Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Buffalo vs. Charlottesville, Part II

What makes a city a great place to live? Why will people flock to one area and flee from another?

The weather is a factor. Buffalo always loses points when the city rankers consider its long winter. This is unfair, in light of the fact that the rankers don't seem to consider a hot summer to be as much of a drawback. It's not fun to be cold, but it's equally uncomfortable to be too hot; to work up a sweat walking from your front door to your car; to be unable to exercise outdoors after 8:00am--unless you want to risk heatstroke. And here's something no one seems to consider: some people like winter.

When we first moved here, Charlottesville's wimpy winters depressed me. They still do. In Buffalo, you send your kids to school in their snow pants and they go out to play at recess every day. In Charlottesville, the kids are kept in from recess if there is snow on the ground. How lame is that?

Buffalo winters are long, it's true. The first snow will sometimes come in October. Last year, a freak storm dumped 23 inches of snow on the city on October 13. The last snow comes in April, and I have seen snow in May. The average snowfall for the season is 90", but sometimes that entire allowance will fall in a single week. On the bright side, Lake Erie, which cools the climate in the summer, keeps the cold from getting too extreme, so the end result is snowy winters that are usually not unbearably cold, although the windchill can be formidable.

Still, the Buffalo summer makes up for its winter. The temperature rarely reaches the 90s, there is less humidity than we have here in Virginia, and a cool breeze comes off the lake. And the lake, besides keeping the summer cool is giant summer playground. One thing that sucks about Charlottesville is that it's not situated on a large body of water. I really miss living near the Great Lakes--Buffalo sits right on Lake Erie, but is also close to Lake Ontario.

When you think about it, it seems preferable to live in a city with a mild summer and a harsh winter, since summer is when kids are out of school and everybody wants to be outside, whereas in the winter, you've pretty much planned on being indoors anyway. It's so frustrating to live here and be stuck inside on hot summer days.

My point is, a city with a harsh winter should not automatically be branded as a bad place to live.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Charlottesville vs. Buffalo

We returned this week from a two week stay in Buffalo NY, the city where Jon and I grew up. As happens every summer when we return to Charlottesville from Buffalo, I feel the urge to move back. There's the lure of family, but it's not just that. Buffalo is a really great city.

Charlottesville, as we are all painfully aware, is always topping some list of great places to live. Buffalo usually places in the bottom half of these same lists. What is so great about Charlottesville? What is so awful about Buffalo? A comparison of the two cities at opposite ends of the ranking spectrum may prove interesting, although it is too much to include in a single post.

I'm assuming that most people who read this are at C'ville blogs and are already familiar with Charlottesville. Some Buffalo background:

Buffalo sits at the eastern tip of Lake Erie, where it empties into the Niagara River, in western New York, nearly a 400 mile drive to New York City. It covers a land area of 42 sq. miles with 30 sq. km of surface water as well. It is located almost due north of C'ville, at a longitude of 78.85 west of the Prime Meridian. (Charlottesville is at 78.45)

The area was settled in 1790, with the Holland Land Company buying the land in 1803 and laying out a village. The village was burned to the ground by the British, its citizens taken hostage to Montreal in 1813 during the War of 1812. Incorporated as a city in 1832, Buffalo became a major shipping city due to its location on Lake Erie and at the western end of the Erie Canal.

In 1900, Buffalo was the 8th largest city in the US, with a population of 352,387. In 1940, the population was 575, 901. Now its population is declining rapidly, down to 276,059 in 2006 and its rank is somewhere below the 50th largest city in the US. The population density is 7,205/sq. mile. C'ville's population density 4,389/sq. mile.

It's heartbreaking to see the decline of this beautiful city. With the shipping trade--19th century Buffalo was the largest grain handling port in the world--came money and there are still many old mansions to gawk at as you drive down Delaware Ave., Chapin Parkway, and dozens of other elegant streets. General Mills still bakes Cheerios down by the waterfront. I smelled the familiar scent of baking Cheerios last week when I took my son to the downtown library.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Life and Death

I sat, garbed in a hospital gown, awaiting a tetanus shot, thinking about how when someone dies, you expect everyday life to remain in suspended animation for a few days afterward. It never works out that way of course. The real suspended animation happens before the death, when everyone waits with baited breath for news. You get the phone call and like a truck speeding past you on the highway, real life comes rushing back, sometimes in absurd manifestations.
Jon's father died. After a call from his mother Friday morning, he rented a car and drove like a bat out of hell to Buffalo. He arrived to sit up the night with his father, who died at 11:00 the next morning, at home, surrounded by family. He had been sick for a long time.
And so I got the call I was expecting, at work, and suddenly real life went into overdrive. After the initial shock wore off (and death is always a shock, even when expected) I became aware of the gargantuan task ahead of me of shutting up the house, packing up four children and driving nine hours to Buffalo. I remembered that I was scheduled for my nursing school physical on Monday morning. It took six weeks to get the appointment and no physical means no nursing school.
Which is why at 5:00PM on Saturday, when I ought to have been packing, or dragging the luggage carrier out of the basement, I was sitting on an exam table in an urgent care clinic awaiting a tetanus shot—the one thing that stood between me and my nursing clinicals—and musing about life and death.

