My first appointment is a lunch with Dean Brownrout and Jana Eisenberg, a couple in their mid-forties who moved from New York City six years ago. He’s from Buffalo, she was raised in L.A.; they met in New York. He was in the music business (he signed the Goo Goo Dolls to their first professional contract); she was a freelance proofreader.
Brownrout moved to New York in the early eighties, fulfilling his promise to himself to get out of Buffalo by the time he turned 21. He remembers living in Soho in 1983, back when “I had the largest place I would ever have in New York and I paid the least amount of money. By the time we left in 2002”—when he was living in a bachelor pad near Union Square—“I was paying the most I’d ever paid for the least amount of space I’d ever had.” They moved to Buffalo almost a year to the day after September 11; when I ask why, Brownrout says, “A big plane flew into a big building. Priorities changed. We got married.” They thought about New Orleans. They thought about upstate New York. Then one day Brownrout’s mother phoned and suggested, “Why don’t you move back to Buffalo?” “And for the first time in twenty years,” he says, “I thought, That’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.
“Look, it wasn’t like we were sick of New York,” Brownrout continues. “It wasn’t like, ‘Wake up and smell the urine—let’s get out of here!’ We love New York! But we decided to try something else.” Now they live at what he describes as “one of the nicest addresses in the city,” a sixteenth-floor apartment that costs $500 less a month than what he paid for his bachelor pad in New York and from which, on a clear day, you can see the mist coming off Niagara Falls. Brownrout works as an art dealer, specializing in vintage art from western New York, so the couple spends a lot of time at the celebrated Albright-Knox Art Gallery, situated right by Delaware Park—elegantly designed, like several parks in Buffalo, by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Not that there aren’t trade-offs to their new lives. When I ask them what they miss most about New York, they answer immediately, “the restaurants.” (Poking at my gummy pad Thai, I silently commiserate.) When Eisenberg got a job writing theater reviews for a local paper, Brownrout would only grudgingly accompany her to shows. “I’d just be sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I saw Malkovich in Burn This,’ ” he says.
“I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.”
But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What they’ve done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.
Newell Nussbaumer has never lived in New York City. He has not, in fact, lived anywhere for any significant amount of time outside of Buffalo. But if I’d met him out of context, I’d have assumed he lived in San Diego and spent his nights sleeping on his surfboard on the beach. Nussbaumer, who’s 40, arrives at my hotel on Saturday morning wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, his blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail. He’s riding a tandem bicycle with his girlfriend, Amelia Schineller, on the back. Nussbaumer is the publisher of Buffalo Rising, a free monthly magazine and Website he started in 2003, mostly because he realized that there wasn’t a single media outlet in the city that ever said anything upbeat about Buffalo.
As we head out on our scheduled bike tour—Nussbaumer, Schineller, their friend Tim, and a couple named Jason and Sara—it quickly becomes apparent that, in his capacity as media mogul and tireless advocate and general dude-about-town, Nussbaumer’s become a kind of unofficial mayor of Buffalo. Every few blocks we pass someone who waves and shouts, “Hey, Newell!” or “What’s up, Newell!” Suddenly, a thought occurs to me: If I lived in a place like Buffalo, I could be Newell Nussbaumer, too.
And that’s before we arrive at Newell Beach.
It’s not officially called Newell Beach. That’s just what his girlfriend calls it. (The term makes him squirm, actually.) But as we park our bikes and look over this small, 150-foot patch of sand, where the boulders and deadwood and debris have been cleared away, right there on the rocky shore of Lake Erie, it’s quite clear that, were it not for Nussbaumer, this beach would not exist. Because Nussbaumer got it in his head one day that the good people of Buffalo deserved a beach. So he went to City Hall, met with the appropriate councilman, and convinced that guy, too.