Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ghost City, USA: A road-trip to Buffalo

City Hall

On Sunday, Jamie, Alison and I went to Buffalo, N.Y., for Doors Open Niagara (which included Buffalo as well as both the Canadian & American Niagara regions). I have spent a grand total of 4 days of my life in the U.S. -- a long weekend in New York City -- and that was 10 years ago, so I was excited about an American road-trip. I knew very little about Buffalo except that it's a mid-sized city with some great architecture, making Doors Open an ideal reason to go.

We crossed the border at Niagara Falls with no trouble at all -- the customs officer was actually pleasant to us, which astounded Jamie -- and headed straight for Buffalo. Entering the city, we drove up the Elmwood strip, which I'm told is the closest thing Buffalo has to a hipster neighbourhood. Soap bubbles hovered over an intersection; we saw a man blowing them out of a third-storey window. We waved to him, and he waved back.

We reached downtown quickly -- Buffalo's not big -- and parked near our first destination, the City Hall. We got out & wandered a bit, looking at a remarkably large jazz-age hotel. Something was bothering me from the minute we got out of the car -- something just didn't feel right -- but it took me several minutes to put my finger on it.

"Guys... where is everybody?"

"I noticed that too! I guess it's just quiet downtown, since it's Sunday."

"But it's not just quiet, it's completely deserted."

Once I'd noticed the absence of other people, it seemed stranger by the minute. With the dark, ominous weather, and the massive, stunning old buildings all around us, the effect was like being in a zombie movie -- the beginning of 28 Days Later, maybe -- or one of those old Star Trek episodes where the away team beams down onto a planet covered with the mysteriously abandoned ruins of a once-grand civilization. "Why did these people leave, Captain? Did they find a better world somewhere else? Did something... drive them away?"

The City Hall, above, was fantastic -- it looked like it ought to have Superman standing on top of it, cape flying in the wind -- and it was even more impressive inside. Look at this:


Upstairs, the ornate Council Chamber, with its magnificent sunburst Art Deco stained-glass skylight, was open to the public. And still, there was almost no-one else around. We did see a couple of people in the Chamber, and then a small group at the observation deck right at the top of the central tower, but mostly we poked around on our own, discovering oddities like a glass case displaying President McKinley's death certificate.

Check out the view from the tower!

Two Liberties

Lunch consisted of excellent cheeseburgers and milkshakes at an authentic 1950s diner that had been relocated to Buffalo from somewhere in Pennsylvania; apparently there is an organization in the US dedicated to restoring old diners and moving them to different cities. We drove around a bit more. Outside of the downtown core, there were residential neighbourhoods. They looked very poor, but here we finally saw some people, albeit not very many. All of the people we saw outdoors in Buffalo were African-American, with the exception of a handful of white anti-abortionists who were picketing a women's clinic, and a dude with a huge cross on a chain around his neck and no front teeth, who was standing on a street corner talking on a cellphone.

We checked the Doors Open booklet and decided to have a look at the Buffalo Central Terminal. Now, I remembered hearing from Liz about a fantastic abandoned station somewhere in Buffalo, and seeing her pictures of an all-night art installation/party she went to there, but I wasn't sure this was the same place -- the listing in the booklet didn't say much. So we weren't sure what to expect.

What we found when we got there astonished us: an immense Art Deco structure, covering several city blocks and featuring a 17-storey office tower, all elaborately ornamented and completely derelict. We wandered around the outside of it for awhile, taking a lot of photos and saying "Wow" and "Holy shit" a lot, and then we went inside and were even more impressed.

Way out

The main hall looked like Toronto's Union Station might look a few years after the end of the world. Over the course of the day, the postapocalyptic atmosphere of Buffalo had become almost oppressively intense -- it was starting to get to me -- but this seemed to take it to a kind of gorgeous, melancholy logical conclusion.

And then we went shopping in the suburbs. We hit a Hallowe'en superstore, staffed by hilariously bored-looking teens (smoking cigarettes outside the front door, wearing pirate costumes; slumped melodramatically over the counter inside), and a Wegman's, and a Target -- all the only-in-America places. It was like being in a Rick Moody novel.

I took loads of pictures! Click here!

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Blogger Alan said...

Interesting post Nadia. I've never been to Buffalo, but this makes me want to check it out one day.

I try to regularly check the website of the diner organization you mentioned. They even have diner tours.

12:25 p.m., October 18, 2007  
Blogger Justin said...

I swear I must be having déjà vu. I thought I seen this post earlier this spring.

Anyway if you’re looking to find people in Buffalo go to the Elmwood, Delaware Strip. There isn’t much to do downtown, unless you’re going to the bars and clubs.


7:29 p.m., October 24, 2007  
Anonymous Nathan said...

I live in Buffalo I love this city. You really have to visit it to experience it I'm glad you enjoyed your trip to this lovely city of good neighbors. Its a very cultural and vibrant city with a great historical background. Theres some good videos about it on youtube.

4:12 p.m., January 30, 2008  
Blogger Nadia said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. I did really like visiting Buffalo, although the deserted downtown core kind of weirded me out. Next time I'll definitely check out Elmwood -- a few people have told me it's the place to go.

5:45 p.m., January 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:47 p.m., September 28, 2008  
Blogger Parnass said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:34 a.m., August 23, 2010  
Anonymous Brady Cartee said...

It's natural to be excited for a trip to a place you haven't been to for many years now. Whenever my friends and I go on a road trip to a new place, the excitement never leaves our body, and it's electrifying!

2:17 a.m., April 19, 2011  

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