Tuesday, November 15, 2011

When We Paint Our Masterpiece

Take a drive around Buffalo and, if you have any distant memory of the city, you’ll feel good about saying one thing: This place looks a lot better than it used to.

Park space has been groomed or established; new office buildings, housing and courthouses have been constructed; historical entities have been salvaged and rehabbed; cobblestone streets have been implemented; and access to the waterfront has been improved. With a little exploration, you can now find portions of the outer harbor without packing a map and a hacksaw. Just last weekend, I touched the base of the Buffalo Lighthouse, a structure I’d seen encased in fencing for years. By even the most pessimistic standards, you can admit things are progressing past the decades of empty promises.

But, as elected officials preside over this city’s positive developmental direction, will they finally recognize and respect the role of Buffalo’s undervalued creative community in that direction?

Sure, they’ll recognize this cultural sect as important, but not indispensable. If they were recognized as such, funding debates wouldn’t break out during election seasons like this past one. For a region who regularly touts its cultural entities to outsiders and residents alike, how could any of our creative resources be deemed expendable by the region’s politicians or taxpayers? These resources populate local museums and art galleries; they fill pages in newspaper boxes and magazine racks; they construct statues for parks and town squares, and they stretch visions to corners of canvas on sides of Cobblestone District buildings. Buffalonians who’ve left this city have used the acumen acquired on these streets to host gallery shows, draft novels, or play vampires in Sarah Michelle Geller television shows. They’ve even used the inspiration shoveled from these sidewalks to record songs about flavors, slides and superfreaks. In any case, these creative resources have the ability to give Buffalo something no parking garage or property tax can provide: an image.

A city’s image can be formed by a variety of things, such as food, weather or historical events. Memphis has barbecue; San Diego has sun; Boston has the American Revolution. Currently, Buffalo’s image outside the 716 area code has been cultivated with a mixture of wing sauce, exaggerated snowfall, and Super Bowl losses. Residents and displaced Buffalonians know the history, benefits and unpublicized intricacies of this city, but outsiders or prospective tourists—ones local leaders and businessmen are clamoring for—are content to grasp onto the aforementioned trio. Until an interior movement is fueled and utilized to repackage Buffalo in a way that’s impossible to ignore on a national level, those three items will always be the most common things associated with this city. Well, those things and Niagara Falls, a natural wonder located in another city.

This movement starts and rolls on the backs of Buffalo’s creative community. This a city packed with artists of every shape and style, ones who’ve made Allentown and Elmwood Village two of our most recognizable neighborhoods. They’re doing their job there, acting as the city’s eclectic advertising and marketing department, albeit without the funding. With allocated financial support, their artistic talents could be utilized toward urban renewal or recreation in other sections of downtown.

Graphic designers, painters, performers, sculptors, musicians, and writers fill seats in Spot Coffee and barstools at Founding Fathers. They’re walking their dogs down Richmond and smoking American Spirits off Bidwell. Many of them are up until all hours of nights working on projects whether the city or county wants them to or not. During the day, some are working at their craft within non-profits or galleries; others are in unrelated professions that afford them the time and means to create or perform. They’re not simply looking for a government handout; they’re looking for reasonable support to assist their community-enriching endeavors, and compensation for their involvement in these efforts. And, in every instance, they’re excited for the opportunity to display the substance of these endeavors for a large audience.

This is where urban development can be augmented by a city’s underappreciated creative class.

If you drive down such streets as Genesee, Franklin or Oak, there are a number of dilapidated buildings, not ready for redevelopment but clouding the intriguing view of those being developed. Their exteriors have been worn down by time and weather, and they’re currently only advertising their depreciation. If you walk down Main Street, you’ll see small parks or squares that exist underutilized or empty. Their benches are splintered or their fountains are inoperable. When city officials see these spaces, maybe they see lost causes. If they’re concerned with pursuing a multifaceted image transformation for this city’s downtown core, maybe they should see these spaces as tremendous opportunities to be tapped by Buffalo’s hungriest assets.

If the city and county think of aiding cultural organizations or artists as a luxury, maybe they’d be more acceptant about the associated costs if they considered these entities as freelance laborers. Their work can do as much to re-imagine Buffalo’s downtown landscape as a courthouse or refurbished hotel can. And maybe some traditional residents don’t think of artists or cultural groups as blue-collar workers; maybe they think of them as eccentric, tattooed dreamers living outside societal norms. This is patently ridiculous, and a public shift in thinking is needed.

If it can be implemented, the city and county could consider generating a program that solicits artists or art groups to create Buffalo-themed art—according to the street, neighborhood or history surrounding either—in these aforementioned spaces. Whether through compliance (of city or county-owned property), suggestion (to private property owners) or direct action (with derelict owners’ property), these parcels could be utilized for the city’s and the creative community’s gain. With every painting crafted over brick and sculpture bolted into concrete, local artists can act to construct a bold identity for Buffalo, one of turning crumbling facades and empty squares into startling murals and sidewalk galleries. A drive down previously vacant streets will take a bit longer; a walk by empty storefronts will be a bit more fascinating. And, all of the sudden, a block of ignored possibilities becomes a desired urban commodity for residents and tourists alike.

Am I the first guy to suggest that Buffalo should enable its art community to use artifacts of the past to design its future? Of course not. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. This idea will keep coming forward in numerous variations until an encompassing reality blooms from this concept, one that’s been on the consideration shelf way too long. At some point, some forward-thinking city official will prioritize funding—or help to generate outside sponsorship—dust it off, and commit to its perpetual existence.

Until that time comes, Buffalo will continue its gradual resurgence through reconstruction and rehabilitation. Its artists will remain hard at work, generating the same electric urban undercurrent they’ve delivered for decades. They’ll open studios on Main and sell jewelry on Elmwood. They’ll perform alt-country originals inside Mohawk Place and publish Queen City-inspired stories in literary magazines. Cultural groups will continue to be driven by love, not money, and they’ll try to ignore the annual debates about their funding or relevance. What they do isn’t a choice as much as it’s an infectious calling. They absolutely have to do it.

If local leadership ever come to fully respect the rarity of this work ethic, they just might harness the creative force that could inconceivably transform Buffalo’s regional and national identity into one that dwarfs the tired rust belt jokes. By properly funding these artists’ gritty ingenuity, they’ll not only turn this city into a better version of its predecessor, but into one no Buffalonian ever imagined.

(Author’s note: This post was written while listening to Sam Roberts Band’s Love at the End of the World, The Band’s Cahoots, and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.)

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