As the clock ticked down to the end of 2008, even a low-level deal appeared possible. An element of economic terrorism, and a classic “entertainment worker” move. A scripted sense of urgency – “I know you can’t wait for our plans in town!” – although little detail was offered on how it would work. In fact, the time between Melbourne and Buffalo, NY was a brief two months. The lights there had just been turned off at the New York Giants football team’s stadium. The lights of North America were switching off for the 19th time, in 104 years, and you were there for the 21st. Your arrival in Buffalo was as good as it got, though: stuffy and sepia tone, pastel stained at the edges. This Buffalo, as if still freezing on the streets, and memories were tinged with the smell of hot spices. Who was this Buffalo? In the first western movies, big city “Western” movies such as Route 66, the icon was the cowboy. But on our first visit, the cowboys seemed to be facing extinction; if it was a big city after all, who was the captain, and why was he holding this box? “Buffalo is an exciting place that’s really going to make you work for it,” the Buffalo Rising billboard claimed. An “exciting place”? Much was the attraction for us at the time. A hockey rink, itself a full venue, had recently been turned into temporary exhibition space. Huge rotating video screens played 20-second shots of the American West. The clock on the rail above the Millennium Plaza was set to 10:55 – and jingles of crashing thunder swept over the city. It was the Western soundtrack to summer. Oil people On the train to the city from Chicago, an advertising campaign dubbed Waiting for the Cowboys, put the oil patch first thing in the morning. In the tea room in Buffalo during training camp, we sat before the crack of the wooden table and sipped the black tea as we waited to hear the final verdict on this high-profile deal. We did not make it up to Boston Boston was spread over several counties of New York State, with an interchange of interest on highways and railways running through the middle of the city. There was a great deal of excitement for us, watching head coach Lindy Ruff dance with players in his dressing room. But more disappointing was the traffic. We missed a crucial inter-county derby in Buffalo. We didn’t get into Boston. But those minor mishaps aside, we arrived in Buffalo at an exciting moment. Traffic was edgy. The Bulls in their high-rise apartments were shaking off the house-built walls that mark off their territory and showing signs of being nervous. Buffalo is an exciting place that’s really going to make you work for it
The Bills in their soaring stadiums were hanging over the city like giant teeth. On the streets, piped music blasted with American melodies as shoppers braved the jostling traffic. There were East Side restaurants, packed with diners. And the newly finished Edgewater Hotel overlooking the lake. There was an intoxicating feeling of possibility. Buffalo was becoming a city with more than one identity. But why? Why was it suddenly interested in hockey at the same time as baseball and basketball? Why was it building an empty stadium into apartments only to keep all those occupants from there being forced out by real estate developers? And why had the team owners named it the Bills, which of course means horse and buggy in Gaelic – and famous for belonging to the city’s rich industrial history? “Buffalo is a city of passion, history and pride,” said the man who became mayor, Tom Schmitt. “A place like no other.” That’s exactly right. Buffalo is a “city of passion”, that’s certainly true. More than six million people live there, and a good percentage have been there for years. But they’re so bright-eyed they haven’t had much opportunity to look around them. And they’ve become so self-conscious about it, that the “signs of their place” often fail to change. The giant window-blinds in downtown apartments shade the view of the bright yellow lettering on the train station building, or the tiny bills that pass for the little street lamps from tourist’s point of view. It was not the city of passion we wanted. The best promise of the city we left was another one, along the lakefront. In every other city we saw, the river was the gateway to new possibilities. In Buffalo’s new vision for lakefront development, the river is now the exit ramp from its prosperity. And this endless receding waterfront is where we went once, and soon will again.
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