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Alex Bitterman

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

Alex Bitterman is a big fan of Buffalo. Perhaps that’s why the cover of his recently published book, Buffalo Is a Cool Place to Live, features a fan. Or maybe not. This is the first book by the 34-year-old Williamsville native. The idea came out of a thesis project and a deep love for the city. Bitterman spent a year interviewing past and present Buffalonians (and perhaps some future Buffalonians, too) on the phone and via email about their memories in, and perceptions of, Buffalo, and taking photographs of architectural details around the city. The end result is a polished book that gives the reader a true sense of our city, the good and the bad included. He lets the interviewees speak for themselves. While most of what’s in there we already know, Buffalo Is a Cool Place… serves as a sort of people’s history of Buffalo, and it also serves as a wakeup call to those of us who are still dragging our heels about yesterday’s failures. Like this article, Bitterman’s book began with a bad pun. AV caught up with Bitterman last week for a quick Q+A over coffee.

Tell me about yourself and your Buffalo experience. I grew up here. I’m sort of a lifelong Buffalonian. Though I teach in Rochester, I still consider myself to be a Buffalonian. I think it’s a great city that has great vitality and great energy. So even though we get a little bit of snow during winter that makes it a far cooler place to live than a lot of other places.

A little pun there, huh? Yeah, that’s where the title of the book comes from, that pun. I think it’s an awesome place to live.

How did you conceive of this book project? It’s interesting, I went to architecture school here in Buffalo. I taught at University of Buffalo for a short while after that, as well as at Buff State. And one of the things I like to do is take very specific photographs of architectural details around the city. And I’d be down on Niagara Street, or wherever they’re knocking down or putting up a new building. Inevitably, people would yell at me for taking photographs or approach me and ask why I was taking them, and we’d get into a conversation. We’d ultimately wind up talking about why Buffalo is such a great city, why it’s such a cool place to live. The stories and anecdotes that evolved from those interactions made me think to myself, “Somebody’s got to write these down.” So part of my PhD was to work on this project, and I thought, “Hell, if I’m going to spend my time doing this project it’s going to be something tangible and publishable but which can also help my tenure track at RIT.” So that’s the genesis of the book.

What surprised you most about people’s responses? The consistency, actually. I had expected folks to sort of mention chicken wings and the Buffalo Bills, and that came up in most of interviews. But, in large part what surprised me was mentioning of summer festivals—Allentown Art Festival and the Elmwood Festival of the Arts—that surprised me. Also, the details of time gone by. Almost all the interviewees—the number was in the 80s—mentioned the AM&As windows, which really surprised me, particularly amongst the younger respondents, the older 20-somethings. I didn’t even think the AM&As windows were around then. So they either remember the legend of people telling them about them, or they actually remember going to see the windows. Also, there were drips and drabs about Charlie Parker playing live jazz at the Anchor Bar. Who knew that that even happened in Buffalo? So things that came up like that were a real surprise, and that made editing the book a real pleasure. Every interview was hung on this story or perspective that was completely new.

So you learned a lot? Yeah. And that after being here for 30-some-odd years.

Were there any interviews that stood out to you? Ummmm…some of the interviews. Word-of-mouth spread quickly, and before I knew it I was getting responses from people who no longer lived in Buffalo. The biggest surprise among those folks to me was the number of people who don’t live here anymore who wish they did. There was something hard for me to pin down in the actual dialogue of the interviews, but I think it was difficult for folks to verbalize it. But at the end, as they were hanging up the phone they’d say, “Ya know, it’s just not the same here as it was there.” That came across very consistently, particularly with the expatriates.

In my dealings since the book has been published, I’ve noticed that so many people see the potential in Buffalo. And there is such great potential here that it’s almost like the city is on the cusp of another era of greatness, and it will be so exciting, I think, to be here when that happens. That’s one huge way to start to rebuild is recruiting these folks that come here for school at our great colleges and universities.

It feels like we’ve been on the cusp of something for a long time, but we can’t get ourselves over the edge. What do you think we can do? One of the things I research academically is place mapping, the sort of branding of cities and places within those cities. For instance, the Elmwood Village has a good Forever Elmwood plan. It strikes me that oftentimes we’ll hear people say, “Well, Buffalo doesn’t have this,” or “Buffalo never had this,” or “Buffalo can’t quite get to the point of.” But often, I think, those of us who’ve been here our entire lives are unaware of the great things that we really do have. So that’s something that I think we need to change. My sense is that we may be on the cusp of something, and I think that if the real change that’ll push us over that threshold is a dramatic shift in the way Buffalonians think of what our city’s about. We’re not ever going to be New York. We’re not Toronto, we’re never going to be Toronto. We have our own cultural mix that’s far more unique than Toronto, that’s far more unique than New York, far more unique than Boston. We have our own history that’s far more unique than any of those other cities. So I think celebrating what we are, and celebrating the history of who we once were, rather than trying to constantly recapture the glory days of Buffalo, us as an economic capital and a grain capital and a shipping capital. We’re never going to be any of those things again. My sense is that looking forward, as opposed to looking backward, is probably where we’ll find our best success.

The political and government leaders here should be looking at what our city and region have that no other city and region have. And that’s something that I think we’re not very good at collectively, as a region or a city. There are a lot of cheerleaders here, but they’re sort of cheering on an empty field.

I like that the book wasn’t a cheerleading piece. You let the people and the photographs speak for themselves. It’s so great to hear you say that, because that’s exactly the point where I sort of wanted it to end up. There are a lot of good things about this city and there are some not so great things. And an honest assessment is saying, “This isn’t so great, we need to work on it.” Or “Boy, we really made a mistake here, how can we fix this to make it better?” That’s really what I was hoping the book would zero in on.

Buffalo Is a Cool Place to Live is available at both Talking Leaves locations, Rustbelt Books and directly from Lulu at www.lulu.com/k629press.