RSS Feed

Category Archives: Comparisons

The Great Pizza War

The Great Pizza War

The relentless narcissism of New York City recently made it place a free-standing structure on top of its shiny new, skyline-defining skyscraper in order to win the country’s tallest building crown on a ridiculous technicality. After the announcement, some commentators said it didn’t matter, and that we all knew which city had the better pizza. Okay, buildings are one thing; pizza is the thing here that really matters. And indeed, we do know which city has the better pizza, but there are some folks who simply don’t want to accept it. Like, just to pick a random example, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

After the announcement and an offhand comment about Chicago-style pizza being better, Stewart went off on one of his most spectacular rants, decrying the famous deep dish. In response, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was characteristically weak. In a move that wasn’t met with quite as much publicity, he sent a couple of deep dish pizzas to The Daily Show studios in New York City. There was a note too, something along the lines of “dead fish.” I guess that would indicate the pizzas were filled with anchovies. Whatever point Mayor Emmanuel was trying to prove is lost on me. What’s worse is that the interpretation of the gesture is so open to interpretation that some onlookers took it as Chicago’s concession. The Daily Show responded to that with some grainy footage of a dog taking a quick whiff of the deep dish and running off in horror. Rahm, uh, what the hell were you trying to do anyway? Yeah, you need to leave this to the pros. Like me.

There’s no doubt to me about which pizza is better, and there shouldn’t be to you, either. Given the option, what will you take – a pizza or a thin piece of paper that has to be crammed into your mouth whole in order for it to be bite-sized? Yeah, that’s what I thought. If you want to eat a thin crust pizza, make sure you don’t overdo the beer because when you get too drunk and pass out onto the pizza, that crust isn’t anywhere close to thick enough to cushion the blow. You’ll slam your head against the surface of the table too hard and kill yourself.

Let’s cut to the heart of what New York-style pizza is: It’s sopped paper with red paint and melted wax on top. What’s more, it’s limp. How does one eat a piece of pizza when it keeps literally falling flat when you’re trying to take a bit out of it? New York-style pizza is a kind of pizza that literally can’t stand on its own.

Yeah, deep dish pizza is thick enough to crawl into and sleep inside to keep warm. Somehow, this is treated like some kind of big problem. I tried to crawl under a New York-style pizza to keep warm once and I ended up getting hypothermia.

Sauce on top, toppings and cheese cooked into the bottom crust. You know what this is? This is the perfect redefinition of a pizza. Any idiot can put the ingredients on the top of the pizza in a flash, ramp up the oven, and burn the thing, but it takes a real master to place everything in a position where it’s poised to fall out of the pizza upon slicing it open and it doesn’t. The thickness is beautiful in the incredible explosion of taste you get when you stuff a piece into your mouth and bite down and realize deep dish pizza isn’t exactly hurting for toppings.

At some point, someone will try to make the portability argument, but since when the hell is pizza supposed to be a portable food? Am I planning on gorging myself on the L? What’s disgusting is trying to imagine a proponent of New York-style pizza on the subway, standing with his hand raised a foot over his mouth because New York-style pizza is lim as hell, gently trying to lower the tip to get a bite which will probably taste like the surrounding air because New York-style pizza is so thin that all the surrounding smells and tastes can be absorbed into it in rapid order, like with baking soda, and it will quickly overcome the actual (nonexistent) taste of the pizza itself. This is something New Yorkers conveniently forget: Their pizza quickly absorbs every smell from the wood grain to the stale metals, but they taste it and call it pizza. There’s no talking them out of it, since they believe America west of the Hudson River is a myth, and have therefore never left New York City to try eating a real pizza in their lives.

Yeah, there’s no doubt that one of those cities’ pizza is better than the other. Chicago is the clear choice. You try going with New York City “pizza,” just save yourself a lot of trouble, pick up the entire pizza tray, and start licking it, because that’s the only way you’ll ever be able to taste it.

Advertisements

Freedom vs. Sears

Freedom vs. Sears

Well, don’t that just beat all. Freedom Tower is now finished and, depending on who you ask, it may or may not have supplanted the Sears Tower as the tallest building in the United States.

Architects are a finicky bunch, aren’t they? There are a million tiny little details which are there to decide where a building ends. To most onlookers, the answer is simple enough: The building’s end point is where solid matter doesn’t exist and the air begins. Architects, though, have a few interpretations which would probably be taught in common philosophy courses. Yes, the building ends there, but does it END there?

When you build a new building, there are a lot of things to be taken into account: You have the basement, which could potentially run down a dozen or so stories. There’s the point where the roof ends, the point where the antennae end, and the point where the roof turns into the ceiling, because of course there is.

So here’s Freedom Tower, ready to be crowned the brand new jewel of the New York City skyline. Admittedly, it’s a beautiful piece, but its roof technically ends a couple dozen feet short of the Sears Tower. Or does it? Well, the Freedom Tower architects decided to put a nice little point on the top of Freedom Tower which is accessible to regular people. It’s little more than a giant antennae, but that’s not enough to keep the high-end architects who run all the fancy architecture publications and award shows from giving it a nice, new reclassification based on a technicality: That big antennae is a spire. That spire adds to the height of Freedom Tower, and voila, New York City is now the new skyscraper capitol of America.

Chicago boosters are naturally crying fowl. And they have every right to cry fowl, too. Freedom Tower is 541 meters tall. There are masts in a lot of places in the country that are actually taller than Freedom Tower. Texas alone has a whopping seven masts that tower above the 600 meter mark, and that’s just Texas! The number of states with at least one structure taller than Freedom Tower is in double digits. Presumably, most of these things have ladders for the premium cable guys to get up and down, thus ensuring usability by humans. No, anyone trying to climb up the masts isn’t going to be able to visit the bathroom for a smoke break, but hey, the ladders count. So why are those suckers not being given the same consideration afforded to the spire on Freedom Tower? Is it some form of concrete-and-glass-ism that affects the architectural elite?

