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Returning to a More Hopeful Buffalo

28 January 2013 No Comment

After nearly three years in San Francisco, I threw in the towel and came home to Buffalo. I wasn’t proud of my decision to boomerang back to my parents’ house, but I had quit my job at an unnecessarily stressful and ineffective nonprofit to return to graduate school and travel, and had the better part of a year before school would start. Staying in my studio apartment was out of the question. Even if I were to start freelancing right away, it was costing me $1,400 a month, and I just couldn’t afford it.

Then there was the added fact that despite really liking the new friends I’d made, the many beautiful sights of San Francisco, and the cache of being in one of the coolest cities in the country, I was claustrophobic. City living just wasn’t working for me, and I longed for my parents’ forty acres north of Buffalo. Of course, I knew I was romanticizing the place, but that didn’t change the fact that I just wasn’t happy where I was.

San Franciscans seemed baffled by the fact that I was going back to some forgotten backwater, identical in their minds to the jobless, dying– and above all Republican– places they had fled from. But they tried to be understanding, especially because they all dealt with the ridiculous cost of living there and had seen many friends go because of it.

I came back home to nothing like what they imagined. The Western New York area, my Rust Belt home, has weathered the economic crisis well enough, with a relatively stable housing market. It’s not all rainbows and puppies by any means. Unemployment, while still above the national average, is falling. Crime rates aren’t very encouraging, with violent crime rising but property crime falling.

But there’s hope at a real grassroots level, and more of it than I recall seeing when I left. The Buffalo Barn Raisers, for example, have a calendar full of interesting social projects, including a Sunday Soup, the micro-granting phenomenon that has spread throughout the country.  Then there’s the explosion of environmental organizations like the Clean Air Coalition, in a nascent stage before I left and now a force to be reckoned with. A lot of the older social justice organizations are still here and going strong like the Coalition for Economic Justice.

Friends are starting their own businesses, including most recently a historical preservation and research consulting company, Old Time Roots. I have heard more stories of entrepreneurs here than ever, and that is a very good sign. There are many people who care about this region doing great work, and what I’ve mentioned here is just a drop in the bucket.

Even though I came back in November just as it was getting cold—the absolute worst timing, for sure—I caught up with old friends who expressed cautious optimism for WNY despite the brain drain that had claimed many of our mutual friends. They told me about the houses they’re rebuilding in the city. They told stories of people they’d met who had just left a draught-stricken South, underwater on their mortgages, and come here as what amounts to climate change refugees.

I don’t want to paint over the serious problems we face here, from poverty to pollution to a failing education system, gentrification and more. But I do believe that this region is on the rise, and not just because of the hopeful things I see around me. Another big factor is that we are right next to the largest source of surface fresh water in the world, and as climate change becomes more severe, we’re likely to see a reverse in our population decline and our brain drain. If we can prepare for this eventuality and clean up our lakes, WNY stands a good chance of being a great place to live in the coming decades.

I’ve also heard a lot fewer people trash-talking Buffalo, saying nothing ever happens here, or that they need to get out and can’t find work. And I’ve even found work! Just some consulting, including for a great new environmental organization. But still, it’s better than nothing. Even living with my parents hasn’t been that bad, and the social stigma of it doesn’t really seem to be too bad here.

When I lived in San Francisco I felt like I was in a liberal haven where loads of other activists were doing all the tough work for me, and I could sit back and just go to a protest or two a year. Here, I feel again like I need to be doing things, even though I’m not sure I’ll be staying very long. Either way, this place is special, and beautiful, and on the rise despite its problems.

By Buffalo boomerang Irene Morrison