On Trauma & Resilience in Buffalo, NY
January 8, 2023 Jamey Alea 0 Comments
2022 was a hard year.
It was hard on me personally. I lost several friends this year, including two of my best friends, to sickness and death. I dealt with a real betrayal by my estranged father. I survived car accidents and illness and more grief than I’ve been able to process.
It was even harder on my communities.
Anyone who has been paying attention to current events at all will be aware of at least some of the ways the trans community has been coming under attack. States are trying to take away our rights and separate us from our children, trying to criminalize our very existence. Like we saw in Colorado Springs, our public spaces are never safe to exist in. It isn’t the focus of what I’m going to talk about here, but the never-ending barrage of bad news is exhausting and it would be an oversight not to mention the way it has worn on me throughout 2022.
But also… my city. Buffalo has endured a lot of trauma recently. More than one community should ever have to, I think, and at the end of a year already highlighted by trauma, after the inconcievably heartbreaking racist mass shooting at Tops in May.
And 2022 was capped off with more tragedy, mainly in the form of the Blizzard of ’22, which just eclipsed the famous Blizzard of ’77 as the worst storm in Buffalo’s history. We spent 6 full days, including Christmas, snowed in and under a total travel ban. We were dumped on with 4 feet of snow and 2 days of hurricane-level winds creating whiteouts and incredible snow drifts. The roads were so impassable that emergency services were suspended for several days. Much of the city was without power or heat for much of the storm. Over 3 dozen people died.
It was surreal to live through. My husband and I lost heat – thankfully for only one day! – but it was rather harrowing as the temperature in our house dropped to 33 degrees on day 2 of a blizzard that we didn’t know how long would last. Everyone’s holiday plans came to a screaming halt. I was born in WNY and the Blizzard of ’77 has been held up to me for my entire life as THE blizzard, the big one, the one you couldn’t understand if you hadn’t lived through it. It was strange realizing in real time that was no longer true, that I would be saying something similar to the kids in 20 or 30 years.
And it wasn’t through with us. Only a couple days after the travel bans lifted, an absolutely tragic house fire in North Buffalo killed 5 young children on New Years Eve. Then on January 2nd, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during the Bengals game and was taken into critical care after his heart was restarted and he was administered 9 terrifying minutes of CPR on the field. In some ways, I think this last event affected me the most. Damar’s life isn’t more valuable than the lives of these others in my community just because he’s a professional athlete, of course, but… watching it happen live, even on TV, was traumatic. Especially after everything else that we had lived through recently, there was something deeply chilling about watching the likes of tough athletes like Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs openly crying during live TV as they worried about their teammate and friend.
And I think all this tragedy, or at least the processing of it by our community, is intertwined in a lot of ways. When there are people on the East side starving because they can’t get to a store during a blizzard because they live in a food desert, I can’t help but think back to the food access problems that same community faced when their only grocery store was closed due to the shooting in May. When I see people on social media praying for Buffalo because of Damar Hamlin, I can’t help but think about how just a week before, we were getting prayers from all over the country for a totally different reason. I can’t help but think, maybe we could start to process all this trauma if we were able to catch our fucking breath for a minute.
Throughout all this, I feel like I saw the worst and best that humanity has to offer. I absolutely despaired thinking about members of my community freezing in their homes, of them dying in their stranded cars, calling for help that wasn’t coming. I burned with anger over the botched response of our local government, and particularly the utter disregard that our mayor Byron Brown displayed towards people suffering in his city. I watched as they brought national guard and military police into my neighborhood and used them to ticket and punish people rather than help the folks who were still cold and hungry, trapped in their homes. And it hurt me to see my city hurting, neglected by our leaders.
But I also saw countless stories of people going out of their way to care for each other. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of lives were saved due to the actions of my neighbors. Facebook groups popped up overnight where people who needed help could post and strangers in their area would leap to help them. People who owned snowmobiles were out literally saving people from freezing to death in abandoned cars. People were bringing food to their neighbors and opening up their homes to them. During the worst day of the blizzard, two of my neighbors came to check on me, knowing that I didn’t have heat – one brought me a spare space heater, and the other came to take a look at my furnace to help me get it running again. Then the very next day when my house was warm again, I was able to open my door to a friend and her dog who couldn’t stay at home for safety reasons, and I was grateful that others had helped me so that I was in a position to help her. Yes, it’s tragic and infuriating that our government isn’t prioritizing us, but it was heartening to see the ways we’re capable of prioritizing each other. Community solidarity is incredibly important.
With the Damar Hamlin thing too, while it was distressing to see the (very small minority of) folks who tried to use this for their own (repugnant anti-vax) political ends, overall it was pretty amazing to see the way everyone came together, crossing the lines of team affiliation, in concern for the life of this frankly amazing young man. (And it’s easier than ever to say something positive about this tragic situation, since Damar is having a miraculous recovery, awake and communicating at full mental capacity less than a week after the incident!) I’ve been particularly in my feelings about the way the rest of the Bills team has been handling it – these athletes are role models to our city and beyond, and I’m so moved by the way they’re modeling how to express their emotions and tell their friends they love them. Seeing my football team cry was scary in the moment, but in retrospect, it’s sending a message to the young men of our community that it’s okay to cry and that it’s important to be there for each other when times are tough. I love that.
I’ve often heard people comment on Buffalo’s “resilience” and I agree it’s true. This city has been through a lot, over the past year and the past two weeks and also throughout its entire history. Buffalo is, in so many ways that are so much bigger than sports, the definition of an underdog. But hey, who doesn’t love an underdog?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where that resilience comes from, and it’s clear to me that it’s from the people here and the loyalty that we have to each other. They call Buffalo the “City of Good Neighbors.” Do I feel that way every single day? No, of course not. But do I feel that way on the darkest days when it matters? Yeah, I’d say that I do. I felt it on Christmas day when a group of my neighbors on the West side got together to celebrate with an eclectic meal of whatever various foods we were able to scrounge up. I felt it when I finally made it out of my house and walked down Grant St, seeing all the folks helping each other shovel themselves out. I felt it in my local sports bar as we all sat together in silence for 9 awful minutes, waiting for the first news about Damar.
Buffalo isn’t always the easiest place to live and honestly, my heart is still incredibly heavy. But I love Buffalo, and I feel loved back by it.