Buffalo: Rust Belt Art Star

by / Mar. 9, 2016 3am EST

Born and raised Buffalo gal, the East Side to be exact. My neighborhood has an unexplainable magnetism despite its decay. Resurgence, gentrification, an unearthed underground art scene, musical revolution, and love for the place that we all call home, our legacy. More than just crazy tailgating, snowstorms, the smell of Cheerios, and chicken wings. 

When I was a senior in high school and deciding where to go to art school, the dream was New York City. Then UB was free, full scholarship; I would carry the equivalent of a house payment for any school in the Big Apple. One night I went to a show at the Western New York Book Arts Center, and the 12/8 Path Band started playing and marching. They took the entire art opening on the Metro Rail all the way to Soundlab. A magical moment of spontaneous art, bonding among and dancing in the streets with strangers. Our numbers grew; they joined because it was rare artistic bliss. In that moment I knew staying in Buffalo for college was the right choice. The next day I enrolled with no regrets. 

I immersed myself in creating a stronger community. The underground venue Nobody’s changed me—creative anarchy, supportive misfits, and DIY brilliance. Buffalo is a city with an artistic underbelly like no other. Dig deeper, enter the spaces that scare you, embrace the charm in non-tradition, and get dirt under your fingernails. We throw art parties in grain elevators and abandoned art deco train stations, giants from a former industrial glory. Rising from nothing, we gain power in collaboration; the best art comes from despair. We get a lot of shit for loss of jobs and Super Bowls, bad weather and politicians, but nobody can take away the fact that we are good at what we do. In Buffalo we go hard. 

The Buffalo Infringement Festival is proof, running the last week of July each year: a grassroots counterculture festival started in Montreal by Donovan King as a protest to the Fringe, it rejects corporate sponsorship and accepts all applicants. Art can happen any place or time without a budget, 11 days of expression under the radar and in your face. The city is transformed into a circus of art freaks, freedom, not restricted by the bondage of censorship or competition. I am one of the visual arts organizers. I also have about 10 different projects, art installations, themed parties, kids events, performances, etc. I ride around on my trike and breathe it all in. We have incredible original music, theater, circus talent, visual art, and experiences that defy categorization—especially when in the streets. Applications are online at Don’t be scared: My advice is to jump in head-first with your eyes wide open. 

I also work as a bartender at Hot Mama’s Canteen and at the Hostel Buffalo Niagara. (Yes, we have a hostel.) I feel like I am in a unique position as a local cultural ambassador. I tried to explain to a Canadian couple why Main Street is so abandoned, a former hub of commerce stunted, now finally re-opened. My grandfather used to own a boxing gym on this same strip of Main back in the day, a place where Miles Davis once wanted to work out. My grandpa said, “Who did he fight?” My father’s family watching the St. Patricks Day parade from the window. People shopping and living their lives. Now a virtual social wasteland, a skeleton of former glory. I see Main Street bustling again; just don’t drive into the open pit of the train to nowhere. The incredible architecture is among hopeful bright spots: the new Main Studios, Squeaky Wheel, the iconic Shea’s Buffalo, the colorful art from in the from Starlight artists in the BOX Gallery, and Julian Montague’s birds on display at Buffalo Place. There’s Allen for the party and Elmwood for the shops. New Grant Street commerce and the triumphant rise of Black Rock are testaments to the strong will of this new generation of young, artistic, urban trailblazers and hardworking immigrants. 

Buffalo is where dreams become reality. You can be young and own a home, be a cyclist, have a sustainable urban farm, run a DIY art space, food co-op, bar, coffee shop, or used book store, volunteer, and maybe raise a family if that’s what you want. I will travel the world, but my roots will always stay grounded here. 

My dad and I wore our Bills gear to Disney World so everyone knew where we came from. I now have a faded Bills tattoo on my ankle and carry my love for this place with everything I do. I enjoy meeting Buffalonians in other cities, we find each other, the weirdos wearing shorts and riding bikes in a snowstorm. Nothing to lose, a city of resurrection, a people who have already been through it, overflowing art scene, and a pleasant surprise for weary wanderers. Breathtaking sunsets, seasons, food, art galleries, sports, parks, unwavering pride, and a warmth even in the coldest depths of winter. Buffalove is the re-claimed shiny bits of stuff from the grey mountains of dirty snow after the thaw, the hope for a brighter future. People leave, but they always return.

Cat McCarthy is a visual and performance artist, a burlesque and drag performer with the Stripteasers, part of the Queen City Kings and the Vintage Vaudeville Caberet, founder of the Buffalo Burlesque Collective, visual arts coordinator for the Buffalo Infringement Festival, and a volunteer for Food Not Bombs