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Buffalo is an Island

October 20, 2013
by Garrett Fisher

There is no question: I am a tried and true Buffalo, NY native – having lived in just about every flavor of lifestyle in the Buffalo area: the farmlands of Wyoming County, East Aurora, and Buffalo itself. My family traveled a decent amount  – participating in activities that allow for a rare comprehensive glimpse into other ways of living: extended trips with the grandparents in Florida, long vacations on the coast of North Carolina, non-profit work in the farms of the Midwest. My parents frequented international travel: Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. After graduating high school, I took off for 3 months in South America. Yet, Buffalo was not only home – it was the center of the universe. Not Florida, the Atlantic, North Dakota, or Ecuador could shake that Buffalo was the center of the world and the universe.

Naturally, growing up somewhere, that’s what happens. It’s the world I knew and I thought the rest of the world saw it that way. Only in Buffalo were there no natural disasters. Everywhere but Buffalo was unbearably hot. Only Buffalo had reliable, consistent water supply. We had the Great Lakes – wars would be fought over our resources! Some even said it was “one of the most beautiful places on earth.” New York was the only progressive, civilized state in the Union. Everyone south of there spoke with a lack of sophistication, to say the least.

When I was 23, my wife and I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. There were many surprises as we quickly learned how different one place in the United States is from another. Put simply: why don’t they do things like they do in Buffalo?

The biggest thing we realized was the interconnected nature of the Southeast. People visit family 2.5 hours away for the weekend. They date someone 4 hours away in Atlanta. Their sales territory spans states – and they drive the entire territory in one day. When it snowed, we drove 3 hours each way to ski – in the same day. I asked my wife “Why didn’t we ever drive to Vermont so ski? It was only 5 hours away. What’s a weekend ski trip?” Her reply: “Um…. People don’t have reliable transportation…. And don’t forget about lake effect snow.”

Many years went by – and countless drives to and from NY and NC to visit family took place. Reality set in when I flew an antique airplane up from NC to the Buffalo region. I passed east of Bradford, PA. What I saw opened my eyes to a whole new perspective of what I previously thought to be the center of the universe – a personal Copernican Revolution.

On the region from Bradford, PA to about 100 miles east – there is nothing. When I say nothing – I mean that I was not concerned about engine failure and a forced landing in the woods, I was spotting where I would walk to afterwards for fear of dying of exposure in the wild. Houses were 10 miles apart. There was no civilization, period – just woods and fracking wells. Nothing between US 219 and US 15 except backcountry roads – and there is no reason to know it. Nothing takes ordinary people there to realize it. If someone drives around wilderness and never through it, how would they know it is there (unless they are geo-spatially gifted)?

As I was flying over this wilderness expanse, it hit me: “Buffalo is an island.” To the west of WNY lies Lake Erie – one of the Great Lakes and an international border. The Niagara River comprises the Canadian border. While it’s a friendly border, lets be realistic, the lines are long, customs agent’s questions intrusive and there is no reason to go to Fort Erie, St. Catharines or much of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Barring a romantic getaway to Niagara on the Lake, Toronto is it – a 90-minute drive – so it’s a weekend getaway, not another shopping mall. Many of my family members don’t even have passports that live in WNY.

North of WNY is Lake Ontario – another epic body of water with no ferry service and also is an international border. East of WNY lies about 15 long north-south lakes with no bridges over them. Between Rochester and Syracuse lies lake effect snow for 6 months per year- as does lake effect guard the exit down I-90 west toward PA (along with enigmatic, sovereign natives). There are 3 US-based highways out of Buffalo and two get blasted with snow. Buffalo is an island.

It goes deeper than that. Within 90 minutes of Buffalo, residents have just about everything they need for a reasonable getaway. Three wine regions, the 5th largest city in North America, a wonder of the world, another country, water on all sides, skiing and an abundance of parks. What lies 2, 2.5, 3 hours away is less interesting than what is in a 90 minute radius (Cleveland, Erie, Pittsburgh, Syracuse –why bother? There’s nothing there that justifies the drive).  To get a reasonable reward to drive more than 90 minutes, one has to go to the Adirondacks, Vermont or NYC. Beyond that – it’s a drive to Myrtle Beach or Florida.  Buffalo is an island.

Even more so – being the weather nut that I am, I had to analyze the weather on my many drives from NC. I found that, for a good portion of the year, the negative weather Buffalo endures goes all the way down to the WV/VA border. Out of a 10-hour drive, 7.5 of it tended to be dreary, rainy, or snowy. A vast change happened over 50 miles in Virginia. To get a change of pace during the late fall, winter, and early spring, one had to drive almost 10 hours – definitely a limiting factor. Couple that with the reality that everything between 1.5 hours and 7 is pointless – and we see a bubble closing in.

Islands are both good and bad. People pay exorbitant sums to vacation on islands. The getaway is wonderful. For those that live on an island – sometimes they just need to get out. “Island mentality” sets in – and it can drive people batty with cabin fever. So is Buffalo the kind of island to vacation to or to occasionally escape? That depends on the person.

Toronto makes an interesting case regarding the island theory. One could say that they are boxed in on three sides – Great Lakes and a border west, southwest, south and southeast – with artic emptiness and lack of infrastructure to the north. One could even claim that the presence of Quebec to the east is a wall in and of itself. Nonetheless, Toronto and Buffalo had similar population in 1950 (580k for Buffalo, 675k for Toronto). Same weather. Similar geography. Similar advantages and disadvantages.  Six decades later – and Toronto is the 5th largest city in North America and incomprehensibly an economic powerhouse. They have an airport that gives them the world with so many flights that it makes Buffalo-Niagara International Airport look like a remote control airpark. The same Lake Ontario that creates a wall for WNY is a massive shipping lane for Ontario provincial ports.

Some would howl “Does anyone want 5 million people in Erie County?” to which I note that often locals on islands complain that there are too many visitors and they all should just go away.

A question any Buffalonian owes him or herself to ask is “How well is this island concept working?” A wonder of the world, the largest freshwater supplies in the world, membership in a powerful state, amazing educational institutions and Buffalo is the 6th most segregated city in the nation and 19rd highest GDP production per capita in the world (coupled with being the 3rd poorest city in America – that means that Buffalonians don’t know how to negotiate). I spent a good portion of my late youth and early adulthood searching for why the “City of the future” (in 1900) – a shining metropolitan area with a history of accomplishments too long to mention – lay so hopelessly in comparative ruins. It must be NY state, lake effect snow, unions, politicians, evil companies…….. and I came to the slow realization: we are in control of our own destiny. Buffalo is in the condition it is in due to the decisions of the people that live there. Its future likewise is in the hands of its residents – who can choose if they live in an island out of convenience – or be connected with the globe.

Garrett Fisher is a Buffalo native that lives just shy of 10,000ft in a place colder and snowier than any part of Western New York: Breckenridge, CO. He is the author of The Human Theory of Everything and the Executive Director of the Institute for Economic Innovation.

6th most segregated city:

19th highest per capita GDP, 3rd poorest city:

Buffalo Population:

Toronto Population: