For the last two years, I’ve lived in the Windy City of Chicago. Before all that, I spent seven wonderful years traipsing about Buffalo and going to the University at Buffalo; enjoying days spent hanging on the porch of the house I shared with my friends playing indie board games over bourbon, grabbing craft brews and smoking indoors, taking in the now-renamed TITS concert series or Tuesdays in Artpark, and catching the Bills or Sabres play – win, lose or draw.
So why did I throw in the proverbial towel and come back to Buffalo, even after seeing some of the best culture in the country (so many concerts, plays and touring acts to see), great dining (plenty of Michelin-rated restaurants and, of course, Chicago hot dogs and deep dish), convenient public transportation (OK, so that *one* train tried to take an escalator and catch a plane) and delicious breweries (I lived less than a full block from Revolution Brewing, the best and worst thing about my apartment)?
When I first moved to the Second City, I was skeptical that I’d like it. I grew up in one of those literal “more cows than people” towns north of Syracuse (still legally one of the state’s “dry” towns!), and the few times I’d been in a truly big city like New York City or Boston, I hated it. Friends still call me out on talking about all those “concrete towers” and how anti-city I generally was.
But Chicago was different. I lived in the neighborhood of Avondale, an up-and-coming section of the city that’s conveniently located near Logan Square and Wicker Park, or Chicago’s somewhat comparable neighborhoods to NYC’s Williamsburg. Even when I went downtown to any of the several different skyscrapers I worked in during my time there, the streets weren’t as imposing, the crowds weren’t nearly as thick, the skyline wasn’t imposingly bearing down and I never had the claustrophobic feeling I was used to getting in the East Coast cities.
The Midwest somehow channeled the things I liked about cities – the convenience, the nightlife, the access to nearly anything you could ever need and often at any time of the day or night – and made it seem, at times, no more crowded than a busy Amherst street in my part of the city. I often thought of the areas I frequented in Chicago as what Buffalo could have been today if it had been at a busier crossroad of shipping and industry. The people were generally helpful, friendly and relaxed, and I rarely ever felt threatened or unsafe, even stumbling home from a 5 a.m. bar after tying one on.
But why come back?
But I’ve dodged the question: Why come back? Well, even when I moved there, as my Chicagoan friends can attest, I always said the only place that would be my first relocation option was back to Buffalo. This city has a lot going for it, even if the rest of the country doesn’t know it (and frankly, that’s their loss). Sure, the only reason most people know Buffalo is from the invention of chicken wings (which, I assure you as you already know, no one, anywhere else can get right, let alone offer without using the word “Buffalo” as an adjective) and the home of the NHL’s premiere tank team. But I know that this city and region has so much to offer.
First, and we’ll say foremost, it’s affordable. While I was surprised at the fairly affordable cost of living in Chicago, I was in something of a lucky position. My rent was pretty manageable, though it helped that I was renting my place from a former co-worker and friend. Plus, living close to the city’s Blue Line made transport a snap, and I quickly sold my car (speaking of which, if you happen to be selling a car, let me know) within a few months of moving. But it can’t hold a candle to here. A comparable two-bedroom apartment here is as much as half the price of a Chicago rental, and gas, groceries and *gasp* even store-bought cigarettes are cheaper here.
Next, the food scene. Chicago has almost anything you could dream of at your fingertips, and I tried many places during my time. It helped that one of my friends was the head bouncer at the top independent pizzeria/brewery in the country there, and another was a cook for one of the city’s hottest restaurant companies, but I had nearly any cultural taste I could imagine at my fingertips. But you know what I didn’t have? Beef on Weck (Chicago’s Italian beef is a tasty, but lacking alternative). Decent wings. Mighty Taco (though I hear this “Lloyd’s” is a thing I need to get soon). These were the tastes I picked up in my late teens and early 20s as a college student and fledgling adult, and they’d weaseled their way into my heart (possibly as cholesterol, one assumes).
Plus, all of those options are simple and affordable. Don’t get me wrong, I like a $14, elegantly prepared all-natural, Minnesota organic corn-fed, farm raised beef burger with garlic aioli, smoked prosciutto, hickory-smoked pork-belly bacon, rabbit-friendly lettuce and onion topped with Wisconsin extra sharp cheddar on a seven, hand-ground grain pretzel bun as much as the next guy, but I’d just as easily eat chicken finger sub – another thing unheard of outside of WNY – for half that price from the pizzeria down the road.
Another thing – which you won’t believe – is that I also moved back for the weather. Now, hear me out. Chicago, if you look at this delightful map, was at the epicenter of a whole chunk of the Midwest that was colder than normal last year. Global warming, global schwarming! With the constant waves of polar vortices in 2013-14 and ’14-15, the winters were brutally cold and only a bit snowy, which is another reason to return. I grew up on the Tug Hill Plateau, where triple-digit snow totals are the norm. Plus, I was here during the ’07 Great October of Discontent when the ice storm told Buffalo what it thought about trees. Chicago doesn’t get lake effect, generally, being to the west of Lake Michigan, so coming back is a chance to get back in the snowy thick of things. Plus, Chicago tended to bake in the summer, again, not receiving the same cooling effects that Buffalo enjoys from Lake Erie, and summers here are some of the best times you can have.
