By Steve Cichon
Every week, I read a week’s worth of The Buffalo News from some gone-by year, looking for articles, photos, and ads that shed some interesting light on our past, help provide some clarity to our collective community memory of the great people, places, and institutions of Western New York, and help explain where we are now.
This week, The News will publish my 1,000th BN Chronicles look into Buffalo’s past.
We are all excited and thankful about the renaissance Buffalo is currently enjoying, but I think projects like BN Chronicles help us to remember — even amid all that is new and exciting — what truly makes Buffalo unique.
Every place has history, but few places have so much, so varied, so unheralded history as Buffalo.
In a city like New York or Boston or Chicago, there is likely at least one college professor who is an expert on every fascinating facet of those cities’ past. Books have been written that tell the complete stories of nearly every neighborhood, group of people, and institution.
Here, we are playing 50 years of catch up. For a half-century, as a community, we had a general self-defeatist attitude thinking that if it had to do with Buffalo or its past, it was probably not worth thinking about or keeping.
Now we realize our strength is in a future planted firmly in and building upon our past. The way to build Buffalo’s future is to collect and codify its past making for a deeper, richer experience not only for us, but also for the newcomers to our city who arrive daily.
It is the big things and the little things. Buffalo was suffering from a sort of mass depression, and many of the great moments of our pop culture history limped away and vanished unnoticed. Now that the depression is lifted, we are wondering what became of the way we have lived our Buffalo lives over the last 50 or 60 years.
In the ’50s and ’60s, we steamrolled our past with good intentions, expecting our city of 600,000 people to grow to 2 million. We wanted to build roads and giant skyscrapers to be prepared. In the ’70s and ’80s, the hemorrhaging of industry, jobs, and people left us reeling and wondering if the last person leaving Buffalo would turn off the light. The ’90s and 2000s saw more people realizing our resilient and friendly people were our strength, and seeds were planted to show off our assets and bring people back.
As the writer of the BN Chronicles, I enjoy taking the opportunity to share the snapshots in time that help tell us the story of how we got to the place we are right now. How our industries wound up decimated. Why the waterfront, Buffalo schools and Peace Bridge have been difficult puzzles to solve for years. But also the good news. The men and women who believed in this city when few others did. The sometimes terrible, but certainly well-intentioned and hopeful development that took place through the years. The people and places who through it all kept Buffalo the wonderful blue-collar spirited community it remains today.
But along with the heavy lifting, come some of the stories of our lives that have been lost to time. We are able to look at the city where you could not walk more than two blocks without hitting a corner gin mill, a firebox, and a milk machine. Maybe we are reminded to tell our kids and grandkids that when we did well in school, we took our report cards to Loblaw’s to get a free day at Crystal Beach.
Whether it is the earth-shattering headlines or the warm and fuzzy “whatever-happened-tos,” it is more than just nostalgia. The most important piece of what happens in the stories of the BN Chronicles is taking a step back and seeing how all these vestiges of our past have shaped who we are today. It is what makes us in Buffalo unique, and each story told adds to the critical mass that is bringing new life to our community.
This first appeared at history.buffalonews.com.