Maybe I shouldn’t make too big a deal out of it, though, because it’s not going to matter all that much in the end. I’m thinking the architecture boys must also be a bunch of Americans, because both Freedom Tower and the Sears Tower bow down before the real king of North American towers: The CN Tower, in Toronto. You know, in Canada. One wonders why Ontario’s 553-meter behemoth isn’t brought into the conversation.

Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana: The Ultimate Battle!

Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana: The Ultimate Battle!

Uma Thurman’s character from Pulp Fiction has one scene in which she brilliantly assesses Beatles people and Elvis people. Yes, it’s quite possible for an Elvis person to love The Beatles and vice versa, but when asked, you define yourself by just one of those two and swear by them. You don’t get to be a Beatles person AND an Elvis person. The same little identification philosophy can also be applied to various other little walks of life: Are you a Super NES person or a Genesis person? Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Coke or Pepsi? There are times when it’s actually very easy to love both, but when it comes to direct comparisons between them, you play up the greatness of the first option and hate the second option’s guts. All comers who argue otherwise are just contrarian fools.

This line of thought can be applied to musical subgenres, too. Take grunge, the scratchy, underproduced music which gets credit for taking rock music off life support after it was put there by whiffing too much of the hairspray it wore in the 80’s. There were several good grunge bands, but the eternal grudge match between grunge giants begins and ends with Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Those two are the faces of grunge, probably because they’re the two acts with the most longevity. Now, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, it’s important to note, are also two bands which are very different in many, many ways, something which Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain always seemed to get a kick out of mentioning. That didn’t keep everyone in the industrialized world from tossing the two bands into the same corner, though, and so we’ve come down to another one of those forevermore fights. And with this year being the 20th anniversary of a popular and acclaimed album from each band (Nirvana released In Utero in 1993, and Pearl Jam released Vs.) and next year being the 20-year mark of Cobain’s suicide, media followers everywhere decided now is the time to revisit one of the last great grunge years. And, being a glutton for punishment, I’m not going to stand above all as an exception to the rule. I WILL, however, stand above other typical cultural onlookers who play up the talents of both bands, praising them, and telling you to just go flip a coin when it’s time to decide to like one better than the other. That’s a cop out. I’m looking to define this sucker. So let’s do this! Pearl Jam vs. Nirvana. One day, I’ll learn.

Vocals
Kurt Cobain was a very competent vocalist whenever he decided to make the effort. One needs only listen to Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York album for infallible proof of this fact. After listening to Unplugged in New York, though, one also only needs to play one of the two Nirvana albums that aren’t Nevermind to hear that Cobain spent his time coasting through his vocal duties. Yeah, he could be a somber and emotional vocalist, but doing that regularly would have required him to have more settings on his voice switch than just mumble unintelligibly and scream at the top of his lungs, frequently in a stuttering form in the same song. Pearl Jam’s frontman, Eddie Vedder, couldn’t be called a first-tier singer. Hell, he screams too, and he tends to adopt a low growl for the points where Cobain would have screamed. However, when Vedder deploys his distinctive low baritone indoor voice, he can be solemn, sad (“Better Man”), haunting, and sardonic (“Rats”) with just the lightest touches. Cobain almost seemed like he was trying to hide behind his vocals. Vedder embraces his vocal weaknesses and maximizes them so they compliment his strengths.
Winner
Pearl Jam. Perhaps the most damning aspect of Kurt Cobain’s vocal work isn’t his own vocal work, but the fact that parodist Weird Al Yankovic recorded his own spin on Nirvana’s popular anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a song called “Smells Like Nirvana,” in which he made fun of Nirvana for the fact that nobody could understand what Kurt Cobain was mumbling and screaming. It’s one of Weird Al’s signature hits.

Musicianship
There’s an obvious handicap at play here because Nirvana, at most, had four active musicians if you decide to count Pat Smear, who may or may not have been an official member of the band. While Smear expanded Nirvana’s sound on In Utero, he never really received official credit, and he’s never included in the lineup of classic Nirvana members. Pearl Jam never had less than five active musicians; three alone on guitar: Vedder, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard. Since McCready is the lead guitarist, let’s briefly remove him from the equation and reduce Pearl Jam to four members. With Vedder and Gossard now set against Smear and Cobain, we’ve now got the defining sounds of the bands: A classic rock influence against a punk influence. There’s not much of a contest here because punk is the dregs of rock genres anyway. Punk is music for people who want to be in bands without taking the trouble to learn anything about music or instruments. Punk is a single note and a repetitive lyric being vocalized without being truly sung. Classic rock is performed by people who spent hours in practice, perfecting their musicianship. The bass contest is between Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, a contest I’ll cede to Novoselic because so much of Nirvana’s sound was carried through his bass. Although everyone remembers the hook of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s Novoselic who carried Nirvana through the verses of the song, as well as a lot of Nirvana’s other truly great songs like “In Bloom,” “Sliver,” and “Heart-Shaped Box,” and his booming lines were simple but powerful foundations that gave Nirvana’s songs a lot of their power. On drums, Nirvana had Dave Grohl, who – unbeknownst to the public at the time – turned out to be the band’s best musician. Unfortunately, this is about his drumming, so I have to write off everything he accomplished as the frontman of Foo Fighters. Pearl Jam employed a handful of drummers after their breakthrough, but current drummer Matt Cameron as been with them since 1998, and in my book that’s long enough to call him their definitive drummer. In the greatest drum class in history from the most drum-heavy rock genre, both Grohl and Cameron (whose pervious gigs included Soundgarden) are rightfully considered top tier gods who could hold their own among enduring legends like Keith Moon and Neil Peart, so I’ll call this a draw.
Winner
Pearl Jam. I handicapped in the previous paragraph for having an extra musician. Unfortunately for Nirvana, Pearl Jam played more complex music with a cast that was at least equal to their talent. Bringing McCready back into the equation, the contest is suddenly more one-sided, and Nirvana’s guitar weaknesses can’t hide behind maybe-member Smear forever. And let’s not kid ourselves; Nirvana did have weaknesses on guitar. Kurt Cobain’s greatest gift was in song construction, and his song construction managed to hide the fact that he wasn’t doing anything extraordinary as a guitarist. A large chunk of his work actually sounds downright amateur when Nirvana’s work is stripped down by piece.

