Tonawanda News

December 21, 2011

BOOK NOOK: A complicated relationship with our hometown, in quotes

By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News

— — As we all remember from fourth grade, owning property out here goes back to the Holland Land Company. So does making remarks about the area.

The residents of the City of Buffalo, who have historically ridden economic and social tides like a roller coaster, are never at a loss for opinion about themselves or their hometown. Neither have visitors, out-of-towners or passers-through, and about 200 of them are immortalized in “Quotable Buffalo: the Most Marvelous and Maddening Things Ever Said About the Queen City,” a small but densely packed little book that, like the city that inspired it, holds more adventure, mystery, comedy, laughter and tears than one might expect.

Anyone can slap a little book together, full of quotes and wisecracks. This is better than that, and with a higher calling.

Compiled by Cynthia Van Ness, librarian and archivist at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, it is more a walk backward in time to indicate loving Buffalo and simultaneously hating it seems to be a part of the municipal fabric. When a man loves a woman he loves her faults as well, and so it is when this old town is considered — what it offers, what it lacks.

The layout and format of the book — one quote per page and bold type in a paperback book only slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes — scream “novelty item” or “holiday stocking-stuffer.” No, this is a heavily researched trip through manuscripts, blogs, newspapers, books and other media delivery systems to find a breathtaking assortment of comments about Buffalo. In that sense it is a brilliantly produced collection of anecdotes and observations.

The usual suspects are here: Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland, Jimmy Griffin and his suggestion about a six-pack. So are Oscar Madison of television’s “Odd Couple” (“Wow. Eight bowling alleys on one block,”) Leslie Fiedler and Bill Clinton (“I love the people there ... they show such loyalty to the community”).

Architecture critics, short-stay authors, Buffalo lifers, sports opinionators, Jack London (who was briefly jailed here) and Aretha Franklin all had something to say about this place, its cuisine, its weather, its people’s way of doing things, and Van Ness’ little book deftly captures the spirit of the compliment, the affront or the comment.

The world’s more interesting cities bring that out in people. A book of quotes about London or Las Vegas would be filled with similar love letters or hate notes, especially if the author takes the energy to provide historical context. I can envision academic scholars using this small but brilliant book about Buffalo as research material; so will “morning zoo” radio personnel.

This book is very, very good at what it does. The author did some serious digging to mine a deep trove of opinion on a wealth of topics pertinent to Buffalo, and delivered.

It is not a back-handed compliment to suggest this book of quotes could have been much, much worse. If a multi-disciplinary attempt to fathom why a few days, or a lifetime, in Buffalo has such an impact on a person, this would be the history department’s analysis.  

There is a retrograde industry in Buffalo these days, of games, toys, books, apparel, etched beer glasses and the like, offering products that reinforce the thought we live someplace special, that each person here influenced the city’s development and that the city has in turn influenced us.

“Quotable Buffalo” is a high-end continuation of that theme of nostalgia, but with a twist: its serious and comprehensive nature. Yes, it is a weaving of juicy comments about Buffalo, beginning in the 18th century. It’s also an excellent reminder that, if you love this place and hate it at the same time, you’re a part of a long line of commentators. Imagine living in a city that inspires no opinion at all.

Ed Adamczyk is the Village Historian of Kenmore. Contact him at EdinKenmore