The Buffalo River about a mile from Lake Erie is a lonely place. Its banks are lined for miles with abandoned piers and empty cement blocks, sheer high walls along the water. The river runs through the City of Buffalo, N.Y., but I would not have known I was near a city had I landed on that shoreline with no map and no one to explain the place to me. Had I wandered there alone I could not have guessed why there had ever been such cliffs of concrete or what they had once been used for, only that I had gotten myself lost somehow among giants and dinosaurs.
But I was lost on purpose in a place called “Silo City,” where every so often as I stood on that shore with my dog Colby, a boat would pass up the river and its passengers would swivel their heads to see the magnificent ruins of Buffalo’s grain shipping industry, the wrecked shells of towers and old machinery, the steel drawbridges that still opened and closed every so often to let a train pass, like the jaws of ancient sea beasts that now and then wake to feed. Once, ships the length of football fields motored up the river. The ships carried grain, millions of tons of it, all the grain the Midwest and much of Canada could muster; they unloaded their haul into grain elevators, long blocks of concrete tubes, and then trains took the grain still farther away, and all of this churned and hummed with massive industry along the waterfront for ages. None of it happens anymore.
Now the silos stand like Shelley’s Ozymandias, trunkless legs of stone in the desert rising nine stories above so much useless stuff. Ducks and geese wade through the murk. Sometimes deer wander by, but hardly any people; on thousands of acres along the water in Buffalo, all that humans once built was abandoned a generation ago, so there is no longer a reason for anyone to be there.
Oh my god, I loved Buffalo. Right at first sight, I loved it as if it had been built in heaven just for me.
Colby and I arrived in Buffalo on our mission to visit as many places as we could that no one else seemed to ever want to go. I felt, I suppose, that I had something to learn that only those unwanted places could teach me. This was my strange, midlife obsession, and when I found myself at last with some time off from my teaching job, I indulged this need to visit difficult places, crossing thousands of miles my friends back in New York City knew mostly as “that stuff out there” and proudly avoided. That attitude is a kind of denial—a blind eye that I’d been guilty of too. If, for example, I knew anything about Buffalo before I went it was only that it was godforsaken, a place that people had been fleeing for decades. Passing it on the New York Thruway bound for other places—fancy places like Cleveland and Albany—I might have looked out toward Buffalo and seen the long, flat rows of tiny houses in its suburban foothills, all those faceless domiciles beneath a daunting web of power lines, the rings of six-lane highways that choked and choked Buffalo even decades after it had died, and like any normal healthy person with most of my life still ahead of me, I might have said in those moments, “huh,” and turned my focus back to the map, and wondered how much longer I’d be driving.
But then there I was, a woman of a certain age, not as willing as I’d once been to push blindly along without stopping to question, and when I did stop I discovered, to my surprise, a deep affinity for old, forgotten Buffalo. Among other things, it was a distant, isolated city, essentially a loner, not unlike a woman of a certain age out wandering with a trailer and a dog. Liberated from the oppression of more fashionable places, it is really very cool, a hip little outpost that no one seems to expect to like, but then they do. Buffalo developed a bad case of low self-esteem as the 20th century wound down and was, by the time I met it, truly devastated; its decline had been swift and thorough. But who was I to judge? My physical decline had only recently begun but my self-esteem had run ahead and hit the skids; in midlife I’d found a bog of disappointment. At 49 I couldn’t even claim the status of a crestfallen Buffalo but felt more like Newburg, N.Y., a once-bustling city that never quite achieved greatness and was now past its prime. Even that may be arrogant. Whatever aspirations I once had, whatever small accomplishments I could claim, at that moment in my life I had come to see myself on the grand map of humanity as a humble, wishful Paducah—a place, plain and simple; sweet home to some, feisty when pushed, but fundamentally awkward, and arguably dispensable. Yes. Perhaps my soul was stranded in Paducah.
