Last year, Bernice Radle and her boyfriend Jason Wilson paid $16,000 for a three bedroom 1,600 square foot, American Foursquare-style house on Buffalo’s West Side. After growing up in nearby Niagara Falls, attending Buffalo State College, then living and making music in Los Angeles for two years, she came back to Buffalo, where she has become active in a movement of young preservationists bent on restoring the city’s old houses and buildings.
“The new American Dream is not owning a $200,000 house or owning a very expensive car, but owning something that matters more to you that's accessible,” she says. “I think the whole American Dream is really shifting, but the problem is in big cities you can't get that.”
At 28, Bernice’s life is a sort of marketing campaign for Buffalo. This summer, after wrapping up an episode of HGTV’s American Rehab Buffalo—for which they completely renovated that home in three months—the couple got married, essentially becoming Buffalo’s First Couple of Historic Preservation. The event had its own hashtag, #abuffalovewedding, mirroring the name of their company, Buffalove Development, which restores old houses.
Bernice is as intent on selling Buffalo’s recovery to the world as she is on wrapping up her own fate in that recovery (she’s not shy about her desire to run for mayor).
Over fancy Apple Cider toast with triple cream brie ($5.44 plus tax) at Five Points Bakery’s new West Side location one day, she told me about a recent trip to Detroit, and her love of the city’s slogan, “Detroit Hustles Harder,” her “favorite slogan for any city ever.” I asked her what Buffalo’s slogan should be.
“Buffalo: The Comeback City,” she said, instantly. “I’ve had hours and hours of conversations about slogans for Buffalo.”
(Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
According to census data analyzed by the New York Times, from 2000 to 2012 the number of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 in Buffalo jumped 34%—more than Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
If moving to New York City is like dating the most popular kid in your high school only to discover "all the blemishes that aren't visible when gazed upon from a distance," then Buffalonians will tell you that moving to their city is like dating the girl next door who's undergoing a She's All That-style transformation.
In 1900, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the country and had the most millionaires per capita in the world. In the first half of the 20th century, with the opening of the Barge Canal, Buffalo’s shipping and manufacturing boomed. The city was also the world’s largest supplier of grain. Things started to unravel in the 1960s after the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway; shipping went elsewhere, and eventually so did other industries. Over the next couple decades, the city’s population plummeted, and many homes and buildings were left vacant.
Part of attracting a younger demographic involves filling in those vacancies through programs like the Buffalo Building Re-Use Project, which provides loans for businesses to improve property downtown, and the Urban Homesteading Program, which offers $1.00 abandoned homes for qualified applicants.
It also requires jobs. In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged a so-called “Buffalo Billion” for economic development in the city. The continued construction on the state-of-the-art Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is bringing new jobs and development to the surrounding downtown area. And sometime next year, Elon Musk’s SolarCity, a $750 million factory designed to produce high-efficiency solar panels, will employ thousands.
All these initiatives are starting to pay off. According to The Buffalo News, incomes in the Buffalo Niagara region grew about 1.5% a year (after inflation) between 2003 and 2013—double the average annual increase nationwide during that time. In 2003, per capita personal income in the region was 11% lower than the national average, but by the end of 2013, it was $44,301, just 1% less.
Attracting young people also involves soft initiatives, like turning the waterfront into a recreation zone for skating and curling, and creating a “master plan” for a more bike-friendly city. Chris Hawley, an urban planner who works for the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, believes new breweries and distilleries are already attracting people and dollars to the city, a phenomenon he calls “Beer-Oriented Development.”
A view of Buffalo from atop City Hall's observation deck (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Upon my arrival in Buffalo, I landed on the couch of Nora Cox, a 26-year-old who, in 2011, ended up in the city after biking up the east coast from Charleston, South Carolina. She’d just been planning to stay for a month or two while doing a work exchange at a wood shop on the East Side, but her plans changed after she bought a house there at a foreclosure auction for $1,000. The house isn’t livable yet, but she’s been slowly fixing it up, adding a roof, gutters and insulation with help from handy friends in town.
In the meantime, she pays $150 a month (a tab she can typically cover after one weekly shift waiting tables at Founding Fathers Pub) to rent a room in a two-bedroom West Side house owned by her friend Carrie Nader, 30, who also lives there with her boyfriend.
“I make a lot more money here serving than I did serving in the south. And I can save a lot here—that’s how I afforded to leave for the whole winter last year,” she said. “I left for four months to travel and didn't work a day.”
