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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo

Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo

A visitor to Buffalo might wonder why people who live here play up our reputation, but while this city managed to turn itself into a punchline about chicken wings, snow, and football over the last several decades, there are a significant number of bragging rights we can lay claim to that hold up against even the biggest cities. If you have any trouble believing that we were once important, take a look at this list of firsts and inventions and people Buffalo produced.

1 – The internal pacemaker was invented here.

2 – Ironically, so was the air conditioner.

3 – And the windshield wiper.

4 – The roll-top desk and grain elevator were invented here too.

5 – The first American jet planes were manufactured in Buffalo in a plant on Main Street.

6 – Buffalo was the first city in the country with street lights.

7 – Presumably street lights powered by alternating current, which was invented by Nikola Tesla, whose lab was in Niagara Falls. Buffalo was also the first city in the world to use an electrified streetcar system.

8 – The first facility in the world dedicated strictly to cancer research opened in Buffalo.

9 – So did the first daycare center anywhere.

10 – At the turn of the 20th Century, 60 millionaires lived in Buffalo, which was more than any other city in the world. They all lived along a stretch of Delaware Avenue which is still called Millionaire’s Row. The houses still exist, but have mostly been outfitted as office spaces now.

11 – Buffalo is one of only three cities outside of Washington, DC to have hosted a presidential inauguration. The other two are New York City and Philadelphia, and they get asterisks on account of Washington having not been built yet.

12 – Eusebio, an honest-to-god, bona fide soccer legend whose name can frequently be heard accompanying Pele and Diego Maradona in the same admiring sigh, played the final few games of his career for the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Buffalo Stallions.

13 – Buffalo was the final stop of the Underground Railroad.

14 – Along those same lines, the first major organization for the equal rights of black people was the Niagara Movement. Their organizational meeting was held in Buffalo, although Fort Erie – right across the Niagara River from Buffalo – hosted the official founding meeting. They disbanded in 1910, but were the inspiration for the NAACP.

15 – We all know a lot of American journalism sucks, but two of the few truly respected journalists in the country, Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer, are products of the University of Buffalo.

16 – Buffalo has produced more American professional hockey players than any other city in the United States, and the NHL has its widest audience in the city.

17 – Buffalo is the smallest city in the world to have its own subway.

18 – Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first American woman to have worked as a professional architect, lived in Buffalo. The city’s Hotel Lafayette is considered her greatest masterpiece.

19 – The Guaranty Building is the world’s oldest skyscraper.

20 – Prominent writers who have lived in Buffalo include Mark Twain, Matt Taibbi, Joyce Carol Oates, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gregg Easterbrook. The first black novelist in the country, William Wells Brown, also lived here.

21 – Christine Baranski, David Boreanez, Kyle Chandler, William Fichtner, Wendie Malick, Nancy Marchand, Chad Michael Murray, and William Sadler have called Buffalo home at some point.

22 – The first skin graft took place here in 1854.

23 – American Express founder William Fargo was once Buffalo’s Mayor.

24 – Buffalo established the first free school system in New York. (In your face, NYC!)

25 – The first railway suspension bridge in the world opened in 1855. Over Niagara Gorge.

26 – The cargo barge was created here. It turned Tonawanda and North Tonawanda into world-leading lumber ports.

27 – Both the inventor of the electric chair and the first man to be executed in the electric chair were from Buffalo. I’m not saying this to advocate the death penalty – in fact, I’m against it. But this was pretty noteworthy.

28 – The first high-speed railroad operated between New York City and Buffalo.

29 – Dog lovers, your dog licenses were first enacted by a law in Buffalo.

30 – John Nepomucene Neumann, the first canonized Saint from the United States, worked in Tonawanda. Nelson Baker, a Buffalo native, is currently a candidate for Sainthood. He set up homes for infants, unwed mothers, a boys’ orphanage, a boys’ protectory, a nurses’ home, a hospital, a basilica, a grade school, and a high school, doing work mostly in Lackawanna. He is currently designated as Venerable and, last I heard, was in the Beatification process. Our Lady of Victory Basilica is a renowned destination for devoted Catholics.

31 – Nelson Baker also invented direct mail advertising. I’m sure thoughts on this vary.

32 – The first wind tunnel was developed right across the street from Buffalo’s airport.

