Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not as big as it once was

By Dick Hirsch

As you may have previously noticed, I’m old enough to remember when Buffalo was a big city.

Oh, not that old. No, I wasn’t around in 1901 when it was the eighth largest city in the US. That’s an amazing statistic, especially when contemplated from today’s position as the 70th largest city. However, I do remember when the census figures showed Buffalo at over 500,000. We kids used to have the total memorized; I can’t recall the exact numbers, but at times in school somebody would proudly recite them, 575,302 or whatever it was, maybe 532,525.

The city is less than half that size according to the latest 2009 figures and it will probably be smaller when the official 2010 census figures are released. Is anyone surprised or upset by that news?

I’m discouraged but not disheartened. I appreciate Buffalo more today than when it was larger and I was younger. Maybe it is because I’ve changed as much as the city, grown more observant, more aware of all the positive characteristics that make it a very livable place for people of all ages. I asked around and perhaps I’m spending time with the wrong crowd but nobody seemed to be at all concerned. The accepted position seems to be that we live in a well-located medium size city where the plusses far outnumber the minuses. The hope is that growth is in the future. Regarding how distant in the future that will be, all predictions are more subjective than factual, and thus are of little value.

Meanwhile, I am trying to decide what caused that dramatic slide. I’m not looking to blame anyone or anything, just wondering if there was some development which was primarily responsible for the change.

It’s easy to blame the weather, but weather is a matter of concern everywhere. Summer heat in places like Florida, the Carolinas, Texas and Arizona is just as much a problem---and maybe greater---than snow and cold in Buffalo. Our snowstorms don’t compare to the hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes that are part of life in other places. However, the omnipresent media has made Buffalo synonymous with winter, and the ease of 24/7 communication has been damaging.

Some people, especially business operators, blame the unions. This was once a true blue collar community, a strong union town, with thousands of members of the United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers in dominant positions, along with Teamsters, construction workers, electrical workers and countless others. They were constantly striving to gain higher wages and improved benefits for their members. They were successful and drove manufacturing costs higher, providing opportunities for non-union operators to grow in other locales. Unions had political influence and were uncompromising. The recent announcement of added production and employment at the GM Tonawanda Engine Plant was heralded as the result of labor-management cooperation. Terrific! We could have used some of that years ago.

The mobility so common in society today has also been detrimental to cities like Buffalo. People don’t feel tied to a community as they did generations ago. Relocating is often tempting. In Buffalo, we have watched many people at both ends of the spectrum packing their bags and moving elsewhere. The aged go to the sunbelt. The young head for fast-growing cities like Houston or Phoenix, each of which gained more citizens since the 2000 census than Buffalo’s total. You read that right: Buffalo’s 2009 total was 270,240. Both Houston and Phoenix each added more than that in the last 10 years.

There is plenty of blame to spread around. Sharing the top of this list are two other groups. The first are the local elected officials who have represented this area over the years. They have always been primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo, keeping their jobs, building their pensions and winning re-election. Had they been perceptive and honestly motivated, they would have done things differently, modernized and merged governments. They recognized that if the city shriveled the surrounding communities would become dreary, listless neighborhoods. Instead of confronting issues that mattered they spent time making a bad situation worse with rhetoric designed to widen the gap between city and suburbs. There have been few serious efforts at conciliation.

The last group? That would be all of us. We watched as the situation changed but we didn’t demand action designed to stem the erosion of our population. Now it’s our job to somehow nurture all the good qualities and await future growth.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

News from Canada's biggest party

By Dick Hirsch

For years I’ve been told that the Canadians really know how to throw a party. I saw occasional evidence of that characteristic years ago with the locals frolicking at beach parties at Sherkston and various other nearby locations, and more recently in the parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium before and after Bills games. I still remember the description of a friend who years ago attended a Grey Cup game with a group of fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He insisted that many of his companions began opening beer bottles with their teeth, a clear indication of their partying experience.

But those fragmentary images reflect only tendencies, not a true party atmosphere. I had never been invited to a Canadian party but that changed this year. I invited myself to Canada Day, the July 1 holiday that marks the formation of modern Canada in 1867. It can best be described as a combination of New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.

Canada Day is celebrated all across the county in towns and cities large and small with parades, music, speeches and fireworks. However, I’m not reporting on a day spent in Welland or St. Catharines, watching the bagpipers and the vets from the local Canadian Legion Post marching down King Street. Those are probably stirring in their own way, but you would get a better glimpse into the hearts and minds of our northern neighbors if you considered a visit to a larger city where both the crowds and the budgets are larger.

Toronto? Montreal? Oh, they probably would be worth the trip, but while I don’t advise against holiday visits there, I’m here to tell you that the place to see the Canadians in action is the nation’s capital, Ottawa. Crowd estimates there ranged from 100,000 on Parliament Hill for one event, to a total of 350,000, including that location as well as two nearby Ottawa parks and another in Gatineau, the Quebec city just across the Ottawa River.

My wife, Lynn, and I were embedded in the crowds surging through the streets, shuffling really, shoulder to shoulder, heading in the general direction of Parliament Hill. We did manage to see the changing of the guard, with the band and the platoon marching smartly, resplendent in their traditional garb; towering black shakos, bright red tunics and black slacks. Red---the brilliant, fire engine variety---is clearly the color of choice. I returned home with a memento, a red T-shirt which I will reserve for certain occasions.

There was little time for talking with strangers but I managed a question or two. I found participants from both Toronto and Montreal who had left their homes and to celebrate in Ottawa.

“Oh, sure, we have Canada Day in Toronto,” the one man said, “but not like here. This is special. This is the place.” In another conversation, a woman from Montreal agreed, saying all Canadians recognize that Ottawa invented and then perfected the observance of Canada Day.

Apparently Queen Elizabeth II thought so, too, because she joined the party, adding a royal flair to the occasion. Did her presence add to the excitement? I’m sure it did, although the newspapers were reporting a study that indicated that 48 percent of all Canadians surveyed really are not much interested in royalty these days. They agreed that the monarchy is “a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today.” Despite that finding it was clear that the 84-year old Queen Elizabeth still has rock star appeal, even to younger attendees. With 58 years on the throne, she is the only Queen older Canadians have ever known.

It has never been simple to discern the differences between Canadians and Americans. We speak the same language, although there are some clues in speech patterns. There are style differences in the clothing. They have always seemed more respectful of authority, more patriotic. They stand very erect when the band plays “Oh Canada,” and when the Queen’s motorcade arrives, they strain to spot the Queen and then wave their greetings, even though they must realize the crowd is too large for her to notice any individuals.

I never planned on seeing the Queen, but as the cavalcade passed I stood on tiptoe and scanned the slow-moving cars. There she was, seated just behind the driver, visible with her red and white hat and white gloves. I waved. She waved back. It was a memorable moment, eh?