Carrie, a native of the nearby suburb of Cheektowaga who works for the green demolition contractor ReUse Action, also owns the larger house in the front of the property, a single family, four-bedroom home with a full basement (where Nora has set up a sort of bicycle laboratory) and attic. There’s also a large back yard on the property, where they keep nine chickens and grow fruits and vegetables. Carrie purchased the whole lot of it for $180 four years ago. She also owns four vacant lots in the area and another house, which she purchased for $2,500 when she was 23.
Bernice Radle (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Currently these kinds of deals are hard to come by on the West Side, a multi-ethnic neighborhood that’s now home to trendy cafes and shops, as well as skyrocketing home prices and the sort of talk about gentrification familiar to New York City residents. Even completely gutted homes, Carrie told me, are going for tens of thousands these days as the number of available lots dwindles.
Still, rent is really cheap in Buffalo, so much so that New Yorkers might find themselves either packing their bags or clenching their fists when they hear the numbers.
One night, I stopped by the home of Pat and Billy Sandora-Nastyn, a couple who moved to the top floor of a “double”—a house with two apartments, one on each floor—to Buffalo from Hell’s Kitchen last year. Their place has two bedrooms, two offices, two living rooms, a large kitchen, and a washer and dryer. They pay $1,000/month. Eventually they’re hoping to buy a house of their own.
“We both had good jobs but we were thinking that we weren’t going to be able to level up in New York City to the next life stage, whether that meant owning something or living in a bigger place,” Pat said.
Pat and Bill Sandora-Nastyn (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Starting a business, like paying rent or buying a drink, is also less daunting in Buffalo. One day, I visited BreadHive, a worker-owned bakery on the West Side opened last year by first-time business owners Tori Kuper, Allison Ewing and Emily Stewart, who are in their late 20s and early 30s. They raised $65,000 to start the bakery from 40 public and private Class B shareholders and built the kitchen for $45,000. They now pay $650 monthly on a graduated rental lease for the 900 square foot space. The artisanal bread market is not saturated in Buffalo, and business is brisk.
Kuper, 30, who’s originally from Rochester, got her master’s degree in performance studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After graduation, she worked for a few years at MTV and Alvin Ailey, but when the recession hit, she decided she wanted to live in a smaller city where she could do work over which she felt a greater sense of ownership.
“I’m glad we're past the point where New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are the only places to go to be successful and make your mark on the world, because that's so limiting,” Kuper said. “There are a lot of places to have opportunity that are a little more accessible.”
Tori Kuper, co-owner of BreadHive (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Some of the people I met in Buffalo had grown up in the city their whole lives, and after swearing they’d never return once they left for college, found themselves changing their tune in the last couple years.
Alexis Billups grew up on the East Side, and when she left for Tuskegee University in Alabama, her plan was to move to California. But, finding no other option after school, she moved back home and three years ago found a job at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Recently, she moved downtown, where she likes to shop and ice skate at the new rink there.
“When I first came back and started working at Roswell I was still looking to move away. But I've stopped looking,” she said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the progression of the city.”
Alexis Billups, 26 (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Casey Milbrand, 33, lived in Buffalo until he was 25, when he moved to Chicago and then Brooklyn. Last year, he moved into a house with his boyfriend in Buffalo.
“I was unemployed quite a few times as an architect after the recession hit in 2008 and I basically decided that I couldn’t really make a name for myself in any of the cities I was living in. The energy feels right in Buffalo now,” he told me at Sweet_ness 7 Café, where we met.
Right next door, on Grant Street, Casey rents a storefront for $500 a month. He hasn’t disclosed the name of his store yet (currently, a sheet of paper covering the front door reads “#SECRETSTOREFRONT”), but he imagines it will serve as a sort of community event space and welcome center for new city residents. While he fixes up the place, it stores his massive sculpture, a bunch of interconnected bicycle wheels that can be put into motion by two people pedaling. He calls it CityHEART.
Casey Millbrand at CityHEART (Jordan Teicher / Gothamist)
One night, I joined Mac McGuire, editor of a local music blog, Buffablog, and local musician/DJ Laura “Lulu” Robinson (who also recently moved back to the area from Brooklyn) for an installment of Wonk Sesh, a recurring performance series in which musicians play in front of a projector showing live Photoshop manipulation. In the attic of a house in Elmwood Village, we stood around, freezing, with a dozen or so others clutching cheap beers, occasionally warming our hands over a bunch of tea light candles assembled on a coffee table.
The next night, at Duke Bohemian Grove Bar (DBGB) I saw a James Brown cover band whip the crowd into such a wild frenzy that one woman yanked the shirt off her dance partner, leaving him bare-chested, resulting in their expulsion by a security guard. Out on the street later, completely unprompted, a drunken stranger handed me one of the most perfectly constructed snowballs I’ve ever seen. He then immediately, almost magically, disappeared.
