Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Where the Urban Dream Life Is Going Cheap

Newell Nussbaumer and Amelia Schineller with their tandem bike on "Newell Beach."  

Voilà: Newell Beach.

“You see all kinds of people here now,” Nussbaumer says. “I met a guy from the inner city who brought his daughter down here, and she was building a sand castle. He said to me, ‘She’s never in her life been to a beach before.’ ”

And here’s the thing: You can bike around Buffalo and point to a lot of things and say, “Newell Nussbaumer did that.” That week he’d been to City Hall with a group of cycling advocates and had persuaded the city to convert some of its old parking meters to bike stands, which is part of his grand scheme to make Buffalo the most bike-friendly city in North America. (Current title holder: Portland, Oregon.) Later, at the offices of Buffalo Rising, Nussbaumer explains how most of his staff are unpaid interns, who work for free not because they’re hoping to scrabble their way up some media ladder (in Buffalo, that ladder has no rungs) but because, as he says, “they know they’re helping to create this city where they want to live.” I think of the many valiant unpaid interns I’ve known in New York, and while most of them were working hard to create their own lives, not one of them (or at least not the sane ones) imagined they were helping to create New York City.

After further consideration, I doubt I could become Newell Nussbaumer if I moved to Buffalo, because that job is clearly taken. And I have to admit that the small-town, everyone-knows-your-name thing doesn’t appeal to me—escaping this is, in fact, a big reason why people move away from a place like Buffalo and go to a place like New York. But we tend to think that one of the consequences of leaving New York is giving up all sorts of opportunities. And yet, one quality common to everyone I meet in Buffalo is that, like Nussbaumer, they see opportunity everywhere. Where you see a boarded-up building, they see a future arts co-op. They use the phrases blank canvas or blank slate a lot. For example, there’s the abandoned police station we spotted across the street on the last stop of our bike tour. It’s a squat, single-story building, overgrown with weeds, straight out of some end-of-civilization zombie movie, right down to the PO ICE station sign with the missing L. This vision struck me, the New Yorker, as hugely depressing: an overt sign of Buffalo’s decline—look, even the cops packed up and took off.

The Buffalonians, however, saw it differently.

“That is so cool,” said Tim.

“We should take that building, do something with it,” said Jason.

“We should make it into a club!” said Tim. “We could call it the Station.”

“It’s crying out to be something,” Jason said.

If you’re really interested in Buffalo’s sense of possibility, you should talk to Lesley Maia Horowitz. She’s a petite woman in her mid-forties, with sandy-blonde hair and a fondness for funky miniskirts. She grew up in Buffalo, a typical misfit, the one who worshipped David Bowie and swooned for the local punk rocker, then got the hell out as soon as she could. Now she lives in Manhattan. She and her partner, Dominic Sinesio, have, if I may say, a very glammy-glam New York life. They run the design firm OfficeLab. They specialize in brand management, and they’ve handled, among others, the branding of the Soho Grand and the Hotel on Rivington. Horowitz’s current New York life is, I imagine, not that different from the one she once imagined for herself when she was plotting her escape from Buffalo.

And yet, almost every weekend, she flies back home. She’s not exactly sure why. But her stab at an explanation sounds familiar to me. “This place just feels like there’s so much still left to the imagination,” she says.

Horowitz has, for example, befriended a guy named Aaron Bartley who runs an organization called PUSH Buffalo. Bartley, who’s 33, grew up in Buffalo, went to Harvard Law, got involved in community organizing in Boston, then moved back to Buffalo to see if he could put the city’s abandoned buildings to good use. (There are roughly 10,000 abandoned houses in the city, half of which are now on an official to-be-demolished list.) PUSH takes ownership of these derelict houses, fixes them up, then moves in a family in need of a home. The family pays rent into an escrow fund, and after two years, the money can be used as a down payment on a house of their own.

On my last day, Horowitz and Bartley take me on a tour of one of the most depressed parts of the city. It seems a strange way to end my visit, but fitting as well, as these neighborhoods, with their rows of empty houses each available for $1, represent exactly the kind of possibilities that drew the two of them back.

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift