Finding our Tribe

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Me (Stacy), Oliver and our new city. Looking south toward downtown Buffalo, NY.

Have we met? For some of you, upon meeting me, I was probably a bit enthusiastic, chatty, opinionated, scrambling my conversations, trying too hard to figure out who you might like to meet and what resources I might be able to connect you with. For others I might have asked too many questions. Sometimes I am quiet or cold and curt. I think we all wear many hats into many different arenas. Right now, in my strong desperation for building up connections in a new city, I am being a little forward. Maybe I do this without any excuse all the time, but right now it’s getting out of control.

Before we moved to Buffalo I did some research. I researched the usual stuff, like neighborhoods, houses, and schools. I looked endlessly at maps to find libraries, grocery stores, yarn shops, ice cream parlors, children’s venues, natural resource shops, and Canada. I checked meetup.com for interest groups. I looked for bloggers. I read a little of the local papers and magazines online. It all looked good enough.

What had my heart thumping was when I finally found a glimpse of a cargo bike and other cycling families. This was a needle in a haystack endeavor. Search engines were not providing me anything under the terms “cargo bike,” “bakfiets,” “longtail,” “longjohn,” “family cycling,” and many other variations to find families and children on bicycles in Buffalo. There was nothing except Urban Simplicity‘s blog (his son has graduated highschool) and a craigslisting for an Xtracycle. Them some slim pickings.

Then I saw a photo in the Buffalo News covering Play Streets. Or maybe it was on GOBike Buffalo‘s site of a Safe Routes to School event? Of course I can’t find the article or the photo now, because like I said, it was a needle, in an enormous haystack. In the photo, not prominently positioned, was a bakfiets. A bakfiets! This should have made headlines, but not here. Maybe this bicycle was so normal and families riding in boxes was so mundane it wasn’t note worthy. I could only hope.

With in days of arrival in Buffalo we went scouting for a bike map. Something that would illustrate the safest streets for cycling with children. We came home empty handed, however everyone we talked to at Rick and the GOBike workshop said we needed to get in touch with Justin Booth, as he had “this weird bike.” A couple weeks before we relocated, Joe George, with Urban Simplicity, said we ought to connect with Justin, because he had a cargo bike too. Ok, Justin, now we were on a man hunt. I sent him a message on facebook that went unreturned. All those who would drop his name said he was busy with a lot of volunteer work and his family. I respect this. I am this. I still wanted to find this elusive link to what could be a prosperous family bicycle connection.

A week into the school year where the boys attend I asked a man in the parking lot if he worked there, because I had seen him a few times and he was wearing a name tag, which most of the faculty were not doing. He introduced himself as a Say Yes coordinator at #54, our school, and then we talked about my bike where I was buckling Oliver, the three year old, into. Mr. Antoinetti (sp?) mentioned organizing the school’s bike to school day. You don’t say?! He also says he worked with one Mr. Justin Booth and we should meet. Alright, that’s it. Where ever you are Justin, I will find you.

I posted some casual witty remark in a Buffalo Family Bicycling group on Facebook (It has tribe potential, but I’m getting blank stares right now. A lot of helpful insight, but no family riding buddies. Yet.), and I got a reply, from the man himself. We made arrangements to meet up for coffee last week. I dragged my husband with me because I thought, this could be it. We have found our people.

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Coffee with Justin Booth. A significant piece of the people puzzle.

To get to Spot Coffee on the corner of Delaware and Chippewa, you have to go where you have never gone by bike before, and trust that you will arrive safely, and on time. It worked. Here’s how we got from home, in the University Heights, to school on Main, to drop off the boys, then to downtown, on our dual-Yuba morning:


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We used the sidewalk on Main Street, having to walk over the curbs at Humboldt Parkway because there were no curb cut, and slowing down along Forest Cemetery because the asphalt side walk was torn up by tree roots. Then it was groovy. Lafayette Avenue was quiet at 9AM ish, the two directional bike lanes and single directional traffic on Linwood Avenue was sweet. The lack of street signs going south needs some improvement but being met by a bike light at the end made up for the annoyance of craning my head around mid intersection to make sure I didn’t pass my turn. We jogged from Linwood to North Street to Delaware Avenue to catch the new bike lane. Downtown was alive, but not overwhelming with vehicles or people, making Brent feel more at ease having Oliver on my deck as we ventured into new territories.

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Bike traffic lights!
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New bike lane on Delaware Avenue, the southern portion. Striped this summer.
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Bikes, everywhere. About five on the rack in the back and a few on the rack we were locking to.

It’s clear I didn’t do my research well. I was looking for a bakfiets, not a face. Sorry Justin. I was just a little too enthusiastic and hopeful that what would roll up to Spot Coffee was a box full of little children. It’s was also not my expectation that the family man I was seeking out would be the executive director of GOBike Buffalo. Surprise! No one mentioned this to me. Or I wasn’t listening. That’s probably the right answer. We didn’t find our tribe, we found the tribal leader.

We I jabbered on for over an hour, comparing notes on cycling advocacy progress in Buffalo and the work I was involved with in Huntington. We wrapped things up with an open ended “how can I help you?” and “what do you want to do to help?” Then Justin took us on the short tour of the lower west side neighborhood, setting us out on a calm path to Buffalo State to bring Brent to work. It was a joyful and inspiring morning. The stalking sleuthing paid off in dividends.

We still need to reconnect about tossing all my children into his box bike and chugging them upslope for miles on end.

The full day in map view:

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Bikeway that passes under the interstate, close to the lake.
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Still on the bikeway, passing a high school mural wall.
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More of the bikeway where it goes through the Japanese Garden.
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We made it to Buffalo State!
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After a walkabout campus, and lunch, Oliver and I went home, via Delaware Park, stopping for a peace filled moment on Hoyt Lake.

 

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To the ‘Burbs

Quite Parkhurst street in the ‘burbs.

In Huntington, WV you had very few route options for getting out of town regardless of the transportation mode. We wanted to take our bikes to Barboursville, but it was either narrow winding hilly roads, wide faster state highways or the interstate, so we drove. It made the city of Huntington amazing for cycling. You had an oasis of level streets and all your needs met within a small radius. After a while I started to feel landlocked. It didn’t help to stack up our experiences to those of Tiny Helmets or Family Ride, those mamas pull mileage, but I think it comes down to them having access to miles to pull. They had more places to go and further to get there. Welcome to Buffalo.

All the locals say, “everything is 20 minutes away.” They are of course referring to driving, and the series of looping highways and diagonal expressways that get you around and through the town quickly. Those same loops and cut throughs make cycling navigation more…. interesting. However there is easier access to the towns around Buffalo because of the terrain and the way each adjacent city has grown to the point you can’t tell Kenmore from Amherst from Buffalo. It’s posted on a sign occasionally.

For example, last week I set out to get a New York state drivers license. The nearest auto bureau was about 2 miles away into Amherst, one of the largest suburbs, and in the middle of a strip mall.  The route was all residential side streets and stop signs, then a cross walk over Niagara Falls Blvd and around the back side of the shopping plaza. It was so uneventful and pleasant. Oliver and I had budgeted extra time for complications and used to make some Target returns/purchases before our second appointment at Panera with the Buffalo Mommies group again.


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The Auto Bureau bike parking option.

The two complications I had with the auto bureau were parking and the important detail of them taking my only form of photo ID while I wait for them to mail me a new one. The ID I need to show with my debit card, to pick up my children from school, to cash checks. It’s important, and they took it. I had plans to escape to Canada this week and those border patrol folks take their job very seriously. No photo ID, no entry. As for parking, we tied up to the faux pillar by the front window.

Target had a few bicycle parking spaces up front, as I have found all Target’s tend to do. Panera was lacking in anywhere to lock, so we locked the bike to itself in front of a window we could see from our table.

Early morning view from University Station.

These suburbs weren’t too shabby by bike. They also work well by bus. A couple weeks ago I was taking London to her new school using the Metro system. We rode the bus to school together, then I headed back to the University Station, a large bus and train hub in our neighborhood. For the sake of the damp cold weather, and time, I waited a couple minutes then took a second bus north to the same shopping plaza described above to do some school supply shopping. The bus let me off at Trader Joe’s, where there was access to shoe stores, restaurants, book sellers, baby warehouses, and oh so much more. If you need more. Same bus picked me up and took me back to the station where my cargo bike was waiting for me, inside.

The new Trader Joe’s to open in October.


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I can’t say I have strong desires to go shopping (or the DMV) often, but when I do need something, it’s nice to know I can get there easily, safely, and conveniently by many modes of transportation.

Buffalo Museum of Science

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Humboldt Parkway, going south. Freeway over the fence, driving lane, biking lane, painted barrier, parking lane.

It took a while, but 8 days after the start of the school year, London, our 11yo, was finally placed and situated with her peers at Olmsted at Kensington High School. There was a lot of misunderstanding, misstating of information from the school registration employees, lack of returned calls and emails, and some good old fashion “take it to the top” maneuvering, but we got her enrolled in a school we hope will be the best fit between instructional methods and learning style. With everyone that needed to be, at a school and work during the day, I felt a little lighter to travel about the city. Less kids on my bike, fewer kids beside me on their bikes, and no one to argue with about which streets were best, and where to ride. It was me, Oliver, the 3.5yo, and Google maps, taking on our day.

Tuesday we ventured to meet up with someone from the Buffalo Mommies group at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Brent biked the boys to school so Oliver and I hung around home, packed our lunches and bundled up for the ride. It was brisk; maybe in the 60Fs when we departed. We followed the route to the boys’ school, taking Parker Avenue south, turning down the side walk on Main Street and then navigating the cross walk to Humboldt Parkway’s bike lanes. The pedestrian light is still not working. I will need to call that in.


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The bike lane is sandwiched between parked cars on the right and a single direction of low volume traffic on the left with on and off ramps to the expressway. For city streets, this one is calm, freshly paved and level. We cruised through, made a left at our light and blink, we were there.

Our arrival was followed by a woman on a bike, whom I inquired with about how to get back home. Since this bike lane is one direction, and the other side of the express way, which is the other direction of Humboldt Parkway ends half way to Main, I wasn’t sure what to do. The last visit to the science museum we took Fillmore Avenue. It was a straight shot from the museum to Parker & Main, which could take us to pick up the boys at school, or carry us on home. However, Fillmore is in a rough neighborhood. The sidewalks are broken, covered in glass and often serving their duty to strollers, walkers and store patrons. The street isn’t much better. It widens to four lanes in places and then shrinks back to two with curbside parking. Feeling safe is important. Me, my preschooler, my bike, in a new, large city. We need that feeling of security. The cyclist suggested we head further west and catch Main, which added miles, but might be a good choice, although we’d be on the sidewalk there. Main is a wide through way with faster traffic. It’s a designated bike route, but not a very safe and practical one for children, or me.

We met up with Nicole and her preschooler from the mom’s group. I chatted up another four child family and one of the museum staff members. I was certainly in “desperate for adult conversation” mode. We explored spaces we enjoyed last time, nibbled some lunch and toured some exhibits that were new to us. Before anyone realized, three hours had whisked away and it was time to pick up the boys from school.

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We loaded up the Yuba and made a choice of route. We opted to take Humboldt Parkway half way, then skip over to Fillmore and finish our journey. When we crossed over the highway the diagonal groove in the bridge was deep enough to bounce my cell phone out of it’s basket pocket and into the basket and my water bottle onto the bridge. I left the bottle behind (sorry!) and kept moving with traffic. That was the most unintentional of littering and I will pay penance with a neighborhood clean up effort this weekend. Promise.

The ride to school was quick and easy, although not the best of neighborhoods, or the best of timing. There were dozens of school buses dropping off large groups of students at many intersections. I felt I wasn’t welcome on the sidewalks or the streets. A little awkward, but manageable.

With the boys obtained, the bikes loaded, and helmets adjusted, we headed for home. There was a stop for groceries and some chit chatting about the highs and lows of everyone’s days. The weather warmed enough to break a sweat, and in time for the sun to dip low enough to cool off quickly once again.

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St. Joseph’s lit up at night, under a full moon, on Main Street.

We did those after school things, then gathered our coats once again for a post dinner neighborhood meeting at the local community center. The email I received mentioned a collaboration between the association and the city to pave and light a rails to trails path near our home. I didn’t want to miss that conversation, but I did. We arrived a few minutes late and the packed room was moving on to personal accounts of the drunken mob/zombie scenes that occur frequently in the University Heights area. My boys were very unnerved by the descriptions given and to be truthful, I was very surprised to hear our neighborhood described in this way. Apparently we live on a “quiet” street. I hope all their issues can be resolved peacefully, and we get our bike path.

Five Weeks of Buffalo

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Why do people keep calling us minimalists? Maybe *I* am, but those other five are clearly not.
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LtoR: Oliver, Elliot, Avery, Brent, Eiki, London. Welcome to Buffalo.

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We sold our only vehicle the weekend before we left West Virginia. It was a financial decision, but none less one we knew we can handle after two years of choosing to ride our bicycles and making efforts to live more locally. My dad came down from Ohio to help us with the move, so we packed five of us in his two door Civic and two rode in the cab of the moving truck with the crated cats. The short story goes like this….the children and I arrived, then a couple days later the truck, my dad, Brent and the cats arrived. The same afternoon we were unloading the truck, we picked up our Japanese exchange student, Eiki. We spent a few days unpacking, then we started to slowly get out and explore.

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Biked to the car share. We took the train home after returning the van.
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We were invited to pick blueberries.
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Pedestrian/cycling ramps that bridge over the highway.
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All day bus/train passes.
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A single line subway/train from our neighborhood to downtown.

We have, since that day, used the car share a few times, taken a day to go downtown on the train and buses, spent a full day going downtown on bikes, and have managed trips to the zoo, science museum, grocery, bike shops and workshops, parks, schools, farmers markets, food coop, suburban shopping plaza, tool library, bookstores, and Brent’s office, all with our bicycles. The weather has been amazing. The rental house is serving us well. The distances aren’t ideal, although manageable. The terrain is mostly level with inclines here and there, that still have me yearning for an e-assist. Diversity of language, race, religion, age, and income is plentiful. Many things cost more and taxes are higher. C’est la vie.

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Science museum. Meandered 7miles to get there and 5miles to get home.
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1 of 4 neighborhood grocery stores within a mile.
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Back to school picnic day. We were the only cyclist, and have been the only cyclists, however, there is a small bike rack. That’s something.
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Children’s area at the Elmwood Arts Festival.
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Our first dinner out, a tourist destination five blocks away from home.
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Avery’s new yoga studio, 7minute bike ride through the ‘hood.
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GOBike racks are offered up for free if you own a business. They even install. These were at the entrance to the zoo. We took the last spot and filled it up with five bikes for 8 people.
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Canalside harbor and locks area has ships, markets, festivals, monuments, music and more. It’s also clear on the otherside of town. We took the train this day, but it would likely be an 8 mile ride, if I ever get up to doing it.
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Allentown “bubble window.”
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GOBike workshop in an old station building, 2miles from home! Used parts, free help, bikey people. Although we were still “outsiders.” Cargo bikes are not common. Our two Yubas make the total Yuba population a whopping 3 in the city. I have seen one Xtracycle and a couple tandems. We have yet to see any cycling families outside the park/recreation trail.

I haven’t been tracking expenses as closely this past year, but I did start tracking transportation costs after selling the van. Since our arrival, we spent $98.50 in August, not including Eiki’s personal transportation, for which he is responsible, and $126.00 thus far into September. We have been using the bus and train more often this month (and I have sometimes been overpaying when I am not paying attention), and we had one taxi ride ($30). I suppose that number could be about $50 more if you include the new locks we bought for the bikes. I should think about how I want to track these numbers.

Enrolling the children in school was a saga, for which I have a lot a confidence will bring about a positive and rewarding outcome. Or so I keep telling myself. Eiki will be going to private school 10 miles south of our home, but using bikes and public transit (passes provided by the school). The school was arranged before his arrival. He has already been selected for the varsity soccer team and utilizes this combo of travel almost daily for practices. We had no shortage of bicycles for his use. Oliver will be staying home another year, and the boys are going to a public preK-4 school about 2 miles from home. We biked to school for about a week, then the weather got a little wet and we let them ride the bus. London was accepted into a gift and talented public high school that serves 5-12th grades after a week of delays and “navigation” of the system. The school is 2.5-3.5 miles from home depending on how you want to get there. We test rode it and were not pleased, so she’s likely taking the big yellow school bus most days until we find a route we feel is safer.

As moves go, this one has been uneventful. There are still a lot of boxes in the children’s room to unpack. I am waiting to put together their shelving.  There is a stack of art in the sunroom, where we set up our office, and a stack in the garage.  I am forward with people walking down our street, introducing ourselves as new and asking too many questions, seeking opinions and ideas. It seems we have joined every business and organization that has a membership as some effort to get to know the neighborhood and save some money on entertainment. It was less expensive to pay $60 for science museum memberships than to visit twice with seven people. The tool library was a $10 annual fee, but we would have spent significantly more on a cultivator, grass shears and an electric voltage meter. Going there to check out rubber mallets and crow bars has been better than finding a toy store for the children. Interestingly, we haven’t joined GOBike Buffalo yet. We need to. They have a workshop close by and they have bike lockers at the nearest train station.

Although we haven’t found any bicycling families yet, we hear lore of them being in other downtown neighborhoods. It’s just a matter of time. And when I do find them, I think it will be time for Buffalo to have a Kidical Mass.

Our Path from WV to NY

A month ago we announced our move to Buffalo, NY and all the tribulations and feelings that go with such a decision. We heard back from several people about their own experiences and considered it all deeply. While we waited for Brent to wrap up work at Marshall we paired down our belonging, started boxing things up, looked into NY housing options, and pushed our house (politely) on anyone willing to listen. Now, with four days until the truck pulls away from WV, we have a place rented in Buffalo, sight unseen (thanks to new colleague), and a sales contract on our house in WV pending the usual inspections.

To run along side this, we are selling our home at a loss. We will need to payout cash at closing, which we found by selling our minivan (thanks to a friend referring us to a friend). There were several options for securing the funds, but we wanted to walk away from WV without additional debts. A clean break. I will give you all a numbers breakdown…

  • We financed $132,000 in 2006 for the home
  • Invested nearly $3,000 each of the 7 years we resided there ($21,000)
  • We agreed to sell the home for $125,000, minus our portion of closing costs (roughly $10,000)
  • We owe two banks a total of $120,000 to pay the balance of the mortgages
  • Therefore we will need $5,000 to close on the sale and the $21,000 in improvements combined with the $114,500 in P&I payments over the years are evaporated into the economy

This analysis tells me we are not very good with our money, home buying should probably include a lot more cash down and less financing, and we are presented with the opportunity to make some changes for our future. With the sale of our house we reduced our debt to only student loans and a pesky credit card purchase for a new work laptop for Brent. For the first time ever, we have a positive net worth (you know, in the financial world).

We are renting a single family home four miles from Brent’s new employer. We hope he can continue to bike commute. The NY rent is less than our WV mortgage. The space is also slightly smaller. The utilities are also projected to be less, thanks to the owners being savvy on insulation and new replacement windows. The land lords are also responsible for a portion of the utilities and maintenance. We see this as savings.

With the sale of our mini van we enrolled in Buffalo Car Share. There was a small Yaris within walking distance of our new home, and several other options (a mini van) we could reasonably ride transit or bike to. Brent’s employer has a discount relationship with BCS, and the membership includes insurance and gas for the vehicles.

Buffalo has a more extensive and timely transit system that includes busing and a light rail, at twice the cost of the one in Huntington (I hope not to compare everything, but it helps for those following along from “home.”) The airport is 7 FLAT miles from our house, downtown looks to be between 6-9 miles, but we will be between the city of Buffalo and the suburb of Amherst (where we could reasonable bike to a *gasp* mall). There are at least two pools, multiple parks, a library, bookstore, several groceries, coffee shops, yoga studios, zoo, and countless other unknown things within our comfortable 2-3mile radius. We will continue to bike. I am actually looking into a box bike now. I feel the timing might be right.

We are not committing ourselves to a car-free life. We will see how things develop. I keep hearing about these transportation prohibitive winters. Avery’s medical care needs might change. And then there is this; one of my first challenges will be the arrival of our exchange student two days (fewer than 36hours) after we pull into our new drive way. I don’t know a thing about this child, or how much luggage he will be carrying. He might not be able to ride a bike. Bringing our family up to seven members will add to many interesting scenarios. Stay tuned.

With all that said, I have more boxes to pack. More things to sell and give away, mail to forward, warmshowers and paperbackswap to put on hold, and appliances to clean.  My minimalist ways are not shared evenly with all members of this home. Those children have a lot of arts, crafts, legos, books, and goodwill.

Cheers from West Virginia to where ever you find yourselves.

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