Originally published in the Buffalo News, September 20, 2000 p. B-2. It has since been edited. Illustration from PowerThesaurus.org.
My fellow residents of the City of Good Neighbors have probably had this experience many times over. We are somewhere in Western New York where we have occasion to meet new people. Upon learning where we happily live, work, play, shop, and worship, the suburbanite unthinkingly offers some subtle or blatant variation on “Is that neighborhood safe?” or “I heard that’s a sketchy area.”
When this happens, these tempting responses whiz through my head.
Tell them what they want to hear: “Yes, it’s dreadfully dangerous. But I’m basically stupid and lazy, so I just keep risking my life and my kids’ lives by living there every day.”
Gently turn it back on them: “I just couldn’t see sending my kids to schools with those violent suburban and rural teenage boys.” Funny how school shooting sprees never take place at so-called inner city public schools.
Not so gently turn it back on them: “Oh, not to worry. Your kids and their friends buy their drugs in other places.” As arrests and overdoses often illustrate, plenty of dealers have suburban addresses and clienteles.
Express gratitude for their concern: “How kind of you to ask! We certainly are struggling with absentee landlords, inept code enforcement, and speeding drivers. Since you seem concerned about the health of my neighborhood, why don’t you move in and join the block club? There are lots of charming, affordable houses and we’d appreciate the help.”
Assign responsibility: “Interesting that you should mention it. I’ve done some research, and as far as I can tell, it was a terrific neighborhood until your ancestors abandoned it for the suburbs.”
Unmask the covert racism: “Do you think it is a bad neighborhood because you see Black and brown faces?”
Promote communalism: “Yes, every place has its troubles, but me moving to your town won’t improve your town or this city, whereas me staying here and working with my neighbors is making a big difference.”
Shame them: “Funny how certain grown men and women quake on the rare occasions when they drive through city neighborhoods, but expect vulnerable elders and children to live there 24/7 without complaining.”
Exaggerate their worst stereotypes: “Oh, it’s not so bad! We have nice matching tactical flak jackets, we roll up the bulletproof windows in the Escalade and take Rocky, our bodyguard, and Fang, our Doberman, with us whenever we leave the house. We crank up the radio so we’re not bothered by the gunfire; our landscaper comes by once a week to pick up the used condoms, hypodermic needles, and shell casings from the front yard; and Ashley is earning Scout badges by training the rats to do tricks.”
OK, I’ve had my fun. It’s time to get serious. I know people who assume that that cities are inherently deadly aren’t trying to be clueless and rude.
Nevertheless, the question insults every city resident on the receiving end of it. For now, I answer it by citing Buffalo’s falling crime rate and rising property values. I talk about the wonderful amenities in my quiet, peaceful, historic, community-minded, pedestrian-centered neighborhood.
But I’m putting urbophobes on notice: Your civic manners need work and my patience wears thin.
Illustration of St. John’s Protectory and St. Joseph’s Asylum, better known today as Father Baker’s, from the F.W. Beers Atlas of Erie County, 1880, courtesy of the New York Public Library. At the time, Lackawanna, NY had not yet been established as a city, so this institution was in West Seneca.
Cholera and other epidemics, maternal mortality, military service, dangerous factory conditions, fires and floods, diseases that are curable today: there are many reasons why children lost one or both parents in 19th century Buffalo.
In response, men, women, and religious congregations and orders established asylums to house and care for orphaned infants and children.
Here is what we’ve been able to find about orphanages that existed in Buffalo and Erie County, N.Y and their records. We focused on institutions that were authorized to place children in new families with new identities. We omitted residential facilities who served children but preserved their family relationships.
The era of residential orphan homes ended around World War II, to be replaced by the foster care system.
This Google Doc shows what we know about orphan homes and their records. Did we omit one? Are there records that we missed? Names or nicknames that these institutions were also known as? Other errors? Please let us know!
Map of racial distribution on the Niagara Frontier, 2010, based on U.S. Census figures. Each dot is 25 people. Blue = Black; Red = White.I do not have a more current version of this map.Courtesy of Wikiwand.com.
Which is it? Below are some segregation rankings, with screen captures and links back to each article. I decided to compile them because of encountering some very victim-blamey rhetoric that sounded like Buffalo wouldn’t have been targeted if it wasn’t so segregated. As if we deserved to be punished for our sins.
Please note that I am not a demographer or statistician. I am not qualified to judge the methodology behind these rankings or declare which one is correct. For one thing, some appear to be counting the population strictly within the city limits of Buffalo, while others count the population in the larger Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area. Some rely on outdated 2010 census figures; some rely on 2020 figures.
