Buffalo: The City Lost in Time, Where History and Struggle Collide

I've driven through Buffalo, NY at least a few dozen times before, in all four seasons and various weather conditions, yet it never appe...

I've driven through Buffalo, NY at least a few dozen times before, in all four seasons and various weather conditions, yet it never appealed to me as a tourist destination. To me, Buffalo was synonymous with a dull, grey skyline visible from Interstate 195, numerous billboards advertising injury lawyers, and state troopers diligently ensuring that drivers crossing from Canada had adjusted their speed from kilometres per hour to miles per hour. My usual thought was, "Let's hurry to the Peace Bridge so I can return to Canada as quickly as possible." However, I realized this wasn't fair to Buffalo and its rich heritage, so I decided to fix this by taking a day trip from Toronto. And to make things more challenging, why not take public transit all the way?
Getting to Niagara Falls is easier than ever, especially with a $10 weekend pass from GO Transit. Crossing the Rainbow Bridge from Niagara Falls, ON to Niagara Falls, NY is an attraction in itself. You'll witness a stunning gorge with emerald-green water and massive waterfalls in the background. This view is timeless, something that would not have been possible to experience before the bridge was built connecting Canada and the US.
After a quick passport check, you'll exit into the midst of Niagara Falls State Park. The Americans have done a better job preserving their side of the falls; it's more peaceful, green, and unspoiled compared to the Canadian side, which is littered with the hustle and bustle of casinos, hotels, fast food chains, and numerous tourist traps on Clifton Hill, not to mention the crowds that are ten times larger.
Fortunately, there is a municipal bus from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, albeit an unpopular one because it only runs once an hour. I was planning to purchase a $5 day pass that would grant me unlimited rides on buses and the metro, but a kind lady at the visitor's center gave it to me for free. I felt fortunate - or so I thought.
My bus, number 40, arrived on schedule. Three young Mandarin-speaking women, likely students, with medium-sized bright luggage, boarded the bus before me. As I entered the bus, I was immediately hit with a strong smell of cannabis, alcohol, and cigarettes. The atmosphere was also quite loud. I took my seat and observed my fellow passengers, a diverse and colourful bunch. 
To paint a vivid picture, imagine the following scene:
A man in his 50s wore a hoody and seemed very shaky on his feet. Yet, he managed to ride his bike, which he retrieved from the bike rack at the front of the bus when he got off. He was engaged in a loud conversation across the aisle with another man in his 60s, covered in tattoos, who was accompanied by a young woman and five super noisy children under the age of 10. Near the driver sat two teenage boys, periodically scanning the passengers, seemingly on the lookout for potential trouble or valuables. A man smelling of alcohol played music loudly from his cell phone, occasionally singing off-key, perhaps trying to beat the kids for attention. An elderly man in his 70s looked around with a startled expression. Rounding out the cast of characters were a man with a folded electric scooter and an older lady hugging a large suitcase.
Our bus made infrequent stops as we drove through Niagara Street in the Black Rock neighbourhood. The area was trying to revitalize itself, with some red brick buildings converted into hipster condominiums, but about one-third of the houses had windows boarded up with plywood. I had second thoughts about getting off the bus a few times, but I decided to give the city a chance, especially since I had spent four hours getting there. So when I heard the "City Hall" stop announced, I confidently pulled the cord and got off the bus.
What I experienced next was similar to a scene from a dystopian movie, set shortly after a deadly virus had wiped out humanity. I stood in the vast, completely empty Niagara Square, surrounded by beautifully preserved buildings and the 96-foot / 29 m white McKinley Monument, guarded by marble lions. The surreal feeling was intensified by the fact that it was 1 o'clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with perfect weather for exploring a city. In contrast, Toronto's Nathan Philips Square in front of City Hall would have been bustling with thousands of tourists.
I knew that Buffalo had seen better days before the Great Depression, like other "Rust Belt" cities - Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Toledo, Pittsburgh and other metallurgical centres. However, I didn't know that Buffalo is home to so many striking architectural landmarks reflecting its rich history and grandeur. What a miss for someone who drove through Buffalo so many times!
Buffalo City Hall, completed in 1931, is an Art Deco masterpiece and one of the tallest municipal buildings in the United States. Although I didn't go inside, I learned that it features sophisticated exterior carvings and an observation deck on the 28th floor offering panoramic views of the city and Lake Erie. Unfortunately, I couldn't find information about its working hours, and everything was closed on Sunday, despite it being prime time for tourism.
The Liberty Building, completed in 1925, is a neoclassical gem featuring two replicas of the Statue of Liberty on its roof, symbolizing Buffalo's strategic location and historical ties to liberty and freedom. Another iconic structure is the Statler Tower Hotel, originally opened in 1923. This grand hotel was one of the first to offer a bathroom in every room, setting a new standard for luxury and convenience in the hospitality industry.
