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The Gentrification Trade-Off in Buffalo

In June of this year, it will have been exactly 20 years since Vincent Gallo’s cult classic “Buffalo 66” was released, to unanimous critical praise. The film’s offbeat plot, about a recently released ex-con who kidnaps a young woman and then forces her to pretend to be his wife before he assassinates ex-Buffalo Bills kicker “Scott Wood” (a stand-in for Scott Norwood, who missed a late-game field goal during Super Bowl XXV that cost the Bills the game), is mirrored by its offbeat setting: the crumbling and depressed yet still weirdly charming city of Buffalo, New York in the late 1990s. Eccentric Buffalo native Gallo turned in an impressive and strikingly authentic performance as the film’s troubled protagonist Billy Brown. But it was the city itself that was the real star of the film—a city for which Gallo’s character was ultimately little more than an avatar.

Hidden away in the far western corner of New York State and straddling the Canadian border, Buffalo sometimes feels like the city that time forgot. Many of its storefronts, bars, and bowling alleys look like they haven’t been updated since the 1970s. The people themselves seem isolated from the rest of country. There is a kind of invisible triangular barrier, stretching from Toronto in the north to Rochester in the East and Erie, Pennsylvania, in the southwest, that marks the furthest most Buffalonians ever venture from the queen city and its suburbs (aside from perhaps the occasional mid-winter pilgrimage to Florida). In fact, many Buffalonians mostly stay in the general vicinities of their local neighborhoods, with so-called “northtowners” rarely venturing south of downtown and vice versa, much less travel across the country.

Much of this tendency is due to the city’s historically ethnic character. The vast majority of Buffalo metro’s population is Catholic, descended mostly from Italian, Polish, and Irish migrants who settled into highly segregated enclaves within the city. Those enclaves helped engender unique and idiosyncratic micro-cultures within Buffalo itself.


Buffalo’s population peaked at over half a million during its mid-century apotheosis but has since declined to less than half of that as the big factories, places like Bethlehem Steel, closed their doors for good, leaving behind giant rusting hulks that stand as monuments to the hollowing out of the American middle class. Unemployment and despair followed in the wake of the great deindustrialization of the 1970s and 80s, made all the worse by the city’s brutal and notorious winter weather. Buffalo has a reputation for snow, but its severity tends to be overstated and sensationalized (Rochester actually gets more snowfall). The real soul-crushing aspect of Buffalo’s winter is the brutal winds that blow in from Lake Erie and result in crippling wind chills as well as a constant lack of sunshine. In fact, Buffalo is one of the cloudiest cities [1] in the country. It’s so cloudy that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the sun disappears entirely during the city’s six-month-long winters.

Without much to do for half the year, Buffalo’s residents pass the time mostly by drinking (bars don’t close until four in the morning) and cheering on their continually disappointing local sports teams: the Bills and Sabres, both of which have a something of a cult following. Sporting events, in particular tailgating outside of Bills home games in suburban Orchard Park, seem to be little more than excuses to get drunk with friends, the buzz from the alcohol helping to reconcile fans to the usually underwhelming performances from the home team. Tailgating outside of Bills games is a uniquely Buffalo experience: fans arrive early in the morning on game day and start grilling and passing around the beer in the parking lot. By noon most everyone is thoroughly smashed, with hugs and smiles passing freely amongst people who were, only a few hours before, complete strangers.

This is Billy Brown’s Buffalo, a dreary town of overcast skies, abandoned smokestacks, and frigid temperatures, a rusted out city filled with eccentric townies who seem to inhabit a kind of nostalgic dream world all their own that runs parallel to and exists entirely separately from the reality occupied by the rest of the country.

But time has not stood still entirely. In many ways Billy Brown’s Buffalo is now passing away as gentrification slowly but surely changes the face of much of the city’s character. The formerly bohemian Elmwood Village neighborhood, for instance, once the haunt of packs of feral hipsters (of the non-trust-fund variety), starving artists, and less-than-great musicians, has gone upscale. Gone are the old dive bars, tackily decorated pizza shops, and bowling alleys, replaced by upscale wine bars full of young professionals enjoying tasteful banter with their girlfriends, restaurants that specialize in artisanal guacamole, and doggie daycares to care for the “furbabies” of the area’s childless yuppies. Gone, too, are the cheap rents and cheap beer. The once bohemian has become boutique.

Much of the rest of Buffalo’s downtown is experiencing a similar phenomenon. New condo projects have gone up, made possible, of course, by generous tax breaks. The formerly decrepit waterfront has been completely renovated. Once-abandoned Main Street has miraculously started to come back to life. Hell, even the Bills finally seem to be doing better, having made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.

Things have certainly changed since the 90s, but, contra the boosters [2] who have fetishized the new progress for its own sake, not all of it has been good. Something has been lost.

