Monday, September 1, 2008

Shuffle off to Buffalo

Anyone who has friends in New York knows of their peculiar habit of complaining about everything in the city, before declaring that, of course, they could never live anywhere else. It's usually implied that they are somehow better than you simply by virtue of the fact they suffer through life in New York and you don't.

Adam Sternberg captures this character trait in a New York Magazine piece about New Yorkers who decide to swallow their pride and move to Buffalo. It offers some lessons on the psychology involved in drawing people to struggling Midwestern locales like Detroit, Youngstown, Cleveland and Flint. And let's face facts and admit that Flint may be the toughest sell of all the cities just mentioned.

Of course, you can't blame New Yorkers for their angst and condescending attitude. Unless you're incredibly young, amazingly rich, or still believe your acting/writing/painting/singing/fashion design career is finally about to take off, New York is a pretty crappy place to live. If you're going to stick it out there, you need to shield yourself from any self doubt. You need to rationalize why you stay when so many people have such better lives elsewhere.

"Living in New York may be more expensive than ever, but let’s face it, it’s always been hard," Sternberg writes. "That, oddly, is part of its appeal. You test yourself against the stresses of the city. If it’s not the expense, it’s the overcrowding. If not the overcrowding, then the crime. If not the crime, then the tension, or the roaches, or the smells, or the guy screaming obscenities at you for no reason on the stifling subway platform while you wait for a train that’s jam-packed and twenty minutes late."

So when New Yorkers are finally ready to throw in the towel, it's not as easy as moving from Lansing to Grand Rapids. Like everything else in New York, the decision must be a monumental struggle.

"...the problem is, you can’t simply leave New York—you have to quit New York. You have to admit to yourself and the world that you’re packing it in, calling it a day, turning out the lights. You have to walk away from, as Joan Didion put it, “the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” (It should be noted she wrote that in an essay about her decision to leave New York.)"

I've listened to numerous friends as they talked through this very decision. For me, the outsider, the answer was always obvious: yes, you should give up your horrible job, your tiny $2,400/month apartment, and your miserable New York existence and move.

Ultimately, Sternberg makes the point that places like Buffalo should not keep trying to prove they are mini versions of bigger, more prosperous cities. They should position themselves as uniquely modern versions of the Wild West, places to live when you long to start life anew.

"...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."


  1. Okay, as a Flint Expat and an NYC Expat, I think I have the right to offer my opinion... In NYC you do not need a car... in Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Flint, you need a car... When you walk in NYC, you have something better to look at than say, your neighbor's poisin ivy shrubs... Bottom line for me... a city thrives when you can WALK it. My family moved from Civic Park to the 'burbs when I was 4, and I've been missing sidewalks ever since.

    As far as quitting the city... I'm not sure that's the term I'd use as much as realizing that living in the city isn't the identity you really want anymore. When I was out of college and had no career, at least I could say I lived somewhere interesting... I would step out of my apartment and be on vacation.

    Now I don't need that... I could live anywhere.... but I miss walking in the city the most.

  2. I can relate. I teach in Santa Clara, which is a very suburban, car-dominated sort of place. If you walk anywhere, you often end up crossing those terrifying six lane surface streets that are more like highways. I always feel like a fish out of water when I'm there. Plus, there's no real fog in Santa Clara, so it's usually a lot hotter. Very disorienting and unpleasant.

    And I agree that leaving the city often comes with the realization that you can lead a better life elsewhere. But I've seen New Yorkers grapple with the sense that they've somehow lost when they make that decision. I might add that this is all before they leave NYC. Once they've left, I never hear them lamenting their decision.

  3. We live an hour outside of NYC. I rarely go into the city (I have a car now) even by train. When I was in the city, I rarely left.

    It's like NYC is this vortex and the wormhole voyage is just too much to bother with.

    When you're there you want to stay... when you're away, you want to stay away...

  4. There too is a sort of pavlov's dog quality to it.

    I used to visit NYC during the summers at college. And to this day, if I smell urine or something like it in the street, I always had a fond memory of NYC in the summer.

    I suppose it's the skunk smell of the city dweller...

    I suppose that sounds strange... I was the only one of my friends who liked riding the subway... go figure.

  5. Again, I can relate. Whenever I get a good dose of diesel exhaust I think of Paris.

  6. I had a friend (a few friends, in fact) who moved into Chicago. Many of them went through pretty much the same angst when considering moving out: "There's so much going on here, if I move out I'm going to miss out on so much."

    Of course, just moving away to take a small-town job and turn into a "redneck eater" IS quitting. What I've noticed, however, is that these friends of mine who moved out of Chicago have gone on and made an effort to turn the areas they've moved to more interesting. One friend I know worked his butt off trying to make the small town he lived in into an artist-friendly space (and succeeded, in a fashion, until he moved out; economic and other forces caused that scene to collapse) and is now making a name in SW Michigan.

    I'm thinking of a similar shift myself. Even though I'm not about to move out of NW Indiana, I'm thinking of looking around and seeing what's going on around here and seeing what I can support.

  7. anyone who moves to buffalo, should spend some time in corfu first...might change their minds.

  8. Because of an aging in-law I am in Buffalo (from Flint) at least one weekend a month. It's a 4 1/2 hour drive across Canada, but whenever I arrive in Buffalo, it is like arriving in Flint.
    The two cities are a mirror image. Buffalo residents love their city, their teams, their restaurants, their newspaper, they love everything about Buffalo.
    In the looking glass, Flint residents despise their city, hate its main employer (or at least hate that it has divorced them) and run it down.
    I have lived in big cities and I have spent a lot of time in Flint and Buffalo.
    Buffalo has a special attraction. Everyone in Buffalo looks like Tim Russert or Ron Jaworski, who are both natives of the metropolitan Buffalo area.
    There are restaurants on every block that look like houses, probably because they are houses, converted to restaurants.
    At Hoak's Restaurant (near Lackawanna, which is near Buffalo) on the lake handicapped accessiblility means you put a handmade plywood ramp in front of the door to get a wheelchair bound relative inside and then move it back to its corner by the dumpster until it is time to leave.
    Inside the lineoleum and decor reminds you of the 1950s, probably because that's when it was installed.
    But the fish and chips are to die for and the Kummelwick sandwich is second to none.
    Kummelwicks (beef on weck sandwiches, Buffalo wings and fish and chips are advertised as "the best" at every restaurant in the town.
    It's a hard boiled town, with hard boiled people, but they all love Buffalo and treat you good until you do something that makes them mad and then, well, look out.
    My in-laws have lived in the same house since 1950 and the only improvements they have made is to install a satellite dish and put in a new screen over the single car garage door to make the garage a family room during the summer.
    I know it doesn't sound great, but trust me it is.



Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at