Overall Sound
This is an area where these two bands seriously differ, and point A for why they really shouldn’t be categorized together. They’re both Seattle grunge bands, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Kurt Cobain’s whole object was to be a great punk god, and my description of punk in the last section completely sums up my attitude toward punk – if you want to be a musician, either learn to play the fucking music or don’t be a musician! Music is art, but punk is the manic, street artist revolutionary wannabe for whom “art for the people” is the defense commonly used to excuse the lack of talent, organization, and – a lot of the time – vision. Nirvana is one of two bands to perform the trick of making punk listenable (the other being Green Day, who added a second chord and a competent singer), but despite that, they were a band of punk extremes. They wandered too far in one or the other direction. When they made it too close to traditional rock, they would be in the position of a good mainstream band, if not exactly a pop band. That would be their cue to switch direction and move too far back toward punk, which would turn them into screaming instrument-whippers. (Listen: “Territorial Pissings,” “Scentless Apprentice,” “Milk It.”) Pearl Jam’s sound could be shoved back 20 years prior to the original release of Ten, and it wouldn’t sound very out-of-place. It’s more what people tend to think of when they think of rock music – reliance on guitar rhythm, six or eight vocal lines per verse excluding bridges and hooks, guitar solos. The risk of Pearl Jam’s style, though, is an accusation that I’m playing it safe by stating my preference of a decent, constant musical flow than constant stuttering, white noise, and undecided grinding broken guitar explosions.
Winner
Pearl Jam. For some reason, critics still have two problems: They’re either: 1 – confusing “original” for “good” or 2 – believing the two terms are synonyms. Well, I don’t buy that. It isn’t like Pearl Jam never took any musical risks, after all. It’s that Pearl Jam’s risks always seemed to get panned. Remember the whole No Code fiasco? Sure, everyone is acting all buddy/buddy with Pearl Jam’s fourth album now, but that’s convenient forgetfulness to make up for the fact that Pearl Jam turned out to have more longevity as a band than anyone expected. No Code was reviled as Pearl Jam’s greatest mistake for years after its release. All the hoopla over No Code, by the way, also happened to come immediately after the band’s sterling Vitalogy album, in which the band made a departure from the sound they had established on Ten and Vs. to give the world something with a slightly more punk flavor. In the meantime, about half of Nirvana’s work could have been penned by fifth-graders, including the more original stuff. The band in general was apparently fond of grinding, screeching guitars, and choppy album consistency.

Songs
Pearl Jam just released its tenth studio album. It’s called Lightning Bolt, and it’s setting alight music critics everywhere. They clearly have the advantage in the quantity department, but this is more about quality. And in this respect, Nirvana can give them a fight. Songwriting was Kurt Cobain’s greatest strength. He was never the most talented musician the world has ever seen, but his ability to write songs continually tricks people into believing he was because he always got the most mileage out of the few strengths he had. Pearl Jam could tell more storytelling and descriptive lyrics, and their music was a lot more complex. Nirvana’s musical model, though, has proven to give us more enduring songs. Everyone can automatically hum the explosive chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is basically the theme song of the 90’s. While “Jeremy” is another popular 90’s anthem, anyone asked to sing a bar or two of it will come up with a blank stare. Nirvana doesn’t have much greatness in the way of lyrics, though. “Aneurysm” is mostly repeated chorus. “School” has nine words repeated. Too much of the lyrical content in general is just plain juvenile. Pearl Jam’s lyrics could, like Eddie Vedder’s voice, take a large number of tones. “Daughter,” told through the eyes of a young girl, is a stellar example.
Winner
I take nothing away from either band in this category. Both have done outstanding work. When I began, I wanted – and was expecting – to give this to Nirvana. Well, I’m going to call this one a draw. Pearl Jam’s songs are better, but simply planting them with the victory would be depriving Kurt Cobain of his own abilities as a songwriter. And since his work was keeping Nirvana afloat, he deserves recognition. Pick your poison.

Longevity
I’m going to briefly use The Lazarus Machine on Kurt Cobain for a moment. Pearl Jam has had the longer career by a wide mile, despite no one thinking they were going to be around for very long. Eddie Vedder is a passionate activist, after all, and he’s never been afraid to stand up for what’s right. It reflects on a lot of Pearl Jam’s songs like “Even Flow” and “World Wide Suicide.” What this means is that Pearl Jam survived a handful of politically-based scares which would have destroyed a lot of other bands. They went to war against Ticketmaster, a corporate giant that sold most of the concert tickets at their big venues. On Nirvana’s end, the popular narrative is that Nirvana would have gone on to further their fame and fortune. I don’t doubt this. But fame and fortune only last in the music industry until you make a lousy album, and sometimes it only goes until the point where someone in the band flips out. There’s no real evidence that Nirvana would have lasted beyond In Utero. Dave Grohl had been trying his hand at songwriting for some time by then, and it took him just two years after the end of Nirvana to rise from the ashes as the frontman of a new band, the Foo Fighters, who have now been around for 17 years. Cobain carried around a bit of an attitude, though, and he complained constantly about things beyond his control. Fans weren’t getting him, the producer ruined Nevermind, the TV show lip-synchs, this or that band is a sellout. He also didn’t appear very bent on fixing things he could control – he hated Bleach, Nirvana’s debut album. He had also reached the point that he believed Nirvana had reached their creative peak, which he alluded to in his suicide note.
Winner
Pearl Jam. At Cobain’s rate, Nirvana might have been able to produce three more albums, and I’ll only give them that out of the greatest generosity my heart will allow. A more realistic estimate has them barely making it through one more before Cobain called quits to the entire band and, sickened of his fans and image, done the Axl Rose routine. Except that in Nirvana’s version, there’s no promise of the Chinese Democracy album at the end.