That’s also another of Buffalo’s allures. Summer in Buffalo brings out the not-too-hot, not-too-cold temps; free and cheap outdoor concerts at Artpark and the Harbor, waterside beers up on the Tonawanda Riverwalk or down at Mickey Rats, motorcycling weather, swimming at beaches and, of course, barbecues. Every weekend, and even most weekdays, there’s something fun to do, whether it’s catching a show or just spending time with friends around town or out in the easy-to-get-to parks. Hell, even just getting on the motorcycle and driving for a casual late-night drive downtown to cool off and see the city by streetlight is a great experience all its own. Something I’d never dream of on Chicago’s highways and main streets (even if the thought of taking a ride once without a helmet had some reckless draw).
There’s also the hockey. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Bills fan too, but hockey’s my passion. Sure, this year and last year, and the year before … haven’t been great, but I bleed blue and gold, and have for years. Just two months after I moved to Chicago, the Blackhawks took the Cup. I’ll never forget the scene – the game-tying and series-winning goals just 17 seconds apart, holding out for the win, the bars all exploding into the streets, police standing back knowing that there was no sense in even trying to clear the fray. But it wasn’t truly my victory. Sure, the celebratory parade may be the closest I’ll get to the Cup anytime soon and I’ve adopted the ‘Hawks as my West Conference team, but I want to be here when the Sabres get it. I want to be a part of the celebrating masses, raucously partying and hoping the city still stands come morning. Like Buffalo, Chicago’s a drinking city with a sports problem – emphasis on problem – and their Cubs’ Curse of the Billy Goat, is my Sabres’ and Bills’ “Buffalo Curse.”
Speaking of drinking, the culture here offers many of the same kinds of fun hangouts and options, but without the crowds and prices. I’ve been to great craft breweries, incredibly fun “barcades,” questionably crowded dives and pricy downtown bars in Chicago. I’ve had probably gallons of PBR and Malört – and my friends are glad my three bottles I returned with have finally been downed – but I also paid much too much and had to put a shoulder down to get to the bars to place an order. Here, I know plenty of great dives that are dives, casual bars that aren’t obscenely crowded or that will cost me half a paycheck to get a few watered down cocktails that are each half spilled by the time I get back to the table.
There are many great bars on Elmwood and Allen, and while the Chip Strip was never my game, it’s still an option. No matter where I go, from downtown to Alt Brews, to Buffalo Tap Room or Pearl Street, they also have another advantage over Chicago: Happy hours. In Chicago, happy hours are illegal, so unless there was a daylong drink discount, drinks cost what they cost and you paid it. Even bottles and cans from the store seem cheaper on the whole, even if it’s going to take me some time to segue back into bottle redemption territory.
Day to day
While it’s been a pretty smooth transition back, so far, though there are some daily conveniences that I’m already missing out on that the big city life had gotten me acclimated to. First, I still only have my motorcycle, which works for day-to-day getting around, but not for cold, rain or groceries. If I needed to get somewhere in Chicago, it was as simple as getting on the bus at the end of the block or jumping on the El train two blocks away.
This was particularly useful with nightlife. Easy access to all the city’s neighborhoods made going out easy, and with so many transportation conveniences there was never a reason to drive, let alone in combination with drinking. There was always access to the (generally) ubiquitous cabs, or I could always order an Uber or Lyft rideshare driver to take me where I needed to be.
I also had gotten used to placing my order biweekly and having Peapod, a delivery service grocer brings what I needed to my doorstep, no trips to the store required. The produce was fresh, the prices were good, and with the frequent incentives and referral programs, the delivery cost was negligible and made it comparable to going to the Jewel-Osco or Aldi’s.
There’s also the venerable shoe-leather express – hoofing it from place to place. That’s not to say I suddenly lost the use of my legs, just lacking the access I had. In my part of Amherst, it’s not terribly convenient to walk much of anywhere. In Chicago, I could walk out my front door and into a Walgreens or Best Buy or brewery within five minutes. Now, that’s easily a 20-plus minute walk – except the few shipping and barber businesses nearby or the corner gas station – and still not affording the same diversity of options.
I write that with the caveat of knowing it’s all in a location, but the convenience to work and the price of rent can’t be beat.
But, at the end of the day, this place just feels like home. I have my friends here, I have my family nearby. My cat is from here, so it’s his home, too, and I like to think it’s just as much mine as well. I’ll never forget Chicago – and the Chicago flag tattoo I got the week before I left the city will help make sure of that – but I’ve still got plenty of space in my heart – and perhaps over my shoulders, maybe I should ask this guy for advice – to give the Nickel City. Man, it’s good to be back.