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Posts Tagged ‘Decline’

Why is it that i can’t seem to write about the place i came back to, perhaps came to stay, the very city where i was born and the place where i will leave once again- Buffalo, New York. My energy has been removed from this town, as has the energy of so many for so long. As i write this i feel hollowed out like the city itself, and i wonder just how much has the place of my birth had an impact on me.

I ride into town along the expressways, roads that guide the traffic along and through, not really taking in what is there with the limited exits and fast motion that just passes by. As we get closer, the trees turn to town, the core with its tall buildings visible ahead We pass so empty factories and broken down homes – homes with patched or partially missing roofs and boarded up windows, home that i still notice, but that the driver, who passes this scene daily no longer sees.

As we drive into the center of town in the early morning,  passing broken down buildings on empty streets my heart sinks. We park in one of the many cheap parking lots with bumpy pavement that are plentiful in the area. We slowly jaywalk across the streets. She enters one of the few new office buildings and i make my way to Main Street, onto the block by the stop called fountain plaza – banking centers on a single block, with modern towers and the historic gold dome of the M&T bank – in car-free zone where the metro runs. But if you walk but a block down the street, stores stand empty, with for rent and sale signs on ornate historic low rises. And the street stands empty, not just now in the early morning, but throughout the day – a few folk out at lunch and others with no where else to go.

And i feel myself  sinking and i know it is not just the rain or the clouds above. There is  a heaviness in the air as too many poor shuffle about, some teens on the way to school, a few office workers with sallow faces all who do not seem notice the emptiness and decay that surrounds. I stop for a coffee to get out of the rain, Spot Coffee an oasis of sorts with couches and chairs for lounging, dark roast coffee, and wifi which i do not use.  I glance across the street where a new resto sits, bars, and a Starbucks and i know that all is not dead.  I remember other walks, up Delaware Avenue past the mansions and churches that line the boulevard, past  fountains in roundabouts that do not flow, but that once had different colours of water streaming from lions’ mouths,  by the art deco city hall, I  think of the glory that Buffalo must once have been, the city of my mother’s youth and that of my grandmother.

I cannot but feel how grand the city must once have once upon a time as i look at the remnants of a bygone era, of  a glorious age and a brighter moment in time when Buffalo teemed with life, dreams and prosperity. In 1900 Buffalo was a booming place – the 8th largest city in the country and its glory years continued up through the 1950s when it had a population of 580,000. It was also a center of  industry with the largest grain-milling center in the country, and the home of the largest steel-making operation in the world  and while you can still smell the Cheerios from general mills at times, the landscape is littered with factories that no longer produce and warehouses that sit empty and thankfully black smoke no longer blows in the distance. Buffalo once had more millionaires per capita,  and now it has the nations third highest poverty rate for a city of over 250,000. While the mansions, the parks, the galleries and the architecture speak to the riches, the posture of so many and the proliferation of dollar stores speak to the poverty that remains.

  At one time it a major transportation hub. It was the nation’s largest inland port and its history tied up with that of the Erie Canal.  After the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, transportation on the canal declined and so did the city.  It was a major railway hub, and for a while the second biggest rail center. But when i arrived on my cross-country journey by train two months ago, i came into a small building out in the suburbs, a single waiting room beside the tracks, in the middle of nowhere from what the eye could see. And the energy has left the city, moving out and away. My family left when i was a young child in 1970 , at the beginning of a decade that saw the city lose over 100,000 people. The population in 2000 was well below that of 1900.

 It has been years since the decline began and ended, and while there is some hope, i feel that i must leave, for i feel the loss. I spend my days out in the country, where all moves slowly and is settled and still, near the village of East Aurora where there is more life. It lays beyond the suburbs where most people live, with malls, thruways, even some new subdivisions and most of the middle class that remains.  The center is hollowed out like a donut. While the suburbs could be “anywhere USA”  in some ways i feel that i am in a time warp. At times  it feels like the 1970s or 1950s of something.  A feeling that little new has come in, and what there is seeps in slowly.

As i write this i feel that i am not being fair.  “It is coming back” i hear them say, but i heard that last time i spent any period of time here almost 20 years ago. While a few buildings are new, others have fallen under, and i do not feel that much of a difference. Parts of the west side are grand, the Elmwood Strip is a vital place and has been ranked one of the best neighborhoods by some magazines, a new art gallery was opened a year ago, but somehow i feel that they are pockets – pockets of light – the music scene, research and more. And you can live here and make your way through those zones of light. But even near downtown, near Allentown – a patchwork of galleries, restos, nice homes and decay, in the zones where poverty abounds, you will see flowers or more recently, Halloween decorations on simple homes that sit beside the abandoned boarded up houses, showing signs of life and of hope. Buffalo calls itself  the  “a city of good neighbors” and it is a friendly place with people who help and care. 

Will Buffalo come back – i do not know. It cannot be what it was, for that was a bygone era. Maybe the outward flow has stopped. Although the tide is no longer going out, it is not coming in, for the slack tide endures, a stability of sorts. How long can it last, before it starts to flow again, and in what direction will it go. But even in the slack tide, there is life and motion.  But once again feel like i am but treading water slowly drifting out to sea and do not have the energy to push the tide back in. Perhaps i should turn my eyes away from the reminders of the past, and focus on what light there is here and now.

 But I turn again to look at the ruins, the falling down buildings with grand facades. I think of the ruins that i have travelled miles just to see  – the Mayan ruins of Mexico, the indian ruins of the Southwest, and the remnants of castles and monasteries in Ireland and those around the globe that i wish to visit. Why is it that so many of us seek out ruins, memories of past civilizations, travel to them and relish in them while at the same turn a blind eye to, and run away from, ruins in out midst. 

I think of the rise and decline of civilizations the world over, and life that emerges from the ruins, the places which endure and are continuously built upon, and others that come back after periods of decline not as flashy and grand as in its heyday, but life goes on. And i remember that the ruins stood for years before they were rediscovered and that by visiting them and restoring them we give them life and energy once again.

But Buffalo will not empty out. Buffalo is a city of resilience, that is what  people pride themselves on. Maybe the stagnation i feel is really a settled life. But i cannot help but ask what are we settling for as i  remember the poor indigenous people selling trinkets outside the rebuilt “ruins” .

 While part of my energy lingered here, it no longer does.  So  i join those who removed their energy from this place.  Just as a place cannot go back to a previous time  neither can I.  Although i lived my early childhood on the tails of its glories, it has been almost a lifetime since it was home.  It was not a time to which i belonged, nor is it one that i truly yearn for. Buffalo was an industrial city with a focus on material gain – that of a time and of a nation. While there was and is much more, spirit, culture and love, that was at its core. I feel that way of life with the focus on the consumption of things, that which transcends much of America and the world is in decline and seeps away.

And all is change, it rises, sinks and ebbs. And that is the way of life, it has been and will continue to be. I’ll stop treading water and swim out to see.  And i will continue to flow as will Buffalo.

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