The annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation ended in Buffalo last month with rave reviews.
The "closing" event of the conference offered profound insight into the psyche of post-decline Buffalo. Expatriate Lauren Belfer, author of the classic story of Buffalo's finest moment, "City of Light," talked about growing up here in the '60s and never knowing what a great city Buffalo had once been. She and her classmates at Buffalo Seminary couldn't wait to get out of Buffalo and eventually did.
Belfer says that after settling in Manhattan she seldom returned home, but one day 15 years ago, while in town to visit her parents, she spent an afternoon at the Historical Society. The featured exhibit about the Pan-American Exposition changed her life.
Like many Buffalonians, Belfer didn't know that Buffalo was one of the four largest and most important cities in America in 1901. She hadn't learned in school or from her parents that Buffalo had been the Silicon Valley of its day.
Its leaders were forward-thinking risk-takers and innovators who found ways to make the most of Buffalo's location at the nexus of water and rail transportation, and to generate electricity from the massive flow of the Niagara River. Because of that location and mass electrification, Buffalo was the place where new industries launched, where new products were invented, and where the owners and investors in these enterprises were rapidly and extraordinarily enriched.
Buffalo of that era became the only city in America to produce two U.S. presidents, had more millionaires per capita than any city in the world and was known worldwide for its beautiful park system whose designer, world renowned Frederick Law Olmsted, dubbed Buffalo "the world's best-planned city."
A random stop at the museum gave Belfer a completely different perspective on her hometown. After viewing the exhibit, she spent some time reflecting in Delaware Park, and in her ruminations, "City of Light" was born.
The National Trust played a similar role for those of us in Buffalo today. It inspired us with a better, deeper appreciation of the heritage we stand on, pass and enter every day.
We were amazed and gratified to learn that our architectural history is so well-known among those who have devoted their lives to studying such things. Now we have good reason to believe that each of those visitors will spread the word that there is something worth coming to experience in Buffalo. If that occurs, Buffalo will achieve its goal of establishing itself as a premier destination for cultural tourism.
But I hope it doesn't stop there. I hope that Buffalonians will be inspired by Buffalo's history of innovation, invention, risk-taking and enterprise enough to reclaim that role. I hope that Buffalo's position as Queen City of the Lakes will be reclaimed and reinvented in a new role as Queen City of Start-ups.
Buffalo lost sight of its history for a while, as it, along with its Rust Belt sister cities, fell into the decline and depression of the end of the industrial age. As we fell into that morass, our leaders lost touch with the spirit of innovation and optimism that had made Buffalo great in the first place.
But as we have learned from our celebration of the living monuments to Buffalo's past greatness, it was the foresight, drive and boosterism of Buffalo's entrepreneurs that made Buffalo America's greatest inland port, and it was their commitment to creating a great city with great parks, institutions and landmarks, while also creating great companies, that made both the city and its industries the greatest in the world.
We can channel the courage, creativity and vision of those who built this city to repeat the achievement a century later, making the most of the resources and conditions currently existing here to create and market an infrastructure and environment in which the conception and development of all types of innovation happens best in Buffalo. We can bring every new company, every new industry, everyone with a new idea that we can possibly recruit, to re-create our past in 21st century incarnation.
Our company, nxtARROW, was recently launched to create special incentives and support to entice entrepreneurs to launch, relaunch or expand their companies in Buffalo, including free space and services for their first year in the city. It is our vision that Buffalo can again be a national hub of entrepreneurship and our mission to bring it to pass.
But in order to succeed at this, to effect the transformation from the tattered former Queen City of the Lakes to a revitalized Queen City of Start-ups, it will require more vision from our political leaders and more openness to risk and innovation among our business leaders.
Let us hope the recent conference will inject us all, especially our current and future leaders, with a new dose of optimism and imagination to make it so.
John W. Howell is chief executive officer of nxtARROW Business Development Corp. in Buffalo.