Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Update: I am deeply saddened to have discovered that Nicholas Howe died of Leukemia nearly two years ago. I guess I won’t be meeting him any time soon after all.

I just finished a great book that I stumbled upon by accident while browsing at William Stout Architectural Books last weekend. It’s by UC Berkeley professor Nicholas Howe and is titled Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin.

It caught my eye at the bookstore because it has a photo of one of the Buffalo grain elevators on the cover with the frozen expanse of Lake Erie stretching in every direction. It’s a sight I am very familiar with as it is next to the highway that goes from Hamburg (where I grew up) to downtown Buffalo, and I’ve passed it more times than I can count. For many years, there was a huge blue-green rusting cruise ship docked next to it.

The book is about how the places we live change us and make us who we are, and what it means to write from various locales. The book starts with a description of Buffalo, where the author grew up and where his family had lived for several generations to Paris, Oklahoma, Berlin and finally Columbus, Ohio. I found the book particularly fascinating because not only did I grow up in Buffalo, but I have lived in Columbus and I’ve ended up in the Bay Area- where Howe moved shortly after the book was finished to teach at Berkeley.

Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze

Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze

I don’t think it was until I reached graduate school that I realized how fundamentally different peoples’ sense of the world could be, even amongst people who grew up in the same country speaking the same language. There were people in my classes who didn’t realize that there were parts of the country like Detroit (or Buffalo) where full grown trees had pushed their way up through buildings and railroad tracks vacated decades earlier. Seeing this gives you a world view where you realize how transitory the world around you can be, despite its seemingly permanent materiality. It is definitely at the core of how I view architecture and the urban realm.

Now I have to bump Berlin and Paris up my list of places I want to visit.