Buffalo celebrates fortune and glory of a century ago

`There is a longing to turn the clock back,' resident says

September 16, 2001|By Randal C. Archibold | Randal C. Archibold,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BUFFALO, N.Y. - It is hard for outsiders to imagine that before the steel mills died, the young people fled and the Bills choked, Buffalo was unbowed and proud.

This was once the eighth largest city in the United States and one of its most prosperous, with mansions and parks designed by the best architects in the country. Its geography, on Lake Erie, and its crisscross railroad lines made it a pivotal hub for moving goods from the Midwest to the East.

Its political influence was strong enough that two sons went to the White House: Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897) and Millard Fillmore (1850-1853).

Now, in a spate of nostalgia that has become something of a civic obsession, Buffalo is awash in a series of conferences, lectures, books and exhibits, harking back to what has become in civic mythology the moment when Buffalo's long slide began - the assassination of President William McKinley a century ago at the world's fair that was supposed to immortalize Buffalo's status as one of the nation's great cities.

On the centennial of the Pan-American Exposition, held from May to November 1901, the city is collectively rummaging through its past, at once recalling its glory, and asking if that glory could ever come back. And with a scholarly and a somewhat jocular eye, people here are exploring the legacy of moment when, the myth goes, Buffalo began its slide from the nation's eighth largest city to its 59th and from a boomtown to a symbol of rust belt decay.

`A strong nostalgia'

"There is a strong nostalgia for the past here, of the heydays of the '20s to '50s when Buffalo was a very wealthy and prosperous city," said Robert B. Skerker, the chairman of the Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board, who has promoted commemoration of the centennial. "There is a longing to turn the clock back and see what can be learned."

At the heart of the nostalgia is what some call the McKinley Curse, the aftermath of the fatal shooting of McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901, by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz (pronounced CHOAL-gosh), railing against imperialism. McKinley had come here to visit the exposition, which was showcasing a relatively new technology, the electric light, and promoting America as the leader of the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, the city's prosperity did not immediately come to a halt with the assassination. Its population peaked in 1950 at 580,000, about twice what it is now. But the "Pan Am" or "Pan," as it is commonly known, is something of a fixation here, where nostalgia runs deep and the city's long economic slide is burned into the civic psyche.

So the observances are being held all around town, including one at the historical society - housed in the only remaining building from the expo - that is setting attendance records.

A group in town, the Pan-American Collectors' Society, numbering about 70 people, has filled a gallery at the State University at Buffalo with a display of tickets, trinkets, souvenir glassware and other exposition keepsakes passed down from generation to generation, and now actively traded on Internet auction sites. The county bar association plans to re-enact the trial of McKinley's assassin.

Ranking behind Fresno

One of the city's ubiquitous abandoned grain elevators, the legacy of its once dominant role in shipping goods from the Midwest, will be illuminated two nights a week through this month with images from the expo. There has been a parade and dozens of seminars and readings, using the centennial as a theme for looking back and forward.

Whether because of McKinley or, perhaps more rationally, the late 20th-century collapse of the manufacturing industry that had been the city's backbone, hard luck has come in many forms.

With a 2000 population of 292,648, Buffalo now ranks No. 59 in population, behind places such as Mesa City, Ariz.; Arlington, Texas; and Fresno, Calif. There were snowstorms, including the infamous 1977 blizzard of 20-foot snowdrifts, that inspired a run of weather jokes by Johnny Carson, and, from 1991 to 1994, the beloved Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls.

"There are people who seriously believe if McKinley was not shot here, the Bills would have gone on to win four Super Bowls," said William Siener, the executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Today, sometimes just the name of the city draws a smirk. How it got its name is much disputed, with some historians speculating that buffaloes may indeed have roamed here centuries ago or maybe the name came from a creek whose Indian name, beaver, was mistranslated, or maybe it was in honor of a solitary Indian who lived on that creek.

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