Those not born near the lee shore of Lake Erie often have a difficult time understanding the bond that exists between those of us who were blessed to be born and raised in Western New York. This is especially true of people from farther regions of the country. They don’t “get us.” Cities and regions are like babies who grow up to become very different kinds of people. Each has their own identity based upon genetics and history.
Most places around the country seem to have lost their distinctly regional identity in an age of franchised restaurants. There are not many places left in the United States where a specific kind of cultural identity stands out as much as it does in Western New York. What evidence is there to back this up?
History. At the time Western New York was being settled in the early 1800’s, it became regarded as a “western outpost” (that pleasure is shared with Pittsburgh as well). Like the wild west being settled in the late 1800’s, the early 1800’s were a time when moving to Western New York was akin to living on the edge of civilization. The rush of people from Europe to the United States before World War I through Ellis Island created a generation of people who formed the backbone and essence of Western New Yorkers today.
I know this because I am a granddaughter of two incredible people who escaped Austria to settle in South Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century. Grandma was 16 years old when she and my grandfather came across the Atlantic with a baby, three months old. Her husband spoke five languages and found a job with an insurance company in Buffalo, New York. It was time to escape Austria, as the Austria-Hungary Empire was collapsing.
My grandparents were one of hundreds of thousands of people who settled in the Buffalo area after factories grew for decades after the Erie Canal was built. Buffalo was settled in distinct neighborhoods, primarily by language affiliation. If you traveled along Ridge Road back in the day, you could move through blocks of streets where ethnic groups congregated as they tried to make a life for themselves in a new and strange land.
Fast forward a few generations and we still find that many Western New Yorkers today have roots that travel back to the European immigration period of the mid-to-late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They had children who had many children. The population grew from the base of residents already there. By the 1970s, the population began an unprecedented exodus as the factories that supported people moved elsewhere or closed.
Since that time, Western New York has been a net exporter of people to other parts of the country. However, immigration of new people moving into Western New York has been much less than in other parts of the country over the last 50 years. Therefore, many of the people who live in Western New York have very deep roots in the region. I believe to some extent this explains our uniqueness as a region of people who are very passionate about how our legacy is defined by others.
Why is this important or relevant to NFL sports fans today? The fans of the Buffalo Bills are uniquely deep in their geographic roots, unlike any other team, other than perhaps the Green Bay Packers. Therefore, in the minds of many Bills fans, we take it very personally when fans of other teams disparage Buffalo, not just for the folly of our sports teams, but because of our very distinct cultural identity.
The pendulum is just starting to swing in terms of Western New York emerging from cold storage after 50 years of being made a laughing stock around the nation. I lived through the jokes about Western New York lobbed at me after living in five states in the western U.S. Like many native Western New Yorkers, I had to leave the area to have a chance to maximize my career potential. But just like many other “transplants,” I never lost my root system. It’s as deep into Western New York as ever, more than 30 years after leaving the region.
Most people from other regions of the country do not ‘get’ us. They have little or no understanding of what it’s like to grow up like our ancestors who moved to Western New York from many parts of the world. Yes, the weather stinks. We know that and are proud to say that a blizzard is preferable to an earthquake, hurricane, mudslide, or volcanic eruption. So put a sock in it if you are going to rag on our beloved homeland.
Many people from the Queen City already suffer from an inferiority complex from living in the shadow of New York City, and now we find ourselves more than five decades into professional football as fans still waiting for the first Lombardi to be hoisted in downtown Buffalo.
Cue up the four Super Bowl losses. Add to that 14 years of playoff drought, and you can see why there is little chance of any ‘bandwagoners’ left among Bills fans. Props go to those who never grew up in Western New York, but have stood by this football team. There is a special place in heaven for all of you.
Finally, here is a little tidbit of information to share with those who have no clue regarding who we are as a fan base:
We are loud and proud.
We are loyal and compassionate.
We fight each other in good times and hug each other when times are tough.
We don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us.
We will never shut up, give up, or let up.
We will persevere.
We ARE True Grit.
Never has a sports fan base faced the humiliation of defeat in a championship game in any professional sport four years in a row. Don’t feel sorry for us sports world. There isn’t a thing left you can throw at us that we can’t handle.
All we ask as a fan base is that you toss some kindness and prayer if so inclined to our reluctant son, Jim Kelly. Our hearts are broken for this man and his family, who are a deep part of the fabric of who we are as a community of people.
Jim Kelly defines the spirit of what it means to be a Western New Yorker. He is a Western PA guy. He knew but resisted his fate as a young man, only to become a son who we embrace as our own. He married our own, and his children are our own.
Bills Nation is mourning the loss of our iconic Mr. Wilson, and in deep despair as we grapple with the enormous difficulties facing our beloved son. So to all the nation of sports fans who send their condolences, thank you. It is deeply appreciated as we try to move forward as a community of people of proud fighters. We are used to going it alone, but we also welcome support along the way.