Speaking of the luggage carrier. It is one of those white ones from Sears that looks like a giant whopper box. All the dorkiest cars have them.
Last night I dragged it out of the basement, its bow still encrusted with the dead bugs of last year's trip. My arm was already stiffening from the tetanus shot, but I hoisted it to the roof of the minivan by myself. There used to be locks on the side to hold it shut. These stopped functioning when they became misaligned and Jon broke the key off in the lock. I kept the broken key on my key chain for years as a reminder of what happens when I violate my father's Three Principles for Efficient Living:
  1. Always pay cash for a car.
  2. Always keep your tools clean and organized.
  3. Never buy anything at Sears.
We now keep it closed with a nylon strap. I worked today and commuted by car, which I almost never do. It is unfortunate that the ceiling in UVA hospital's parking garage is exactly the same height as my car-plus-Sears whopper box. I smacked against every single “PARKING THIS WAY” sign that hung from the ceiling, setting them swinging merrily with a loud metallic clash. At the end of each row the top of the Whopper Box scraped sickeningly against the concrete roof. I had to park near the top resulting in many, many clanging, swinging signs and sickening scraping sounds. There was a guy driving directly behind me and I could read his mind—I am superpowered that way. Every time I scraped the ceiling, he rolled his eyes and thought, “What an idiot.” We rode the elevator together in an embarrassed silence. I considered saying something, but what would I say? “I know I appear to be a very stupid sort of person but my father-in-law died and ....
On the drive out I wasn't so lucky. After the second turn the nylon strap broke and the whopper box flew open. Thus renewed reflections on the absurdity of life in the face of death.
I escaped the garage--my second instance of divine intervention in the past three days—and drove home with the whopper box top flopping sloppily. It is now secured with bungee cords. We leave for Buffalo tomorrow and let's hope there isn't another need for divine intervention.


Friday, July 06, 2007

This Old House

Maybe I should join one of those blogging sites specifically for old house owners because one thing that gives old house owners immense pleasure is trading horror stories. As in most areas, there's considerable one-upmanship involved:
Oh, you were without a roof and had to shower outdoors in February? Well, our house was built in 789AD. It was pretty smooth sailing once we removed the skeletons from the basement, but for eighteen months we had no floors at all and had to hop from joist to joist. The kids fell through to the basement a few times, but pain builds character and Timmy gets to remove his C-collar in just six weeks!

Today Jon and I completed the ultimate old house DIY: we replaced the sash cords in one of our windows. Was this job a bitch? Bitch doesn't even come close. It was ten paper cuts, a twelve hour drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, getting overcharged for your coffee, stubbing your toe on a door and having to abort a parallel parking attempt—with witnesses-- all rolled into one.
I had been planning the Great Window Repair almost since the day we moved in. I remember discussing it with a carpenter. He sized the two of us up with narrowed eyes. “The first time you do it will take six hours. After that, two.”
Anyway, there were always more important things to do, and after all, windows can be propped open with a stick, so what's the big deal? Until Tuesday when I was nearly decapitated by my living room window.
Getting the sashes out was hard. It involved removing a seemingly insignificant strip of wood called the “parting bead” which is what separates the upper and lower sashes and keeps them in their tracks. It is, of course, held tightly in its groove by many coats of paint. Actually, there are two parting beads that need to be removed. You also need to remove some of the window molding and need to be prepared to totally ruin the paint on the interior. Sashes out, I thought the hard part was over.
All you are doing is replacing a broken rope with a not-broken one. What could be simpler?
Pictorial evidence—these sash weights haven't seen the light of day since the McKinley administration.
There's a giant hole in the house!
One of our big difficulties, once we got the new ropes attached to the sashes, was threading them over the pulleys and getting them to drop. Jon did the threading while I shoved my arm up, blind, into a cave-like recess, groping uselessly for a rope that never descended. The rope frayed and Jon melted it with a lighter. The window wells are full of fluff—insulation, apparently—and I was concerned that the lighter technique would ignite the fluff. In a moment of inspired stupidity, I licked the tender skin on my inner arm and pressed the still-burning rope end to it.
After that we used a glass of water to cool the ropes. Which descended eventually but only because of divine intervention.
The silliest problem: replacing the parting bead. When you take it out, the lower sash is already out of the window and not in your way. When you put it back, you have to somehow work it in between the two sashes. Here's how we handled it.
It's done. It's like a miracle. If I want to open the window the sash goes up, and it stays up. The upper sash does not sag (or hurtle down, nearly killing you.) This particular window faces the porch and its wood is rock solid. With the sash cords replaced, it is as perfect as it was the day the house was built, roughly 100 years ago. Cheap replacement windows in an old house are an abomination. I am so glad we were able to save this window.