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A Tale of Two Winter Cities

Springtime in Buffalo was met with Ma Nature’s traditional greeting for New York state: Snow. Seven inches to be precise, along with a nod in the national news. Because snow in Buffalo is so unusual and the people in Buffalo run around outside screaming “Hark, the sky is falling!” I’m sure.

Must have been a very slow news day. Buffalo ends up in the national news at least a couple of times every winter for being completely buried. If seven inches dropped in North Carolina or Georgia or Maryland, it would be a complete burial by the standards of those places. But up here in the harsh winter crannies of New York, seven inches is barely a dusting. Even pausing to brush the car off, seven inches doesn’t so much as slow down rush hour traffic.

As it happens, I was still in Chicago during the “Snowpocalypse” in February. The coverage of that winter storm was the kind reserved for real disasters like the recent tsunami in Japan or Hurricane Katrina. The city was in the news for a week. A week afterward, the Chicago weather was back in the news again because the temperature had jumped up to the high 50’s and nearly all the snow was melted.

The Snowpocalypse dumped over 20 inches onto Chicago and the populace didn’t know what to do. My opinion of Chicago’s vaunted broad-shouldered winter toughness is rather low, and one of the things I quickly learned was that the reason so many people believe in the myth of winter-tough Chicago was because Chicagoans constantly compliment themselves on it. They are classic cases of talking the talk but saying “I could, but I don’t wanna” when challenged to back it up.

I probably wouldn’t be pointing this out if Chicagoans were a bit more honest about their assessment of their ability to weather a winter. But Chicago doesn’t seem to make a distinction between the toughest large metropolis and actual toughness. The city businesses begin to close down if so much as three inches hits the pavement. The city services slow down at the first sign of a snowflake. A few years ago, Chicago ran out of its snow removal budget, and this presented me with two thoughts which I still can’t quite wrap my mind around: That the big, tough, broad-shouldered, windy winter city didn’t have enough foresight to prepare for such a scenario, and that city budgets have whole piles of money set aside for the sole purpose of getting snow out of the way.

Buffalo was always so good at snow removal that I had never stopped to think of it as a city service before. The one time the white stuff piled up faster than the city could remove it was during the infamous Gridlock Monday winter storm of 2000, and that was only because of the rapid pace of the snow buildup and the timing of the storm, which occurred during the evening rush hour. That was the only time I’ve ever seen people in Buffalo spend their nights at their workplaces and schools. Those who were trapped in their cars simply got out and walked, leaving their cars behind to be dug out the following morning. My mother spent the night at her workplace, and I helped dig her car out. My father just barely made it home.

City-slowing winter storms in Buffalo, however, are anomalies. Buffalo gets hit by at least a couple of storms per year which drop 20 inches. We know the drill here and we routinely work it to perfection. 20 inches means it’s time to break out the shovels and snowblowers. It seems the national media makes a bigger deal out of snow in Buffalo than is warranted. It paints pictures of people terrified and confused by the snow, who stock up on canned goods for storms driving snowmobiles to the stores, and sit nervously in front of the traffic reports, waiting for the opening to get out. But the reality in Buffalo is that we break open a cold six-pack, and the only time we watch The Weather Channel is to make fun of the poor bozos in North Carolina as they slam their cars into telephone poles at five mph. (And yes, we really do those things.) Although we frequently do wish for warmer weather, those are arbitrary wishes which are often shrugged off immediately afterward with the phrase “It’s Buffalo, what are ya gonna do?”

As for Chicago – scared, panicky, confused during slight dustings, 20 inches really can be interpreted as the end of the world. The Snowpocalypse made for an interesting look at a post-rapture Chicago. The largest, busiest streets in the city were completely barren for two days. Meanwhile, I grabbed my camera and had fun. The Snowpocalypse contained a simple truth that Chicago is too busy kidding itself to admit: That all those national stereotypes which are applied to snow-buried Buffalo are far better applied to Chicago.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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