A procession begins in White City, in the summer of 1909.
We speed through the spaces of our lives as quickly as we can – rushing through the city, rushing to the mall, rushing 20 or 30 miles without blinking an eye. We have to, after all – we have spread out all over the place.
But stop rushing for just a minute. Think with me about how changes in our perceptions of time, speed, and distance have radically altered this urban place we call home.
Sooner and faster and further have wrecked us. Our cities are increasingly empty ruins. The countryside is filled with what’s left. None of this is good, none of this is our future, none of this is sustainable.
In Rochester, this shift in our perceptions of space and pace, and the physical places that are a result, has led to what I call the 40 mile life: 20 minutes in any direction, on an expressway, is the diameter of our daily existence. We all lead 40 mile lives. O, to lead a 4 mile life!
But the 40 mile life wasn’t always so, and it shouldn’t be so today. I want to explore a special place in our city, because I think this place can teach us lessons about our perceptions and our cities, lessons that we need to learn, or should I say relearn. Take a moment, please.
On the shore of Lake Ontario is a place we know even today as White City. You can find it on the 1912 map – a few streets and a dense cluster of buildings where the map reads “Windsor Beach.”
In those days, the lakeshore was a distant 8 miles or so from downtown Rochester – about a three-hour walk. The city then was much more dense than today – at least twice as dense, and occupied much less land than the city today – about a third less. As the map will show you, there was a six mile gap between the most northerly street of the city, then Norton Street, and the beaches at the lake.
Take a closer look. Those rows of buildings along the tiny streets at Windsor beach? A canvas city, and thus a White City. And in the gap between the city and the lake? Farms. One of the city’s breadbaskets.
During the fall and winter and spring, you lived in the city. In your neighborhood. In 1910 or so, it’s pretty unlikely that you had a car. A bike, perhaps, or a horse and wagon. But the scale of this mobility, and the pace of this mobility, guaranteed that you led a local life. Close to neighbors, close to work, close to the market, the schools, the churches.
A local life. Let’s say a 4 mile life.
In the summer, it was time to get out of the city so you could enjoy the nature of the city’s wonderful larger setting, the good weather, and your friends and family. So you used the only means it was likely you had – the streetcar – and you headed to the lakeshore, and White City.
White City was filled with tiny shotgun cottages, with roofs of canvas. In reality, the tent cottages were quite dense on the six or so lanes they occupied.
It was, in fact, like being at camp. Maybe the family left at the end of school in June, and Dad commuted by streetcar from the city on weekends. Or maybe you just came out for a couple of times a summer for a week or two to enjoy the water and the solace of family and friends.
Near Windsor Beach was a range of resort hotels – eleven in all. By the middle of the 20th century they were all gone – most burned to the ground for one reason or another. But while they were there, there were fun times….
Check these two out, at the beach at nearby Sea Breeze (great name, yes?). I love the look on his face – barely concealed smugness: “I am not at work, I am with people I care about, and I am wet. Yippee!”
Resort hotels bloomed in these times. Here is the massive Hotel Ontario.
And here the more intimate Hotel Windsor. Everybody is hanging out on the porch.
Or the Hotel Bartholmay – a giant resort complex. This is a view from 1888 – this business of going to the lakeshore went on for quite a while. Please do note the trains.
In 1910, how did you get out there? One guess – streetcars. And even when the weather turned its back on vacations.
Interestingly, the street car companies were the real heavy lifters of this story – they paid, for example, for all the electricity and water at all the hotels and resorts. All aboard!
If you were fortunate to own an early car, you could drive north on Culver Road to the beach. The road, in 1917, looked like this. Orchards on the left, farms on the right. Pretty nice drive, I guess.
And today, the view on the road to Sea Breeze looks like this. Ah, the 40 mile life. Better, right? Progress, right?
And White City today looks like this, at a point very, very near where Albert Stone took that picture of the procession of children in 1909.
Yes, the tents became cottages, the cottages homes. Go and take a stroll there if you can, and capture the slower sense of time and speed and distance that once made a city a city, and a vacation a vacation, year after year, summer after summer.
We need again to find local lives – 4 mile lives. We need to transfer our mobility from our cars to something else – like streetcars for example. And we need to take the time to see our home places building by building, block by block, in the best way possible – on foot.
The stories of our lives, and the lives that came before us, are impossible to discern at 40 miles an hour. But if we slow down a bit, the things we see can astound us. Our future is close at hand – go for a walk.