02/12/2001 - Updated 10:20 PM ET

Lots and lots of heart in Buffalo

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

BUFFALO — We're snowed by Buffalo.

USA TODAY launched a nationwide search for a "City with a Heart" — one with the energy, excitement and community fellowship that make a one-stoplight town or a swarming metropolis a treasured hometown.

Readers responded to our call with notes, poems and a bit of professional public-relations puffery, singing the praises of more than 120 communities from Tacoma, Wash., to Miami, Fla., to Barnes, a cozy English town outside London.

Some listed their towns' tourist-brochure features. But most messages zeroed in on the great, unmappable qualities like generosity of spirit — the social capital that makes people rich in human connection, says political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, $26).

Many Americans remember with longing those places and times where we felt those bonds, expressed in "neighborhood parties and get-togethers with friends, the unreflective kindness of strangers, the shared pursuit of the public good."

The people of Buffalo still know these well. And they stuffed the valentine ballot box with the most notes to tell the world the sunny truth about their oft-maligned, blizzard-thumped city.

They managed to be simultaneously proud and humble (it's often said you'll never meet anyone arrogant from Buffalo) about their world-class art, architecture and grand urban parks; a great history including two U.S. presidents; and generations of immigrants and their descendants who turn every weekend from May to October into a street festival.

"Don't let the snow fool you," wrote Marge McMillen, listing, as many did, the city's renowned museums and music hall, schools and sports teams. "Buffalo is a warm-hearted lady."

So we winged into town for a day to see for ourselves.

Eleven Buffalo buffs — eight of them born here — joined us for platters of chicken wings at the Anchor Bar, world famous for the spicy tidbits that legend says were invented here. Friendlier people would be hard to find.

"That's why we all come back here," says Dennis Warzel, one of five in the lunch group who tried living elsewhere and felt Buffalo call him home. He's now rooted here as securely as the lavish Buffalo Botanical Gardens, where he spends hours volunteering.

"That's why my parents, who retired to Florida, returned to be with their old friends," says Bonnie MacGregor, bass drummer in the Celtic Spirit Pipe Band.

If Buffalo were a band, its tunes would be drawn from Irish, Scottish, Polish, Italian, German, Slavic, Jewish, Native American and a dozen other cultures.

"This lovable rust-belt city is full of blue-collar guys of every ethnic background who get together on Sunday to watch the Bills and remove their shirts in 35-degree weather. (We) support everything from tractor pulls to the philharmonic — and hardly any drive-by shootings," quips Jim Joslin.

Good neighbors keep this city's heart beating, all agree.

When asked for the signs of neighborliness in action, Sandra Cochran leapt to mention Friends of Night People. Lodged in a pink and white house on the edge of downtown, it's a 24-hour soup kitchen and shelter of last resort, established 32 years ago when the homeless didn't have the media attention they get today.

"Generosity here is above and beyond anyplace I've ever worked," says director Darren Strickland, watching volunteer Betty Dorio make bologna and cheese sandwiches. The shelter serves 72,000 meals a year and provides eye, foot and health care for 1,600 children, women and elderly annually.

MacGregor noted the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. It was the nation's first such center and one of the largest for research and treatment. permeated by positive feelings. "Everyone smiles at Roswell," she says.

Indeed, that very gray Monday, there was upbeat 17-year-old Dan Zak, a weekly volunteer from Canisius High School, playing the grand piano in the hotel-handsome atrium lobby.)

"You can be a workaholic here, but it's optional," says Russell DeFazio, who hikes and plays tennis in Delaware Park. "It's still a laid-back place."

"We work hard, but we make time to enjoy ourselves," echoes Alan Kegler.

With family. With friends. With strangers. "I wake up on a snowy day and my neighbor has already cleared my driveway," says Linda Storz. "You have to catch someone in the act just to thank them."

Ah, snow. Talk turns to that inescapable word and once again, the Buffalonians puff with pride.

"I love the coldest, snowiest days here because everyone grows closer. People come out of their houses, smiling and greeting one another on the street. It feels as safe as Mayberry and as beautiful and sentimental as a holiday greeting card," wrote Sara Saldi.

"It's not how much snow we get. This is not Alaska. It's how we handle it. Our city never closes. We clean up and get going where others can't," says Philip Wiggle.

Of course, problem-solving is second nature here in the birthplace of "brainstorming," a creative thinking process developed by a local advertising executive, Alex Osborn, that soon spread worldwide. Buffalo nurtures the idea with an annual creativity conference. that has drawn hundreds of think-outside-the-box folks for 43 years.

One problem minimized: The tell-your-grandchildren-someday-about-it blizzard that dumped 25 inches of snow in a day on Nov. 20 and gave even indefatigable Buffalo pause.

Most people would be calling the moving vans if they spent seven hours of a snowstorm trapped in a subway station like Monica Huxley. But Huxley, who hadn't lived in Buffalo yet a year, wrote to USA TODAY that the helpful camaraderie among strangers led her to love her new hometown.

MacGregor was among 200 who huddled in the Christmas wonderland of the Hyatt hotel lobby, where 200 trees had been decorated for a festival of light. She recalls:

"About 11:30 p.m., ladies from the hotel's housekeeping brought around lots of blankets and told us that we should each find a Christmas tree to sleep near. They then kept the tree lights on and turned the hall lights off. We slept like little kids in a big 'sleepover' underneath the trees."

Warzel was trapped on downtown streets for nearly 20 hours, including a stretch where a "lady went car to car passing out Ho-Hos." Cochran enjoyed an instant party among the drivers gridlocked in the Allentown nightclub neighborhood. Nancy Lynch was assured that her son, trapped at school, was housed for the night by the welcoming parents of the school neighborhood; Ellen Kern, caught for "not very long, just 4 hours on Maple Road in my car," marveled as strangers offered coffee and brushed snow from the windshields.

"For a big city, it's very small," says Kern.

Adds Nancy Lynch: "When people do small nice things for one another, they tend to want to reciprocate. When the cycle is repeated over and over again over the years, you end up with a City with Heart."