Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology, out this November from Belt.
By Jody K. Biehl
This is the book I wish existed when I moved to Buffalo.
It’s a book for long-time residents who want to spend a few minutes or an afternoon thinking about their city. It’s for those who’ve moved away but still feel nostalgic when they get a whiff of Cheerios or see a towering elm or watch the Bills fumble in the end zone.
Buffalo, for all its messiness, is magnetic.
This book doesn’t list the coolest places to stay, where to get the best Thai food, or which restaurants serve breakfast at 2:00 a.m.
It’s more personal than that.
It’s an inside-out portrait of the city told by those of us who call or once called this beloved, abused patch of earth by the lake home. Our youngest author is fifteen; our oldest is ninety-one. Some of us have just arrived. Several have never left.
[blocktext align=”right”]This book touches on the meaning of home, how to find it, and how tightly roots can hold. [/blocktext] This book touches on the meaning of home, how to find it, and how tightly roots can hold. It’s about snowstorms and dogs, big trees, mean nuns, kind neighbors, and ones who deflate children’s basketballs. It’s about old houses and older hatreds. The wicked creativity of our art, food, and music burns in these pages, but so does the racism that singes our dreams.
This book will help us think about where Buffalo is today, where it’s been, and where it’s going next. It’s packed with love for Buffalo—and with worries. We love Buffalo’s new energy, but we worry about gentrification and inequality, about bad water, bad sports teams, and bad planning. We laugh with comedian Mark Russell as he recalls beer deliveries to Jesuit priests in the 1940s and with David J. Hill as he goes to his firrst meat raffle in 2013. Jeff Miers takes us on a raucous romp through Buffalo music’s boozy underbelly and leaves us hoping Buffalo’s scrappy weirdness endures. The book doesn’t offer answers or recipes for Buffalo’s future. It tells stories. Through vignettes, it scrapes at our frozen surface and offers glimpses of the warm interiors we too rarely share.
We’ve put together an original, kaleidoscopic view of the city, which includes recollections and images by close to seventy authors and artists. Some —like CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, Goo Goo Dolls’ bass player Robby Takac, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conductor JoAnn Falletta, and legendary Bills coach Marv Levy, are well-known, but few of us, I think, know how Falletta, who shares a poem for this anthology, feels when she’s alone at Kleinhans Music Hall, or what Levy was thinking as that fateful kick drifted right and the Bills lost their first Super Bowl.
Some of the authors take us into uncomfortable places we often don’t acknowledge in ourselves or in our community. Sara Ali, whose family is Muslim, writes about the torment she faced in her predominantly white elementary school after the 9/11 attacks. Jeff Klein flips back the decades to Hertel Avenue of the 1960s and the bullying he endured as the only Jewish boy on his block. Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. laments the racism he believes has laced city planning for decades and insists that the renaissance sweeping Buffalo is leaving out African Americans and other minorities. He wants a better way.
We’ve given the book the title “Right Here, Right Now,” which, as Bills fans of a certain era remember, was part of the rallying cry Coach Levy used to motivate his players. “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” he asked them, emphasizing the magnitude of the moment.
So, too, we ask you, our readers, to appreciate this moment in Buffalo. The city buzzes with newness. Yet, the shiny promise sits atop layers of history, good and bad, some of which our authors bring alive in these pages.
I wish I could have had this anthology when I was considering moving to Buffalo in 2007. I scoured the internet and found guidebooks and history books and cookbooks and plenty about architecture, grain elevators, and snowstorms. But none of it helped me get a sense of what living here was like or how longtime residents viewed their hometown. It didn’t explain that everyone in Buffalo is connected by no more than four degrees of separation.
I remember my awe the first time I drove through the Parkside neighborhood and saw the magnificent homes, the towering trees—and then two giraffes poking their heads from behind a leafy wall. Giraffes?
I lived here five years before I understood how arduously Buffalonians love this city, and that the real “lake effect” has only a little to do with the snow that piles up every winter. The real lake effect is what happens inside heated homes and around fireplaces. It’s when your neighbor tromps through the snow to bring you soup or cupcakes or to shovel out your front door. It’s your kids popping out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to check the snow-day-predictor apps they’ve installed on your phone and then sledding to each others’ houses to build igloos. It’s the beers and steaming mugs shared with neighbors when you can’t see past your front porch. The lake effect starts when there is just enough fear to make us open up and nothing left to do but talk. It’s humorously and subtly portrayed in Jon Penfold’s “Surprise.”
Over generations, the lake effect has helped establish an invisible bond among Buffalonians, a can-do sense of neighborliness that, I think, both draws people in and hauls deserters back—even if it’s only via memories. This anthology is packed with those—Ronald Wendling’s recollections of Mrs. G’s pies and how his North Park neighbors filled in for his drunken father, Lynette D’Amico’s grappling to understand her Italian immigrant mother’s connection to a home D’Amico never knew. TV writer and producer Pat Obermeier just returned to Buffalo and hopes she’ll find the wildness she remembers, while Washington Post media columnist and longtime Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan grapples with her new standing as a Buffalo expat.
History books gush about Frederick Law Olmsted’s magnificent plans for Buffalo and the stupidity that destroyed pieces of that vision. In the pages of this anthology, those choices come alive, not as academic lessons but as memories of lives lived. In her essay—the opening piece of the anthology— the novelist Lauren Belfer reminds us of the power of Buffalo’s enchanted trees to ignite the imagination and hints at the physical and psychological destruction that followed the loss of the Humboldt Parkway.
Great cities have secrets. Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Berlin, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles. They evoke mystery, a sense that they are hiding something or that wonderful things are happening around the corner or happened last week or a century ago right where you are standing. I’ve lived in and reported from these places, and people often seem surprised to learn that I’m now happy living in Buffalo. Some people express pity or assume there must be a family connection—which there isn’t—or some crisis that forces me to stay.
I just smile.
They don’t know Buffalo’s secret.
[blocktext align=”right”]Buffalo’s secret is that it’s secretly great. [/blocktext]Buffalo’s secret is that it’s secretly great. Not for everyone, of course, and not across racial divides, and sometimes, literally, as many authors point out, not east of Main Street. But it has those beautiful old Olmsted bones. Now, our trees are returning, as is our waterfront, and many of our historic homes and institutions are intact or being refurbished. Filmmakers are starting to notice the uniqueness of our architecture and our landscape and are increasingly using Buffalo as a backdrop. 85 percent of us live within a ten minute walk of a park. Our food and music scenes are electric, and we’re still a nurturing and affordable home for artists.
It’s a fine place to be, right here, right now. Open up the book. Stay a while.
Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology, out from Belt Publishing this November. For more information and to preorder a copy see our online store.
Jody Kleinberg Biehl is a former editor for Der Spiegel magazine in Berlin, and director of the journalism program at the University at Buffalo.