Place 18 of 52: From Refugees to a Reunion, Buffalo Lives Up to Its Welcoming Reputation
Posted June 19, 2018 2:25 p.m. EDT
Back in January, the weekend before starting this insane, beautiful 52 Places job, I got stuck in the Detroit airport for eight hours. A blizzard was raging, as was my mind, which kept wondering if this sort of airport misery was going to be a staple of the next year of my life. That’s when I heard the voices singing out.
“Sweet Caroline! Bah bah bah!”
There, at a grand piano in an airport corridor were around 20 young women of color in blue athletic joggers jumping up and down and belting their hearts out. The piano player was grinning ear to ear, as were a dozen bystanders who had joined in, including me.
“Good times never seemed so good!”
The merry airport spirit-lifters turned out to be the women’s basketball team for the University at Buffalo, who themselves had been waylaid en route to a game. I’m not a big believer in fate, but getting an infusion of joy from representatives of one of the 52 Places destinations at the exact moment when I was panicking about the trip felt like a sign: Everything was going to be OK.
Four months later, I finally visited the revitalizing Rust Belt city that people call “The City of Good Neighbors” and found a generosity that seems ingrained in its makeup. From a happy reunion with my basketball friends to a tour of a thriving bazaar populated by immigrant vendors, Buffalo went from a place I didn’t think about, ever, to somewhere I would considering moving. Maybe only in summer, though.
The City of Strangers Who Loan You Their Cars
When I touched down in Buffalo, chaos reigned at the airport. (I’m sensing a theme.) A freakish storm had caused the cancellation of all flights in and out of New York City — and a subsequent rush on rental cars.
When I told Kayla Zemsky, a Buffalonian I’d never met who had sent me a welcome message on Instagram, that I couldn’t rent a car, she immediately offered me to let me use hers while she was out of town. “You could get the keys from my husband or my mom tomorrow morning,” she wrote.
Thus began my totally unexpected, completely wonderful two days of being an honorary member of the Zemsky family. I went by to get the keys from Kayla’s husband, Michael Myers — a project manager who works with the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy — and we got along so well we made plans to hang out after my drive.
That night, I met Kayla’s brother, Harry, and his girlfriend Catherine, at the upscale pizza restaurant and brewery Harry runs, Hydraulic Hearth. It has a great view onto Larkin Square, a newly hip neighborhood in a former industrial wasteland that their family real-estate business has largely been responsible for developing. Deep into a night of cocktails at Harry’s other bar, Angelica Tea Room — which seems to draw a very fashionable, LGBT-friendly crowd — I met Kayla, who was even nicer and more fun to be with than her Instagram messaging had suggested. She’d been away at school getting her Executive MBA as part of joining the family business.
The next day, we went over to her aunt’s place to enjoy Porchfest, a delightful festival in the Elmwood Village neighborhood where owners of beautiful homes invite local bands to play on their porches and provide free beer and food for the masses.
Buffalo Is Beautiful (Thanks Olmsted!)
Did you know that Buffalo is itself one of the largest bodies of work by Frederick Law Olmsted, the mastermind behind New York’s Central Park? I didn’t — until Kayla took me on a whirlwind tour of the city’s art and architectural gems. Starting in 1868, Olmsted designed six parks here, and connected them with America’s first system of tree-lined parkways.
After a farmers market on a parkway we had lunch at one of those architectural gems: the fabulously grand, newly opened Hotel Henry, which was once an mental hospital. Olmsted did the landscape design, and the whole thing looks like a castle. I stayed downtown, at the more opulent and also new Curtiss Hotel, which has a revolving bar, free valet parking and futuristic automated showers and toilet seats. (This was before I became aware of two men who have claimed racial discrimination against the hotel and of the hotel’s lax response to them.)
Abutting Olmsted’s Delaware Park, we found Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex. A residential commission for a businessman and his family in the early 1900s, Wright considered it the purest representation of his Prairie School vision that architecture be one with the landscape (he called it his “opus”). Book a tour in advance.
But my personal highlight was the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, also in the thick of Olmsted parks. Not only is it a gorgeous building containing one of the strongest modern and contemporary art collections in the United States (Matisse, Picasso, and an exhibit with a walk-in jail while I was there), but it’s also where Kayla and Michael met in 2013: He was installing a Goldsworthy sculpture and she had come to the opening.
A Sweet Reunion
“Give me a call when you get in,” UB basketball coach Felisha Legette-Jack, known as Coach Jack, had told me in the Detroit airport as she and her squad ran for their bus. And of course I did.
The students were in finals week and the coaching staff was busy setting up the next season, but they all remembered me and were happy to catch up. They had ended the season having earned the first NCAA Tournament round of 16 berth in the school’s history.
