Sunday, July 20, 2003

Shuffle No More

Buffalo -- yes, Buffalo -- is now walking proud as a hip center of arts
and performances. Plus, it's a cheap flight.

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2003; Page C02

The gumbo was thick and delicious. The kind my grandmother would make,
if only she could afford to stock it with so much sausage and shrimp.

And where was this enticing bowl of gumbo? Buffalo -- a much-maligned
city about 1,300 miles from my Louisiana home town that I never thought
I'd have any reason to be in. Maybe I feared getting snowed in, even in
July. Which sounds silly, yes -- but I had heard rumors.

I was on my way back from Toronto, which I visit a lot because my
boyfriend lives there. I fly to Buffalo, then take a bus to downtown
Toronto, a "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" scheme that sometimes saves
me hundreds of dollars. In this case, on my way back to Washington, it
also gave me about four hours to entertain myself . . . in Buffalo.
(Which by the way isn't named after the shaggy beast. The city's name
comes courtesy of early French explorers, who fittingly dubbed the
Niagara "Beau Fleuve," or beautiful river.)

I left the bus station and headed toward the tall buildings. My first
impression of Buffalo: inspiring architecture. Well, except the public
library, for which the designers should issue a public apology. For
penance, they should have to build three more like the gorgeous art deco
City Hall.

A five-minute walk led me to Main Street and the theater district. The
light rail runs along Main, and it appears to carry more traffic than
the cars.

Sadly, the majority of the retail space on the bottom floors of those
grand multistory buildings, mostly home to banks and international
investment concerns, is empty. It was 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon,
and the place was dead. I headed into the only spot that was open,
taking a seat at the bar of the Ya Ya Bayou Brewhouse. While I enjoyed
my gumbo, a mammoth muffuletta and several pints of locally brewed beer,
the restaurant began to fill up.

Students and professors from the University at Buffalo streamed in. To
my right, three grant writers discussed strategies for funding a theater
project. Behind me, a professor vented his frustrations with plagiarism
in the Internet Age. It was a lively crowd. I stepped out on Main Street
at about 6 o'clock to see hundreds of people milling around, queuing up
for shows at one of the half-dozen or so theaters within those few

Full of good food and probably a little too much beer, I was smitten
with Buffalo.

A few weeks later, I returned. This time, just for Buffalo. No side
trips to Toronto, or even Niagara Falls, which is only a half-hour away
by bus or car. I stayed at the Hyatt downtown and vowed to see the city
by rail and foot. I didn't bother asking any of the dozens of people I
know who grew up in Upstate New York where I should go. They all claim
to hate Buffalo. Asking that bunch of Buffalo-bashers for guidance would
be like asking your new boyfriend's ex-wife how he likes to spend Sunday
afternoons. I would learn about Buffalo on my own -- or at least take
advice only from people who lived there.

My first stop was the brew pub I visited before. The bartender, Johnny,
remembered me. See, this is what I like in a town. I thumbed through
ArtVoice, the city's free weekly, looking for a way to fill the hours
before the Steve Earle concert that night, the only part of my trip I
had planned in advance.

It didn't take long. Carol Adams was in town, hosting a book signing at
Talking Leaves, an indie bookworm's dream near UB's north campus. About
10 people gathered to meet the influential ecofeminist writer, who had
just published "The Pornography of Meat." While Adams's writing is not
the sort of stuff I'd generally choose for vacation reading, I couldn't
pass up a chance to meet her: This was a fairly rare public appearance.
Adams, who now lives in Dallas, grew up near Buffalo and had scheduled
the discussion during a visit home. I hopped the quick, cheap light rail
back to the theater district just in time to run upstairs and catch the
first notes of the Earle show at the Tralf, one of the city's many
venues for live music.

I'd seen Earle play roughly a half-dozen times, mostly in Washington,
but I'd never seen him greeted by such an enthusiastic crowd. Indeed,
when he sang about being "a union man" in "Harlan Man," the mostly
blue-collar male audience broke into cheers.

Other than alt-country, the only other thing I really need to be happy
is coffee. I found it the next morning at Spot Coffee on Delaware, a
couple of blocks from my hotel. The little chain serves as western New
York's Starbucks. And I'd say they make a better _mocha. Properly
caffeinated, I headed out, following a map a helpful Talking Leaves
clerk drew for me.

I walked 10 minutes to Allentown, a funky neighborhood that reminded me
of a quieter version of Philadelphia's South Street. Need a tattoo? A
secondhand copy of Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch"? A place to test
your new earplugs on screeching punk rock? This is it.

I spent most of the morning wandering in and out of the eclectic shops
along Allen Street, including the very hip, very helpful Rust Belt

Elmwood Avenue, which also runs through Allentown, is home to many of
the city's galleries and upscale shops. I ducked into Uncommon Grounds
for a healthy lunch (no Buffalo wings!) and spent the afternoon moseying
up the avenue, mostly window shopping.

After doing some real shopping at Don Apparel, a vintage clothing store,
I headed back downtown to meet my boyfriend at the bus station and pick
up our last-minute theater tickets. Pre-show, we filled our wing
consumption quota at Hemingway's and sipped wine at Bacchus, a new tapas
bar that seems a little too slick (and expensive) for comfortably shabby
Chippewa Street.

"The Full Monty" at Shea's Performing Arts Center was top-notch. The
movie, about unemployed English steelworkers who turn to stripping, was
reset in Buffalo in Terrence McNally's American stage version.

The audience was filled with college students, facetiously bored
teenagers and blue-haired ladies (one of whom unironically made a snide
remark about my own hair, which was dyed pink). They all cheered wildly
at the play's finale, chanting "Buffalo boys go all the way!," goading
the male actors to the play's, um, revealing conclusion.

The real star, though, was Shea's itself. The interior, dating back to
1926 and designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, is breathtaking. Nonprofit
efforts to restore the theater to its former glory, including
refurbishing the 15-foot Tiffany crystal chandeliers, are impressive.

After the show, we joined the other theater patrons spilling into the
bars on Chippewa Street. We found one with an Irish name on the sign,
bad '80s music piped through the speakers and cheap drafts at the bar.
The perfect end to my visit.

So it turns out that Buffalo's got more than piles of snow and spicy
chicken wings. It also has character and spunk, plus four Frank Lloyd
Wright houses and a park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, which
I didn't have time to visit.

I'm already planning my next layover.