Cities like New York offer a nearly unlimited range of pastimes, diversions, and consumption activities. If you want to have a good meal, see a top notch arts performance, shop, etc., this is the place for you. You can get more quantity of quality in the world’s biggest cities than you can anywhere else.
The question I often ask though, is whether most of the people living there and partaking of what the city has to offer in fact are part of helping to create those things apart from spending money on them. While anyone with a job or who does anything is a producer nominally, how many people in these cities are actually part of making the creative energy that flows there a reality? I’d suggest not many. The vast bulk of the people there, residents and tourists, are consumers, not producers. They work in average jobs and recycle their wages into the creative sector via consumption, an important economic activity to be sure, but they don’t directly produce anything there.
I thought of this while reading an article in New York Magazine this month titled, “What Could Make Someone Want to Leave New York and Move to Buffalo?” The author spends time in Buffalo talking to New Yorkers who’ve left or are thinking of leaving, checking out the scene and trying to figure out what caused them to make the switch.
The answer is partially the unsurprising one that it is cheap there and the quality of life can be high compared to the stress of New York. As the author notes, “Buffalo has qualities that tend to attract creative people: cheap rents, derelict industrial buildings, the romantic aura of a faded empire.” It’s biggest problem there is that it is competing against a number of other Rust Belt cities with more or less the same value proposition.
But the surprising second answer for many of them is that moving to Buffalo gives them a better opportunity to participate in society as a producer, not just a consumer, than they would ever get in New York. While testing yourself against the good and the lucky to try to make it to the top in the most competitive city in the world has its appeal – indeed, it’s what brought many of them to New York in the first place – it sometimes comes up wanting versus Buffalo where you can actually do and accomplish things.
“Some people will read this as a story of defeat. They will look at Herbeck and Cloyd [relocators] and think, They came; they couldn’t cut it; good riddance. That’s also a familiar New York narrative, one that’s especially comforting to those of us who stay and stick it out. Because, sure, stained glass and spare bedrooms are nice and all, but no one moves to New York because they think they’re going to get a great bargain on an apartment. You move here because you want to live in New York City.
“But I am here to tell you that this is not a story of defeat. Rather, it’s a story about choices. It’s a story about reaching that pivotal moment when the dream life you imagined for yourself in New York no longer seems attainable or attractive, or simply no longer seems worth the wearying chase. It’s a story, admittedly, about the kinds of people who have the luxury to move away, just as they once had the luxury to choose to move here; that is, people not pulled to one city or another by family obligation or job transferral, but rather by some grander idea of who they are and where they might best fit.”
Buffalo is not just the land of cheap rents, it is the land of opportunity. The place where you can actually play with the raw materials of the urban fabric and shape them to your own vision. A place where the productive avenues have not been foreclosed behind the walls of fortresses of money or connections.
“We tend to think that one of the consequences of leaving New York is giving up all sorts of opportunities. And yet, one quality common to everyone I meet in Buffalo is that, like Nussbaumer, they see opportunity everywhere. Where you see a boarded-up building, they see a future arts co-op. They use the phrases blank canvas or blank slate a lot.”
The article gives several examples of people who’ve taken the raw material of Buffalo and made something of it, including Newell Nussbaumer.
“You can bike around Buffalo and point to a lot of things and say, ‘Newell Nussbaumer did that.’ That week he’d been to City Hall with a group of cycling advocates and had persuaded the city to convert some of its old parking meters to bike stands, which is part of his grand scheme to make Buffalo the most bike-friendly city in North America. (Current title holder: Portland, Oregon.) Later, at the offices of Buffalo Rising, Nussbaumer explains how most of his staff are unpaid interns, who work for free not because they’re hoping to scrabble their way up some media ladder (in Buffalo, that ladder has no rungs) but because, as he says, ‘they know they’re helping to create this city where they want to live.’ I think of the many valiant unpaid interns I’ve known in New York, and while most of them were working hard to create their own lives, not one of them (or at least not the sane ones) imagined they were helping to create New York City.”
A city so far fallen that it has become nothing less than the new American frontier, the place where you can reinvent yourself and reinvent the city.
“When we think about leaving New York, we usually think about what we would lose, and rarely about what we might gain. To that end, prospective destinations are measured by how similar they are to here. Philadelphia is New York, but cheaper. San Francisco is New York, but gentler. It’s the “squint” factor: Well, if I squint, it’s like New York, sort of, and I guess I can live with that. When I went to Buffalo, I expected that to be the sales pitch: It’s a mini big city with parks by Olmsted, a few very nice neighborhoods and a really good museum. It’s pseudo—New York! This, after all, is how struggling cities sell themselves, especially in the post—Creative Class world, as though they’re designer-knockoff versions of more attractive destinations. We’ve got many of the things you love, at a fraction of the price!
“But that’s not what I found in Buffalo. I found it appealing for a different reason: not for how similar it is to New York (which is not very), but for how different. New York will always offer you the singular opportunity of testing yourself against the best, of sharpening yourself against the city’s fabled grindstone. Hopeful people will always scrape together their savings to come here, to split a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, whether that’s in Greenwich Village (then) or Bushwick (now). But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater. They moved looking for opportunities. They moved for the chance to build a new life for themselves.
“This, ironically, has always been the siren song of New York City: the chance to turn yourself into someone new, to live the life you’ve always imagined. But what a city like Buffalo offers is a very different promise of what could be. It offers the chance to live on the cheap and start a nonprofit organization, or rent an abandoned church for $1,000 a month, or finish your album without having to hold down two temp jobs at the same time, or simply have more space and a better view and enough money left over each month to buy yourself a painting once in awhile. A city like Buffalo reminds you that, beyond New York, there are still frontiers.”
A very worthwhile article and one that every Midwestern city should consider as it tries to figure out the value proposition it is offering. I’ve often said, trying to emulate America’s biggest cities is a fool’s errand for smaller places like Buffalo. What they need to do instead is to find their own unique niche and vision of what they can be. Ultimately Buffalo would never be a very good substitute New York City. But it can figure out how to be a great Buffalo.
This post originally appeared on September 12, 2008.