The Battle of the People: The CTA vs. the NFTA

The Battle of the People: The CTA vs. the NFTA

Well-known fact about myself: I hate driving. I can do it and I’m perfectly willing to do it; it’s just that I prefer to have other people do it for me. Unfortunately, since I’m not a rich person with a personal limousine, I don’t have ready access to anyone with a car who can drive me anywhere whenever I want to be someplace else. That’s where public transportation comes in. There are whole citywide networks of buses and subways which are conveniently there to ferry me from Point A to Point B in the event that a ride isn’t available.

Cities don’t share public transportation systems, though, and that leads to that interesting phenomenon that some cities run better transit systems than others. I’ve resorted to getting around on public transportation in Buffalo and Chicago, so now it’s time to compare these systems to each other to find out which one is better. Chicago has the Chicago Transit Authority – the CTA – a large system of buses that goes with its legendary rail system, the L. No slouch in taking people across town itself, Buffalo responds with another system of busses and a lightrail – the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority, better known as just the NFTA. So let’s do this! The CTA vs. the NFTA. One day, I’ll learn.

Size
Chicago has about 2.7 million people. Buffalo has around 250,000. Logistically, you’re not going to create a public transit system for Buffalo which is the size of the CTA. So I guess the question here is how far someone would have to walk in order to reach the bus or subway stop. If you were walking through Chicago, even in the parts closer to the edge of the city, bus stops never seem that far away. Usually about four blocks is considered a long walk to a bus stop, and the walk to an L station won’t be so bad either. However, there are a lot of bus routes that force you to transfer just miles before the edge of the city. (42 Western, ahem.) These can be a pain because the connector busses to the city limits don’t come around quite as often. In Buffalo, four blocks is usually considered a close walk, unless you’re downtown, where the busses seemingly have stops on every block the closer they get to City Hall, even though they don’t need to be there. Routes in both cities can take upwards of an hour to get where they’re going, but Chicago’s sensical grid layout means it’s easy to figure out what bus goes where. Buffalo’s busses go in squiggly patterns designed to cover the most space they possibly can, and if you end up in a place you don’t know, it can be hell to orient yourself and find out how to get where you need to be. Also, Buffalo’s subway is a single line – a straight shot up Main Street from Harborcenter to UB South, and there was never any courtesy expansion across the Buffalo River so the people in South Buffalo and the First Ward could get on the lightrail every ten minutes.
Winner
The CTA. The NFTA is not only smaller and less convenient in terms of relative size, but they’re going to keep making service cutbacks until they don’t exist anymore and South Buffalo secedes from the rest of the city just so it can function. Also, there are a few spots where the CTA is good about taking people into the suburbs: Oak Park, Cicero, Skokie, and Evanston are all touching L lines. Do NOT expect the NFTA to take you very far into the suburbs, especially if you live in the southtowns.

Price
I’ve read numerous long essays by prominent economists, and let me tell you this: If privatization is supposed to drag prices down, the CTA fucking blew it. They blew it big. The only thing the privatization of the CTA resulted in was jacked-up fares and an inconvenient credit system with which turnstiles are known to frequently refuse to let customers through while still draining their accounts. Maybe it would help if the CTA had some real competition, but competition or not, all that extra convenience and efficiency which is supposed to follow privatization didn’t come about, and now Chicago is stuck paying fares which would disgust people in Manhattan. The prices of the unlimited passes in particular have skyrocketed over the last few years: The one-day pass is $10 now, double what it was when I lived there. The two-day pass was cut entirely. The single-fare rides on the bus and L are different, too. One stop on the L? That’ll be $2.25. A stop on the bus is merely two dollars. The NFTA doesn’t have quite such a finicky system; both bus and subway rides are two dollars for one. The NFTA charges half the CTA’s price for a day pass, three-fourths of the CTA’s price for a monthly pass, and anyone under 17 years old can get a pass for the entire summer for $60. The closest price comparison is with the seven-day passes, which run $28 for the CTA and $25 for the NFTA.
Winner
Lesser is better. The NFTA wins this round. You can argue that the CTA charges more because Chicago is a bigger city with a bigger transit system, but with economic inequalities in both cities and the liberal ways they both cut routes, people who regularly ride public transit don’t give a flying shit about bang for the buck as long as they can get where they need to go. So all those economic arguments in favor of the CTA are pretty much meaningless when someone has limited funds.

