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Intellectuals and Community

Buffalo’s identity opportunity, again

When the late Wayne Chambless came to Buffalo in 1960 to study English literature, he was leaving the segregated South for one of the triumphantly progressive places of America. Buffalo was then the home of a great new public university. The already-renowned art gallery was being expanded. The great public library system—home to the most significant Mark Twain manuscripts, especially Chambless’s favorite, Huckleberry Finn—was just opening its new downtown headquarters. The old Normal School had blossomed into the State Teacher’s College, with many new structures and a magnificent library and art collection of its own.

The Saint Lawrence Seaway had recently opened, and hopes were still high that it would make of Buffalo a bigger port connecting Europe to the Great Lakes interior. Bethlehem Steel had expanded and would again. Bell Aerosystems was testing promising technologies as diverse as hovercraft and rocket-packs.

And intellectuals and intellectuals-in-training were being drawn here from places too broken to house them, including the American South and post-revolutionary Hungary, but also from world capitols, too. It was in the early and mid 1960s when the great flowering of Buffalo as an international center of science, technology, music, literature, and fine arts occurred with the inputs of many transients but also from people who came and stayed. It was also then that Ralph Wilson’s football franchise made of Buffalo a major league city, as would the National Hockey League expansion almost a decade later.

One of the important features of the Buffalo landscape was an obscure private school founded by emigres and initially supported by them. The Calasanctius Preparatory School was a hard-to-categorize place: not a “blue jacket” prep school, neither was it a diocesan Catholic school, though it was organized, run, and largely staffed by priests. It was founded the year Sputnik went up. Its focus on academic rigor embodied one strand of the new zeitgeist that Buffalo-born historian Richard Hofstadter described in his Anti-intellectualism in America—namely, a new willingness to embrace learning, academic rigor, inquiry, or simply sheer brain-power as assets rather than detriments for the new age.

Intertwined fates

The promise that was Buffalo in 1960 was never quite fulfilled largely because a new, finance-centered version of capitalism stripped the regional economy of heavy industry, even while local elites’ antipathy and indifference to the then-new State University thwarted well-reasoned efforts to make of SUNY the next industrial center.

Buffalo was a good place to be after the Soviet Union’s rocket scientists successfully launched Sputnik in 1957. Some significant pieces of the defense industry still remained here, even after the airplane factories left due to labor actions and organized crime problems. A major New York State commitment to a new university center here had transformed the small but well-regarded University of Buffalo into a version of a Big 10 or PAC 10 land-grant university.

But there was a critical tension here, just like everywhere else in America: between intellectuals and the business class. Historian and John F. Kennedy speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s observed that “Anti-intellectualism…has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman.” In Buffalo, anti-Semitism was a critical factor in keeping town and gown from melding.

The large presence of New York City kids at the now-public UB gave the Buffalo vernacular epithet “Jew B” a widely accepted descriptor even as it drove a wedge. The town and the gown went their separate ways, spatially and spiritually. Late UB President Bill Greiner and his former UB Law School colleague Tom Hedrick wrote a little book about how UB had never had a chance at becoming the centrally located urban university that has been the norm of successful cities for about the past 800 years or so. Informal historians recite the allegedly notorious anti-Semitism of a former leader of a daily newspaper, and the anti-intellectualism of at least one scion of a great Buffalo commercial fortune, as key determinants of siting the fourth of New York State’s university centers in Amherst, rather than next to the old central business district.

The university’s cultural divide from the business elite was strange here, given the Buffalo business elite’s simultaneous devotion to contemporary art and to new orchestral music. And in the early 1960s, until the university actually moved to Amherst starting in the mid- and late-1970s, it was the city, especially the Elmwood Avenue corridor and Parkside that was the home of region’s university culture and community.

Many famous intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, writers like Dwight MacDonald, John Barth, Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Abel, Raymond Federman, even Allen Ginsburg, plus musicians and filmmakers and painters, both hosted and showed up at parties west of Main Street. Ditto the many scientists attracted by state money to conduct research and practice medicine here. Graduate students liked the cheap housing on the West Side, and mingled with locals in the Allentown and Elmwood bars. Young faculty from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other large cities liked the density of their peers in that part of town. And for the more mature European and Asian faculty, whether refugees or happy immigrants, the question was often enough simply this: Where can we send our children to school? For decades, the answer was Calasanctius.

