Newell Nussbaumer has never lived in New York City. He has not, in fact, lived anywhere for any significant amount of time outside of Buffalo. But if I’d met him out of context, I’d have assumed he lived in San Diego and spent his nights sleeping on his surfboard on the beach. Nussbaumer, who’s 40, arrives at my hotel on Saturday morning wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, his blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail. He’s riding a tandem bicycle with his girlfriend, Amelia Schineller, on the back. Nussbaumer is the publisher of Buffalo Rising, a free monthly magazine and Website he started in 2003, mostly because he realized that there wasn’t a single media outlet in the city that ever said anything upbeat about Buffalo.
As we head out on our scheduled bike tour—Nussbaumer, Schineller, their friend Tim, and a couple named Jason and Sara—it quickly becomes apparent that, in his capacity as media mogul and tireless advocate and general dude-about-town, Nussbaumer’s become a kind of unofficial mayor of Buffalo. Every few blocks we pass someone who waves and shouts, “Hey, Newell!” or “What’s up, Newell!” Suddenly, a thought occurs to me: If I lived in a place like Buffalo, I could be Newell Nussbaumer, too.
And that’s before we arrive at Newell Beach.
It’s not officially called Newell Beach. That’s just what his girlfriend calls it. (The term makes him squirm, actually.) But as we park our bikes and look over this small, 150-foot patch of sand, where the boulders and deadwood and debris have been cleared away, right there on the rocky shore of Lake Erie, it’s quite clear that, were it not for Nussbaumer, this beach would not exist. Because Nussbaumer got it in his head one day that the good people of Buffalo deserved a beach. So he went to City Hall, met with the appropriate councilman, and convinced that guy, too.
“You see all kinds of people here now,” Nussbaumer says. “I met a guy from the inner city who brought his daughter down here, and she was building a sand castle. He said to me, ‘She’s never in her life been to a beach before.’ ”
And here’s the thing: You can bike around Buffalo and point to a lot of things and say, “Newell Nussbaumer did that.” That week he’d been to City Hall with a group of cycling advocates and had persuaded the city to convert some of its old parking meters to bike stands, which is part of his grand scheme to make Buffalo the most bike-friendly city in North America. (Current title holder: Portland, Oregon.) Later, at the offices of Buffalo Rising, Nussbaumer explains how most of his staff are unpaid interns, who work for free not because they’re hoping to scrabble their way up some media ladder (in Buffalo, that ladder has no rungs) but because, as he says, “they know they’re helping to create this city where they want to live.” I think of the many valiant unpaid interns I’ve known in New York, and while most of them were working hard to create their own lives, not one of them (or at least not the sane ones) imagined they were helping to create New York City.
The moral of this story is that just like in Buffalo - in Downtown Los Angeles - an indidivual can still make a difference.