This is the truth of a midlife crisis, which in hindsight I can see is what brought me to Buffalo: it is like looking at a map and not knowing, really, where you are on it. You were going somewhere but gradually you’d realized that you’d become lost—and what’s more, no one was expecting you to show up anyhow. You grasp your futility and yet are still young and strong enough to wrestle with it, and thus, to suffer.
But then, wow: look at Buffalo. It was no pathetic little whip of a cold, worthless city. It had once obviously mattered very much. It was the terminus of the Erie Canal. The Gateway to the West. They called it America’s Paris. And for all that, look what happened. Good god, Buffalo had actually, certifiably achieved greatness and it was a total mess anyhow. There was something profoundly comforting in that to me, a certain relief in the inevitability of failure. Loving Buffalo, I began to think that, maybe, I could forgive myself for everything.
There’s a half-day kayak tour up the Buffalo River that includes a hike, for which paddlers pull their kayaks up onto a peer in Silo City–an especially complex and grim-looking peninsula of ruins in the larger collection of them along the river. The paddlers wander at their own pace through this large lot of empty concrete grain elevators, eating their lunch of baloney and cheese or chicken salad or what have you on the grimy shores of a river that looks very much like a sewer in that spot, running inky and flat through high walls of steel and cement.
I read about the kayak tour as I was planning my drive into the middle of the country; I saw the baffling pictures and jumped. I made my kayaking reservation months in advance fearing that somehow, hordes of the morbidly curious would awaken and swarm to this adventure, and all the spots would sell out. But when the day of the paddle was at last near, I realized I had a bigger problem. Colby and I were going to spend three months living in a tiny trailer, roaming the country in search of hard truth, and as it happens there is no place in Buffalo to camp in a trailer, actually. Urban places in general—and especially the really desperate places, which appealed to me most—are not, it seems, generally very big on camping. Some cities do have RV parks, but oddly enough those places are often linked to news stories of meth lab busts, or described online as chock full of vicious dogs and sex offenders, all of which fascinates me on one level, but in no way inspires me to park and try to sleep.
So I booked a night in a cheap motel near the city and began a desperate hunt for an insider’s guide to urban camping. Eventually I called BFLO Harbor Kayak, and discussed my camping options with Jason, the owner, who was at a loss, really, until eventually he said, “I don’t know how adventurous you are,” which was my cue to draw a deep breath and wait for the best possible weird-in-a-good-way suggestion to follow. A long sigh came from Colby, who’d been hiding on the floor between our motel room beds since we’d arrived. “But if you want,” Jason said, “you could camp at Silo City.”
Not everyone agrees on the proper use of the expression Silo City. Some believe it’s an apt nickname for Buffalo as a whole, but Buffalo’s official nickname is the City of Light, since the power of nearby Niagara Falls gave Buffalo the first electric street lamps, and also because Buffalo in its day was, after all, an American Paris. The name “Silo City” is a trademarked term lately given to the entire region of mostly abandoned grain elevators in the city’s First Ward. But it is also used, apparently with disregard to the trademark, to refer to the specific 6-acre property purchased in 2006 by Rick Smith, the third-generation chief executive of a family-owned metal fabrication company with headquarters next to the silo “campus” he now owns.
To be clear: the big concrete cylinders sticking up all along the river are grain silos, but the silos stand clustered in blocks with rusted, rolling grain loading machinery attached to them, and these clusters are actually grain “elevators.” A woman who had spent her life in the orbit of New York City would have little reason to know this and I didn’t, but I learned. Groups of 20 or more cylinders—the silos—stand two deep in rows like a case of concrete “tall boy” lager cans, eight or nine stories high, all along the river in a mesmerizing abandoned industrial zone that is also described as “Elevator Alley.”