Faculty brats were the core of the student body of Calasanctius. Volunteers and part-timers from UB and from Roswell Park did a lot of teaching, which encouraged more faculty support and engagement. The school admitted girls long before the private schools did, and was co-educational while the elite Catholic schools remain gender-segregated. Educated people wanted faculty credentialed like them, and rigorous like them. Wayne Chambless was the main American among the largely European faculty at the school. He dressed like Esquire, drawled like Faulkner, quipped like Mencken, smoked like Lucifer, and graded the way Bela Karolyi coached Nadia Comaneci: as if nothing short of utter mastery was expected because, with focus and discipline, mastery was indeed achievable. His students went Ivy not because their blueblood parents or grandparents paid the way but because their high-achieving parents got help from the unapologetic intellectuals who worked their adolescents’ butts off.

But when the Milliken decision came down from the US Supreme Court in 1974, and Judge Curtin’s Buffalo desegregation decision followed in 1976, and the magnet school system was cobbled together in an effort to give Buffalo’s middle class a plausible rationale for staying rather than fleeing to the suburbs, Calasanctius was dealt a blow. Faculty parents wouldn’t have to pay tuition at a public school. When City Honors was formed, Calasanctius lost its core constituency. The school’s census gradually dwindled. The founder generation passed on and was replaced by well-meaning, traditional prep school managers who didn’t comprehend the ethos of academic rigor that was plausible during the Kennedy New Frontier years.

Cycles of history

Now the old American pendulum has swung, a bit, again: A lecturer in (if not a professor of) constitutional law is in the White House, and Buffalo’s business class makes money from, and hopes to make even more money from, the State University.

But the world is much changed from 1960: The steelmakers are long gone, the second floor of the downtown library is closed, the defense industry has largely left the region, the polyglot slice of Habsburg Galicia or Krakow that was old Richard Hofstadter’s boyhood Broadway-Fillmore is reduced to the two congregations and two springtime holidays.

The Bills are still here, though, and at the moment—again—the public investment in spectator sports remains untouchable, overshadowing public support for the arts and for cultural institutions.

Unionized teachers are under bipartisan political assault even as City Honors, the functional successor to Calasanctius, motors along. Like Calasanctius students from the 1950s to its closing in 1991, many City Honors grads succeed brilliantly. They go to highly competitive colleges and graduate schools, and just like their Calasanctius predecessors, most don’t return. It is a matter of family economics: Unlike the elite private and parochial school networks, there were few if any Calasanctius family auto businesses, manufacturing companies, department stores, or other enduring structures of the business class. Faculty are salarymen. Physicians and attorneys rarely offer their progeny any employment opportunities. Calasanctius educated Buffalo children who went on to become inventors, academicians, corporate executives, attorneys, physicians, and what-all, elsewhere. This is again the case with City Honors, many of whose students come from even less well-heeled homes. Without mentioning either school by name, Harvard economist Ed Glaeser makes this point about the paradox of great educational institutions in failing cities: educational success benefits the nation, but not often the homefolks.

Until the students have a draw to bring them home, it is the teachers who keep the ecology going. Economists who appreciate the enduring relevance of what they call the “agglomeration effect,” which is all about the uncanny power of clustering diverse enterprises, talents, tastes, and demands in small spaces, note the resilience of cities where the students, faculty, support staff, and hangers-on of universities are ever present to refresh and reinvigorate the host community. It is a matter of physical adjacency: Proponents of the medical corridor are absolutely correct about that much—but while there is plenty of talk about building a brand-new stadium for the Buffalo Bills downtown, there is zero talk about using the Buffalo billion to put the entire university downtown. In the Rust Belt university towns Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Rochester, Syracuse, and Milwaukee, where there are downtown campuses, the town and the gown overlap much more creatively, with much greater economic impact. Population stabilization has been achieved in Rochester and Pittsburgh; further population erosion is forestalled where universities are sited. In Buffalo, population continues to nosedive. The numbers for the region are also negative: Erie County will dip below 900,000 by 2020, the year that the Buffalo Bills have the option to leave.

But because Buffalo was once a national and international draw for intellectuals, back in the days when our University was reinvigorated with Southerners, New Yorkers, refugees, scientists, and artists, their presence reinforced a progressive community identity. Our intellectuals were once neighborhood figures, which is a way of saying that they were part of the self-reinforcing context of the community. There was once a well-dressed, persistently drawling expert on inculcating literary precision in unruly teenagers, a teacher who often explained that Buffalo was his true home, not burgeoning, low-tax Tennessee, because here, unlike there, literacy, critical intelligence, and sexual tolerance were actually respected. May it ever be so.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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