Savanna Heller, 16, flew here from New Orleans, and spent a day stuck in a Chicago airport after missing a connecting flight. Sarah Jorge, 17, took the weekend off from her cashiering job in Brooklyn to drive here with two friends. And Sara Anthony, 17, dropped her plans in Rochester to come here after she finally found a ticket online a few days ago, for a price that she would not disclose.
These were just a few of the victory stories found among the 19,000 people who waited outside the First Niagara Center for an hour or two, or maybe more, for what will surely be Buffalo’s biggest concert of the year: Justin Bieber.
But even if everyone didn’t have some heroic story of traveling far or snagging last minute tickets, the air of Bieber Fever was infectious on the 90-degree afternoon. When Bieber last came to Buffalo, in 2010, it was the ultimate tease: He played to less than 1,000 people in the Riviera Theatre for a student charity concert. For this visit – part of his worldwide “Believe Tour” – the floodgates finally opened. Be proud, Buffalo: This city is burgeoning with Beliebers.
The last few years of urban development and Canalside resurgence pale in comparison to the effects that Bieber’s sold-out show had on downtown Buffalo. The arena’s doors opened at 6 p.m. and the show was scheduled for 7, but by 5, the line already stretched outside the First Niagara Center, through the Cobblestone District and well past the police cars parked behind the building. Dozens of new fans arrived every minute, usually getting dropped off by parents, some of whom knew better than to try finding a parking spot. The line was a wave of pink, purple and black Bieber T-shirts, many of them homemade with glitter and markers. Hundreds of fans also made their own shiny signs, which blindingly brandished declarations of Bieber love: “Where Would We Be If Justin Didn’t Believe?,” “Beliebers Stand United,” “Never Say Never, Forever!”
One of the luckiest fans was 18-year-old Sara McNeil, who, along with several friends, was the first person outside the arena doors. McNeil came downtown around 1 p.m. and had been at the First Niagara Center since 3:30. She hadn’t eaten anything or gone to the bathroom since then, although she confessed a growing need to do both. But as she sat on the ground with her friends, conserving their energy, she was undeterred by the wait.
“It’s worth it,” she said, stone-faced. When asked what she liked about the Canadian superstar, she immediately answered, “Him.”
Everything about him?
“Everything,” she assured.
Save for a few outliers, the crowd could be broken into three groups: Pre-teen girls, teen girls and pre-teen or teen girls with parents. When the young Beliebers were asked what they would do upon finally seeing Bieber in person, most had the same reflexive answer: cry.
Even so, the scene was best described as controlled, or at least infrequent, hysteria, with most Beliebers from Buffalo and elsewhere quietly beaming as they waited for the show. The only true pandemonium was behind the arena, where hundreds of fans clustered near the back entrance, chanting the teen idol’s name and screaming every time someone, anyone, emerged. They had their iPhones ready; some of them scaled the shaky barricades for a better view; and no one paid attention to the overwhelmed security guards, but Bieber – perhaps with public safety in mind – never showed. A nearby police officer said that Bieber at one point materialized for about 20 seconds, riding a Segway and waving, but he hadn’t returned since. The officer didn’t expect him to.
“They’ll still be here anyway,” he said, keeping an eye on the crowd.
For a few people, though, the concert was about more than a teenage crush. Lisa Schnick, 52, was spotted in a homemade shirt that proclaimed, “Canadian Moms Love Justin,” under the Canadian flag. She came here with her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, from St. Ann’s, Ont. For the Schnicks, the Bieber concert was a matter of national pride.
“I’m proud of him as a Canadian parent,” Lisa said. “It’s incredible to see someone from where we’re from come so far.”
Grant Gilbert, 40, was one of the less enthusiastic parents. He accompanied his 16-year-old daughter, Ivy Marie, and her 17-year-old friend, Jazmine Hernandez, and even held their hot pink sign, which declared: “Seeing Justin Bieber, my life is complete.” The girls had no problem rationalizing their hour-long wait.
“He’s perfect,” Ivy Marie said, her eyes widening as she spoke about Bieber. “His voice, his eyes, his face – there’s no way to explain it.”
Gilbert, when asked for a comment, thought for a moment, and then replied, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”