Over the weekend I helped a friend move back to Buffalo from Bushwick. When we arrived at the NY-33, we shared a moment that is very familiar to those who have passed through this route to Buffalo before, a moment so ubiquitous that the connection to all those who have come before us and all those who are yet to come was tangibly dense: we read from a sign on the highway, “Welcome to Buffalo: An All-America City.”
If English is not your first language, you might miss the joke, and it’s not really funny enough to explain. For grammatical reasons, not much is called “All-America” in this country, and the city of Buffalo is no exception, though that’s not to say that Buffalo hasn’t garnered a multitude of nicknames since its dawn.
The city of Buffalo itself was named for its proximity to Buffalo Creek, but the origins of how this river was named are not exactly clear. Some think early explorers might have mistaken the American bison for Buffalo, which used to inhabit some areas in Western New York. It’s also possible that Buffalo, as translated by the English settlers from Iroquoian, is the name that belonged to a Native American chief from the Seneca tribe, and was given to the river because that’s where he lived.
My personal favorite is the story that maintains that a French fur trader, when first sighting the river, put down his satchel and exclaimed to his fellow merchants, “Beau fleuve!” – beautiful river.
Not unlike the mistake of the early explorers, one of Buffalo’s most common nicknames plays into the misidentification of the American bison for Buffalo. Nickel City, a name that dates back to the early 1900s, became synonymous for Buffalo due to the presence of a bison on the back of Indian Head nickels.
Buffalo also shares a nickname with Paris, but for allegedly different reasons. Both cities are known as the City of Light; for Paris, this is because of the Age of Enlightenment, but the name was given to Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century when the currents in the Niagara River facilitated the production of electricity and its widespread accessibility.
Buffalo has earned several of its nicknames from its on-again, off-again relationship with good economic standing. Once the Queen City—a name either given for its role as a trade port on two of the Great Lakes, or because it’s the second largest city in New York State—it began to be known as the City of No Illusions sometime during the 1980s in the midst of factory closings and Super Bowl disappointments.
It is right around this time that our neighbors joked that Buffalo was the Mistake on the Lake, though thankfully this nickname is more commonly attributed to Cleveland. If you ask any Buffalonian, however, the nickname that seems to stick is the City of Good Neighbors, and we hope that if you and your family are new in town, you’ll find this holds to be true. K