Image
The nutshell imagery has folks envisioning Nirvana as an angry, tortured band, making authentic and heartfelt music that speaks for the masses while Pearl Jam is a band of idiots obsessed with showing everyone that they’re not sellouts. Are you fucking kidding me?! Everything Pearl Jam did, especially early in their career, had no personal benefit to the band. They refused to make music videos, got into a war with the corporation that pretty much owned all the big concert halls because of what the band said was ticket gouging, and are legendary for their live performances. In other words, they refused to have their fans’ personal song interpretations compromised, stood up to a big corporation because they thought their fans were being screwed, and always run onstage and give 100 percent, gee, look, for their fans! Ya think this is a band that’s fond of its fans? On the other end, there’s Nirvana, a band which created a debut album which the frontman himself hated even though he wrote every song on it; wanted to call its second album Sheep because they thought it had too much of a pretty, mainstream sheen; and made their third album solely as an effort to alienate people. And while people hemmed and hawed about how Kurt Cobain was angsty and authentic and all that other stuff, Cobain was turning the stripped, fundamentals-heavy sound he helped create into a playland where only his own version of the cool kids could dance. And his version of the cool kids was pretty narrow. His feud with Axl Rose happened because Cobain created it and considered Rose a sellout. He took potshots at Pearl Jam too, calling the band out for using too many guitar solos and a shot reserved for Jeff Ament because Ament liked to play basketball. It was Vedder, by the way, who caught Cobain for the bully he had turned into. Sayeth the legend, Vedder called Cobain out of the blue and the battle ended, and the two of them were on much better terms by Cobain’s death.
Winner
Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam. It was summed up in one novel which described Pearl Jam as being the band of the people and Nirvana as the band that hated its people. While I have no doubt Cobain meant everything he sang, he is also the early prototype of the modern hipster: A man who tracked the mainstream and made business decisions accordingly, all carefully calculated to project the image of how much he didn’t care. Pearl Jam wins this battle or you’re a fucking moron who needs to trade in your tasteful music card right now and go buy the new album from Justin Bieber. You’re not ready to have a conversation about grownup music yet.

Breakthrough
Pearl Jam’s first album was Ten, and they busted into the mainstream right off the bat with it. Nirvana had to wait until their second album, Nevermind, to catch fire. Both of these albums are outstanding, and feature the bands at the top of their games. Nevermind, however, has a limit in its sounds. It’s either similar-sounding one-note guitar work or sardonic acoustic songs. They’re great songs, mind you, but Nevermind really doesn’t venture out to sound all that different from itself. Ten is a haunting album loaded with stories, anger, and pain. It tackles a variety of social ills as well as personal issues, trying to reach out and grab everyone surrounding it. Ten is situational and existential while Nevermind is merely existential.
Winner
You can’t go wrong with either, but my personal preference is for Ten.

Pearl Jam rolls over Nirvana in every way. Stripped of their air of authenticity, Nirvana is a band for people who think they’re authentic, but who are in truth just hipsters.

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

The Commercial Death Star; The World’s Most Useless Shopping Mall

Anyone who has ever lived in Buffalo, New York knows the city has a notoriously overzealous preservation committee – they’ll fight tooth and nail to rescue tool sheds that have been converted into crack houses. If you know anything about Main Place Mall, though, that not only may provide an explanation for their behavior, but a damn good explanation.

Main Place Mall is plopped right smack in the middle of downtown Buffalo as part of a complex nicknamed Buffalo Place. It has a covered walkway leading into the next-door Liberty Building, and it takes up most of the block from Church Street to Lafayette Square, sitting conveniently on Main Street’s lightrail line. To understand the preservation committee’s eternal worrywarting, you have to understand what that part of the city contained until Main Place Mall was built in 1969. The Erie County Saving Bank Building was there, a magnificent architectural piece which drew influences of European-style castles. There were several other beautiful buildings sitting on the block too, the traditional architectural styles of which can still be seen on certain blocks of Main Street today.

The history of Buffalo is similar to that of most other Rust Belt cities. The city exploded thanks to its ideal situation right at the tail end of the Erie Canal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo was the eighth-largest city in the United States, and one of the richest. The place was an industrial giant with an enormous steel base, and over 70 percent of the grain that got shipped anywhere in the world ended up passing through Buffalo at some point because of Buffalo’s collection of grain elevators – the world’s largest, many of which still exist. Buffalo got hit hard when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and many of the traders who had to go through the Erie Canal were able to bypass the city completely. There was also the whole suburban White Flight trend that started hitting in the 50’s and 60’s. Everything started deteriorating, and the city officials, in their everlasting brilliance (note: that’s written with the highest possible level of venomous sarcasm), started wiping out everything in their paths in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the prettiest buildings in the entire country got the axe, and were replaced by structures which I suppose might have fit some definition of “modern” at the time. The newer buildings on the Buffalo skyline are ass-ugly. Brutalist architecture became a way of life to the 60’s developers, and it’s all punctuated by the 40-floor One HSBC Center, which is the tallest building on the city’s skyline, the most prominent, and the most likely to be mistaken for a giant refrigerator box. It might be the ugliest building on Earth. PS: It’s also largely abandoned these days. Most of the major tenants have run off – including HSBC itself, which occupied 75 percent of the available space in the building. 97 percent of the building will be vacant by the end of this year. There’s a reformation and renewal project in the works for the place which might spring it back to life, but it will unfortunately not involve razing the place, so hopefully the aesthetic remake will at least make it blend better with the rest of the city, or at least not make glancers want to gouge their eyes out.

