About Buffalo -- by Ken Regan

If you have an interest in American cities and their culture, you may find Buffalo especially rewarding to explore. Here's some background and popular history to explain how Buffalo is a Quirky Creative place, with much more influence on the nation than its size and reputation may lead you to expect. Cultural links are at the bottom.

First, the Name

There are four main theories on how the city, which grew out of a settlement called "Buffalo Creek" in the 1780s, got its name:

  1. From the shaggy beast, Bison bison americanus, even though the great buffalo herds never came within 500 miles of the place.
  2. From the French beau fleuve, meaning "Pretty River". The Buffalo River is truly beautiful as it flows swiftly out of Lake Erie towards Niagara Falls, and the Ellicott and Tonawanda Creeks also merit the name.
  3. From the French boeuf-à-l'eau, meaning "Ox-by-the-Water", not unlike English town names with "ox" in them.
  4. From some Native American place name sounding like "buffalo".

Most sources cite the second theory, but I favor the third. Although no Canadian town has "boeuf" in its name, 27 geographical features in Canada do---and French settlers got to Buffalo before the Yankees did. This theory also supplies a haute-cuisine name for the city's principal culinary delicacy, Ailes du boeuf à l'eau.

The University at Buffalo was the University of Buffalo from 1846 to 1964, when it traded its old preposition and private standing to join the SUNY system.

History and People

In the 19th Century Buffalo was the Queen City, an economic powerhouse with the Erie Canal and Great Lakes trade. Presidents came from here---Millard Fillmore (the founder of UB in 1846) and Grover Cleveland---and Cleveland survived sex scandals while campaigning and in office that Bill Clinton could only dream of.

In the 20th Century until the 1970s, Buffalo was a great steel and manufacturing city, with many companies lured by the abundant hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls, and a magnet for immigrants from Europe, especially Eastern Europe and Italy. The city and environs are about 40% Polish, 30% Italian, 25% Irish, 15% Afro-American, 10% WASP, 10% German/Scandinavian (lots of Lutheran churches), 5% Greek, 5% Asian, and 10% "other". If this makes no sense to you, (a) you haven't run for political office in America, and (b) this writer hits three maybe four of those categories...

But now the steel mills are all gone, the University at Buffalo is the area's top employer, the city's population is lower than it was in 1898, and this city has no clear idea of its identity for the 21st Century. What remains, however, is an amazing mix of currents of society for such a relatively small town. To understand what has happened to Buffalo, we first must come to terms with:


In the 20th Century, Buffalo has endured

  • The assassination of President William McKinley at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, when Buffalo was at its zenith and the eyes of the world looked here. We were "Dallas" before Dallas, and had no Dallas to change the image.
  • The Blizzard of '77, when freak conditions left loose snow on a frozen Lake Erie for an equally freak thunder-and-wind storm to dump onto the city, with snowdrifts 5, 10, some even 20 feet high. Ever since, "Buffalo" has been synonymous with "Snow", although this year we've hardly had any.
  • The Love Canal environmental disaster in Niagara Falls; only Three Mile Island got bigger play in the 1970s. BTW, the final settlement checks were mailed this week (3/16/98).
  • The line in a late-1970s movie (Tootsie ?): "Suicide in Buffalo is redundant."

All this, however, was just a warmup for the 1990s:

  • Losers of Four Straight Super Bowls, 1991-1994. To put this into perspective, the American cities where Structures has been held since 1992 are a combined 0-12 in Super Bowls.
  • The John & Lorena Bobbitt Case...John Bobbitt returned here to live in peace in one piece, and...

...in early 1994 I heard it said that "Every national scandal or talk-show controversy seems to have a Buffalo connection." All except the Buttafuoco-Fisher case, that is---and now Amy Fisher is in jail near Buffalo. And then came:

  • The OJ Murders Case. O.J. Simpson was the star of the Buffalo Bills. The "shoe" photo that swung the civil case against him was taken in Buffalo in 1993 by a Buffalo News photographer.
  • The Oklahoma City Bombing. Convicted murderer Timothy McVeigh grew up in Pendleton, a suburb adjacent to Amherst; all his family was still here.

If it were just the Bills losing Super Bowls, we could sneak off with a "Lovable Loser" label. But the above and other weirdness like the Buffalo Sabres Hockey Massacres seem to call for Amherst's antidote to the "X-Files." I think that the real label for Buffalo, borrowing the famous phrase of baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, ought to be:

The Straw That Stirs the Nation's Drink

OK, so maybe L.A. mixes the drink, Hollywood pours it, and New York City drinks it, but have a look at the talent we develop or attract, and see if the impact on American society and culture (besides the above:-) isn't much greater than our metro area's 1/200 fraction of the U.S. population would predict:

  • Politics. Bob Dole's running mate Jack Kemp was the Buffalo Bills' star quarterback and AFL MVP in the 1960s, and then a Buffalo congressman from 1971 to 1989. Dole and Kemp held their first big post-convention rally on the Old UB Football Field, which everyone staying in the dorms will walk by. And my Congressman is Bill Paxon, former chair of the Republican National Committee and rival to Newt and Dick Armey, before he lost the power struggle and decided not to run for re-election this year.
  • Jazz. We've produced Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington, Jr., and Bobby Militello (of the Dave Brubeck Quartet). The Amherst Saxophone Quartet has made several Tonight Show appearances, and has toured all around the U.S. and Japan; 1/4 of it played at my wedding. We (and three much-larger cities) attracted Doc Severinsen from the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired. He has been Pops Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, alongside director and conductor Maximiano Valdes and conductor Arie Lipsky.
  • Rock. Buffalo makes the charts with natives Ani DiFranco and The Goo Goo Dolls.
  • Arts and Letters. UB's English faculty has "Beat" poet Robert Creeley and literary/social critic Leslie Fiedler. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates grew up in nearby Lockport.
  • News. You have probably seen editorial cartoons by Pulitzer Prize-winning Tom Toles of the Buffalo News. National Public Radio's Terry Gross (host of "Fresh Air") is a UB graduate; she broke into radio here at WBFO. So is Wolf Blitzer of CNN. Ira Flatow (host of NPR's "Science Friday") and Cliff Stoll (The Cuckoo's Egg) are also UB and WBFO alumni.
  • Entertainment. Diane English (the link has stopped working?) created TV's "Murphy Brown" show, and instigated the whole "family values" debate with Dan Quayle...her mother Ann manages Jocko's Supper Club. Political comedian Mark Russell returns often for shows at UB. Christine Baranski made waves on TV's Cybill. Bob and Harvey Weinstein attended UB and nearby SUNY College at Fredonia---they never graduated, but running Buffalo's Century Theater was their springboard to founding Miramax Films, which is named for their parents.

Now my point (and I do have one) is that just beneath the level of these people there must be a lot going on to have nurtured them, in a quirky and creative ferment. For the music scene, look at the size of this list! Buffalo has New York's greatest aggregate of theaters and night spots after Manhattan, and an artist community that revolves around the Allentown district downtown.

Who knows, maybe you will catch a rising star here, perhaps even Michael Civisca at the Dakota Grill at Maple & Sweet Home Rds., a mile from the conference site. Or to take the darker side, with a slight edit to William Butler Yeats' famous poem The Second Coming, those who venture into the city's culture may see

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last
    Slouches toward Buffalo to be born.          

Why this essay got frozen.