These rankings are presented in the hopes that someone who does have demographic and statistical expertise will be inspired to offer some knowledgeable analysis. And to urge everyone to cite their sources when making claims about segregation in Buffalo. Did I miss a ranking that differs from the ones below? Let me know.
Following these disparate findings, keep scrolling for some observations about what is missing from them.
Brown University’s American Communities Project has census figures from 1980 to 2020 in tables that you can refine and sort. The column on the right has the 2020 ranking. Using their Black/white dissimilarity (segregation) index for the 200 largest cities in the US, their 2020 figures put Buffalo at 159th least segregated or 41st most segregated. Least dissimilar/least segregated cities are at the top of the list, so I counted up from the bottom (most dissimilar/most segregated). I am not sure that I filtered or sorted these figures correctly, so please let me know if I made an error.
The shooter allegedly targeted Tops on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo after Googling the Blackest zip codes in New York State and finding 14208. I thought I would Google the whitest zip codes in New York State and the US. Here is what I found.
Did Anyone Notice Anything Odd About These Two Sets of Figures?
When you search for Most Segregated Cities, you get a few sets of city names and rankings, as shown above.
When you search for Whitest Cities, you get an entirely different set of city names. Hialeah and Laredo are apparently the whitest cities in America but do not appear on any Most Segregated rankings.
Why is is that the American cities, towns, and suburbs who have most successfully blocked, repelled, or chased out people of color; Black, Hispanic, or Asian, do not appear on any Most Segregated lists? Apparently, all you need to do to satisfy demographers that your virtually all-white community is not segregated is to make sure that your tiny number of Black or brown households are in different census tracts or zip codes.
Meanwhile, Buffalo, which is 47.1% white, 35.2% Black, and 12.2% Hispanic, is stigmatized as segregated. We are a city that, in spite of our failures and inequities, has a better record of striving for equality, justice, and multicultural democracy than any all-white community.
If we agree that place is a factor in this shooting, then segregation in Conklin, not Buffalo, is responsible. Conklin, not Buffalo, is where everyone should start their May 14 essays and examinations of racism and white supremacy. Our whitest cities and towns are long overdue for some moral scrutiny.
Because I am middle aged and need to get in training for my cranky Get off my lawn years, and because I’m in a pandemic with long hours sitting at home, I did a study of the Sunday comics section in the Buffalo News.
This was inspired by years of opening the Sunday comics section and rarely seeing anything that made me chuckle, impressed me with artistic skill, Prince Valiant notwithstanding, or combined humor with insight into our lives now, the magnificent exception being Doonesbury. Is there something wrong with me? Of course. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and I do not have 20/20 vision. Did I mention we’re in a global pandemic? But there’s something wrong with the Sunday comics, too.
Omitting puzzles and games, I counted 24 syndicated comic strips in the Sunday comics section. None originate here in Buffalo. Then I looked up their ages. From Blondie, founded in 1930, to the youngest, Pros & Cons, founded in 2008, the average age of a Sunday strip is 44 years old. If you aspire to be a Sunday funnies cartoonist, like I did as a child, you should have gotten started around 1978.
Only 3 strips, 12%, were founded in this century. Seven of the 24, or 28% of the strips, are 62 or older and eligible to draw Social Security. Their characters are frozen in a long-gone mid-20th century America.
American servicemen and women have fought in multiple conflicts since Beetle Bailey was founded in 1950, but you’d never know it from cringey plot lines that steer carefully away from anything resembling military life today. Aren’t there any veterans drawing comics about their lives?
American households come in all places, sizes, configurations, and colors, but on Sunday, I see a preponderance of white-middle-class-nuclear-families-in-the-suburbs (Peanuts, Family Circus, Blondie, Zits, Dennis the Menace, Sally Forth.) As though this specific demographic and its sensibilities represent something universally relatable.
One strip, Jump Start, focuses on a Black family in Philadelphia. Other than Jump Start, why is city life absent from the comics page? What about farm life? College life? Factory life? Aren’t there any strips by and about immigrants? Humor can be found everywhere.
We are living in a golden age of visual storytelling, starting with the zine movement, which took off in the 1970s, thanks to the advent of inexpensive photocopy technology. Graphic novels came of age in 1982, when Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer prize for Maus. Manga, or Japanese comics, have had a devoted American audience for decades. This creative explosion is reflected nowhere in the Sunday comics, which are dominated by senescent strips from before I was born.
No doubt there is much to the syndication process that is invisible to the ordinary Sunday subscriber, but apparently certain comics now own valuable Sunday newspaper real estate in perpetuity, such as Peanuts,Blondie and Dennis the Menace, the last two of which are drawn by the founder’s descendants or others.
