BUFFALO, N.Y. — In February 2012, Tommy Lombardo moved home to Buffalo. It was the dark of winter, and cold gales battered curtained houses. Radiators clicked on and off. Snow fell.
Lombardo, 29, began to look for an apartment. He had been away for eight years, most of those in New York City, and like many young adults who spend their 20s in a megalopolis, he owned few things. He had sold or disposed of most of his possessions when he left Manhattan some months earlier: his computer, his butcher’s block, his books and his furniture. He broke apart a loft bed made from 2-by-4s and placed the fragments in the street.
Lombardo had been making good money as a bartender in New York, but that was no longer enough.
He couldn’t picture what his life would look like in five or 10 years if he stayed in the city. His future was a question mark. He wasn’t on a trajectory to become a restaurant owner (too expensive) or a manager (too much work for too little pay).
Buffalo would be different: His father, Tom Lombardo Jr., owned Ristorante Lombardo, an Italian restaurant on Hertel Avenue with $20 plates of tagliatelle bolognese and $43 cuts of filet mignon. The elder Lombardo saw a place for his son in the family business, so Tommy decided to come home.
“I left New York: I couldn’t really see a path forward for myself in New York City. I was really just grasping for straws, and there’s a really clearly defined path in Buffalo.”
— Tommy Lombardo
He began his apartment search with a young woman named Emily Hackerson in mind.
Emily was a recent graduate of The New School with hazel eyes, long brown hair and a sweet disposition. She and Tommy had begun dating only a year before, but things had gotten serious fast, and he was hoping she would come to Buffalo.
For three months, Tommy scoured the rental market before deciding on a one-bedroom apartment on West Ferry Street in the Elmwood Village, one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. He thought the density would appeal to Emily, coming from New York. There were restaurants, bars, a bank, a spice shop, a cooperative grocery store and a busy coffee shop all within blocks.
Inside, the living room had dark wainscoting and wooden floors. The bedroom windows faced the street, perfect for people-watching on rainy days. To sweeten the deal, Tommy bought Emily a bicycle outfitted with lights and a bell and a basket.
He hoped that it would be enough to convince Emily to stay — that she would see a future for herself in Buffalo, and that his decision to move home wouldn’t mean losing her.
Tommy signed the lease that spring. Then, he waited to see if Emily would come.
New York City
Stepping foot in New York City for the first time is a rush: the lights, the food, the traffic, the exhaust, the tourists, the hot dog and peanut vendors, the crush of people hurrying down the streets, the splash of water as yellow taxi cabs make curbside pick-ups on stormy days, the museums, the bistros, the cantinas, the hole-in-the-wall takeaway joints serving a few simple items, macaroni-and-cheese, for instance, or nothing but meat pies.
Dave Borchard, 33, a friend who moved from Buffalo to New York in 2004, several months before Tommy, recalls a sense of adventure in quotidian activities like learning to navigate the city’s trains.
“Our shower curtain was a subway map so we could study the subway,” Borchard said, recalling his first apartment in Jersey City. The bathroom accessory migrated with him to his next pad, this one on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which he shared with Tommy and one other friend. “It was the challenge of being able to fit in like a local, and that’s something that we tried to do on a regular basis — figuring out time tables and trying to figure out each of the different neighborhoods. … We avoided like the plague Rockefeller Center, Time Square, the touristy-trap areas. That wasn’t interesting to us.”
Getting to know New York was a thrill for Tommy, who had just moved to the city after spending a dismal year in Puerto Rico, where he interned for a 1,000-room resort whose managers often seemed unaware of his existence.
Bored with work, Tommy would often drive 40 minutes to the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan to drink and gamble on the weekend. He’d wake up in a hotel room on Sunday morning, tired and disappointed, before heading back. He finally quit, he said, after his parents came to visit and the resort bumped them, last minute, to accommodations one-and-a-half hours away.
Tommy arrived in New York in the spring.