Rick Smith’s property, which contains about a half dozen grain elevators and related structures, is only one of the many sites in Buffalo where these abandoned works stand, but it is special among them. It is, for one thing, home to the oldest solid concrete grain silo on the planet, and in fact, the slip-form process of concrete silo construction was invented there; concrete silos around the world have Buffalo to thank. It is a distinction that might matter to approximately 17 living humans, including me, and mean nothing to most of the other six billion or so, unless you are moved to consider that there, among the weeds and rubble of Silo City, is hard proof of how fast glory fades, and how a truly transformative idea can, in short time, cease to matter whatsoever.
Smith had wanted to build an ethanol manufacturing plant on his site, fed by corn shipped in from the Midwest. That’s why he bought it, but that didn’t work out. And now there they still are, these vacant looming concrete things that a bomb wouldn’t take down, not easily, and on this particular six-acre tract, they all belong to one guy who wonders what in the world can be done with them.
The gate to Smith’s property is watched over by a man called Swannie Jim, whom Smith—himself a character, sporting a bushy mustache and an ever-present cowboy hat—calls “a modern day Thoreau, living in his Walden,” though Thoreau could never have been so leathery nor quite so committed to austerity as Jim. Swannie Jim lives on the site in a cozy, cluttered shack heated by a stove in which he burns logs and broken pallets. There is enough electricity to keep the lights on and the beer cold and not a whole lot else seems to matter. Jim in his day had been project engineer at a number of large industrial sites; he had come to Buffalo to more or less retire, and then got involved in Silo City and the ethanol project, which failed.
Now, each morning Jim rides his bicycle up Childs Street, the roughly paved road that goes nowhere except into and out of Smith’s collection of elevators, to unlock a chain-link gate across the road. He spends a few hours building pallets at Smith’s shop; he spends afternoons keeping track of the curiosity seekers who have stumbled upon the open gate on Childs Street and could not resist going past. Silo City, all but bereft of industry, seems to attract everything else. Smith’s property has been the site of poetry readings and music festivals; films have been shot and music recorded in the echoing silos; movies have been projected outside onto the sheer silo walls. In 2011 the site began hosting an annual extravaganza called “City of Night” that brings art installations and performances to Silo City; hundreds of visitors wander by candle and moonlight through a wasteland strewn with art installations. Buffalo hipsters once set up a mustache museum there; vendors hold a flea market on weekends. University of Buffalo architecture students built an enormous obelisk beehive on the grounds, but after a year the bees abandoned the hive, and now it stands along the road, tall and shiny and empty.
Jason, the kayak guy, had asked Swannie Jim to watch for me and when I pulled up with my trailer, he and his pit bull Champ walked over and put their faces in my car window. Champ’s face was fawn-colored with almond eyes and a licorice nose. Jim’s was thin and rough like worn red leather, stubbled with white whiskers; his eyes, squint-thin through thick glasses, were creased in the corners in a way that suggested he had spent a fair amount of time looking into the sun.
“You think it’s safe to camp here?” I asked through the car window, like a tourist at the gates of Yellowstone worried about bear. Most Silo City veterans would have been appalled by this question, but Jim was kind, and in my defense, it really was an abandoned industrial site, accurately described as a creepy, deserted brownfield at the edge of a poor and sometimes violent city. Pictures I posted later on the Internet drew speedy and satisfyingly worried responses. My favorite came from a friend back home who, upon seeing pictures of my trailer in a debris-strewn mud patch, dwarfed by the mysterious blocks of cement, wrote to say: “Remember, palm to the nose, knee to the groin. Palm to the nose, knee to the groin.”
Swannie Jim, a man who drinks a lot and lives in a shack, assured me I’d be safe. “We don’t get a lot of trespassers,” he said. He grinned. His dog snapped at the end of her rope. Colby was whining to get out of the car, which could have meant grave danger was imminent or that he needed to pee. Odds were on pee. I told Jim I’d be staying.
I parked the trailer next to the Marine A elevator, where the sun at a certain late angle turned the top third of the silos dark orange and left the rest in gray shadow. It felt like we were in the mountains. I made a ring of rocks around our campsite like a fence, bringing pioneer order to the wilderness. I set out my chairs and barbecue.