This does not occur on the editorial page. When editorial columnists die, their children are not entitled to continue Mom or Dad’s column. Emerging columnists and new viewpoints get an opportunity to shine. This natural cycle of talent has been stifled for decades in the Sunday comics. For the sake of the new audiences that the News needs and deserves, it is time to end Sunday comic strip monopolies from the last century. Please make me laugh again.
Age in 2022
Eligible for SS
Pros & Cons
Dog Eat Doug
Pearls Before Swine
For Better For Worse
Hagar the Horrible
Wizard of Id
Dennis the Menace
I submitted this as a My View column to the Buffalo News on January 24, 2022. Having gotten no response, I am posting it here. Lead image by author.
Supernatural events are revealed to be fakery, only to have the final scene imply that the ghost is real after all. Midsomer Murders resorts to this repeatedly.
The good guy/male love interest is identified in novels by his crooked grin/lopsided smile. The overuse of this trope is provable:
The hero who needs to admit he is gay has a girlfriend/fiance who is overbearing and controlling, which defies any understanding of why he could have feelings for her in spite of his basic orientation.
The only attorneys who defend rapists and abusers on TV are women
First Floor of Buffalo City Hall courtesy of Buffalo City Hall
You may be looking at this page because you are not one of the lucky home buyers who found a set of plans & drawings stashed in your attic. Or acquired them from the previous owner when you bought the property.
When seeking plans and drawings, it helps to know that the the three parties most likely to have them are:
The architect’s own office
The original client or current owner
The government office that approved the plans and issued the building permit. In the city of Buffalo, that is the Permits & Inspections office.
If the firm is defunct and the original client long deceased, your local government may have something. Dates vary as to when cities, towns, and villages required you to submit plans & drawings in order to get a building permit, but today, they all do. Some have required it for over a century. The newer the building, the greater the chance that the municipality has plans for it. And, frustratingly, sometimes a government office just doesn’t have certain records.
One important category of drawings that governments invariably retain are the plans for their own buildings: schools, libraries, fire houses, police stations, town halls, courthouses, etc. If you are researching a public building, reach out to the public works office in the government that built it.
You can learn more about plan book houses from this book by Dr. Daniel D. Reiff, retired professor of architectural history from SUNY/Fredonia. It is illustrated with examples from around Western New York. The link shows you libraries who have it in hard copy.
If you did not inherit your house plans from a previous owner or find them at city hall and you don’t have a plan book house, now what? First, the bad news: your chances of finding plans are low. There are two reasons why.
There is no guarantee that plans & drawings survive. Architects are under no obligation to give their papers to libraries, universities, archives, or museums. And these repositories are not required to accept everything they are offered.
When plans & drawings do survive, they may not represent 100% of the office’s output. Stuff gets destroyed in fires & floods. Stuff gets lost or damaged when people move. Stuff gets discarded when people retire or pass away.
The good news is that some architectural plans & drawings do end up in repositories such as universities, libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums. The purpose of this page is to help you locate those surviving collections.
This Google Doc shows what we know about surviving plans & drawings for Buffalo buildings:
One of the most obscure departments in New York State government, unless you are a historian or genealogist, is the New York State Archives (NYSA or State Archives). Even its own homepage does not convey to the casual visitor what, exactly, it does.
The NYSA does not, for example, collect cool stuff about New York State and its communities from wherever it may be found: books, newspapers, maps, scrapbooks, letters, diaries, your attic. That is the role of the New York State Library (NYSL).
While you might learn a lot about businesses, nonprofits, families, and more at the State Archives, it does not collect records created by businesses, nonprofits, families, or any other non-governmental entities. This distinction is important.
The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business. There are about 3 centuries of government records from the colonial era to the present in the State Archives.
The secondary role of the State Archives is to oversee and standardize government record-keeping practices in the counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts, police & fire departments, etc., in New York State. They have additional duties, but today we’re going to focus on their role regulating local government records.
Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.
For the purpose of this essay, a record is the kind of stuff those of us with office jobs generate all day long: emails, spreadsheets, schedules, budget proposals, payrolls, memos, statistics, sign-in sheets, strategic plans, procedural manuals, Powerpoints, databases, and so on. These are not usually designed for public consumption, so we can also call them unpublished records. New York State is proactively putting a lot of born-digital records online (publishing them) at its Open Data Portal. Plus, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) enables citizens to request unpublished records from their governments.
A publication or government publication is a document designed and released by a government department for public comment and consumption, such as an annual report, a budget, a revitalization plan, a recycling guide, council meeting minutes, an environmental impact statement. Unlike records, publications issued by state & local governments and commercial publishers end up in the New York State Library.
Let’s look back to 1971. This is when the State Archives was established as an official department of New York. The state of New York had no formal, centralized government record-keeping function until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany. Here is the condition of record-keeping in New York in 1912.
