The Improv Theater of Vibrant Streets
With the transition from one year to another I have been looking back on the events of 2014. The project and trip which stands out most was last summer’s project in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Buffalo is a fascinating place. It has an incredibly rich history and an incredibly sad and infuriating one. Famous designers such as Ellicott and Olmstead shaped the city as well as architects like Louis Sullivan. Buffalo, perhaps more than any other American city, also suffered as a guinea-pig for destructive urban renewal policies subsequently applied to other cities. As a planner and researcher, Buffalo is a treasure trove of historic information. In much the same way charred marks on a tree ring show ancient forest fires to the ecologist, the parking lots and vacant meadows of Buffalo show us the legacy of failed policy.
There are plenty of lessons to tease out of the history and sometimes bizarre scenes it produces but what’d looking back over the past year I’d rather start with some of the amazing experiences that stand out in my mind. Buffalo is far more than just a fascinating urban specimen it’s an odd and interesting place with a deep sense of identity and character.
One thing that stands out in my memory is my experience of the city from my 6th floor hotel window. This is about to sound a lot like a like a plug for a hotel so let’s get this part out of the way. The Holiday Inn Buffalo Downtown itself is perfectly adequate. In and of itself it was absolutely anonymous and generic. Were you to pick it up and drop it next to the airport you’d never know the difference and you’d barely remember being there. Other than its location there is nothing to differentiate it from any other Holiday Inn. Nonetheless, it was perfectly adequate. Though the internet really sucked.
The Holiday Inn Buffalo Downtown is, in fact, a full 1.6 km or 20 minute walk from downtown. That seems like a perfectly reasonable distance with its own set of advantages. It’s also a just a couple blocks from a light rail station. Buffalo has light rail by the way. It sits on Delaware Avenue which is one of the arms which radiate forth from Niagara Square at the heart of the city. Across Delaware Ave. from us in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office and became president (because McKinley was assassinated).
Perched on the sixth floor facing downtown and Lake Erie I was both plugged into the street life of Allentown and rewarded with spectacular over-lake sunsets. It didn't really occur to me until I was there that Buffalo is a “west coast” city. You get used to the way east coast cities are laid out due to history. Downtown is in the east, on the coast, and the newer stuff and sprawl grows out to the west. All of that is backwards in Buffalo. Plus the sun goes in the wrong direction.
Though it’s called “Downtown” the hotel is actually in a neighborhood called Allentown. This turned out to be much preferable to actually staying downtown because it was a step removed from the mayhem of the CNU and offered much more local mayhem. Urban neighborhoods seem to often work that way. Downtowns can get a little quiet while the neighborhoods offer 24 hour entertainment and people watching. I appreciated the organic jumble of buildings from different eras and different scales of development. Allentown is a vibrant and attractive neighborhood with a good mix of different people and different scales of development. In fact, it’s sort of an architectural and urban design museum unto itself.
As you may have noticed from the picture our Holiday Inn was not exactly historic or architecturally pleasing. According to one local, its construction and the demolition of its predecessor was the spark that ignited local backlash against demolishing historic buildings. A story which is apocryphal at best but at least fits the timeline and design.
Aside my open downtown-facing window I worked for long hours into the night. I kept the window open pretty much all of the time. During the day it gave me a cool breeze and during the night I enjoyed the novelty of coldness. It was June so I had already experienced some 90+ degree days in NC. Buffalo in the summer is a thing to behold. Best of all though, was the perpetual theater of entertainment taking place on the street. A sixth floor window turns out to be an ideal perch for anonymous people watching.
One night, in particular, I was witness to a strange and surprising event. It was past 2:00 a.m. I was trying to wrap up some work and struggling with the hotel’s terrible internet connection. Outside, on the street, I must of heard some commotion because I started watching it more intently. A herd of bicyclists went by. I didn't think that much of it at first. It was around closing time or at least late enough that you’d expect some people on the road. Just as they thinned out, another group filled in behind them forming a long loose chain. And as they moved past, another. And then another and another. By this point they had my full attention. I grabbed my camera and snapped a few pictures, in part to ensure this was not a delusion caused by lack of sleep and partly just an impersonation of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.
Half an hour went by and hundreds of bicycles had now passed in an inexplicable late night convoy when the best part happened. A Buffalo Police Cruiser decided to make his way right through the middle of the pack. I prepared myself for what might happen next. Police culture and the temperature of their interaction with the public, much less young people doing strange things, varies wildly from place to place. How would this go down? First he laid onto his siren-horn pretty hard. That wasn't surprising. One thing I had picked up about the Buffalo police already is that they really seem to enjoy making noise. During my trip I heard an awful lot of commotion for what seemed to be very little reason. How much can you blame them? Maybe it’s the best form of entertainment at 2:00 a.m. (incidentally I have always thought this to be true of those who drive trains as well). When he reached the herd something magical happened. Rather than get out of the way or have any confrontation, the bikes just filtered around the cruiser forming a car-shaped bulge into the oncoming lane as it passed through them. From above, it was a true spectacle of coordination. The cruiser offered no sign of confrontation and the bikes barely paid him attention. They just flowed around him like a fluid.
From above it looked for all the world like a pack of porpoises filtering around a passing ship. As he made his way through the herd, perhaps in response to the sound of his siren-horn, the bicyclists started singing. First a few people right in front of me where cruiser and herd intersected and then from person to person until well past my view I heard a late night rendition of the song Bad Boys by Inner Circle. Bad Boys, of course, being the theme song from the most original of all occupation-reality-tv-shows COPS. And then sometime later it was done. I don’t know where they came from or where they went but it’s the sort of unpredictable theater I love about city streets.
That was the most odd and memorable thing from the Delaware Avenue’s unlicensed improv. Most of the time its scenes were pretty tame but nonetheless very endearing. Many people like to work with a television or podcast running as sort of background noise. I have never been such a person but I did find my window to be a welcome distraction. Among other small dramas, I was witness to both a Gay Pride Parade and some kind of veteran motorcycle rally, I think related to the anniversary of D-Day, in my short time there. Mostly though, it was the mundane busyness of ordinary people’s ordinary days in Allentown that I witnessed. I watched a work crew put a new roof on a nearby building. People walked their dogs. Cars passed by, punctuated by an occasional horn blast. Working from a hotel room, sometimes for long stretches, away from home, and surrounded by strangers could be a lonesome experience. By virtue of my open window and the life on the streets below I felt connected and, surprisingly, at home.