Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tastes Great! Less Filling!

A few days ago, Alan engaged in some heated debate over the merits of the suburbs versus Buffalo's urban core. I always end up shaking my head whenever this topic comes up, because I just don't get the anti-suburban view. Just saying "The suburbs suck!" seems to me about as useful an argument as if one advanced no opinion at all.

I live in one of Buffalo's suburbs, roughly ten miles or so out from the city limits and twelve or thirteen from downtown proper. What of it?

When I grew up, I lived in Western New York's Southern Tier, which is that segment of the state south of Buffalo but just north of the Pennsylvania state line. This is a segment of the state that few people outside the area know or care about. It's a very rural area. One of my parents' local friends opened a bar up in the hills, and when he saw his clientele, he commented, "My God, it's really like Deliverance out here!" And that was a guy who'd lived in the region his entire life.

It was also a fairly nice place to grow up; the indestructible Mr. Jones relates some memories of the place today. But my parents were city people by birth (Pittsburgh, PA), and thus we'd often hop in the car as a family on the weekends and drive ninety minutes or longer to one of the cities within reach. Sometimes it was Rochester; other times it was Erie, PA; less often it was Pittsburgh to visit relatives. But most often it was Buffalo.

Or what we would call Buffalo.

We rarely actually came into downtown Buffalo, actually. Instead we'd shop at the local malls, each of which is located in a suburb. There's the Walden Galleria, which is in Cheektowaga; there's McKinley Mall, in Hamburg; there's the Boulevard Mall, in Amherst. There used to be the Seneca Mall in West Seneca (it's not there anymore, and The Store where I work is across the street from its former location), and there's the Eastern Hills Mall in Williamsville. We'd spend several hours shopping, and then we'd go to a grocery store around there to pick up items we couldn't find in our small town, and so on.

Venturing downtown, or to the Elmwood strip, became more frequent when my sister attended graduate school at the University of Buffalo, but still we'd refer to all of it as "Buffalo". If our plan was to go to the Galleria, we wouldn't say "We're going to Cheektowaga today", but "We're going to Buffalo".

In a very real way, it's all Buffalo, folks. If a company closes up shop in Tonawanda and eliminates fifty jobs, it hurts Orchard Park. If some other business starts up in Lackawanna and hires twenty people, it's good news for Amherst. And if the City of Buffalo starts to pull itself out of its twenty-five year funk, it will be good for every town and village in the area.

Now, one thing that would help, if it were even possible, would be for Buffalo to exercise what I call the "Columbus option": for the City to simply annex the suburbs, this ensuring that suburban outflight doesn't result in the continued erosion of the city's tax base. It's my understanding that this is not possible under the current structure of the New York State Constitution, unfortunately, and this plan would undoubtedly meet with lots of strenuous opposition. But the suburbs can't sustain themselves indefinitely with a rotting urban core, and the urban core would find a much easier rode back to health if the suburbs stopped saying, "But you're rotting, so why would we help you?"

Anyway, for a bit of perspective here, many of the people I grew up with in the Souther Tier didn't get to Buffalo on average of once every ten days. Many didn't get there more than two or three times a year, and my mother knew one family which would make only one trip to Buffalo each year for Christmas shopping, during which the father would carry a loaded gun in his car. And that was just to go to one of those suburban malls. Imagine that. To those people, it was all Buffalo too -- but not in a good way.

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