For one person, the city is a dying star, burning off the final fumes of its former brilliance. For another, it is a lethargic phoenix, rising gradually out of a half-century of industrial soot. For still others it is a living laboratory, a place where the failures of 20th century capitalism might be reorganized into a 21st century communitarian ideal.
None of these people are exactly right or exactly wrong. But to even come close to understanding a city as complex as Buffalo, it's necessary to become acquainted with as many of these individual viewpoints as possible. And that's where the new book “Ineffably Urban: Imagining Buffalo,” an extraordinary collection of essays on the city by 14 artists and thinkers, comes in.
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center (341 Delaware Ave.) will host a launch party for the project at 7 p.m. Thursday. The central conceit of the book, edited by University at Buffalo professor Miriam Paeslack and released in December by the U.K.-based publishing company Ashgate, is a simple and obvious one: That Buffalo's urban fabric is “ineffable,” which is to say difficult if not impossible to accurately describe in words or to capture in a single narrative. This is also the organizing philosophy behind recent city-books such as Rebecca Solnit's excellent map-based projects “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” and “Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas,” both of which, like “Ineffably Urban,” owe a debt to “Invisible Cities,” Italo Calvino's 1974 paean to the urban imagination.
Cities as small as Lockport or as large as Los Angeles are inexhaustible, unknowable places. Most citizens know this inherently – we can't personally meet 261,310 people or visit 112,144 households – however we may cling to or repeat the simplest or most comforting narratives about the place we call home. But it does help to be reminded from time to time.
For Paeslack, a specialist in the history of photography who was born in Germany and moved to Buffalo in 2009, the book project emerged from a personal desire to understand her adopted city.
“I was struck by the way that people talked about Buffalo. When we decided to move here, there was a very one-dimensional way of addressing Buffalo, and it was mostly talking about the glorious history of Buffalo or about the desolate state of Buffalo today,” she said. “That made me actually more curious about what Buffalo was really about.”
That curiosity led her to people like Dennis Maher, the Buffalo architect whose house on Fargo Avenue is nothing less than the headquarters for a quixotic movement to will a new city into existence by the sheer force of the human imagination. And to artists such as J-M Reed and Julian Montague, whose work deals with the shrinking footprint of the city and the new landscape that is emerging in place of buildings that have burned down or slowly returned to nature.
The book opens with a clear-eyed essay from architecture writer Jeff Byles of New York City's Van Alen Institute on the unexpected value that can be found in the rubble and empty spaces left by decades of decline. “In Buffalo,” he writes, “rubble gives life to new forms of urban action. Failure here has a freshness, an authenticity, an integrity that few American cities can match. The next generation of urban visionaries and scribes would do well to visit.”
As if to prove that point in the book's most starry-eyed essay, Aaron Bartley of the advocacy organization PUSH Buffalo dreams out loud about the potential for a new, sustainable city to arise from its oversupply of vacant lots and proximity to major waterways. Indeed, Bartley describes how the seeds of that dream have already been planted, in urban farms on the East Side and efforts like the Massachusetts Avenue Project, and makes a good argument that we should all work together to water them.
Art historian Peter Bacon Hales, in his beautifully written consideration of the way Buffalo has presented itself in photographs over the past century, plants some subversive ideas in our heads. Foremost of these is his theory that Olmsted and Vaux's acclaimed parks and avenues were constructed as beautiful smokescreens that enabled Buffalo's titans of industry to “siphon off class resentment” and promote a supposedly egalitarian notion of the city while reaping enormous profits and inflicting massive environmental damage.
Hales also neatly breaks down the convenient ways of thinking about Buffalo in 2014: “Multiple presents require multiple histories, each contesting with the other,” he writes. “The nostalgist writes a history of decline, from a golden past to a degraded present. The enthusiast sets the present as pinnacle, leaving unspoken the implication that decline must necessarily follow. The booster declares greatness just arriving: the angelic choir is descending; though the clouds obscure our view, we can hear the dim harmonies and join our voices to theirs.”
These are all easy stories to tell and to repeat, and each one contains some grain of truth. “Imagining Buffalo” includes bits and pieces of each one. But its great and enduring value is in its inclusion of more nuanced reactions to those simple stories, each one beautifully flawed in its own way, and its insistence on encouraging readers to think in more critical and complex ways about this critical and complex place.