Main Place Mall was one of those attempts at renewal. It’s a shopping mall which was intended to bring everyone from the suburbs back into the city for their weekend cash-throwing contests. It failed. Man, did it EVER fail.

Main Place Mall looks like the Death Star. I think it’s technically defined as a piece of late-century modernist architecture, but it really doesn’t look like it contains any of the standard giveaways of modernist style. In other words, if you’re looking for something Wright might have designed – Wright being one of the headmasters of architectural modernism as well as a guy who designed a couple of houses in Buffalo – Main Place Mall ain’t the place to start. This place looks much more like a brutalist building made out of metal: It looks heavy and angular, the side beams look like exposed steel beams, and the assembly could easily be mistaken for large slabs. Fitting, because Main Place Mall basically IS a large black slab. Main Place Tower, which is attached to the mall, looks like a giant version of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you’re a first-timer in the Buffalo city limits, Main Place Tower is the only part of the building where the entrances are marked. So it’s the only way you’ll know you’ve found Main Place Mall if you’ve never seen the place before and somehow missed any online descriptions or directions: “If you’re walking along the lightrail line and you reach an ugly black slab, you’ve found it!”

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s pizzeria both have direct entrances from the outside of the mall, which is good, because that means you can visit them both without having to actually set foot in the mall itself. Buffalo Coffee Roastery makes delicious coffee and baked goods. Its main function is just to serve as a coffee joint – instead of a full-time cafe, like a lot of other coffeehouses today – especially if you don’t plan on staying, because the only seats there are along the walls – there are no proper tables. The coffee is quite delicious, though, so it’s very convenient to grab an order as you wait for the lightrail to stop by the Church Street station. Gino and Joe’s is an oddball pizzeria by merit of the fact that it serves New York City-style slices instead of the Buffalo-style which is made by absolutely every other place in the city, save Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It’s damn good pizza, though, and at under $3 per slice, quite reasonably priced.

You now know of the only two places in Main Place Mall worth checking out. There are two floors in Main Place Mall, but no place else worth visiting unless you:

a – Have an unchecked fetish for footwear. I’m not talking about the unique stuff, either; I mean plain, old, average, everyday, ludicrously overpriced footwear. There are a few footwear stores in Main Place Mall, including a Foot Locker and a Payless.

b – Are in dire need of an emergency newsstand or dollar store. There’s one of each.

c – Work downtown and want a conveniently located Key Bank or food court. Let’s face it though, Buffalo is a strict Bank of America city now, despite once being the official capitol of North America for HSBC. And Bank of America is accessible in the next-door Liberty Building.

There are a couple of other stores, but basically there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting. Now, I know what you’re thinking: It’s a shopping mall, Nicholas! Even if the retailers are bland, it would still be easy to visit the place and grab a new suit shirt should something happen to the one I’m wearing! Just go into the JC Penny’s or Macy’s or…. Hold it. Shut up. Let me stop you right there. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. But when I said there’s nothing in Main Place Mall worth visiting, you were probably thinking the emphasis was on the “worth visiting” part, like a lot of other people would. That’s not the case. My emphasis was actually on the “nothing.” My little bullet listing up there wasn’t an emphasis; it was a summary of stores that are open in the entire place. I think there’s also one clothing store, and I know there’s a place for Buffalo-unique collectibles and T-shirts and a place to buy chocolates. Those are all on the first floor. However, it’s very easy to get to similar places all throughout the city – Buffalo collectibles are easily located on nearby Elmwood Avenue, sweets can be found anywhere within the nearby Elmwood Village and Allentown neighborhoods, and as far as the clothing store goes, even people in the suburbs probably live within easy distance of a strip mall with clothes stores in bunches.

Yes, the majority of the first floor is empty space. There are a large number of closed storefronts, most of which have been that way for a long time. The really depressing part, though, is how much of that space is NOT actual storefront. Anyone who frequents shopping malls is aware of the fact that malls have a habit of placing plain whitewall over spaces that haven’t been rented out to tenants in a long time. A good chunk of the first floor consists of that if it’s not closed storefront.

The second floor, however, is even worse. Outside the food court, there are no stores whatsoever. Just a hulking balcony. In the worse old days, there was a walkway to the building across the lightrail line, but that building has somehow managed to become even more useless than Main Place Mall, and so it’s now completely close – which means the entrance to the walkway is also boarded up. The eastern side of the second floor has closed storefronts. The western side? Entirely whitewall.

The one part of Main Place Mall which would make Main Place Mall worth a visit – besides Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s – would be the food court, but only if you happen to work downtown, and even then it’s pretty inessential. About half of the food court is whitewall. One of the food court restaurants is Gino and Joe’s – the very same place on the first floor, serving the very same food at the very same prices. Everything else is there just to satisfy hunger pangs. The food there does the job. It’s not exceptional, but it’s probably the only reason Main Place mall is still open.

Buffalo Coffee Roastery and Gino and Joe’s need to be given their own spots. Once that happens, Main Place Mall needs to be demolished. Aside from those two places, the only halfway decent thing I can say about Main Place Mall is that, with One HSBC Center just a couple of blocks down the street, it doesn’t look quite as ugly as it is. Some Buffalo tourism sites advertise Main Place Mall as one of the city’s premier shopping centers. That’s a bigger lie than any of our local politicians is even capable of telling.

Buildings in Buffalo that Look Like they Could be Found in Star Wars

Buildings in Buffalo that Look Like they Could be Found in Star Wars

Listening to any architecture expert yakking incessantly about the marvels of architecture in the city of Buffalo, New York, one can almost hear the voice of Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother: “Fun fact! Did you know Buffalo is one of only two cities in the United States to feature architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, HH Richardson, and Frederick Law Olmsted? The only other American city with that combination is Chicago!” And, ’tis true. Very few other cities can boast the kinds of architectural heritage contained within the Buffalo city limits.

