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Buffalo skyline, looking northeast from the City Hall observation deck, with the Statler Hotel in foreground.
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Clockwise: the H.H. Richardson Complex; Christopher Graper and Luella Kenny at Love Canal; Kitty Lambert-Rudd at Buffalo ReUse.
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Buffalo Central Terminal
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The fenced-off epicentre of Love Canal.
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Buffalo City Hall
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An office-turned-residence-turned-trash heap at Buffalo Central Terminal.
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Inside Buffalo ReUse.
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The G&T Inn, home to Geno, the polka-singing bartender.
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The bridge over Love Canal’s once toxic creek.
Christopher Graper runs tours to exactly two places in the world: North Korea and Buffalo.
The Toronto man previously worked in the tar sands and as a tour bus driver for bands including New Kids on the Block and Loverboy.
"It's really hard to get that song out of your head when you're with Loverboy and it's the weekend," he says, as we head toward the QEW for a two-day excursion to the cheaper and closer of his available destinations, and the one that does not generally prohibit journalists from visiting.
His trips to Buffalo for small groups of eight to 12 are "urbex [urban exploration] weekenders," run by his own nascent company, Vignette Tours. Graper hopes to start leading week-long expeditions targeted at Europeans this fall.
He is also the lone North American representative for Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based British company that runs trips to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
There's overlap, thematically and with particular travellers. A New York City man who had been to North Korea several years before learned about the Buffalo trip from Koryo's email list.
"Not absolutely everyone that goes to North Korea, or is fascinated or interested or intrigued by North Korea, is interested in abandonment and post-industrial blight and the stories surrounding it," Graper tells me over beers in Kensington Market. "Not everyone has that same interest. But a lot do."
I ask about the Ryugyong Hotel, the 105-storey, pyramid-shaped skyscraper that dominates the Pyongyang skyline. Under stop-and-start construction for over 25 years, it famously looms as a monument to unfulfilled ambition.
"You've touched on what I think is actually the theme that bridges the two," he says.
Nostalgia, he explains, is the distinction between expectation and reality. Both of his tours involve an "aesthetic appreciation" of that chasm.
Buffalo's downtown core embodies that idea as we roll through on Saturday morning, May 24, though it's a pretty day and the area's dotted with pink-blossomed trees. It's hard to look desolate in spring.
Brad Hahn, head of Explore Buffalo, gives us a tour of the art deco City Hall - a massive shell into which the government never fully grew. Murals and carvings that set out the city's founding myths now serve as memorials to its promise.
We get the lay of the land from the observation deck, and Graper points out that many of the green patches marking the terrain are actually abandoned properties.
"What's the white stuff on top?" a member of our group inquires about a hotel across the street.
"Of the Statler?" Hahn asks.
"That's just the roof deteriorating."
Past noon, the pervasive quiet becomes more pronounced as we drive to the apocryphal birthplace of the Buffalo wing.
At the Anchor Bar, the air is thick with the smell of butter and hot sauce, and at every table, next to the ketchup and mustard and salt and pepper, are individual packets of Kraft Parmesan cheese. Don't You Forget About Me plays on the jukebox, followed by Once In A Lifetime, as I use fries to sop up the excess sauce.
Elsewhere, the music, like much of the culture, tends toward what Graper calls a counterintuitive or "off-modern" sensibility. He keeps the van's radio tuned to Drive Time Polkas, and we cruise around to the Chicken Dance as though doing so were normal.
Buffalo used to have (and to an extent still has) a significant Polish population based in the Polonia District. Expectation and reality collide once again as a polka-singing bartender turns out to be less a dancing accordionist in traditional costume than an old guy in a Bills jacket pacing with a microphone.
The bartender, Geno, tells us we should have a look at "Mr. Obama" in the back room. For those who go to investigate, it dawns with deep discomfort that he's referring to a statue of a chimpanzee in a waiter's outfit.
The off-modern sensibility we're here to experience at a semi-ironic remove is now more difficult to enjoy as a delightful quirk of history. And I feel stupid for not having previously grasped what it means to visit an isolated pub in a grim neighbourhood of a depressed American city.
