Caveat: This post is long and a bit of a ramble. It has a lot of ideas in it that aren’t fully formed and should probably be split into several distinct posts. It’s more of a thought exercise about the role of place in one’s life, which is the focus of a new writing course I’m taking. The point is to get writing and generate ideas without a lot of self-censorship at this point. I’d love to hear thoughts from my readers if anything here resonates with you.
When I was young, I thought Buffalo, NY was the absolute best place in the country to live. Some of the reasons I can remember included:
- bars were open until 4pm
- we had a waterfront (although it was undeveloped at the time)
- we could use Canadian coins interchangeably with American ones
- our shitty beer was Labatt’s, not Budweiser or Miller
As flimsy as these reasons are, at least they were reasons. But I think the primary reason I thought Buffalo was the best place ever was that I’m human and that’s how humans are. We get like routine, habit, and familiarity. We dislike change. And so our brains tell us that where we are is the best there is because if something better were out there worth going after, we’d have to get really uncomfortable trying to attain it. Add the power of American sports culture on top of that, pitting Buffalo against Pittsburgh and Boston and Philadelphia and New York, and our sense of belonging intensifies. It doesn’t matter at all that these rivalries have nothing at all to do with our personal lives and happiness. We begin to believe that we have an unbreakable connection to our incredible, magical place of birth. We scream when the touring rock band or comedian yells our city name from the stage, deluding ourselves into thinking they only do that for us, that they understand this city—our city—is better than all others. Our every day objects (newspapers, drivers licenses, restaurant menus) are branded with our city name, reminding us where we belong and intertwining life with place. We have so many forces feeding into this false idea that we couldn’t be happy somewhere else.
In my 20s, I lived in India, Mexico, South Korea, Honduras, Russia, Spain, Germany, and Australia. I came back to New York certain that my life wasn’t going to be spent in Buffalo. I was going to get my MA and then head back out to another country. There was so much to see and experience, and I wanted it all. However, when I decided on the University of Denver, I was still disturbed by the thought of living somewhere in the United States that wasn’t Buffalo. It felt like a betrayal of my roots. My accidental roots. Yet somehow I put down new roots and I’ve been in Colorado for over a decade.
A few weeks ago, I visited Buffalo for the first time in three years. It was only the third time I had been back since moving to Colorado. The longer you’re away from somewhere, the weaker your ties become and this time, I felt like I was visiting a foreign country. What struck me most was how much pride people have in the city. Every fifth person was wearing a Buffalo city t-shirt, a Buffalo Bills baseball hat, a Buffalo Sabres jacket, or some combination of these. We do the same here—I have Colorado branded clothing, artwork, and assorted memorabilia—but we claim the whole state. Why is that? The answer seems obvious at first. Colorado is about the Rocky Mountains, the 14ers, the fishing, the skiing, the hot springs, the winding roads for motorcycling, the aspens changing color in the fall, the epic snowshoe treks, the ice climbing, the national parks and monuments, the bears and mountains lions and elk, the breweries, all of it. Buffalo sees itself as a region apart from the rest of the state. People there have nothing to do with New York City. But what about the rest of the state? Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes, the gorges of Ithaca, or the Adirondacks?
No, Buffalo is about Buffalo. This is curious to me because Buffalo seems like an awful place to live. Besides the obvious weather issues, there is a lack of jobs, high taxes, corrupt good-old-boy politicians, crumbling infrastructure and streets and sidewalks in deplorable condition, a ridiculous presence along the highways of cops just waiting to hassle drivers and ticket them to fund their pensions, and, at least in my opinion, a general feeling of needing to catch up with the times. But people love it, just like I used to. It’s conditioning. Bread and circus meant to distract from caring about real issues.
I know that’s not the only reason. When you start to put down roots, it’s hard to start over. Giving up the closeness to your family, friends, and professional network is extremely difficult. And sometimes family issues force you stay put, even when you don’t want to. Money is another complicating issue. When you live somewhere that has low wages, it’s hard to save up enough to be able to start over somewhere that has high wages and commensurately high living expenses. I met several people during my trip back home who couldn’t comprehend how I could live somewhere as expensive as Boulder. And there are some people who genuinely want to improve the city, rather than turn their back on it like I did. Thank god for those people. The world needs more of them.
Given these constraints, if you are stuck somewhere, isn’t it better to have a sense of pride in that place, regardless of the logic of the origins of that pride? Isn’t it better to find pleasure in where you are? The simple answer is yes. Why should anyone begrudge someone else of whatever happiness they can find in the world? The complicated answer involves power structures and the power of a tightly controlled media and a lack of intellectual freedom. But delving into those issues isn’t my aim in this post.
My aim is to analyze my own decision-making process. During my trip, I was examining Western New York through the lens of someone who has been indoctrinated into the Colorado lifestyle for the past ten years. The whole time, I kept thinking how vastly superior the Front Range is to Western New York. I recognize the irony in this. I was essentially doing the same thing in regards to Colorado that I am criticizing my younger self here for doing in regards to Western New York. So what makes me feel that I’m right this time around? Colorado has plenty of its own problems. We have corrupt politicians that sell our roadways to private financial interests without allowing for public commentary or vote. We have rabid, foolish sports fanatics. We have plenty of crime. Well, Denver does. Boulder – not so much. We have serious issues with the homeless and mentally ill populations. We have made home ownership nearly impossible for most people and the prices are still climbing. We have horrible traffic.
What about my reasons for loving it? Are they any more substantial than my reasons for loving Buffalo used to be? They include:
- the dry climate that makes for warm, mosquito-less summer nights
- it’s possible to run in 75 degree weather on a winter morning and snowshoe the same day by taking a short ride into the mountains
- the mountains. Colorado is unbelievably beautiful. After three years in Boulder, the Flatirons still make my jaw drop and those are only the beginning of state full of vistas to die for
- we care about the environment and take common sense, simple measures to protect it, like reusable grocery bags
- we have low state taxes that stay low, thanks to TABOR
- most people here are extremely friendly and open and genuine
You can judge for yourself whether these reasons are any better. But regardless, am I just as trapped as I was when I lived in Buffalo? I tried to leave Colorado three years ago and found that all I could do was move from Denver to Boulder. I couldn’t find enough appeal anywhere else in the country to leave. I’m happy I live in Boulder and a lot of good has come my way here, but I don’t want to be “tricked” into staying somewhere because I’ve drunk too much of the kool-aid. Deep down, I don’t believe this is the best ever possible place. I believe that life is what you make of it and that the person I am now will have an amazing time anywhere I live. But whether this awareness will translate into me finally packing up and leaving remains to be seen.