Punctuality and Frequency
Transport is worthless is you can’t get where you’re going on time. Fortunately, the NFTA is pretty good about showing up when it’s supposed to. That’s something even the most adamant CTA booster admits the CTA royally sucks at. The thing about the CTA’s little punctuality problem, though, is that where it flounders in ETA, it more than makes up for in frequency. CTA busses are schedules to run every 10-15 minutes, so if you end up getting to your stop a little late, all that’s required is for you to stand around waiting for the next bus. The L can be a little bit worse, but not by enough to cause concern if you’re not already running late. As for the NFTA, it’s in the habit of forgetting there are people who have places to go. Busses in the most packed areas of the city get sent around twice an hour, and it only goes down from there. If you’re in a suburb with a bus stop, don’t expect to ever see another bus come after mid-afternoon. The subway is great at running on point, but the problem there is that the points have a habit of firing upward if there’s construction and a track gets shut down. If things are running smoothly, trains come by in ten minutes. On one track, that time doubles.
Winner
The CTA by 500 miles. The NFTA has it in for the city, especially if you live anywhere south of the Buffalo River. Anyone who’s lived in Buffalo for awhile has either never been to South Buffalo or is well aware of the weird on/off cultural flip that happens when they get there. South Buffalo is wildly different from the rest of the city – it’s sort of a localized version of Texas in that getting there is like landing on a whole different planet where the people have only a general sense of what happens anywhere else in the city, although they claim to be among Buffalo’s most fervent boosters. Furthermore, the NFTA has taken a beating from intellectual types who blame it for being one of the causes of the nasty racial rift that exists in Buffalo. And although the racial divide is starting to disappear (however slowly, but it’s still progress), no one is giving the NFTA any credit for it.

Cleanliness
Let’s face it, public transportation can be a hostile environment. Not violent, mind you; just very unpleasant. There can be any manner of unidentifiable liquids and unseemly substances on public transportation, and there are times when it can smell godawful. The CTA claims that it cleans out its busses and train cars twice a month with high-powered chemicals. Of course, given the volume of people who use the CTA on a daily basis, chances are you don’t know the difference by the time you get on the bus or into the L car. The NFTA busses and train cars are infinitely cleaner; you still wouldn’t eat anything off their floors, but you’ll rarely have to hold your nose and endure an offensive odor. Furthermore, the NFTA is a lot nicer to look at, bad color schematics and general designs aside.
Winner
The NFTA. I’ll grant that part of the reason why is because the NFTA goes out of its way to keep people from riding its busses or lightrail line, but clean is clean.

Cool Bands Named After
The CTA ended up inspiring the name of a band called Chicago Transit Authority, which shortened its name to Chicago after the real CTA threatened a lawsuit. Describing themselves as a “rock and roll band with horns,” Chicago proceeded to sell over 40 million units in the United States alone. Their infectious mix of rock, jazz, and rhythm and blues music resulted in earworm singles like “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” and “I’m a Man.” The NFTA, according to a Google search, doesn’t have any musicians at all named after it. You could maybe attribute Buffalo Springfield to a band named after a city, but that’s pushing it.
Winner
The CTA. After all, Chicago took listeners to the park one Saturday. With the NFTA, you’ll never get to the park.

This contest is decided in favor of the CTA, and since I basically knocked this out in a few days on a loose deadline, I should also mention it would have been far more one-sided had I taken my time. While the NFTA certainly has its fans… Aw, hell, I can’t even finish that sentence with a straight face. The NFTA doesn’t have any fans. Even the Buffalo government hates it. And yes, I complained frequently about the CTA; but I never forgot how much worse it could get, either.

City Service Review: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

City Service Review: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

It’s a pretty well-known statistic in Buffalo that the city has a high school graduation rate just north of 50 percent, and that this percentage – which only popped up in the last several years – actually marked an improvement over previous decades where the graduation rate notched under the halfway mark. Some one in every three adults in Buffalo can’t read above a third grade level. It’s tough to lay the blame for Buffalo’s literacy rate at the feet of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system, though. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it does what it can in a place which tries to shut itself in.