He had no job and little money, but the city brimmed with possibility. With a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Niagara University, he landed work as a server and rose quickly to become a bartender — a lucrative and coveted position in the hierarchy of restaurant occupations in New York.
“I moved to New York when I was 22,” he said. “So from the age of 22 to 24, I was kind of just not really worried about a career or any responsibility.”
His life was a sitcom. In the mornings, roll out of bed around 11 a.m. and ramble over to an espresso bar where he would sit with the same group of friends: a 65-year-old singer, a masseuse, a woodworker and a commercial producer. None worked regular hours, and the five of them would just hang around and shoot the shit and drink coffee for a couple of hours.
At night, Tommy mixed drinks. Some evenings, he would go out after work or join his roommates to host massive apartment parties.
Late the next day, he’d wake up and do it all again. The weeks passed and evaporated, melting into one another. Then, Tommy’s 25th birthday came, and he started to wonder, “What am I really doing here?”
New York City had an answer for that, too. Tommy had been taking improv classes for some time, and now, he threw himself into theater and film. He met actors who could talk for hours about great scripts and great movies. These friends opened his eyes to “great huge stories” that he had never known. He watched A Streetcar Named Desire. He penned scripts and produced two short films.
In his free time, he would go to the public library on Fifth Avenue to write in a massive reading room with towering, arched windows and murals on the ceiling, his words illuminated by pools of sunlight and the muted glow of chandeliers. All around him, strangers sat elbow-to-elbow at long, communal tables made from oak.
“There were, like, 200 people in there, and you could hear a pin drop,” Tommy said.
He stalked the hallways of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He moved away from Manhattan, from all the parties and noise, to the quieter limits of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He switched jobs and apartments several more times, working at a rooftop bar in Gramercy, helping to open an Italian restaurant in the West Village, and bouncing to a rented pad in Clinton Hill before returning to Manhattan when he tired of long commutes.
His jobs reignited his passion for food and wine, with managers and owners asking him to taste dishes, teaching him about the ingredients and the story behind every bottle of Chianti or Verdicchio.
“Of course, it’s sad to see your children leave, but as it turns out, it was a great thing for everybody concerned. It was a great education. [Tommy] learned a lot and grew a lot.”
— Tom Lombardo Jr.
It was an amazing place to be young.
“You can walk in New York for 60 blocks and never be bored because you’re just constantly stimulated, you know?” Tommy said. “And what I think I appreciate the most is just the amount of — everything’s just so interesting and well-designed.”
Still, Tommy had no serious commitments tying him to New York: no house, no car, no family. His job was good, but not so good he couldn’t give it up. Tommy never lost his love for the city. But at the age of 29, he did feel that the wonder and excitement of living there had become “less consistent.”
“The realities of life would break it up and get in the way — having to work all the time and not being able to afford a nice place, you know?” he said. “After five years there, you’re like, ‘I’ve got to start to get to the point where I have a really nice apartment and … I’m going to start to build a life here.’ And it didn’t seem to be happening.”
His girlfriend, Emily Hackerson, was graduating from the New School and planning to move to Argentina, where her step-mother’s family lived. South America sounded like the perfect adventure to Tommy.
“I was looking for a new experience,” he said. “It was just a really romantic idea.”
So in summer of 2011, he sold his things and got on a plane to Buenos Aires.
Emily, 24, is from a small town folded into the forests of Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Warren, VT is home to one of New England’s most famous ski resorts, but year-round residents number under 2,000, so it’s the type of place where everyone knows everyone.
For college, Emily wanted to go somewhere bigger. She dreamed of working internationally one day, and New York City, with its variegated population of immigrants, tourists and business travelers, seemed a smart place to be. Her first night there, she set off for a walk in daylight, got lost and didn’t make it home until just before midnight. She found it exhilarating.