If you were to drive down the thruway above downtown Buffalo taking the occasional cursory glance over to see what you’re missing, your primary reflex would be a look of awe. Unfortunately, it’s not a good kind of awe. The later buildings of Buffalo have a way of standing well above the good architecture, and those later buildings seem to have all been built at a time when Buffalo city planners were obsessed with the 50’s and 60’s version of what the future would look like. The result is a series of prominent monstrosities whose presence gives Buffalo one hell of a butt-ugly skyline. Some of the buildings look like they can be spotted as set decoration in the background of the Star Wars movies. Now, I’m one of the biggest Star Wars fans you’ll ever meet. Star Wars is famous, beloved, and popular for many reasons, but its displays of futuristic buildings is definitely not one of them.

Main Place Mall
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, if you were to take the Death Star, crush it into a rectangular shape, and plop it right down into the middle of downtown Buffalo, you would be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done so. The Death Star analogy is appropriate because of what was ripped up in order to make room for Main Place Mall: Several blocks of handsome Victorian buildings as well as the stunning Erie County Savings Bank. It was one of many projects done in the name of urban renewal in 1969, in a misguided attempt to bring people back to shop downtown instead of in the suburban strip malls. Now instead of a powerful testament to the city’s heritage, there’s just a hulking, black, horizontal slab. The most depressing aspect of it, though, is not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside: Pretty much nothing. Main Place Mall may be the most useless shopping mall you’ve ever seen. There are two floors. The first floor has a decent pizzeria and good coffee shop, but mostly there’s a Key Bank, a dollar store, an optometrist, a newsstand…. And that’s literally about it, them and a few others. The second floor has nothing but a food court for the people who work downtown. There’s literally more space in Main Place Mall for rent than there is being rented.

Main Place Tower
This is part of Main Place Mall. Take the description above and make it vertical, and you’ve got it. I can’t be the only one who thinks the city is missing out on a golden tourist opportunity by not renaming this building the Galactic Empire Stock Exchange Building.

Buffalo Convention Center
The Convention Center is a remainder of the Brutalist style of architecture, which flourished from the 50’s to the 70’s. One of the identifying marks of the Brutalist style is the look of a concrete prison. From the outside, the Buffalo Convention Center looks like a Rebel Alliance base on a lucid world like Yavin or Endor. In fact, it’s easy to look at the Convention Center and see it standing in for the brief shot of the Alliance base on Yavin in Episode IV, and it’s even easier to picture the Millennium Falcon launching from it. A former indie rag in Buffalo, the Buffalo Beast, actually made a list about the worst things in downtown Buffalo. It named the convention center and transfixed a photoshopped picture with the Falcon in front of the Convention Center, going on to accuse it of choking off the roads to other streets. It raised the question, at least to me, of just how much damage it could actually do, since it’s basically right across the street from Main Place Mall.

Buffalo City Court Building
Wait a minute, are you sure this is a courthouse and not the actual prison? That’s exactly what it looks like. It’s another example of Brutalist architecture, and it was built with minimal windows, so for the better because judges might want to look out the windows instead of doing their jobs. Seriously, that’s the reasoning that came into play while building this thing. I know the Empire usually likes to avoid the mess of prisons and dispose of people by shipping them off to the mines of Kessel, but this place would make a fine prison, or a great Sith Palace, or a small cottage befitting of the Hutt clan.

One HSBC Center
This one might be stretching the Star Wars theme a little bit, but anyone who has ever seen this place knows that if the Yavin Temple ever needed a parking garage, this sucker is it. The tallest and most prominent building on the Buffalo skyline is easily the city’s biggest architectural blight, and a mistake of such epic proportions that the skyline would become about 40 percent prettier upon its razing. In the Star Wars universe, it could also possibly be used as a good slum building on Coruscant. Being as how the One HSBC Center is the butt-ugliest building on Earth, maybe we could also count the fact that, when I’m crowned Galactic Emperor, my first act will be to have this thing demolished by statement – a nice hailstorm from TIE Fighters, providing, of course, that the tower isn’t actually capable of withstanding a full fighter assault. From the looks of the place, that’s entirely possible.

One M&T Plaza
This building doesn’t fit in with the classic Buffalo motif, but then again, neither do any of the other buildings on this list. One M&T Plaza, though, actually doesn’t look bad. It was the brainchild of architect Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the original World Trade Towers. The design similarities include the long, slender windows and the way the building is handsomely capped off on the top. It will be a fitting place to start if the Empire ever expands to the point which requires the inevitable Earth Empire College to open a Buffalo chapter.

Buffalo and Erie County Public Library
It’s not in my nature to decry libraries, but the Central Branch looks like the architect was trying to mock up a nice fortress designed for the Imperials before deciding to redesign the ends to show support for the Rebels.

Things I Miss Least About Chicago

Things I Miss Least About Chicago

I lived in Chicago for five years and was hoping to set roots down. It’s not the world’s best-kept secret that I miss the place, and so I briefly considered a list of things I miss about it.

When I started giving it some real thought, though, I realized such a list would be completely impossible. There are several reasons why, but I won’t regale you with the boring ones. I’ll just mention the big two: The first is that such a list would be a bit too personal for my own tastes and include concepts that are way too broad. Some of the stories I have from my life in Chicago go on quite a bit, and trying to condense them all in a list would necessitate the creation of an entire blog. (Which, by the way, I created a couple of years ago!) I would have to explain a lot of background details and in-jokes for a list like that to really fly.

The second reason is that there are simply way too many things I miss about The Windy City. It brings me a second time to the problem of it making the list too long.