The main branch of the system – which is simply referred to as the Central Library – is located in Downtown Buffalo, just a block to the east of the lightrail line at Lafayette Square. You can’t miss the building, although that’s more because of its location than by any architectural merit – the damn place looks like some kind of extra cardboard scenery out of a Star Wars movie. The current building first opened in 1963 as another one of those doomed economic redevelopment and urbanization projects that decimated Downtown Buffalo in ways which would cause wet dreams for Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. It replaced a building by Cyrus LW Eidlitz from 1887 which fit Buffalo’s old architectural ethos like a glove and came off like a European castle/Greek-style church hybrid. Using only pictures, the old building and the current one look to be around the same size. Of course, the new building, being of that disastrous “modernist” style, floats above Ellicott Street, connecting the front entrance at Lafayette Square with a back end on the Ellicott/Broadway/William intersection. While it spans two blocks, it also covers only two floors – as opposed to three or four in the old building – and that’s only two if you include some new bathrooms and office space on the second floor. I wonder what happened to all the books that used to be up there.

Yeah, there are only books on the first floor. Fables Cafe and the fiction section are in the front half, and the back half has the nonfiction section and media room and computers… Hell, let’s just shorten everything by saying the back has most of what makes the Central Library the CENTRAL LIBRARY. The cafe is a nice little addition, but I’ve never eaten any of the food outside of a couple of snacks and cups of coffee, which were pretty good. Since a lot of people like to read and write at cafes, the library is a perfect atmosphere for one, when I’m finished with my weekly librarying, I prefer to visit Perks Cafe, a local indie joint which is right across the street.

The Central Library has some nice little special sections which make it stand out. One is The Center for Afro-American History and Research, and if you need to do research on African-American history in Buffalo, this is where you want to go to do it. Central Library has managed to beat the institutionalized racism you see everywhere in the city and provides the entire Western New York region with the largest African-American history resource center around. Books, microfilm, and records of prominent organizations – like the Urban League – are in there. Central Library also includes a collection for disabled people – large-print books, audiobooks, radio receivers, and descriptive videos are floating through circulation too. The Grosvenor Room is the home of the local genealogical society as well as a bountiful harvest of stuff regarding local history. And the Mark Twain Room is an exhibition room featuring Twain’s original handwritten manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you’re wondering how Buffalo, of all places, managed to get ahold of a literary treasure of that magnitude, then you have to understand that Buffalo was once a far more important city than it is now. Twain was briefly a member of the Young Men’s Association, which was what was around just before the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library was established. Twain personally donated the manuscript himself in 1885, and was a Buffalo resident at one time when he spent a couple years with one of the local newspapers.

If you want to borrow a book, you get three weeks. CD’s and movies are weeklongs. You can order items and make reservations, but the library charges for those services for some reason. Can’t say I know why. This is a habit which only cropped up in the last few years – they used to do it for free. Now it costs a buck per item. The obvious tradeoff here, though, is the fact that there is a copy of pretty much everything you can name floating around through the system somewhere. The library has never failed to deliver something I asked for. Still, the library grants you a charge account of up to $10 before you’re not allowed to do anything anymore, and that’s between fines and requests, and if you make a lot of requests, that $10 compilation is going to arrive quickly. The requests I made were $1 each.

There are a lot of interesting and informative events that happen right in the center of the building, which isn’t some special event room of its own. It’s literally right out in the middle for everything, for all to see, making it convenient for people to just stop off for a few minutes to listen to the lecture or watch the video. A lot of clubs meet there, and there are tax classes and computer classes.

The only problem you’re likely to have with the services is that the system runs entirely on a self-checkout. The librarians will perform renewals and take returns, but they’re not allowed to check your swag out for you. The self-checkouts can be a major pain in the ass, too: You would be amazed how easily the computers make checkout errors. Sure, it’s usually no problem if you’re placing one item on the checkout pad, but any more than that and there’s a 50/50 shot of something not reading right. That means you have to keep on scanning it until it does read the right way. Once you’re trying to check out anything over four or five items, chances of an error shoot up to nearly 100 percent, and you end up having to separate everything anyway. It would be a lot less tedious to just have the librarian get it out of the way quickly.

As far as the Central Library building goes, it’s bright and quiet, but I can’t emphasize this enough: Stay the hell out of the first floor bathrooms. Use the recently-remodeled bathrooms on the second floor. Not only are they bigger and better-working, but in the first floor bathrooms, illicit things tend to happen. If you need the one stall offered, there’s likely to be someone in it shooting heroin or snorting cocaine. Sketchy characters drift in and out, and while they are most likely to leave you alone, it’s really not a scene you would want to be around in case something goes wrong.

The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library seems to have changed quite a bit in my absence – the children’s section is a lot smaller, the movie and music sections were condensed and consolidated, the computer policies changed, and the second floor is basically nonexistent – but it’s still around for people with reading habits. Or the many people who would be best off developing them.