The Ellicott Square Building, designed by Charles Atwood of D. H. Burnham & Company, was completed in May 1896. Upon its completion, it was the largest office building in the world! In 1896 and 1897, it housed Edisonia Hall and the Vitascope Theater, recognized as the world's first dedicated motion picture theatres.
My favourite architectural landmark was the Guaranty Building, a marvel of architectural innovation and historical significance. Designed by renowned architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and completed in 1896, it stands as one of the earliest examples of a steel-supported, curtain-walled skyscraper. Its lavish terra-cotta facade, decorated with elaborate organic motifs, showcases Sullivan's philosophy that "form follows function." The building's forward-looking design not only influenced the development of modern skyscrapers but also earned it a place on a list of National Historic Landmarks.
These buildings, to name a few, highlight Buffalo's architectural heritage, historical significance, and cultural evolution.
Main Street is empty, with lots of vacant storefronts. 
I thought it would be cool to open a hipster coffee shop that would sell freshly baked French croissants and vegan avocado toasts, but then I wasn't sure if it would be profitable due to the lack of foot traffic in downtown Buffalo. For now, a lone Tim Hortons remains open.
Occasionally, I make eye contact with fellow adventurous travellers like myself.
While taking a picture of a vintage mural, "Hard Work Works Hard," I met a man in his 30s with a toddler, likely a local from Buffalo. He excitedly approached me, eager to take the same picture. Tourists are rare in Buffalo.
Shea's 710 Theatre, originally built as the Palace Burlesque, was revitalized and reopened in 2012. According to its website, the theatre features a "thrust stage" design, allowing audiences to sit on three sides and enjoy an intimate connection with performances. With a seating capacity of 558, Shea's 710 Theatre hosts diverse productions, from Broadway shows to locally produced plays. If I ever return to Buffalo, I'll definitely check it out.
Regarding public transportation in Buffalo, I think it has a decent bus and rail network for a population of approximately 275,000 residents.
The history of Buffalo's rail network dates back to the early days of public transportation in Buffalo. The city's first horse-drawn streetcar line began operating in 1834 (almost 200 years ago!), marking the start of a long tradition of urban transit. By the late 19th century, electric streetcars had replaced horse-drawn vehicles, and Buffalo's extensive streetcar network became vital to the city's infrastructure.
However, as cars gained popularity, the streetcar system was forced into extinction by corrupt politicians and influential carmakers. The remaining public transit led to the establishment of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) in 1967.
The concept of a light rail transit (LRT) system gained traction in the 1970s, with the NFTA leading the initiative. The project aimed to provide a reliable and efficient transit option connecting key areas, including downtown Buffalo and the University at Buffalo campuses.
After planning and securing funding, construction of the Metro Rail began in the early 1980s. The system was designed with both underground and at-grade sections, with the underground portion running through densely populated downtown Buffalo to minimize disruption.
The first segment of the Metro Rail opened in 1984. Despite initial challenges and budget constraints over its 40-year history, the Metro Rail with its 14 stations has become an important part of the city's transit network, serving thousands of passengers daily and contributing to Buffalo's revitalization efforts.
Although I only had time to visit one underground station - Allen Medical Campus, it was clean and spacious. This station even featured some artwork.
I firmly believe that billboards and commercials, especially those in public transit, can reveal more about challenges in a city than any other form of communication, such as tourist brochures, guidebooks, and word of mouth. 
Here's what I saw in Buffalo:
(1) Has Child Protective Service (CPS) contacted you? Legal advice is available. 
(2) Save a life. Naloxone rescue kit for free. 
(3) We are increasing our presence on Metro Rail. You will see us around (Transit Authority Police).
(4) We can’t tell you that you shouldn’t smoke. You just can’t do it inside.
(5) I do my best to stay on track, but my status is undetectable yet (Confidential services and support for adults living with HIV).
(6) Bail Bond, city bail agency services, immigration federal and state. 
Some commercials I didn't photograph, especially on buses, as I didn't feel safe doing so. However, most were predominantly about addiction.
Do I recommend Buffalo to fellow travellers? Absolutely! There's plenty to see, especially for architecture and history enthusiasts, and it's close to the massive attraction of Niagara Falls. Despite struggling with poverty, addiction, and safety concerns, I'm hopeful that Buffalo will soon experience a renaissance as a tourist destination. This would enable visitors to not only appreciate its rich history and former splendour but also discover its contemporary attractions and charm.

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