Great American Road Trip
Destination: Buffalo, New York
Book: City on the Edge by Mark Goldman
My great aunt Maude Bartlett lived in Buffalo with her husband, dearCarlos. She always referred to him as though his name had three syllables. I never visited Aunt Maude in Buffalo, and Carlos died before I was born. He was a lawyer for the railroads, back when the railroads were very prosperous, so they lived a solid upper middle class life and Maude belonged to Women’s clubs and Shakespeare societies and hosted teas. DearCarlos died when he was only 42 years old, but Maude continued to live a comfortable life in Buffalo.
She finally moved back to the small town in Ohio where she grew up, and where my Grandmother Vera lived all her life. Maude and Vera fought constantly. Two sisters were never so different. Apparently great-grandmother had shown great favoritism to Maude, the older sister, the refined one, the one who played the piano and knew all the best brands of silver and china. But they called each other every day.
When my family moved back to the same town, I sometimes visited her, and as her eyesight failed, she wanted my brother and me to read to her. I dutifully spent summer afternoons one summer reading a book about Alaska to her, but I didn’t like doing it and soon got out of it.
I have always regretted that my self-centered teenage self didn’t have the sense to ask about Buffalo, and what her life was like in that city on Lake Erie. Because of these memories, for our road trip stop in western New York state, I chose to read City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York , a history and analysis of Buffalo by Mark Goldman.
I gobbled up the first few chapters about Buffalo’s peak days, when they idolized industry, glorying in giving away lakefront to shipping and manufacturing companies and allowing railroads to split the city. Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park, was invited to lay out boulevards and parks for Buffalo. Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses for the wealthy. But industry eventually toppled from its pedestal and crushed the economy of the city along with other rustbelt cities in the northern tier of Midwest states.
Despite a decade by decade retelling of grim mistakes and economic disaster,the book points out a rich cultural life. The Albright Art Gallery, later to become the Albright-Knox, starting early in the 20th century, built what is still one of the best modern art collections in the country. And in music, Buffalo became known for supporting avant-garde music, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, founded in 1935, performs in a historic hall designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Buffalo also boasts the 2nd oldest Chamber Music Society in the U.S.
It would have been wonderful to see the beautiful elm trees that crowded the edges of Buffalo streets before the Dutch Elm disease thinned out those trees. Today, Goldman says, volunteers are replanting trees and restoring the plazas and parks designed by Olmstead.
Yes, I wish I had asked Aunt Maude more about her life in Buffalo, which was at its hey-day when she lived there. But is this a book for road trip travelers? Is Buffalo even a city for travelers? The Buffalo-Niagara Falls web site proclaims “Be Surprised.” And the Albright-Knox Gallery site says “Experience the Unexpected.” As in, ‘you weren’t expecting anything, so whatever you find is going to be better than what you were expecting’? Warning: unless you really love blizzards, do not visit in the winter.
As for this book, the danger in writing history is the temptation to use every fact you uncover and City on the Edge is crammed with facts. I also got the feeling that Goldman, a investor and restaurateur when he’s not writing history, also used some of the book to settle some political scores. Let me suggest that you might use it as a reference, if you are going to stop in Buffalo. For more information on Buffalo, Goldman suggests Buffalo Rising, an on-line newspaper.
Music Road tells about three western New York songwriters for our road music to go with the road trip to Buffalo.
Photos by M.H.Baker from Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. Click on a photo to see more of this Buffalo photographer’s work.
So, have you stopped in Buffalo when you were on a road trip to Niagara Falls? I shared the high culture, but what about the strictly fun stuff?