In the morning, Colby and I sat by our trailer and watched young hairy guys with battered cars and tool boxes show up at Marine A to work on a big new Smith-backed initiative: transforming the Marine A silos into a rock climbing and yoga studio, grasping at the new fitness economy because the ethanol thing had fallen through. When it was finished, the climbing wall on the 190-foot Marine A tower would top a165-foot Reno climbing wall to become the world’s tallest manmade outdoor climbing surface. Anyhow, that was the dream.
Jason, the guy who ran the kayak business out of Buffalo Harbor, was also involved in building the rock-climbing studio. He came by later to show me around. We entered Marine A through a cut at the base of one of the concrete tubes. An empty grain elevator is like a Medieval cathedral, unlit and unadorned. At eye-level, shafts of light pass through spaces where there had once been windows. The silos themselves are long, vertical tunnels to the sky, blocked about fifteen feet above the ground by massive steel hoppers—10-ton funnels with spouts that open and close. The hoppers once stopped grain from pouring down to the floor. Railway carts would pull up in the dark, open space beneath the hoppers; the steel spouts would open and let loose a flood of grain. Most of the steel hoppers had been removed from Marine A by the time I saw it; torches and tractors helped pull them out, so that when I looked up from the ground inside I could see the full, unfettered height of each empty silo, thin light piercing holes at their tops. Shouts and coughs and whistles echoed up into that dark vacant space, out into infinity.
In the Port of Buffalo, grain was unloaded from ships by men with shovels right up until 2003 when the last hand-scooped load was emptied at the General Mills elevator, and after that machines took over. But the truth is, no grain has been delivered by any means for fifty years or more to Marine A, or to the nearby Perot Towers, or the Nesbitt or the H. and O., or the Great Northern, Concrete Central, or Cargill; none to March, or Sturgess, or Spencer Kellog, or any of the elevators on acre after abandoned acre, all the way up the river.
People in south Buffalo know the names of these places the way Coloradans can name mountain peaks. They are part of the landscape. A hundred years ago when the concrete was poured, the silos were fixed into existence like the city itself. Now it seems likely the silos won’t ever come down; that part is still true. But the purpose they served, as it turned out, passed in a moment. And then, there is the rest of time.
Colby and I ate dinner on a dock near the old Perot Malting Works, and we were walking back to the trailer for the night when we were spotted by Swannie Jim, who was standing outside his shack smoking a cigarette. He called me over and said, “You know, you haven’t been talking to the right people.”
This worried me. Jason had seemed so nice. But Swannie Jim said if I really wanted to know about the silos, I’d better follow him. Colby and I entered the shack and there in the bad light, sitting around the stove on a collection of broken chairs, were Rick Smith and Bob the Builder, who works in restoration, and Kevin the Horse Thief, a retired state employee. Their connections to each other were various but had been made long ago in a bar. Someone handed me a beer and Bob leaned way back on the bad springs of his seat and said, “so you’ve come here to learn. What do you want to know?”
I wasn’t sure how to put it. “What the hell happened to Buffalo?” I said.
My inquiry was not so much ignorant as too broad; it was like asking “why was I born?” They could have told me themselves if I’d asked them 10, 20, 30 years ago that what rises will fall, in both the world and the flesh. North Dakota was at that moment exploding with gas and oil. Check back with North Dakota in 20 years, they assured me, and I’d find a new Silo City, I’d find Derrick City, I’d find decay. None of this was hard to grasp if properly explained.
Kevin started the process of my enlightenment by tipping his head back and entering a kind of dream state. “The key to all this is the War of 1812,” he told the room.
Turned out that I had arrived in Silo City 200 years to the day after the start of the Battle of Lake Erie, a turning point in the War of 1812; this apparently linked me inextricably, if unimportantly, to my new favorite place. I had been called there, somehow. The battle’s bicentennial explained the presence in Buffalo Harbor of a fleet of “tall ships,” which had sailed in from a pre-industrial dream.