“Buffalo 66” was famously an autobiographical project for Gallo, a sort of belated half-love letter to a town and family he fled from when he was only 16. The house used in the film was Gallo’s childhood home, and the abusive, pathological, and detached parents he kidnaps a stranger to try and impress are obvious stand-ins for his own. The film was as much Gallo’s own attempt to reckon with the city he left behind, with all its simultaneous dysfunction and subtle charm, as it was a work of art.

It’s a reckoning those cheering on the city’s continued “progress” might do well to have themselves, lest they succeed in gentrifying out of existence the very things, like the mystical lanes of Recckio’s bowling alley [3], that made Billy Brown’s Buffalo so strangely beautiful in the first place.

Dan DeCarlo is a freelance writer from Buffalo, New York. He currently lives Washington, D.C.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "The Gentrification Trade-Off in Buffalo"

#1 Comment By Myles Hagar On May 8, 2018 @ 11:09 am

In the late 1960’s we boys loved to travel from Hamilton Ontario Canada to Buffalo because they had beer for our age and strip shows at the Palace Theatre. Once some old guys in the bar shouted at us for not being in Vietnam, but when they found out we were Canadians they bought us drinks. At the border you just gave your city of birth. Once we admitted we were headed to the Palace and the border guard said, “Say ‘Hi’ to Bernice from me”.
I was another, better, more humane and civilized era indeed.

#2 Comment By Jon On May 8, 2018 @ 11:09 am

Although not born there, Charles Burchfield — a master of watercolor — is probably Buffalo’s most well known artist. His stylized cityscapes and landscapes reflected his years designing wallpaper as his vocation.

Another significant Buffalo artist is Adele Cohen whose work reflected an interest similar to Chaim Soutine’s (an early Twentieth Century Parisian artist) fascination with decay. Her fascination with the human condition in its not so aesthetically pleasing aspects might have kept her from successfully entering the New York City art world although she had at one time relocated there to establish herself in that market.

One can check out the following link concerning the latter artist:


With all of that snow, wind, and overcast skies lurking within the old and at times rundown structures that saw brighter days when manufacture dominated the scene are artists who still harbor the creative imagination. As an artist, I reside in such a world but in a different part of the country though not too far away.

#3 Comment By Theo Mackey Pollack On May 9, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

Mixed feelings. I lived in that area for about three years in my early twenties. Its most salient quality in the early 2000s was the isolation that the author has so well described at the top of this piece. Buffalo in that period remains the loneliest place I’ve ever been. The long, snowy winters were a big factor, but there was also an abiding sense of despair that never went away. People with ambition were leaving in droves, often for the east coast.

Buffalo then had echoes of Brooklyn or Boston or Philadelphia: an industrial northern city with lots of brick-and-mortar relics that had outlasted their purposes by generations. Among the abandoned factories and railroad tracks and crumbling piers, it had a lot of beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings, Victorian houses, and emerald Olmsted parks. Its history of poor race relations had fostered a local activist culture of well-meaning people who wanted to make things better. Left-leaning weekly papers, natural food-co-ops, and street festivals all followed from this impulse.

But unlike its coastal cousins, Buffalo was simply too far away from the 21st-century engines of growth to benefit from their riches: Wall Street, the media gaze, the global ports of entry, and the elite alumni networks fostered an endless stream of individual change agents in places like Brooklyn, Boston, and (later) Philadelphia; Buffalo, in those days, was too isolated to attract their attention.

Today, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and their like have become too expensive for much of the American middle class. While the coastal cities may have settled into a new conscious role as role models of post-industrial urban adaptation, they have no space left for newcomers who are not rich upon arrival. (Relaxation of zoning laws could change this, but most locals in such cities are too sentimental, or too shrewd, to embrace this.)

People who missed out on the great real estate wave that crested over the east coast at the turn of the century may now be realizing that if they want to have their own Brooklyns, they will need to make them in places like Buffalo. This brings me back to my mixed feelings.

Undoubtedly, large portions of Brooklyn, etc., were depressing in the 1980s, much as Buffalo remained in the early 2000s, and for many of the same reasons. (I remember some of these neighborhoods, in New York City, specifically, and they were not pleasant, or even safe). Yes, gentrification took something away from the Brooklyns of the world: authenticity, localism, cheap rents, and the slower pace of life that such environments can foster. But these places were also dying, and much of what they had lost was already long gone. Seen from another perspective, gentrification transformed places that time had forgotten into places where people, once again, wanted to live.

Buffalo has not attracted many newcomers since its factories began closing after World War II. Those of us who have passed through — even while noting some of its fine qualities — have still felt eager to leave. Perhaps if cities like Buffalo could be reimagined with affordable elements from the Brooklyn model, they could also shake off some of the hopelessness that, like the old factories, has long outlasted its purpose.