“Everyone that touched us through the process is part of the responsibility of us becoming what we became this year,” Legette-Jack said. “Sure, things went wrong. But what went right was beautiful. Us meeting you. Meeting the gentleman playing the piano. We just made the most of it. You’re part of our story of having a historical season, so thank you.”
I was sitting down with two assistant coaches, two players and Legette-Jack. Almost every person in the room had come from elsewhere and stayed in Buffalo because they loved it so. They all raved about the revitalizing downtown and Canalside, a promenade that was once the western terminus of the Erie Canal and a place where you can start sailing on Lake Erie or enjoy live music.
Mostly, though, they talked about feeling welcome. Ayolek Sodade, a shooting guard, was from Nigeria, and a new teammate was from Lebanon. (The UB athletics program has won a diversity award from the NCAA two years in a row.) “We’re starting to thrive again; it’s an exciting time,” Legette-Jack said. “But don’t tell too many people. This is our town!”
Home of the Brave
That diversity may be best seen at the West Side Bazaar, a small business incubator full of refugees selling their native clothing and food. Kayla, Michael, and my friend Aileen, who had come up from Syracuse, New York, munched on traditional Mexican tacos and Ethiopian sambusas. And I spoke with Gysma Kueny, a South Sudanese refugee who sells jewelry and crafts. When she applied for refugee status, she said, she didn’t have a choice of where to live. “I just knew I was going to a place called New York and then a place called Buffalo,” but she was grateful she was able to own a small business.
Across the hall from her was Nadin Yousef of Iraq (most of the vendors in the market are women), who had fled her country in war and come to Buffalo after six years in Syria and two in Turkey. She sells handmade macramé and has done well enough to open a second booth with goods from Jordan. “What I like about Buffalo is that they respect diversity and culture,” she said. “I like how when I work hard, I get something. I never see that before.”
Grain Silo Performance Art
Drive over pockmarked roads into the deep industrial territory of the Buffalo River and you’ll see an array of foreboding grain silos loom into view. You’ve entered Silo City, a great place to film a post-apocalyptic movie or put on some performance art. (There are tours where you can kayak between them.)
Our group headed over there after the West Side Bazaar to meet up with James Watkins, known as “Swannie Jim.” The chief steward of the silos, he lives in a former maintenance shop next to them with his dogs. “We call it regeneration, Not restoration. We don’t want to be Williamsburg or anything like that,” he told us. “I have a growing appreciation that a building has a life just like a human being and that slow decay is sort of interesting as long as it’s safe.”
Inside one of the cavernous spaces, the Festival of Indeterminacy was about to begin. They had more ambitious plans that involved aerialists on strings between the silos, but two hours earlier had decided to bring the whole operation inside because of weather concerns. Disorienting red and blue lights filled the space. Dancers in all white attached themselves to one another via rope at their torsos. Violinists — part of a group called Buffalo String Works made up of refugee children from Burma and Thailand — tuned up their instruments. A children’s chorus, in unison, chanted each line three times: “We have to go back to the beginning / We need more energy / Out of the unknown / Matter / Matter.”
Buffalo is now bursting with gourmet cafes (try Remedy House Coffee Shop and Five Points Bakery) and farm-to-table restaurants like Marble + Rye, where the cocktails were inventive and the pickled onion rings felt like a reinvention.
But in Buffalo, you have to try the wings. I’ve been obsessed with the origin story for those deep-fried pieces of chicken, smothered in hot sauce, ever since I found out that one of my New York friends, Linda Adamson, is from the family who invented them at Buffalo’s famed Anchor Bar. According to lore, Dominic Bellissimo, son of the owners, Frank and Teressa, had a bunch of hungry friends coming into the bar and asked his mother to whip something up. All she had were the wings she had been using to make a stock. She deep-fried them, came up with a sauce on the spot, and a worldwide phenomenon was born.
Michael, Kayla’s husband, was my wings expert. “Oh, I can crush some wings,” he said. And of the three versions we tried in one night — at Anchor Bar, Gabriel’s Gate and Gene McCarthy’s — the last was our clear favorite. They were fried perfectly, doused in Frank’s Hot Sauce, the purist’s choice. But then again, we hadn’t had a chance to get to Duff’s, Elmo’s or Bar Bill Tavern. Our research, it seemed, would never be done.
A Day Trip to Remember
Most people who come through Buffalo are on their way to Niagara Falls. They’re the most powerful waterfalls in the world and seemed worthy of a detour. My advice: Go to the Canadian side for better views (remember your passport!); be prepared to get wet; and maybe don’t take the car of a stranger you met on Instagram — a lot of questions at the border.