The reason why the Battle of Lake Erie mattered so much was because the lake was a gateway. Controlling Lake Erie meant controlling the West, all that land across the continent that in 1812 was still unsettled. Sailing the Great Lakes out to what we now call Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin was the easiest way to get there. If the British controlled Lake Erie, they would not only have had a strategic site from which to attack their former colonies; after the war, they would hold the key to the whole damn continent. Lose the lake, and America would be cut off from its destiny. Keep the lake, and soon, Buffalo would become the second-largest port in North America—all ours.
“We really had to realize how important it was to control the water,” Kevin said. “That’s what the Battle of Lake Erie showed us.”
Kevin sat with his legs crossed and his head tipped thoughtfully. Jim leaped from his stool and made for the fridge. He passed out beer to Kevin and to Bob the Builder, who waved his empty bottle in the air, then leaned in to tell me something privately. His girlfriend, he said, was 20 years younger than him and they sometimes had troubles. Apparently one trouble was that she didn’t appreciate his need to drop by Swannie Jim’s shack to drink beer and take stock every day. Bob fell back in his seat and we gave each other a sympathetic nod; clearly he’d sniffed out the true motive in my road trip—I was running from my fear of turning 50. Fine. But I knew something he apparently didn’t, which was that whatever good a young woman might do him, an older one would more likely approve of his visits to the silos, just like my longtime partner knew a road trip with Colby was a wiser stress reliever than, say, sleeping with my students. She had practically pushed me out the door. I raised my empty bottle and Jim tossed me a full one. Colby began making rounds of the room, trying to hump all the men’s legs and, failing that, licking their knees incessantly.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s lesson on the War of 1812 had progressed to an intellectual climax. He tipped way back as if watching his lecture on a PowerPoint projected on the ceiling, and Bob swiveled in his chair and checked his watch. Rick Smith presided silently beneath his cowboy hat, wiping drops of beer off his mustache.
Kevin said: It was only four years after the Battle of Lake Erie was won against the Brits that work was started on the Erie Canal. The country figured out what the water meant to our defense and well-being and then, boom. Erie Canal. Everyone until then had said couldn’t be built—too expensive, too difficult, a pipe dream. Suddenly it got the government backing it needed, because a canal would get men and material up to the lakes fast. Just like Eisenhower’s highways 130 years later: a defense plan that, once established, would be mainly used to move freight and vacationing families.
To this, everyone tossed back a good slug of beer. A major city in that spot where the canal meets the lakes was inevitable. It doesn’t matter if that city gets an average of 93.6 inches of snow in the winter. It doesn’t matter if touching Canada seems, to people living cozily below, like floating off the tether into space. The water made Buffalo utterly essential. Greatness was destiny.
On the viewing platform at the top of Buffalo City Hall—a 32-story art deco beauty—I saw how Lake Erie runs off to the edge of the world, and I looked out across the ruins of old warehouses and factories, and I saw from the air the houses that have lost more than half their occupants in a handful of decades, the decades in which I had come of age to see the country apparently declining. At the start of the 1960s, when I was born, the United States had seemed untouchable, on the crest of a great wave of prosperity that Buffalo still figured into. So much can change in 50 years.