When the State Archives was founded, it was authorized to develop records retention schedules: legally binding rules about how long certain kinds of government records must be kept. For example, vital records must be kept in perpetuity. Your mileage log, if you have a government job that requires travel? Probably not in perpetuity. These record retention schedules apply equally to all counties, cities, towns, and villages in New York.
Before 1971, elected and appointed officials and civil servants in New York more or less decided on their own what to keep or toss. Even today, there are people in local government who are not well-trained in the record-keeping requirements pertaining to their job or department and they unilaterally delete or discard files.
Say you work in a public school somewhere in NY State and you find an ancient attendance ledger in a closet. You might be inspired, with the best of intentions, to offer it to the nearest historical organization. And you’d be wrong. Your school district has a records management officer who must first be consulted about that ledger, because it is public property and isn’t yours to dispose of. In cities, towns & villages, the city, town, or village clerk is the records management officer.
This is a very long way of explaining why local government offices might not have the records you are expecting to find. And why “there must have been a fire” is a convenient explanation, even when it is false. Sometimes it means Oops, someone threw that stuff out.
You Googled every which way to Sunday and you can’t find an online copy of a book you need. You tried Amazon and your book is either unavailable or priced beyond your reach. We’re assuming that you already searched your local public library. If you’re a student, you checked with your campus library, right?
Millions of books are now online. But not every book in the world has been digitized or will be. You may need to track it down in hard copy. Here are 8 suggestions.
WorldCat is a free searchable database of a billion distinct items (books, audiobooks, videos, newspapers, periodicals, etc.) in the libraries of the world. If you find your book, contact the library and ask if they can produce a PDF. Or bring the link/record to your public or campus library. Ask if they can borrow a copy for you via ILL.
What’s ILL, you say? Libraries have been borrowing stuff from each other since before you were born. Your public or campus library will handle the logistics. You may pay a nominal service fee or none at all.
Disclaimer: I have no connection to Archive.org beyond than having a free account and being acquainted with one of their employees.
Most of my readers already know about Archive.org, also known as the Internet Archive, as a place to find cool old stuff online. While I spend my time with their full-text, online books, Archive.org also offers audio and video, including TV, films, and concert tapes. Patents. Podcasts. Census microfilms. Outdated software. Plus the magnificent Wayback Machine, which has been crawling the web and saving websites for 25 years.
Why is this important? A lot of individuals and groups — now that we all create and accumulate digital property without even trying, let’s call ourselves collectors — are turning to libraries, educational institutions, historical organizations, and museums, asking them to put the collector’s stuff online. It might be photos, letters, or home movies that have or have not been digitized. It might be original essays or artwork by the collector. It might be by-laws, minutes, spreadsheets. It might be articles and downloads that are still protected by copyright.
Some large and well-funded organizations might store or host your digital assets. Smaller organizations, though, rarely have enough server space to digitize collections they already own and have title to. Under the circumstances, they may be simply unable to commit the time and server space to additional stuff.
While server space is definitely cheaper than bricks and mortar storage space, it is not free. Neither is the labor, software, and hardware needed to do all of the processing that makes digital files findable and usable online. Whether it is tangible objects in boxes or digital files on hard drives, we all simply own more stuff than our institutions can possibly house and care for in perpetuity.
Here’s where Archive.org comes in. You or your organization can take out an account and scan and upload. Here’s why I recommend Archive.org:
Archive.org is a non-profit, so your stuff won’t get monetized for stockholder benefit
No ads or paywalls
No intrusive and unnerving suggested content pop-ups
Superb access options for those with vision limitations
Accepts files in almost any format
Your stuff joins an international community of individuals and organizations who have already shared bazillions* of collections for public access and benefit
Anyone up for crowdsourcing Buffalo-area place names? By which I mean neighborhood nicknames such as Elmwood Village or The Hooks, and names of features on the landscape. At this time, I am not thinking of street names or building names, which could be separate projects unto themselves.
Here’s a Google sheet that I set up for anyone to add to. Notice there are two tabs: one for the City of Buffalo and another for Erie County, for those with village or town-specific knowledge.
Landscape features such as creeks, canals, or hills
Entire city nicknames, such as Queen City or New Amsterdam
Names of real estate developments, such Nye Park
Parks that aren’t there anymore or changed names
Picnic groves. So often in Buffalo newspapers I see so-and-so’s grove as the location for an event, with no address. It was assumed that readers knew where it was.
Some data entry suggestions to maximize the value of the spreadsheet:
In the location column, use contemporary street/road names.
Please cite your sources. If you find a source online, pasting in the URL is excellent but insufficient. The link you found today may be invalid or paywalled a few years from now. Please add enough info (author, title, date, page number, etc.) that a future researcher can seek out for the source if the link is 404.