“It would be easy to make Buffalo the new Williamsburg,” says Bartley as we drive down another abandoned avenue. “There’s already a good arts scene, and you could easily import one tenth of Brooklyn here. But for me, the challenge is, I think this city can be something more than that.”
He doesn’t yet know exactly what. He, like everyone else in Buffalo, is in the process of finding out.
When we think about leaving New York, we usually think about what we would lose, and rarely about what we might gain. To that end, prospective destinations are measured by how similar they are to here. Philadelphia is New York, but cheaper. San Francisco is New York, but gentler. It’s the “squint” factor: Well, if I squint, it’s like New York, sort of, and I guess I can live with that. When I went to Buffalo, I expected that to be the sales pitch: It’s a mini big city with parks by Olmsted, a few very nice neighborhoods and a really good museum. It’s pseudo–New York! This, after all, is how struggling cities sell themselves, especially in the post–Creative Class world, as though they’re designer-knockoff versions of more attractive destinations. We’ve got many of the things you love, at a fraction of the price!
But that’s not what I found in Buffalo. I found it appealing for a different reason: not for how similar it is to New York (which is not very), but for how different. New York will always offer you the singular opportunity of testing yourself against the best, of sharpening yourself against the city’s fabled grindstone. Hopeful people will always scrape together their savings to come here, to split a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, whether that’s in Greenwich Village (then) or Bushwick (now). But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater. They moved looking for opportunities. They moved for the chance to build a new life for themselves.
This, ironically, has always been the siren song of New York City: the chance to turn yourself into someone new, to live the life you’ve always imagined. But what a city like Buffalo offers is a very different promise of what could be. It offers the chance to live on the cheap and start a nonprofit organization, or rent an abandoned church for $1,000 a month, or finish your album without having to hold down two temp jobs at the same time, or simply have more space and a better view and enough money left over each month to buy yourself a painting once in awhile. A city like Buffalo reminds you that, beyond New York, there are still frontiers.
David Cloyd and Jaime Herbeck still think about living in New York. If money had not been an issue, they say they would never have left. But when I ask Herbeck what she’d say to anyone else thinking of leaving, she responds with something obvious but which, in the struggle to craft our New York existences, we often disregard. “Just remember that there are other places,” she says, “and other people live there, with perfectly happy lives.”
As for Cloyd, he doesn’t feel like he gave up on New York or that it gave up on him. Rather, having moved away, he gets to enjoy the best gift the city gave him. “I feel like I’ve been wearing a suit of chain mail for the past ten years,” he says. “Now that I’ve left, I can finally take it off. And I get to enjoy my strength.”