take a ride to another city and deigns to examine a bus stop in, say, Rochester. Our Thruway system uses 50s era toll-taking technology in 2013, and because it has no incentive to change it (they’re all in Albany), and we’re simply not a priority, it will never, ever change. 

These are obviously little problems, which mask the much more serious socioeconomic and cultural problems that plague the city. We’re told repeatedly that sprawl without growth is unsustainable – I agree, but so is gentrification without growth. Buffalo looks great from the trendy ghettoes in and around Elmwood Avenue and Allentown, but there’s no “renaissance”, no “sense of place”, not a lot to be excited about if you’re part of the city’s vast, poor majority. Burke’s article mentions Geico jobs – jobs that are all but inaccessible to an inner-city kid, because Geico is 25 miles away from where that kid lives, and the bus system isn’t particularly swift. The region has been advancing, sorta – one step forward, two steps back. For all the cranes at Canalside, we have a failing and dysfunctional school district. For all the restaurants and boutiques on Hertel and Elmwood, we have crushing poverty. For all the soccer bars and dog parks, we have a violent crime epidemic and a city that fudges the numbers. Buffalo, for real. 

We have a tendency to cheer for incremental changes and mere attempts, regardless of the outcome. We cheer for our efforts to do things that other cities have long ago figured out. That’s nice, dear. Let’s instead focus on the difficult issues and cheer when we, I don’t know, establish a regional plan for what we want this area to look like in 20 or 50 years, and then create the infrastructure and personnel to get us there. That takes hard work and we have a population that is exquisitely resistant to change. Activism doesn’t just mean preaching to the choir, but convincing the public at-large that the deep changes we need benefit everybody; we have to stop pitting one group against another and lift all goddamn boats. 

What do you think our regional priorities should be? How do we sell fundamental, deep regional political, social, educational, and economic change to a conservative and resistant population? How can we sell these big ideas while convincing people (a) that they aren’t going to “lose” while others “win”, and that these changes will benefit them, too? 

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down, 
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on, 
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still, 
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will. 

Won’t you try just a little bit harder, 
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more? 
Won’t you try just a little bit harder, 
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more? 

Round, round robin run round, got to get back to where you belong, 
Little bit harder, just a little bit more, 
A little bit further than you gone before. 

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down, 
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on, 
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still, 
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will. 

Small wheel turn by the fire and rod, 
Big wheel turn by the grace of God, 
Every time that wheel turn ’round, 
Bound to cover just a little more ground. 

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down, 
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on, 
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still, 
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will. 

Won’t you try just a little bit harder, 
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more? 
Won’t you try just a little bit harder, 
Couldn’t you try just a little bit more 


  • Mike_Chmiel

    I have no time for all this negativity, Trader Joe’s is opening today!

  • MichaelRCaputo

    Can I get an Amen?

  • Hank Kaczmarek

    looking forward with an eye toward regional change should not be looked at with negativity.

  • rhmaccallum

    This all seems a grand repeat of some long standing and overplayed Bedenkoisms.

    I’m not 100% for our local preservationists. I mean save the Trico Building? Give us a break. On the other hand, while Alan takes every opportunity to equate preservation with some sort of lack of progressivity look at all the successes. Would Buffalo be better off without the Darwin Martin House, The Lafayette, the ongoing restoration of the H.H. Richardson Complex? I think not. Those types of preservation have served Old Quebec City and many other places remarkably well.

    “Every problem we have in Buffalo has a political cause, and a concomitant political solution” That statement is so nonsensical it deserves no response.

    The educational system? Yes, It’s poor. But why trumpet the bus maps in Rochester and then neglect to mention how Rochester (and Syracuse) have even lower performing school systems? Now, if we take a look at real outcomes in a lot of other cities, southern cities and many “bible belt” cities we don’t look quite so bad.

    Sometimes, as with this article, some of us just don’t seem happy unless we can definitively be the worst of the worst. No matter what. Alan needs an attitude adjustment.

    • This isn’t an article about preservationism.

      • rhmaccallum

        Sorry Alan, maybe I read something into it. It does have a lot of the key words and talking points you use when you dis preservation so I misassumed perhaps. It just had that “stink” about it.
        Have a great weekend.

  • Colin Eager

    Any suggestion that certain places get it while Buffalo doesn’t is wrong. The problems that matter in Buffalo are the result of massive forces — deindustrialization, globalization, the conservative revolution, the suburbs, austerity, late capitalism generally — that are beyond our reach. Places like Buffalo and Detroit got hit first, and so became the object of ridicule from people who imagine that they are somehow immune, but the same processes will continue to unfold elsewhere. Madison, Portland, Austin, wherever — they’ll be pauperized, too.

    • Brian Castner

      This explains why Austin is “ahead” of Buffalo, but not why Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, or St Louis are as well. The same massive forces crushed those cities, and they are two decades further along in rejuvenation. And as a former resident of Milwaukee for 5 years, I feel like I can vouch for the validity of the comparison of the assets and challenges for both cities.

      • David A. Steele

        Buffalo is 2 decades behind Milwaukee? Wow!

      • Brian Castner

        The park just proposed for Buffalo’s outer harbor this week existed in Milwaukee when I arrived at college there in 1995. The Old Third Ward along the Milwaukee River and the clean-up of the Menomonee River as well – we’re now getting started on the equivalent in the Cobblestone. The new world-class addition to their art gallery has been there over a decade; we will start raising money for ours soon. UB is moving downtown – Marquette has been situated at the equivalent of Main & Best for 130 years. Norquist became mayor in 1988 – we’ll be waiting a while for our equivalent. I’d link to a comparative study of their dedicated bike highway system, but you know all this David so you’re trolling and I bit.
        Buffalo doesn’t need to aspire to Boston, and has none of the baggage of Austin, but Milwaukee would be many steps up the progressive ladder. I agree with Alan’s assertion that the reason we don’t achieve that is not because of outside forces beyond our control but us.

      • David A. Steele

        You are listing all the things Alan complains about Buffalo trying to improve and attain. But no I am not trolling. Milwaukee has about 2 times the GDP of Buffalo but I would not say that it is 2 times the city. I would put Buffalo ahead in many respects. I don’t want to sound like one of these defensive pollyanna people but your kind of hyperbole is beyond ridiculous. If Buffalo was 2 times as wealthy as it currently is I would hope it would look a hell of a lot better than Milwaukee does. Not that Milwaukee is bad but you brought up the comparison.

      • Brian Castner

        Ok, David, I’ll trust you that you weren’t trolling. I tried to mention both political and planning factors where Milwaukee was 2 decades ahead, some Alan uses and some not. How would you rather judge it? How do you define Milwaukee not being twice the city? In what what ways is it ahead? Based on how it “looks?”
        Milwaukee is twice the GDP ($89B vs $45B) but it is less than half again the metro population (1.6M vs 1.1M). So every resident is 40% wealthier, on average. That’s a pretty good way of being ahead, beyond the planning, built environment, and political advancements they’ve made (that I’ve already mentioned).
        Milwaukee has a younger smaller step-brother relationship with Chicago, I know, but if Buffalo had a growing population (like Milwaukee), 40% more wealth per capita, a progressive mayor, regional government, and a bike highway system, we’d catch up to where they are right now. That should not be unattainable, but it sounds like it as I type it. I’d really like to know ways Buffalo is ahead that trumps those.

      • Colin Eager

        There are local differences, of course. Some places have made fewer planning mistakes, were better prepared for the onslaught, had better luck, etc. I’m not going to claim that the leadership class in Buffalo has been full of good ideas over the last several decades, or doubt that other places might have had wiser folks in charge. It’s a good thing to insist that our own decision makers wise up.

        However, I am going to reject the idea that our problems are the result of a collective unwillingness to accept criticism, a willingness to settle for “good enough,” or any other attempted explanation that relies on the existence of a supposedly unique regional mindset. I’m going to insist that our problems are best understood in terms of material facts like deindustrialization and austerity rather than people’s attitudes. And I’m going to point out that those attitudes, if they exist, are produced by the material facts in the first place. Base/structure/superstructure and all that.

      • Brian Castner

        But when the material facts are so similar other places, and the outcomes so different, then they alone can’t be a sufficient explanation. I agree that the attitudes grow out of the facts, and also that they may not be enough to explain why we’re behind, but it has to be something that involves “us”, the human response to the facts. If its not our feelings then it must be our decision-making, leaders, lack of good ideas (or ability to implement them), our corruption and kick-backs versus progress, and the voters willingness to elect more of the same.

        What I think Julia brings up, though, that I for sure have experienced, and I think is fairly common, is the way Buffalo attitudes can be a constant drag on any project. When I have tried to volunteer in the non-profit sector our main impediment was not city hall or some specific institution but a collective attitude that spent more time worrying about failure than planning for success. The opposite of that – unbridled optimism with no regard for any facts – was on full display in the reaction to Julia’s piece. But that we continually set ourselves back, that we have become our own jailors, well, I guess it has plenty of psychological precedent but it is also is growing independent of those material facts.

  • Aaron K

    Well-put

  • Jon

    This is a really well-put together article.

    What it does address is the mentality of the people here, which seems like a cultural pilalr at this point: be positive, keep on truckin’, until we make (someday.)

    Which, you know, for the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, is great. You support your home team until they leave the playoffs.

    This, this isn’t a reference-based article, it’s not a data v. data article. It’s a commentary on the mentality of the people, thinking “something is going to happen because we were once great and someone is going to some day, but…whatever.” And not addressing issues for all the residents. Issues in ineffective board staff, and political representatives.

    We need to, as people who love Buffalo, be critical of what we are, not blindly faithful, targeting things we personally have issue with, throwing lies and blame around, but actually doing critical and important projects, and doing them in a timely and effective manner.

    This is an article on the obvious, the silliness of blindness, slow thinking. C’mon people move from Buffalo TO Madison?? Let that settle in. really massage that shit into your skin.

  • BufChester

    I have to say that Julia’s criticism of the lack of bicycle infrastructure seems dated. The City DPW has really made extraordinary strides in the last 12-18 months in implementing the Complete Streets ordinance. No, we’re not in the top tier of cycling friendly cities yet, but I think we are genuinely on our way, and there are certainly people in City Hall who care about that and are making it happen. Her criticism on this point simply isn’t fair.

  • saltecks

    What I found interesting were the comments following Julia’s article in the Progressive. Especially those made by individuals who had moved from Madison to Buffalo and saw things differently.