It wasn’t until her sophomore year, in 2009, that she met Tommy. The two were working at dell’anima, an Italian restaurant on 8th Avenue in Manhattan. Both served as bartenders, she during the brunch hours and he at night.
They would often stop to chat while changing shifts, and she found him to be a curious and genuine person — someone she could have fun with even under the most mundane circumstances. He, in turn, found her immensely charming: He loved that she was independent and unrestrained, the type of girl who could talk to anyone and hold her own in any situation.
They laughed and joked together, but that was as far as their friendship went before Emily left New York to spend her a semester in Rabat, Morocco in spring of 2010.
They didn’t keep in touch. But when Emily returned to the city that fall, she ran into Tommy at the Museum of Modern Art, two people crossing paths in a city of 8 million.
They started hanging out, then dating. Soon, they were living together, and by the summer of 2011, when Emily was making plans to move to Argentina, the friends had fallen in love.
They arrived in Buenos Aires that September to discover a sprawling, cosmopolitan city, with a forest of skyscrapers glimmering above colonial edifices that recalled the Spanish presence of decades past. But finding a job was difficult, and it dawned on them that another urban experience wasn’t what they wanted after so many years in New York.
They plotted a journey to Patagonia, a region of scrub, treeless plains and sleeping volcanoes that Argentina and Chile share, and they found themselves near the continent’s southernmost reaches, in a place that felt as if it were at the edge of the world.
At the fast-moving Perito Moreno glacier, they watched as blocks of blue and white ice calved and fell into the lake below. It sounded like thunder.
They saw condors. They crossed the border into Chile, where they trekked through the mountains of Torres del Paine for six days before continuing to the coast to wander through a tiny, sleepy town where all the houses were made of tin and one story tall. They got on a ferry that hung north. It chugged through fjords to a city called Puerto Montt.
The boat ride was beautiful, but the couple spent most of it fighting. Tommy wasn’t sure why, but he needed solitude. He told Emily he wanted to travel alone, so shortly after disembarking, they split up. She went to visit a friend in Chile, and then returned to Buenos Aires to spend Christmas with family. Tommy continued on.
He ended up having one of the worst months of his life. He saw awesome sights — desert beaches and port cities hugging the wide blue Pacific — but he also spilled hot water on his leg while making tea in a hostel (causing burns that required medical treatment), and survived a bus accident in which a road sign smashed through the windows of the vehicle — pop! pop! pop! — peppering the passengers with glass.
Tommy told Emily he missed her. She agreed to meet him at a hostel near the border of Argentina and Bolivia. After arriving, she waited on the roof, scanning the streets below for his lanky frame and dark, brown hair. He didn’t come.
But when she returned to her room, he was already there. They spent another amazing month together, and then, it was Tommy’s turn to leave. They had been traveling for half a year, and he was feeling aimless.
Months earlier, in Buenos Aires, he had begun thinking about life, post-South America. Starting over in New York — buying furniture, battling other would-be tenants to secure a new apartment, finding a job — sounded exhausting.
Reading up on Buffalo, it seemed like there was a lot going on in the city: new buildings rising downtown; condos blooming in once-dilapidated spaces; early 1900s properties like the Hotel @ The Lafayette, a boutique establishment, undergoing restorations.
Tommy emailed his family.
“What do you think of me coming home?” his father, Tom Lombardo Jr., recalls Tommy asking.
“My answer, of course, was ‘Yeah.'” Tom said. “Of course, I would dream for him to come and work with me.”
Tom had never expected his son to return to Buffalo, so the father was thrilled when, in February 2012, Tommy stepped through the glass doors of the local airport into the familiar embrace of another upstate winter.
After eight years away, Tommy was home. The only thing missing was Emily, who was still traveling and didn’t know if she wanted to move to a place like Buffalo.
Tom Lombardo Jr., 58, is a no-bullshit man with glasses, close-cut hair and a deep, authoritative voice that makes people listen. He is comfortable in a suit.
