This portrait + interview is part of my monthly series, THIS IS A BUFFALONIAN. I photograph individuals, families, and couples throughout Western New York and ask them about their life in the Queen City. June’s subject is Jesse, an urban farmer with the Massachusetts Avenue Project and a good friend of mine.
where do you spend most of your time and what is that place like?
Most of my Buffalo life is spent in a few blocks on the West side between Massachusetts Avenue (work) and Hoyt/Ferry (home)– about 140 seconds walking between them. There are a lot of terms that have been used to describe this neighborhood and neighborhoods similar to it but what stands out to me most is how much human life is happening here, in almost every gradient and nuance possible. People are out: moving around in the street, next to the street, walking between buildings and communities. Arguments, laughter, grilling, and drinking, calling down the block, always washing cars, blaring music, accents, languages, sirens, five kids dragging shopping bags behind their mother, new hipster businesses next to unmanicured but real food shops, workmen and women of many industries everywhere in their vans and trucks.
These blocks seem to be packed full of struggle and living and complication. I can’t help but feel as though life here is thicker and obvious since no one is trying to landscape their public personas or keep it down for the block club ladies. Being an urban farmer here is confusing sometimes, like growing carrots on an airplane or something. As much as I like quiet and reflecting and lakes trees and true seasons, I like this kind of life just as much, for other reasons. Or maybe it’s the same reasons.
do you have a favorite Buffalo-related tradition or pastime?
This isn’t specific to Buffalo but I think Buffalo does it well: eating outside when it’s nice. I am pretty sure that Buffalo makes pretty damn good use of its summer season based on other experiences I have had, and this is enhanced by the fact that the 3 warmer seasons in Western New York are long on sunshine, lake breezes, and perfect temperatures. Combine not being at work, a nice evening (or Sunday afternoon!) beer and well-made food on a restaurant patio or deck (throw in some friends for good measure) and sheesh what else would I want from summer?
can you recommend a favorite day or weekend trip from Buffalo?
I don’t get to do this much but I really like finding the little trout streams and ponds and rivers spread throughout the region–partly for the fish and partly because I think it is impossible to know a place without getting a sense of what the land is underneath everything temporary. This place is loaded with good spots if you care to look, though unfortunately one has to contend with highway overpasses, weird public access points, and a poorly funded Department of Conservation. (Seriously though, MUST we build thundering concrete bridges over EVERY decent wildish place left?)
I think that carrying a fishing pole is just an excuse to wander up a stream, something every 10-years-old knows is important and worth spending days doing and us adults have to justify it by organizing some sort of recreation activity.
you didn’t grow up in WNY. what kind of things have you learned about the area that you didn’t know before you lived here?
I have learned that this is an emphatically good place to live for anyone who wants to have a patient life doing decent things for local people. I never really expected it, and it might not be for forever, but it feels good to give in to Buffalo with a content sigh.
what is your greatest wish for Buffalo?
Buffalo has: Unlimited potential for energy (hydro), access to 20% of the world’s fresh water, a regional food system that contains some of the best farmland in the world, and vacant 20th century industries. I really feel as though this region could reinvent itself in a self-sustaining, localized way that would serve as a model of environmentalisim, local economy, and self reliance if we focused on a smaller, simpler kinds of economy and lifestyle, rather than trying to recapture the mill-town/industrial/banking eras.
if you were to make a board game about Buffalo, what do you think its premise would be? (ed. note: I asked this because Jesse is a board game aficionado)
I think the most interesting games or puzzles are grounded in reality (even a fantastic reality but it has to make sense) that lets us tweak that reality and explore possibilities, which is why most mass produced games are terrible (candyland, sorry, parcheesi, life, cranium, and all that other dreck). One has to throw in ferocious competition to make it worthwhile, of course. I imagine a great Buffalo board game would allow players to compete against each other as rival railroad operators (Buffalo used to have 30+ railroad companies!), or grain mill captains of industry. We could also take the game in a different, more post-apocalyptic route, involving mercenary armies and such as we try to carve out our little pieces of the industrial waterfront. I pretty much find my fantasy life involves entirely different social and political beliefs than my real one. Does that mean anything?