Oh, what to do, what to do, what to do? Well, as I sat in a luxury hotel room on the set of a movie I was working on recently, me and a few other staffers and cast members conversed about this nasty heat that’s been holding the entire east coast hostage. As we lamented the heat in Buffalo, we began comparing it to the heat we had all felt in other places we had visited. Of course, the Chicago summer was what I had easily the best acquaintance with, so it became my immediate conversational victim. Then the idea hit me: I’ll write an anti-Chicago list, featuring everything I hated about the city! And that’s how we got to this point!

Summer
The warmest season and I were never on the best of terms in Upstate New York, but while the humidity could be unbearable, the heat was at least usually temperate. People from Buffalo take great delight in telling those from out of the area the city has never had a 100-degree day, and that the city averages only three 90-degree days per year. The big lake next to Buffalo sort of conditions the air.

Chicago’s summers have the very same type of weather, but with a quantification of about ten times. It gets hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. The sun beats up on people on clear days, and when it rains, it’s like the sky is taking one of those ongoing, powerful drunken leaks. All storms are severe – my first summer in Chicago, there were three tornadoes that stopped just short of the city in one month. In Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams wrote this about New York City: “A lot of the inhabitants of New York will honk on mightily about the pleasures of spring, but if they actually knew the first thing about the pleasures of spring they would know of at least 5,983 better places to spend it than New York, and that’s just on the same latitude.” Ditto Chicago in summer.

Whenever I discuss the weather in Chicago, people always ask me about the cold. I always tell them that if you’ve spent any real time living in Buffalo, the cold isn’t anything they can’t handle – it’s the summers they have to watch out for.

Lack of Civic Pride
Buffalo knows it’s never going to be the world class metropolis New York City is, and there’s a kind of dignity in knowing that which lets the people here attend to their business without a care about what happens there. Yes, we hate the place politically, but that’s mostly because it’s so disproportionally represented at every political level. Beyond that, though, the only real thing in New York City that’s of concern to upstaters is the fortunes of the New York Yankees, the favored baseball team across the state.

In terms of civic pride, Chicago is a classic bully. Chicagoans will always be the first to attack any other city to make themselves feel good about living in Chicago, even though Chicago is a world class city in every possible way. Unless, of course, there’s a possibility that the city in question might actually be some kind of rival to Chicago in some way – attacks on major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Atlanta inexplicably aren’t seen that often. And if New York City is dragged into the equation, well, a cursory glance at any of the newspapers or civic websites reveals the motherload of inferiority complexes; newspapers and civic websites are always clogged with people moaning about how Chicago will never be like New York City.

Redeye
A daily free rag published by the Chicago Tribune, Redeye may be the most insipid newspaper on Earth. I’m saying this, and I grew up reading The Buffalo News. Redeye has lists of bars, restaurants, and events, but those lists are microscopic in terms relative to the size of the city. There’s two or maybe three pages of substantial news events, all overshadowed by sports and celebrity coverage which is equal that length, written completely in bullets and blurbs, and consisting mainly of photographs and captions. For the first few years I was there, it also featured a sex column written by a womanizer.

Redeye may be the very symbol of Chicago’s inferiority complex. All other city-bashing starts in Redeye, and the celebrity buzz tends to treat celebrity sightings like the most amazing thing since Al’s Italian Beef, even though several celebrities call Chicago home and can be found roaming the Lake Shore Trail or soaking in Cubs games.

A friend of mine once delivered a speech at a religious convention in which she used the day’s Redeye as a prop. She mentioned the cover, which contained a picture of George Clooney, and got a laugh. Then she said – tongue completely in cheek – that she opened it in the hopes of finding something substantial, and got the biggest laugh of the convention.

Chicago is Not Broad-Shouldered
The Windy City is called The Windy City because the title was bestowed by a journalist who was covering Chicago’s notoriously corrupt politics. He called it The Windy City in regards to the fact that the local politicians were blowing hot air. Well, when the people there tell you how tough they are, they’re also spewing hot air. They take the smallest slurs against Chicago to heart. Most of them don’t know anything about how to properly weather out a bad winter, either, unless it’s by going to Florida for the season. This is not a populace that would ever think to lower itself to picking up snow shovels and digging out of a storm manually, as Buffalo did in 2001 when eight feet of snow fell in four days. They’ll buy out the local grocery store and wait for the city plows to bail them out – and that’s not a guarantee, since the snow removal department tends to run out of money.

Living Costs
My apartment in Chicago was one of those stereotypical walk-in closet-sized spaces. In Buffalo, it wouldn’t have been $400 a month. In Chicago, it cost $800 a month, and was considered a steal. I was rarely able to buy meat.

Buffalo is one of the worst cities in the country in taxes, so people in Buffalo have a hard time believing Chicago is even worse. The city has a ten percent sales tax, which was reduced TO ten percent! With the nasty income taxes being what they were, I was basically reduced to life on a $20 budget every week because I was an independent contractor who was making sub-minimum wage before taxes. This is why my life suddenly went south – it was too expensive to live there.

Parking
You would think that in a city with such excellent public transportation (and I mean that; yes, I complain about the CTA, but it never fails to get me where I need to go. If you don’t like it, try using the NFTA in Buffalo for a month!), more people would be willing to catch the bus and the L. Then again, there are 2.8 million people who live there.

I can’t forget the time my sister visited me and had to park two blocks over from my street. Or the time me and a girl I befriended at a local hostel tried to go to Millennium Park for an afternoon, but there were no open spaces in The Loop. I didn’t own a car, so this didn’t affect me most of the time, but tell any car-owning out-of-town buddies to bring their walking shoes.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are one of the crown jewels of Major League Baseball, and one of its most popular teams. Yet, the fans always appear convinced that there’s some great baseball conspiracy against them which keeps them out of World Series contention. Listen to fans complain about the collapse of 1969 or some rule about where the 1984 NLCS was played which they pulled out of their asses.