"There's still real big divisions here, and it's very sad," says Kitty Lambert-Rudd, executive director of Buffalo ReUse. "It's like some people here just haven't figured out that it's not 1950 and this is not Mississippi."
Buffalo ReUse is a volunteer organization that collects and sells furnishings from demolished and remodelled properties out of a warehouse on the city's east side. Lambert-Rudd also happens to be half of the first couple to have had a same-sex wedding in the state.
The warehouse, with rows of sinks and bathtubs and every imaginable fixture, is a museum of 20th-century domestic design. A cat named Olaf Fub ("Buffalo" spelled backwards) makes its home here.
"Our grandparents thought that a sign of success was being able to remove something or dispose of something before it was broken," Lambert-Rudd explains, adding that this has "unfortunately created a world of garbage."
She moved to Buffalo from Arizona in 2004, when she bought a house at auction for $3,000. A decade later and after extensive renovation work, it's now worth $15,000.
"God, Buffalo is such an affordable place to start," she says. "You can start a business here: there is so much real estate available where you walk in the door and start a factory. Walk in the door and start a retail business. Walk in the door and start a restaurant. Walk in the door and start anything that you can imagine can be done here in Buffalo."
A city with so little is full of possibility.
"The tour is not us looking into the impossible zoo that can't be fixed," Graper advised me before we left. "The story is the challenge. How hard it is. Economic contraction. . .How do you undo what you've done? How do you scale it down once you need to pull back?"
Buffalo is in many ways the Great Lakes mirror-image of Toronto. Here, our issues are the management of growth and the equitable distribution of prosperity. There, their issue is contraction, dealing with shrinkage and poverty. What happens when your best days are behind you and never coming back?
"Decay, entropy, this is what actually happens to all of these places eventually," Graper says. "So unless they're repurposed, they fall apart."
Remarkably, the city supports an alternative newsweekly, Artvoice, whose cover story is a recap of Toronto's Hot Docs festival. The same issue contains a guide to Toronto neighbourhoods outside the downtown core.
"I probably make the trip up the QEW to Toronto 10 or 12 times a year," the piece by M. Faust begins, "and every time I do I swear the skyscape seems to have changed: less sky, more buildings."
It's a rare glimpse of how Buffalo views us.
"But even as Toronto seems hellbent to become the Tokyo of North America, many non-downtown neighbourhoods are hanging onto their identities, or building new ones that utilize and maintain the city's past."
Moving on and building upon the past is a popular idea in Buffalo these days. We check out the Buffalo Central Terminal, a vacant former train hub with perhaps even greater majesty than Union Station. It's very slowly being refurbished and turned into the Center for Restoration Arts and Sciences, an institute for adaptive reuse. We tour the H.H. Richardson Complex, a former state asylum resembling Queen's Park that's being converted into a boutique hotel.
One of our last stops brings together past and present in a different sort of way: the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in modern American history.
Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York, was a neighbourhood built atop a leaking chemical waste dump, with predictable health effects. After residents fought to have the toxins identified and their health concerns investigated (56 per cent of children born there between 1974 and 78 had a birth defect), the federal government evacuated the area in the late 1970s.
The dump site itself is now a fenced-off field whose only warning signs say, "Private Property. No Trespassing." The adjacent streets have an even more ambiguous relationship with this history.
Luella Kenny lived in the neighbourhood from 1969 to 79 and lost her seven-year-old son to minimal lesion nephrosis, a type of kidney degeneration she attributes to the toxins. She became an activist as a result, and rides with us in the van, pointing out the former sites of houses and a school. Most of the structures to the east and west were demolished in the 90s. A few scattered holdouts remain, belonging to residents who've insisted there was no reason to leave.
To the north, Kenny's old neighbourhood remains intact. She says it's not much safer now than it was back then and that there's no logical reason why one side of the street should be declared uninhabitable and the other perfectly okay.
Looking like any suburban neighbourhood of single-storey bungalows, it's populated by people who either don't know or don't care.
In a park, a youth softball game unfolds as if in slow-motion, the disconnect between expectation and reality almost too much to bear.