He opened Ristorante Lombardo’s in 1975 with his father in a Hertel Avenue storefront that used to be a frozen pizza factory. At inception, the eatery’s name was just Lombardo’s, and the fare consisted of Italian-American favorites like stuffed shells and meatballs.
Then, after journeying to Italy in the 1990s, Tom and his wife, Donna, started updating the menu with the traditional flavors that remain staples now.
Growing up, the Lombardo children — Tommy; his brother, Joe; and his sister, Lisa — all worked in the restaurant.
Tommy started as a coat-checker and garde-manger plating desserts. He then went on to become dishwasher, a busboy, a valet, a server, the maître d’ and a bartender. He had a gift for the business, and a tongue for fine food.
“He was always very good at it from the time that he was very young, and really interested in searching out good places to eat,” his father said. “He was used to eating at fine dining restaurants because we used to take him. … Instead of eating at fast food places, he was eating at Oliver’s and of course eating here all the time as a young man.”
Tommy remembers visiting New York City when he was 19 or 20 and trying lengua — beef tongue — at a restaurant called Babbo.
“It just melted in my mouth,” he said.
When he returned to Buffalo in 2012, Tommy settled in as general manager and beverage director at Ristorante Lombardo, taking responsibility for selecting wines and dreaming up new cocktails.
His concoctions included the Bellwether — which featured cucumber gin, crème de violette, Dolin Blanc vermouth, lemon juice and lavendar — and the Honey Pig: black pepper honey swimming in bacon bourbon. He used ginger, charred oranges and other surprising ingredients because he thought that drinks should be provocative and fun, giving customers something they couldn’t get someplace else.
He loved the work and finally felt like he was moving in the right direction as far as his profession.
Still, coming home was hard. It took a while to establish a rhythm at the restaurant, and he didn’t have close friends.
He missed the street life of New York City: the crowds, the lights, the sidewalk florists hawking tulips after dark. After work in Manhattan, Tommy used to go to a place called the Tuck Shop that stayed open deep into the night and specialized in Australian meat pies. There were so few places in Western New York that served food late.
“You just miss walking down to that street where it’s just storefront after storefront of cool little coffee shops. … I think there’s a lack of good design in Buffalo, and I think there are some people who are trying to change that.”
— Tommy Lombardo
Buffalo, with its lovely parkways and early 20th-century architecture, had a lot of potential, Tommy thought. But the city just wasn’t there yet; many parts of it felt dead, and though things were changing, improvements would take years to bear fruit.
Worst of all, Tommy didn’t know if Emily would be coming. She was young and ambitious, with a taste for adventure that could take her anywhere. He worried that she would feel stifled in Buffalo.
“What kind of opportunities are there for a college grad like her that just has a lot of aspirations and hopes and opportunities and all these other amazing cities [to choose from] throughout the world?” Tommy remembers thinking.
She came to visit in July 2012. He showed her the apartment and the bicycle. It was summer. Green lawns sparkled with dew in the morning light. The days were warm. Night didn’t fall until 9 each evening, one perk of living at a high latitude.
Tommy and Emily pedaled around the city, touring tree-lined boulevards by bike.
“Being back with him, it being summer, everything just felt so comfortable — it just felt so right,” Emily said.
She planned to be in town for about 10 days, but ended up moving in with Tommy.
“She just stayed,” he said one recent afternoon, eyes bright, as though he still couldn’t believe that it happened.
Tommy and Emily now live together in the apartment he had spent so long choosing on West Ferry Street, the one with the big windows and wooden floors.
The place is ornamented with keepsakes from South America: blankets from Bolivia, multicolor sheets, gourds called mates from which they drink loose tea through a filtered, metal straw. On the wall hang pictures from their travels, each a beautiful memory.
She works as a financial counselor at West Side Neighborhood Housing Services, where she helps people with taxes, mortgages and foreclosures. She bikes to work. It took a few months to find the job, but once she had it, she came to love it.
