Documenting the Local Perspective on Buffalo

The National Trust for Historic Preservation talked to more than 500 Buffalonians for a new documentary project

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Buffalo Unscripted

It’s easy to make assumptions about a place. That’s been a problem for Buffalo.

“People just think of [Buffalo as] always being snow covered, with no prosperity and no energy,” says Jason Clement. “It’s a city that is consistently misunderstood.”

To go beyond those misconceptions, Clement and a team of fellow employees at the National Trust for Historic Preservation set out in the city this summer to hear directly from locals about what makes their city great, where its problems lie and how it can embrace its local assets. They brought cameras and filmed the whole thing for what’s just been released as an hour-long documentary on the city and its people, Buffalo Unscripted.

Being an organization focused on historic preservation, much of the documentary focused on how the city can invest in and benefit from its heritage. The filmmakers hosted 25 meetups in locations all around town over nine days, and brought out more than 500 Buffalonians to talk about the city. The crew heard from locals about what the city needs to do to revive its economy, how it should embrace its parks and whether its “rust belt” title is appropriate. Using places for their meetups like the city’s abandoned train station, empty grain elevators, local restaurants and dive bars, they drew a diverse audience of participants, which Clement says is much different than the typical preservation scene.

“This takes it out of the house museums and into the streets,” Clement says.

The video is available online, in seven parts on Vimeo. Clement says it’s free to use, and he’s already heard back from some locals who are hosting screening parties.

Clement and his team also worked on a similar documentary in Austin last year, but the scope was much smaller. They talked with only about 100 people for that project. There aren’t any plans yet for a third city, but Clement says more projects like these will definitely develop. He sees the model as a valuable tool to not only gauge the feelings of a city, but also to bring out a lagre spectrum of stakeholders to take part in the conversation. A recent screening of the documentary in Buffalo was shown to a sold-out crowd of preservationists and also activists, urbanists, and young people.

“It brings out all these people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as preservationists,” Clement says.

And in terms of preservation, saving old buildings is only a part of it. For Clement, the idea behind getting these diverse audiences involved is to broaden the reach of what historic preservation can mean, and change the way people interact with their cities.

“We’re looking at preservation as a mix of tools to make a stronger community,” he says.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.