The legendary architect Frederick Law Olmstead was Buffalo’s planner, and in the 1860s when the city was one of the country’s 10 largest, Olmstead sought to exceed the elegance of Paris in the Second Empire, to outshine the renovations Haussmann was just then wrapping up for Napoleon. Buffalo was an American prodigy, rising to its glory almost the moment it was born, like a four-year-old chess master, or like my 7-year-old self, so adept at using the alphabet that my first-grade teacher tagged me for greatness. When you are 7 and your teacher says you’ll be great, you believe her. You look up with wide eyes and a jelly-stained mouth and you really believe you are on a path to immortality. Not asthma and credit card debt and jobs you aren’t always proud of. Greatness. Buffalo: two American presidents came from that city, and another, William McKinley, was murdered there. Presidents get killed in Washington D.C., Dallas, and Buffalo. That’s it. These are cities that command respect. The Buffalo I saw from the sky was cluttered with empty factories and 23,000 vacant homes, it was suffering and yet it was still lovely, it was still ready to rise up and do great things. I understood this place as I understood Colby, who was 14, and who for much of the previous year could not make it across the lobby of our apartment building without peeing on the floor, and then he’d look up at me like he didn’t understand what had happened and god I loved him, and I would want to cry. That’s what I saw in Buffalo, which is to say, I saw its humiliation, and it felt so unfair.
I’d left Colby at a pet shop for a bath while I toured the city, partly because he needed to bathe but mostly because it was safer for an old guy; he couldn’t follow me everywhere. When I picked him up in the afternoon, he trotted out in a dinosaur bandana and a big, toothy grin. He looked so handsome. I mentioned to the groomer that it seemed like it might be getting cold out, to which the groomer, a slim girl with white spikey hair, laughed nervously and said, “well yeah…” like my observation was both dumb and somehow upsetting. Later, in a shop in the city’s cool Elmwood neighborhood, I told an insanely chipper clerk at a coffee shop, “It’s cold out. Guess it’s true what they say about Buffalo.”
The young woman looked up from what she was doing behind the counter and dropped her smile, eyed me seriously. She shook her head slowly and said, “you have no idea how cold it is here. It is a cold place. You should thank God every day that you don’t live in Buffalo. Every single day. As soon as I can, I’m leaving.”
On Sunday in the silos, I watched football on a twelve-inch TV inside Swannie Jim’s shack. That Sunday, the Bills won a heartbreaker in the final second and after that, we all ate wings and pizza by a fire outside Jim’s shack. In Marine A, a woman named Jax Deluca was playing her ukulele and singing songs that a crew was recording.
I went into Marine A to hear Jax sing, and when she finished, I wandered with Kevin back out into the night. Swannie Jim had turned his light out. Kevin, at maybe 60, was built soft and comfortable; he was a pleasant man and he had a nice way of talking long. One night we had tried together to find the right image, some vivid way to explain what had happened to Buffalo. Prosperity was a force without end; it only moves. It’s like weather. It drifts away. They say the St. Lawrence Seaway is what killed the city, because after 1960 when it opened no one needed the port anymore, but still there was Buffalo, a city with its face still turned to the sky, waiting for the rain to come again.
But still, that night the Bills won and the music echoed in Marine A like magic, and lifted by this, when we wandered back to the shack but found the party over, Kevin dared to ask if I might like to close the night with one more drink, somewhere out there, beyond the gates of Silo City. I know well this desire to make the good feeling last a little longer; joy brings a weightlessness, like the world has struck a perfect balance and should never be allowed to fall again. For a deluded moment I imagined necking with Kevin back in my trailer, feeling so much love for the lost things, everywhere, feeling still so excited and fresh and uncomplicated myself. But then I floated up and saw us standing there, looking at the stars, two pale, graying stumps of humanity stuck in the brownfields, nursing an all-day beer buzz.
“I guess I better not,” I said, and Kevin smiled. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” And I went back to my place beneath the silos, stone walls empty as church bells. In the morning, like prosperity, I’d pack up the trailer and push on.
Lori Soderlind is author of Chasing Montana, a memoir. Her essay “66 Signs That the Former Student Who Invited You to Dinner Is Trying to Seduce You” is included in the Norton Anthology of Creative Nonfiction; it first appeared in PMS journal and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has reviewed for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and has published essays in Mead and the Higgs Weldon journals. As a longtime journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including the Times and The Boston Globe, Montana Magazine, and others. She holds her MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University. She teaches in the MFA programs of Columbia University and Western Connecticut State University and is a journalism professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut.