The Curse of the Donn Esmonde Column

What better way to explain away systemic failure than to do what they did in the Middle Ages and just blame it on some supernatural curse? 

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy first articulated the concept of the Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino” in a book released in 1990.  It soon became lore – during fall Sox games, the “Reverse Curve” sign on an overpass on the outbound Storrow Drive became “Reverse Curse”. 

So Donn Esmonde, a semi-retired Buffalo News columnist/asshole, came up with a “curse” for Buffalo. This is, naturally, not at all original. Some believe that Buffalo is cursed because President McKinley was assassinated here. It’s much easier than, say, absorbing the details and lessons from Diana Dillaway’s “Power Failure and addressing longstanding ways in which Buffalo continues to stand in the way of its own progress. 

Esmonde’s way of cheering the Pegula family’s purchase of the Buffalo Bills reads more like the rantings of an obsessed geek fanboy writing erotic fanfiction featuring Karen Gillan and Kari from “Mythbusters“. 

If the stars and fates were – for reasons unknown – lined up for decades against the city, those fortunes indisputably have changed. The U-turn has been so dramatic – and the reversal so long overdue – that the dark cloud may have lifted for generations to come.

Note to Fate: It’s about time.

It’s not fate. There is not a single thing about Buffalo and WNY that has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years, except perhaps locals’ attitudes about the city. When the governor throws a billion dollars at your city for economic development, good things would happen anywhere. The funding of ECHDC with money from the power authority helped bring about Canalside, and that was thanks to smart politicians exercising their clout. But do we really need NYPA? Shouldn’t WNY have been benefiting from cheap hydropower for the last century? Couldn’t Albany do something about making it easier to start and do business in New York State instead of just making it rain cash? Our recent election results show just how same old same old our area is.  Lucking into finding a sports-fan billionaire is just that – luck. His purchase of the Bills changes none of the fundamental, underlying problems that we face. 

Any “curse” is of our own creation, and we maintain it lovingly every time we “participate” in our electoral system. 

If indeed there was a dark cloud hanging for decades over our sporting teams and civic fortunes, it’s safe to conclude it has been mugged, mauled, pummeled and smothered into submission.

The way things are going, there will be a shiny Stanley Cup in our trophy case and a Super Bowl parade down Main Street sometime in the next decade. Crazy talk, I know. But who could have imagined that a Pegula would suddenly appear, as if brought to life by our collective wishful thinking?

We suffered the misfortunes of Wide Right, four straight Super Bowl losses, No Goal and various other sporting calamities. The supposed prior salvation of the Sabres – and a downtown-reviving Adelphia empire – offered by the Rigas family vaporized in false promises and prison sentences.

The sports calamities pale in comparison to our social, economic, and political calamities, all of which continue apace. Another article in the News details the process whereby amateur, unqualified “planners” dictate the future of the Outer Harbor by passive-aggressive sticky note.  Don’t tell me that any curse is lifted when we have people whining about people living in gorgeous new housing near the Lake. I mean, just look at what waterfront development did to those unlivable hellholes like Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Singapore, and Chicago! We’d never want to be like those places! By God, that Outer Harbor has been a contaminated wasteland for the last 80 years, and by God a contaminated wasteland it should stay!

Apart from Silicon Valley, newly minted billionaires don’t generally fall from the sky – particularly around here. Pegula, in essence, emerged from the earth – or, at least, the source of his billions did. Advancements in the technology of natural gas extraction, called fracking, in recent years turned natural gas deposits mile-deep in shale into 21st-century treasure. Though environmentally controversial, fracking transformed Pegula seemingly overnight into a multibillionaire. With decades in the industry, Pegula – a native Pennsylvanian whose Western New York roots are nearly 40 years deep – saw the coming technology early on and acquired massive stretches of shale-rich land. He has, over the last five years, sold pieces of his stake for billions of dollars.

Luckily for us.

This one is fantastic. Esmonde is glossing over the environmental disaster that is natural gas extraction through hydrofracking. The modern fracking they do in Pennsylvania and other places is not yet allowed in New York, and while some think it would be a boon for economically depressed parts of central New York – mostly around Utica and Binghamton – it comes with huge environmental risks. 

You need look no further than this Donn Esmonde column from 2011, wherein he recounts how fracking rigs in Springville made a young family sick, and turned their well water suddenly flammable. Heartbreaking:

“I couldn’t understand why my kids were getting sick,” said Brant. “Are they going to have health problems for the rest of their lives? I have six girls, will they be able to have children?”

One could argue that fracking may have “cursed” that family, because looking at it all scientifically, empirically, and objectively is far too complicated and difficult. But what’s a little poisoned water, poisoned kids, and geological trauma when a billionaire can buy our sports team? 

I understand that we’re willing to hold our collective civic nose and ignore how Pegula made his billions, but to gloss over it and cheer the lifting of a “curse” is going a bit too far, even for Tea Party Donn

With Pegula’s emergence, Buffalo really stepped in it – but this time, instead of stomping into something odoriferous, we walked into a bed of roses. Mesh the reversal of our sporting fortunes with the ongoing repopulation of downtown, the development of the waterfront, the revival of the West Side, the emergence of Canalside and the rise of the Medical Campus, and there is just one rational rhetorical question begging to be asked: Curse? What Curse?

Buffalo’s population continues to decline. Our politics remain hopelessly dysfunctional and corrupt, and all of these things are happening in spite of that. Buffalonians and WNYers may have more optimism and hope, but it’s not because one billionaire bought the Bills – it’s because in the last 20 years, we’ve been forced at last to get past our post-industrial malaise and figure out a path to the future. We may not always agree, and we may fight and argue about the details of how to move forward, but it’s because of the work of visionary businesspeople, tax credits and incentives, activists, volunteers, and organizations that our region seems to be moving forward. For every billionaire sports team owner, the real hard work is being done by people who live paycheck to paycheck, or freelance check to freelance check. It’s being done by entrepreneurs who put their talent and passion into various projects. It’s not the grand shopping sprees that make Buffalo better, it’s all the little things that people do with minimal fanfare and very hard work. 

As for me, I’m convinced that Buffalo’s “curse” won’t be lifted until Donn Esmonde stops writing trite, humorless nonsense in the local paper and retires to his suburban tract home in Florida

16 comments

  • Pegula is like a momentary gasp of fresh air here in Goodenoughistan

  • Kim Pegula (Terry’s wife) donated $180,000 to Tom Corbett’s campaign for governor. Look what Kim’s fave politician has done to schools in PA especially in Philly where 2 kids have died in schools where Corbett’s budget attacks have slashed full time nurses. There is plenty to dislike about these two and Lady MacPegula may well be the more odious of the two: http://www.salon.com/2013/08/19/indescribably_insane%E2%80%9D_philadelphias_public_school_nightmare/

    • Yeah. Like THAT’s helping Corbett. Not sure if you noticed, but a Quinnipiac poll of either likely or registered voters shows Keystone State voters are going for Tom Wolf by nearly 25 percentage points.

      • A few points.
        1. I don’t give a shit if it helped him or not but she donated to his cause and he won. It was last election cycle, I neglected to include this detail.
        2. Since you are straining to wax poetic you should have called PA a commonwealth while you’re at it.
        3. “Not sure if you noticed” ranks alongside “Last time I checked” as the pre-eminent bitch phrase of passive aggressives everywhere. Last time I checked anyway.

        • 1. Duly noted.

          2. I KNOW what Pennsylvania is officially noticed-I go or pass through the state enough to notice.

          3. The only way I can reply to this is to let GoT’s Tyrion do the talking for me: “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” So your calling me that doesn’t affect me in the slightest, because I really don’t give a damn.

          • Yeah I don’t really either but it seemed kind of important to say something dickish at the time. And now that you’ve quoted the imp you have proven your merits and I withdraw the remark. Winter is coming.

  • If the “Curse of the Bambino” is cute and quirky, why is Esmonde’s “Curse of Buffalo” vile and reprehensible?
    Oh — I forgot.
    Esmonde didn’t approve of a double-digit school tax hike in Clarence several years ago.

  • Perhaps, now that Pegula has saved the Bills, we can get back to real news. The current wave of giddiness, over the Bills, is a bit disconcerting.

  • Lighten up, Alan. I hate Esmonde too but this article is difficult to demonize. Thank Christ for Pegula, his fracking billions and his desire to spend his wealth in Buffalo. I’d have taken a Stanley Cup for the Sabres even it was won by a No Goal and I certainly will accept a Billionaire’s infusion as well as a moron’s diatribe in the News that celebrates it.

  • Every time I read Donn Esmonde I think of Peter Griffin saying, “You know what really grinds my gears?!”

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