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City of Light

City of Light - Lauren Belfer "City of Light", huh? It's been a long time since Buffalo had such a flattering nickname. These days, when the media tries to portray Buffalo NY favorably, they show the anaseptic skyline of passably-maintained (from a distance) buildings in downtown. The pictures are always from afar, taken by helecopters floating in mid-air, viewing the city at impossible angles its inhabitants will never experience. They aren't images of a real place, they're more like a movie set of what they want you to think Buffalo is.. a sort of "best side", high above the poverty, tragedy and dispair of ground level. The real Buffalo- the place where actual people live, and work (if they can find a job), and eat and fight and fuck is not fit for broadcast. Of all American cities, it is only behind to Detroit and Cleveland for percentage of inhabitants living in poverty. Those splendid skyline shots above don't admit the boarded-up homes and churches proclaiming the disintegration of community, the abandoned factories evidencing the city's prolonged economic decline, or the occasionally-remembered "Love Canal" toxic waste dump in nearby Niagara Falls. This book is a form of escapism from all of that. It harkens back to the late 1800's, when Buffalo was wealthy and abuzz with exciting social and economic activity. It was the first city lighted with electricity, powered by Nicola Tesla's pilot hydroelectric plant on the Niagara River. In those bygone glory days, Buffalo was on the cutting edge of technology; the Silicon Valley of the 1890's. Sad to say, the city's prominence probably peaked in 1901, when it was the site of the Pan American Exposition. Family lore has it that my great grandmother and grandfather attended the Expo on their honeymoon, so my roots in the area are at least one-hundred years old.Still, like so many others in my generation, I couldn't wait to get out of Buffalo at the first possible opportunity. All that remains of its Golden Age (capitalized for you, David) are a few statues of local heads of industry, and some old mansions, which have all been either torn down or remodeled into office suites. Reading this homage to the town is bittersweet, because on one hand, a distant echo of civic pride is better than no civic pride at all; but on the other hand, it's hard to read about all the lost grandeur without harboring some resentment towards the leaders who mismanaged the city so badly, for so long. (see References, below) The staggering extent and duration of cronyism, graft and power abuse in local government is legendary -and I blame the public who continues to tolerate it. In an alternate timeline, Buffalo could have competed with any of the current favorites to be a prosperous and desirable place to live. I am subjecting you to all this geographical belly-aching to give you some context. You see, according to her GoodReads author page, Lauren Belfer grew up in Buffalo, and I think on some level this book is a sort of fantasy wish fulfillment for her. On its surface, City of Light is the story of a spinster headmistress (Louisa Barrett) of an upper crust girls' school, whose attraction to debonaire industrialist Tom Sinclair compromises her social and professional standing, and involves her in both industrial espionage and possible murder. Sounds interesting, right? It is. It's a good story. What's even more interesting, though, is that most of the action could have happened anywhere, yet the novel is replete with elaborate and loving descriptions of the "Queen City" (named to pair it with "King" New York). In fact, Belfer spends more time doting on beautiful Delaware Park, the majestic Niagara Falls, and the optimistic buzz of commerce along the Lackawana waterfront than she does on the book's characters. It far exceeds any utility to the story. That isn't a criticism; just an observation for readers to consider. If you aren't from Buffalo, you might miss how devoted City of Light is to developing its idealized notions of place and setting, or you may be unsure why it was written this way. I can't say exactly how, but I think the book is a form of psychological healing for sons and daughters of the area. Maybe it represents channeled anger at perfidious city fathers; or mourning of a passed Great Lakes Shangri-la. Whatever it is, the novel resonates with Buffalo readers, particularly those old enough to remember a time when the city didn't have national associations with economic failure and environmental catastrophe.Like many others, I received City of Light for Christmas in 2003 (the year it was published). Since then, it has come up for discussion with locals more times than I can keep track. One such conversation was with my old Sunday school teacher. I noticed this book on the front seat of her car, as we were talking out in the parking lot. I asked her how she liked it, and she enthusiastically nodded that she did; it reminded her of her childhood growing up in a North Buffalo suburb in the 1930's. When I asked if she thought Buffalo's prominence and dignity would ever be restored she wistfully admitted no, probably not in her lifetime. Then I felt bad for having even posed the question, knowing I had diminished the fun of her reading, and that the answer was so obvious, I didn't really need to ask anyhow.A few years later she died, and I heard she had left a bunch of books to the church library. Out of curiousity, I looked to see whether City of Light was on the shelves there. It wasn't. I hoped that it was just checked out, and somebody somewhere was enjoying it. As the city's population dwindles, and church attendance declines, a lot of churches have struggled to stay open. This Spring, my devout parents told me that our own church- the one my great grandfather had a hand in constructing- may be forced to close its doors forever. If that happens, my parents and the few remaining other congregants will join up with one of the lingering active churches in their town, and our church's assets, including (perhaps) my teacher's copy of City of Lights will be sold off, effectively scattered to the wind, like so much garbage floating on the Scajaquada River. _____________________ReferencesPower FailureImagining Niagara