Tommy is moving things forward at the restaurant. The hours are long, but there’s so much to do. He hired Block Club*, a creative agency run by a team of young Buffalonians, to rebrand Ristorante Lombardo with a mostly black logo that mirrors the restaurant’s upscale character.
He oversaw the renovation of a dining room. Additions included a ceiling with acoustic padding cloaked by decorative copper-colored tiles. Next, he’s hoping to convert a curved, outdoor wall into a green wall comprising a self-watering herb garden.
Having Tommy home was just the pick-me-up that his dad, Tom, needed after 38 years of grueling double-shifts at Ristorante Lombardo.
“It’s sort of reenergized me. It’s always good when you bring in new blood and new ideas,” Tom said. “It’s become exciting again. … I love making changes and bringing new things into the restaurant.”
He thinks that Tommy moved home at the right moment. For the first time in decades, the father and seasoned businessman sees Buffalo beginning to reverse its long, Rust Belt decline.
Development is sprinkled throughout the city: two new ice rinks on the waterfront, new medical buildings downtown, condos along transit corridors. An old grain elevator on the Buffalo River is in the midst of a metamorphosis from which it will emerge as a rock climbing gym.
Tom thinks changes like these are starting to catch the attention young expats like Tommy, who are often full of their own ideas when they return.
Tommy has worked on business initiatives like a proposal to replace dying trees on Hertel Avenue. On the city’s West Side, he and Emily worked with friends to install a “Before I Die” wall — a large, chalkboard wall with multiple rows of text that say, “Before I die I want to,” followed by space for pedestrians to fill in the blanks.
“There’s pent-up demand in Buffalo for cool things,” Tommy said.
He points to the success of the Larkin District, a small neighborhood of eateries, shops and offices where people munch on sweet pea bruschetta and smoked gouda sliders at a restaurant called the Filling Station, and relax in a public square where loudly-colored lounge chairs decorate a bright green lawn.
What’s remarkable is that about a decade ago, the district was a postcard image of post-industrial grit, anchored by a dilapidated warehouse that now houses law firms and advertising agencies.
America’s destination cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. — have no shortage of chic neighborhoods, of course. But what sets Buffalo apart is that it’s still the type of place where mom-and-pop entrepreneurs can afford to execute good ideas, Tommy said. Here, the dream of opening a restaurant of his own isn’t an impossibility, like it was in Brooklyn or Manhattan.
His father, Tom, puts it this way: “What’s the difference between Buffalo and New York City? About 6 million people. So [to] be able to break into this industry as an owner in New York City, you know, that’s like trying to become a famous actress or an actor because it’s expensive. It’s extremely difficult.”
In August 2008, New York Magazine published a 5,000-word article on people ditching New York City for Buffalo. While the subhead asked the question of why anyone would do such a thing, the headline hinted at an answer: “Where the Urban Dream Life Is Going Cheap.”
“I chased a girl down to South America. The question is, why did I not return? Why did we go back to Buffalo? Because that was the thing. The idea of returning to New York after selling all my stuff was daunting.”
— Tommy Lombardo
Both Emily and Tommy say the same thing about New York: It starts out feeling really big, but soon begins to feel small, not just in terms of the neighborhoods and the people you know, but in terms of the way you live and what you can do.
Money is a big constraint: The city is brimming with delights and diversions, but who can afford them all? Beautiful lofts abound in Manhattan, but only the richest New Yorkers have the means to rent one. Food, transportation, museums, concerts, the Yankees, basketball at Madison Square Garden. Everything has a price.
Tommy, now 30, searches his mind for a way to describe why he didn’t return to New York after traveling to South America. He finally says this: “Life gets so unreasonable.”
“The apartments where I used to hang out are $1.5 million,” he says. He laughs. “You know what I mean? It’s not realistic.”
