Welcome to the blue collar city of Buffalo, New York. I find myself in my great Uncle Wills old brick home in the center of South Buffalo. The house has the familiar smell of old people, in the foyer are a pair of work boots the leather old and worn, the soles nearly depleted. A layer of dust has formed on the boots that have remained untouched for decades. As I move closer to the kitchen I can hear the recognizable sound of stainless steel clinking on ceramic, the rhythmic noise can only be one thing; Uncle Will’s stirring his ever present cup of joe.
I know this interview is going to take a bit so I head to the fridge to find a cold beverage. Inside the fridge, prune juice I thought “ugh”, tap water will do. My Uncle begins by interviewing me. Uncle Will is curious to know how I’m doing in school and if I like living in Kansas. We talk about family, cars and pets(he has a very fat cat). I don’t want this interview to be formal and stiff so I casually guide the conversation to his earlier years. I want to ask him about WWII but this is not what I want to focus on.
I do ask about his service in the United States Army just to get an idea of how his time in the army prepared him for entering the job market. In his tour of duty he saw himself promoted three times, eventually to the rank of Captain and led a company of sixty men. This is all I want to know of his brief military service. I ask about his homecoming and the first thing he mentions is the excellent growth the economy in Buffalo has made, “it was as if the depression never happened” he says with a half smile and a look of satisfaction.
The best thing is not only was the city of Buffalo prospering the entire nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific was too. I sit quiet and attentive just letting him talk. It’s like a history lecture only it’s just me front and center, completely interested in the subject. I want to know more about Buffalo and the jobs available to him so I implore. “You could just see the smiles on everyone’s faces, people walking with a bounce in their step” he tells me. The reason for the smiling faces was that Buffalo was home to Bethlehem Steel the second largest steel producer in the nation.
Bethlehem Steel employed tens of thousands of the city’s people they offered good wages and a unionized work force, these things kept the grins ear to ear. The steel was mainly sent to Detroit to fuel the auto industries record sales. The primary means to transport the steel was the railroad and this is where Uncle Will found his calling. He was hired for the job almost immediately. His time leading troops in combat made him the top choice for the conductor position. Old Will describes his new job as “Love at First sight”.
Will adored the sound of the methodic turning of the locomotives wheels, the hustle and bustle of the train yard and the fact that he had the privilege to literally drive the economy in a 200 ton, 7000 horsepower machine. “The most efficient means of transportation, steel on steel,” he says proudly. He now commanded trains with at least sixty box cars just like the company of soldiers he led just a short while ago. Uncle Will informs me that though the job often kept him away a lot with trips to Chicago and other mid-western cities he was proud to be transporting the materials to help the U.
S prosper. He coveted every moment he spent with his locomotive the diesel powered Dual-Service Erie-Built Train Master, “I called her Audrey after Audrey Hepburn, they showed her movies to us in the service” Uncle Will laughs as he finishes his statement. Audrey was navigating her way through the extensive network of railways across the country and with that even I feel a bit of admiration of the industry. His devotion to the train industry is fascinating. I ask him to tell me more about his duties as a conductor. The conductor has the duty of accelerating, breaking, changing tracks and supervising the crew, pretty important,” he adds with a chuckle. His days on the helm of the locomotive began to blur together days became months and months turned to years but he says “ every time I pushed the accelerator I still had that goose bump sensation I felt the first time I pushed her to full speed. ” Buffalo was still enjoying economic growth through the sixties still thriving on America’s appetite for steel.
In the late sixties as my Uncle explained he noticed a change, less noise at the rail yard the sound of wheels turning was less prevalent the methodic rhythm slowing down just like buffalo’s economy. Everyone could sense the change and the smiles began to fade. I want to know the reason for this change in demand. Uncle Will proclaimed with anger in his voice “Foreign steel was being imported from places like China and Korea. It was much cheaper and industry wants to save money. ” The lack of demand for Buffalo’s number one export closed the doors of Bethlehem and Republic Steel.
Thousand lost their jobs. “You could call this moment in time the death of our city “he adds. This was and is the beginning of the continual decline of the Queen City. Uncle Will was right unemployment rates were 6% and today is 9. 6% according to the New York State Department of Labor (www. labor. state. ny. us). This downturn affected all subsequent history. Unemployment caused crime rates to rise, drug use was rampant on the east side of town and it was spreading at a rapid rate.
Today buffalo is littered with abandoned homes even ornate Roman Catholic churches have seen their doors and windows boarded up. “The city as I knew it was gone” with these words I hear a solemn sigh. I wanted this interview to be about how the railroad industry affected his life however by the way it started I should have known the interview was just a means for Uncle Will to tell me about the city he watched grow to greatness and the sadness it brings him to watch its decline.
I peer out the window there is a light blanket of snow covering the concrete and the small bush he has in his front yard. It looks pretty and peaceful but looks can be deceiving. Uncle Will mention’s that even in his neighborhood crime was creeping in “the house just two doors down was burglarized just a week ago” he proclaims with a deep sadness in his eyes. I look closer at Uncle William’s face tired and worn like the work boots in the front hall, his soul wearing away.
This man has done so much in his life he volunteered when his country needed him and guided trains on the veins of Buffalo, pumping its blood of steel around the fledging nation. Without sadness there cannot be joy and without depression there cannot be growth. Unfortunately this weary old man is still sitting in his old red recliner coffee cup in hand staring out the window at the city streets once home to the laughter of playing children now quiet and desolate. He says “I’d leave this place but there are too many memories in this old house, too many memories in this old city. ”