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Where the Urban Dream Life Is Going Cheap

Dean Brownrout and Jana Eisenberg in their Buffalo apartment.   

Living in New York may be more expensive than ever, but let’s face it, it’s always been hard. 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 people talk idly of leaving. They talk of Portland, or Berlin, or Toronto. (Okay, I talk of Toronto.) Or they secretly hold on to their own personal Buffalo: a hometown they occasionally investigate, just to check in on housing prices. They imagine new lives for themselves in a kinder, cheaper, easier, more manageable mini–New York. A place that’s cosmopolitan but not nearly as crowded. A city with a few good, if not world-class, restaurants. And maybe some extra alluring touch that’s peculiar to their tastes: an intriguing arts scene that’s just under the radar, or easy access to tall trees and open air, or the promise of a backyard that’s bigger than a Twister board.

But 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.)

So what about you? Can you, oh jaded New Yorker, imagine yourself living somewhere else? And if so, can you imagine that somewhere being a place like Buffalo?

I know it may not be the most natural nor appealing destination. Buffalo knows this, too. But Buffalo would like you to give it another look. To this end, a few hopeful locals have organized an annual weekend-long event called Buffalo Homecoming, the point of which is to lure you to Buffalo and entice you to consider moving there.

Which is how I found myself spending a long weekend this summer at Buffalo’s Hampton Inn & Suites, planning to interrogate some actual ex–New Yorkers who’d relocated, or were thinking of relocating, to Buffalo. The hotel is in downtown Buffalo, which, like many downtowns in many midsize former industrial powerhouses turned postindustrial afterthoughts, is a sketchy patchwork: grand and impressive turn-of-the-century architecture (like the monumental Art Deco City Hall), nondescript, boxy, this-could-be-anywhere office buildings, and looming gaps in the skyline that give the impression of missing teeth in an untended smile.

Buffalo has seen hard times for a long time, but as a city, it has reason for new hope. The popularity of the book The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida, released in 2002—the first of four books by Florida on the imperative for cities to attract a certain kind of young creative professional—has given places like Buffalo a blueprint for economic revival. When I interviewed Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, he quoted directly from the Florida playbook. The city is striving to be more bike friendly. It’s supporting co-op housing for artists as a way to draw people back downtown. “We have all the amenities to attract the creative class, and to build on the creative class that already exists here,” said Brown. The good news is that Buffalo has qualities that tend to attract creative people: cheap rents, derelict industrial buildings, the romantic aura of a faded empire. The bad news is that a lot of other Rust Belt cities do, too, so Buffalo competes with every Pittsburgh and Milwaukee and Toledo on the map. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida ranked the attractiveness of American cities using both a “Tolerance Index” and a “Creativity Index.” Out of 49 cities, Buffalo ranked 47th in tolerance and 48th in creativity.

Here are a few things you probably know about Buffalo: It snows a lot. It’s the birthplace of Buffalo chicken wings. The Bills, the local NFL team, are famous for losing the Super Bowl four times. In a row.

Here are a few things you probably don’t know about Buffalo: The city’s median income is $28,000, and with nearly 30 percent of its citizens below the poverty line, Buffalo is the second poorest city in America. (Number one: Detroit.) The median home price is just $60,000. (“And if you spent $300,000,” says Mayor Brown, “you’d be close to living in a mansion.”) In 2007, the American Planning Association named Elmwood Village in Buffalo one of America’s “Ten Great Neighborhoods.” (Also named: Park Slope.) In 1901, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in America, a booming industrial metropolis, and the site of the World’s Fair. By 2008, thanks to white flight and industrial decay, its population had dropped by half, from a mid-century high of 580,000 to about 270,000—fewer people, in fact, than lived there in 1901. As a result, large tracts of Buffalo are essentially abandoned, turned into “urban prairie,” full of boarded-up buildings and weedy vacant lots. The silver lining of this exodus is that you can drive anywhere in Buffalo in ten minutes or less, a fact that was repeated to me often by local boosters, including the mayor, which always struck me as odd—like claiming the best thing about living in a ghost town is that there’s never a line at the movie theater.

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