Dr. Henry Louis Taylor in his office at the University of Buffalo (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
There were times, especially in Allentown or the West Side, when getting served a craft cocktail by a tattooed, suspendered mixologist, or passing a bar named for a 19th century German philosopher, I wondered if I might have accidentally stumbled through a portal to Bedford Avenue.
Though Buffalo isn’t quite the Williamsburg of Western New York, the Hipster Rust Belt City, or some other Timesian moniker, it does mirror Brooklyn in one important way: Both are rife with inequality. Around a third of Buffalo residents, and the majority of its children, live below the poverty line. Buffalo also makes an appearance on national lists of the most segregated cities in the country. What does Buffalo's supposed comeback mean for those residents who see few of its positive effects?
Not much, Dr. Henry Louis Taylor told me when I visited him at his office at the University at Buffalo. If anything, he said, it makes things worse.
According to his research, Buffalo’s renaissance has sped up the decline of Buffalo’s predominantly African-American East Side neighborhoods. On his computer, he showed me two maps. One traced the location of nearly $3 billion worth of new residential, commercial and medical developments downtown. The other showed African-American population losses and gains in surrounding areas. When the maps are overlaid, they show blacks leaving the East Side neighborhoods next to the concentration of downtown development, and moving to far-flung reaches of the city.
"I'm not convinced that most folks here are anchored by a larger vision of the type of city they want to build. They equate a revitalized city with a bunch of white people doing their thing in it,” Taylor said.
“I'm not anti-growth, but I think the purpose of growth is to build a city that is just and a good place to live and raise a family for everybody that is there,” he added. “And so I think you judge that city by what it does for the least of the members of that society and the extent to which it's consciously attempting to develop all of these communities. I think Buffalo is trapped in a growth for growth's sake model, and that model never looks at social consequences.”
David Torke at Sacred Heart Church on Buffalo's East Side (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Blacks moved en masse to Buffalo in the decades after World War II, just as whites began moving to the suburbs. They settled mostly on the East Side, which the city began destroying, in parts, as part of a large urban renewal project. When jobs left the city, the East Side was particularly hard hit, and today disproportionately high unemployment, poor housing, and crime mark the area.
A few days after I met with Dr. Taylor, I spent an afternoon driving around the East Side with David Torke, a preservationist whose blog, fixBuffalo, documents the area's neglect. We passed stretches of urban prairie, where buildings had been demolished and nothing had replaced them, as well as closed-down businesses and vacant homes. At the abandoned Sacred Heart Church—graffiti covering its walls and garbage littering its snow-covered floors—it looked like a bomb had gone off inside.
At the Mt. Olive Baptist Church on the East Side, Pastor William Gillison told me he’s optimistic about what the East Side could become, but that it needs a lot more attention.
"You can't build a strong city if it's weak at its core. I would like to think that the East Side represents a part of the core of the city of Buffalo. You shouldn't build up a fabulous downtown and then drive five to ten minutes from downtown and all of a sudden you see blight. That's not a good image for any city," he said. "Buffalo is moving in the right direction right now, but it still has even greater potential to be a model for the rest of the nation for how to build a city and not leave one part of the city behind."
Pastor William Gillison at Mt. Olive Baptist Church (Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)
Despite the growth of the millennial demographic in Buffalo, the city’s overall population is still in decline. In 2000, the population was more than 328,000. In 2013, it was just under 260,000—a bit higher than Community Board 7’s constituency on the Upper West Side.
I was reminded of just how small a city Buffalo is by a man named Lance Diamond, a legendary R&B lounge singer known for doling out hugs and witticisms, dressing to the nines, and generally seducing the entire city. As chance would have it, the day before I arrived, he died.
A few days later, my last in town, there was a tribute concert for Lance at Kleinhans Music Hall. Hundreds of people showed up, including the Goo Goo Dolls, representatives of Erie County and New York State, and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who declared January 10th to be Lance Diamond Day.
Before he was Lance Diamond, the man they were mourning was called William Shingles, a former security guard who once served in the Navy. Diamond wasn’t married and he didn’t have children; he too had reinvented himself in Buffalo.
After the concert I ran into Susan Chelowa, a lifelong Buffalonian and teacher who I’d met a few days earlier. As people filed out of the venue, I asked Susan how all the new transplants could really know the city without its patron saint.
“When they hear a song by him, they'll know that's the spirit of Buffalo."
Jordan G. Teicher is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been published by Slate, NPR and Wired, among other publications.