In my article about the Cubs, I made a few particularly harsh blanket remarks about the fans. Now, I didn’t mean them using complete blanket terminology; there are good people and devoted, knowledgeable fans in the Cubs’ base. Unfortunately, there tends to be a frat party mentality surrounding Wrigleyville, and during games with big opponents or at certain times, drunkenness takes over and invites a lot of boorish behavior which isn’t confined just to the stadium. Being in Wrigleyville during a Cubs game can be a trial of patience because the stadium, unlike every other baseball stadium, is right in the middle of the neighborhood. The team seems to encourage this – the Harry Caray statue in front of Wrigley Field comes off as an endorsement, and the celebrity rotation singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” doesn’t help.

Also, the owner of Wrigley Field doesn’t mind endangering the fans. The field is clearly falling apart – some spots are literally held up by nothing more than loose fishnetting – but it’s privately owned, and so the owner keeps refusing to repair the place. The fact that he’s using the White Sox’ public funds as leverage to get taxpayer cash of his own is the single greatest argument American sports has against public money being involved in professional sports.

Cycling in the Wind
Yes, The Windy City gets its share of the blowy stuff. If you’re into cycling, trying to ride a bicycle in the wind is like drinking a potion that allows you to walk through walls, then trying to walk through a cliff.

The Bid for the 2016 Olympics
So Mayor Richard Daley decided he wanted to wipe out a large public space in a poor neighborhood to build a big stadium and athlete housing which would have been used for two weeks. He wanted to add a fifth star to the Chicago city flag representing an Olympics he hadn’t even won yet.

This bid in and of itself, by the way, cost $50 million in taxpayer dollars. You want to know where all the tax money is going? Here’s your answer. The most offensive part is that his entire urban development plan seemed to hinge on getting the Olympics.

Frankly, one would have to be a complete fucking moron to even want and apply for the Olympics after knowing the kinds of wreckage they’ve been responsible for leaving in their host cities. Chicago would, in preparation, have gone through terrible traffic delays, small business shutdowns by the special, gestapo-like Olympics Police, construction, and poor people being herded out of the areas they lived in so the athletes could take over for two weeks. All on the public’s dime, of course, and in a city which wasn’t able to pay for it.

A Rebuttal to the 16-Bit Silver Era

A Rebuttal to the 16-Bit Silver Era

Gamers of my generation look at the 16-bit generation as the greatest generation of video games. I stand voraciously by this opinion myself, but that doesn’t keep any one of us from looking at those years through a pair of rose goggles. Just because the 16-bit Era was the best era doesn’t mean we haven’t managed to overrate it a little bit.

The other day, I was unwinding by playing a little bit of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I’m too early in this game to really form much of an opinion on it yet, but while it has so far been very engaging, the combat system is a real mess. I got my ass kicked repeatedly by a Sith Lord early on, and after finally throwing my arms up, I shut the game off and decided to forget about it by going into the very distant gaming past. I grabbed my Nintendo DS and plugged in a 16-bit classic – Donkey Kong Country. A real game, from a real gaming generation, a good old platform game where you only have to run from the left to the right of the screen. After screwing up the combat in Knights of the Old Republic, it would surely be a refreshing break.

Unfortunately, I was at one level in Donkey Kong Country at the time in which I had to frequently transport myself using barrels that were cannons – I jumped inside the barrel and it would shoot me out, to another part of the level. I don’t know exactly how the things work, but the barrels – which were stationary – would frequently shoot me just short of a place I had to land, or I would fall into a bottomless pit and die. This seemed to happen completely at random, so I didn’t pass the level until the game apparently decided I had suffered enough. The game had been torturing me for fun.

It was then that all the bad aspects of the 16-bit Era came flying back. The bugs, thoughtless design, gameplay quirks, hit throwbacks, and all sorts of other things which made me wonder whether or not a game had visited the testing lab before being thrown out into the world. Controls not being quite as good as they should have been, and the computer frequently being cheap as hell.

What sucked about games in the 16-bit Era was that if you died, first of all, you were thrown pretty far back in the level after fighting through an impassable obstacle, and would have to do it all over again. Second, a game’s controls always had the potential to fail in big trouble situations, so if you ended up dying, it was quite frequently safe to blame the game for your death. How often did you make a last minute save by hitting the jump button just as you reached an obstacle, or a projectile reached you, just to see it cancelled out?

Furthermore, have you ever been in one of those situations where you had to use a glitch to beat a boss or get through a level because the thing was otherwise impossible? Levels back then weren’t quite as creative, either: You would always have to fight through a number of cliche levels, like the fire level, ice level, water level, and those damn chase levels where some big rolling thing was always on your tail and would kill you, no matter what, the second you came into contact with it. No matter what the game was or how original it was, there were a lot of variations on one several particular kinds of levels, and very few of those varieties were any fun.

Aiming in many different directions is now something we take for granted. But some of the brightest stars of 16-bit games – I think primarily of Mega Man – couldn’t so much as fire their basic weapons to the left or right. This mechanic alone could drive gamers mad because it turned very small and simple nuisances into major threats which we had to jump all over the screen trying to shoot down. If you were playing a game in which your character got knocked back while facing an enemy like that, chances are it would happen over a series of short ledges, where the flying enemies all hung out.

If you think movie licensed games today are bad and shameless, in the 16-bit Era, things were a lot worse. Every bad movie got an even worse game of its own: Last Action Hero, The Addams Family, Demolition Man, Judge Dredd – which was actually used in a gaming championship one year – and Toys, among a million others, got games of their own. It’s pretty bad when the infamous movie bomb Waterworld not only got a game of its own, but one that was completely sensible when compared to the Home Alone and Baby’s Day Out games.

There was a lot less work being put into good video games back then, too. Hence the glitches. Gaming back then was still very much a geek thing and an outcast thing, so a lot of places that developed games were always thinking that if they made one, people were obviously going to buy it. It was an insulting way of looking at things if you really think about it. So while we may miss the good old days a lot, in some ways, we have to be glad they’re gone forever.