By Ruth Conniff
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"You'll be back," joked my friend, the president of a local nanobrewery, tipping back his glass. "Five to ten years, when you've got kids and you want to settle down." He's the sixth person to utter those words since I broke the news that I'd be leaving my hometown of Buffalo, New York, to move to Madison, Wisconsin. He also knows full well that "settling down" is the last thing on my agenda -- and the funny thing is, I don't think it's on his, either. He owns one of the city's truly exciting startups, and he leads a team that's putting Buffalo on the national map in craft beer. But that doesn't matter right now. Buffalonians are a little too accustomed to saying good-bye, and I've just been refiled under "deserter."
This town, where I've lived nearly twenty years, guilt-trips young people like a jealous lover. Smart? Creative? Passionate? Great. We need you, we're told. But make no mistake, you'll need to wait tables or flip burgers for a while, because the kind of job you're looking for, you'll need to invent yourself. And you'll need to pick your battles. You may want bikeable and walkable streets, affordable housing, public transit, well-integrated communities, and a vibrant city center, but we've heard all this before. Just, for God's sake, don't move somewhere else -- then you'll be part of the problem.
While 46.8 percent of Buffalo children live in poverty, the city's wealthy Elmwood Village residents toast its "low cost of living" (read: low taxes) over cold-brew coffee. One of the much-adored grain elevators collapsed during a 2011 demolition right into a Buffalo River already so polluted that you can't eat its fish. The shattered echoes of the failure of the American Dream permeate the city.
In Buffalo's golden age at the turn of the twentieth century, America was a place where the opportunity to live in luxury and excess was said to be only a few years of hard work away. The wide thoroughfares of its most expensive city neighborhoods recall a time when a car for every household seemed plausible. Today's long highway lines of commuters escaping downtown for their homes in the suburbs would argue that vision is downright necessary.
But many of my fellow post-college peers and I see no point in sacrificing the life we want on the altar of "paying the mortgage." We dream of a city where you don't need a car, where diversity and vibrancy come naturally through walkable, accessible neighborhoods. We want to embrace the freedom that comes with graduating college during the worst recession since the Great Depression, when those of us who loved things like writing and social science figured we might as well try to do what we love because we wouldn't find a job anyway. We feel lost in a town stuck in a mindset that allows the illusion of "stability" to trump the human need for purpose.
In his excellent article in Divergent Planning, "Why Young Adults Don't Want Your House," Matthew Brock tells post-recession homesellers, "Young adults no longer want to keep up with the Joneses because the Joneses lost their jobs, lost their houses, and may never retire." We don't want the big suburban six-bedroom with the picket fence and the forty-year career that ends with the cushy pension, because we've seen that it's a fantasy. We've seen our parents' stress-related heart disease and stomach ulcers. We've heard the statistics on sprawl and how it destroys cities. We've read the numbers on long commutes and their correlation with depression. In a country whose quality of life contrasts sharply against the rest of the developed world, and not in the way our parents hoped it would, all we feel we can ask of our cities at this point is that they be willing to look at the world around them and change. And this is why I left Buffalo.
The fact that I know few people in Madison, that my family isn't there, and that I'm not moving for a six-figure dream job or a relocating fiancé makes my choice all the more a curiosity in Buffalo.
Like many of my generation, I'm in no rush to get married. Only 22 percent of millennials are currently married, and 25 percent of those who aren't report being "unsure" about marriage, a Pew study reports. That makes me a rarity in a town that places a premium on "ending up." In Buffalo, you choose a stable career path, you meet a nice boy or girl, you buy a house, and you have a couple kids, and that should be enough. For young people, "working at Geico," a local auto insurance company that's been a revolving door of recent grads for years, has become synonymous with "taking a nondescript job that has nothing to do with your degree." And when we bring up the city's automobile-centered infrastructure or the alarming level of segregation, we are told, "Every city is like that." Thus mediocrity is rebranded as contentment, and settling down means settling.
So I didn't move to New York, or San Francisco, or even Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, where I feared scarce jobs and sky-high living costs. I moved to one of the Midwestern cities that have made themselves attractive and viable not necessarily through "Rust Belt Chic" but through flexibility and adaptation, by addressing the underlying problems plaguing American cities -- struggling schools, segregation, lack of public transportation, violent crime -- confident that the "cool factor" will come from real effort and foresight, and the superficial stuff will follow. I'm not interested in urban decay porn; I grew up with it, and I've seen how it reflects a hopeless privilege that places preserving the "charm" of detritus above making neighborhoods more accessible, environmentally conscious, livable, and integrated.
Having stayed in Buffalo longer than I ever thought I would, I began to quietly plan my escape in earnest as I sensed my elbows beginning to bump against the walls of limitation.
It was during research for an article on Buffalo's obstacles to becoming a bicycle-friendly community (a complete lack of bicycle-serving infrastructure; little to no enforcement of laws protecting cyclists; and a driver-centric culture, to name a few) that I began to read about Madison, which I used as a contrasting case study. As a cyclist, I was impressed by the city's bicycle-friendly initiatives, but there was something more: a desire to excel. Here was a city willing to examine current conditions and accept constructive criticism with the honest goal of fixing what's broken and expanding what's good -- embracing the spirit, rather than simply the letter, of the measures other cities have taken to attract young talent.
To me, Madison's progressive mindset manifests itself most obviously not in the popularity of the Willy Street Co-op, for example, but in the fact that the business prints complaints and suggestions from its members in the newsletter along with earnest responses from staff. It appears not in the myriad bicycle paths, bike boxes, and bike lanes, but in the constant work by the city's traffic engineers and planners to do more.
The contrast with my hometown is stark.
After a recent event involving late-night art exhibits and performance in Buffalo's grain elevators, a prominent artist friend of mine posted comments on Facebook about how wonderful the concept was and how the event could be improved by emphasizing a higher quality, rather than quantity, of art. Another commenter added that the event, while exciting and visually stunning, was set in a location rather ill equipped for its several thousand attendees, and addressing safety hazards for children and the disabled might be a good goal for next year. One of the event's organizers jumped in and, rather than thanking the commenters for their very reasonable suggestions, shot back, "Thanks for all the negativity!"
Growing up in Buffalo gave me most of my best friends and many exciting work opportunities. It imparted to me the toughness and resourcefulness that come from living through harsh winters and making ends meet waiting tables, tending bar, and stocking retail shelves in a city whose thirty-year recession has been recast as "affordability." It ensured that I will never take snow-plowed streets or writing gigs or the knowledge that I am surrounded by a progressive, liberal mindset for granted. And in Buffalo, where we joke that everyone in the "creative class" has three jobs, the people working against tangible and intangible obstacles to feed their passion are some of the most amazing people I have ever met.
They deserve better than burnout. They deserve to be surrounded by people who have no interest in settling, who want to see their city rise from the ashes and will cut no corners ensuring its long-term viability. They deserve representatives who have traveled and who know what is possible.
As for me, I've spent the first eight years of my career cheerleading for Buffalo, telling the stories of the people making it better and begging the city to deliver on the promises of its up-and-comers.
But change wasn't happening fast enough for me. And I could feel the centrifugal force of complacency beginning to tug at me. So it's on to Madison I go.
Julia Burke is a freelance journalist who now lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Photo: Flickr user Valentina Storti, creative commons licensed.