The crowds, the time it takes to get places and the endless number of things to do all conspire to make even routine activities feel hectic. The line at Trader Joe’s on East 14th Street, not far from Tommy’s old apartment, is so long that friends go in pairs; that way, one person can queue up while the other shops.
As Tommy recounts what it was like to plan his day each morning, his memories spill out in a jumble of words:
“I had to leave the house with everything I’m going to need for the next 12 hours, and that entails a whole slew of things, just lugging this bag around town. … Gym stuff, your work stuff, maybe your camera because [you’re] also a photographer so you’re going to shoot after you wait on tables.”
In Buffalo, the pace of life is slower. People have more space — figuratively and literally.
Dave Borchard, Tommy’s first New York roommate, returned to Western New York this February to take a promotion at M&T Bank, where he works as a portfolio manager.
He and his girlfriend, Nichole Salva, 28, share a newly renovated loft with their dog, Charlie. The rental has high ceilings and wooden floors the color of maple. It’s more room than the couple could have imagined in New York City, but they’ve already talked about buying a house.
Things aren’t perfect. Borchard and Salva moved to Buffalo in the middle of a blizzard. They hated the snow and freezing rain, and found the city to be desolate and grim in the winter. They miss what New York had to offer in terms of food: Thai cuisine delivered to your door, or brunch in the East Village at Supper, a restaurant where they used to order a to-die-for minestrone soup with zucchini and cannelini beans in green broth.
“It wasn’t an overnight decision, and it was something that took months.”
— Dave Borchard, on moving back to Buffalo from New York City
Still, Borchard says that Buffalo affords him the ability to start a part of his life that he had put on hold. Here, it’s possible to save money and have a nice place, with a kitchen big enough for entertaining and a bathroom that isn’t ancient and grimy.
Tommy feels the same way. In Manhattan, the apartment he shares with Emily would have been an amazing find. It would have seemed huge.
But now, the place feels small. When friends come over for dinner, Tommy sometimes finds himself thinking how much better it would be to have more space.
In a city like New York, it’s possible to stay young forever: to live in a crummy apartment with roommates into your 30s, and to have that seem totally normal, Tommy said. It can be a wonderful, exciting life, but it’s just not what he wants anymore.
Tommy and Emily do still love New York. There are things that they miss.
Emily tells a story about a gorgeous armchair that she once spotted on a Manhattan street. Someone was throwing out, and she fell in love with it immediately. But her dorm room was too far away to carry it all the way there, so she borrowed a shopping cart from a homeless guy to use as a dolly.
“That would never happen anywhere except New York,” Emily said. “I just loved how there’s so much energy in New York. There’s so much quirk.”
Weird opportunities and strange ideas. That’s what she misses most: the spunk and vivacity, the everyday surprises, the charm of living in a place where it felt like anything could happen.
In that regard, Buffalo may never rival New York. But picking a place to live is rarely an easy decision. Every city — and lifestyle — has its charms and trade-offs, and Tommy and Emily are happy with the course they’ve chosen.
“I really do love Buffalo in a way I never really expected to,” Emily said. For the first time in a long time, she feels settled — at home.
This summer, Tommy, Emily and their friends are renting a house on Keuka Lake, one of Central New York’s famous Finger Lakes.
Then, she is moving to Ithaca to attend Cornell University. The school accepted her into its master’s program in city and regional planning, and the opportunity was too good to decline.
She and Tommy plan on making the three-hour drive between Buffalo and Ithaca as often as they can to see each other.
But after graduation, Emily doesn’t know if she will return to Western New York. She and Tommy know they want to be together. They’re just not sure where they’ll end up.
Charlotte Hsu was the author of this story. She sometimes freelances for Block Club magazine. Robert Salonga, a crime and public safety reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited this article. Justin Sondel also took a look.
Special thanks to Tommy and Emily for their time and patience, and willingness to share their story.
If you’re an expat with a keen interest in Buffalo, you might want to check out the Buffalo Expat Network, whose founder directed us to resources that were helpful in reporting this story.