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012 Stitch

The intersection of South Clinton and Bly, in Rochester. The green and tan building on the right of Bly is early – from before 1890. The red building on the left of Bly dates from around 1915.

Recognizable? It should be – it is almost certainly present in your city – perhaps right around the corner. Even now this configuration can be found in every neighborhood in our city. Most often, two two-story buildings to the left and to the right at intersections of busier and less busy city streets. Storefronts on the ground floor, apartments upstairs. Beyond them, houses to the left and right, and down the side streets. A familiar tune, but can you make out the lyrics?

Sometimes the houses adjacent to the storefronts are replaced by other two story mixed-use buildings, if the intersection is of two busy streets. In extreme cases there may be a few three story buildings. There are almost always ground floor storefronts. What is the story this tune is telling us? This.

Electric streetcars began here in 1890. The population of the city was about 135,000, and growing fast. Really fast – about 25% to 35% each decade until 1940, when for the first time the population decreased. So let’s focus on that half-century: 1890 to 1940.

(To add a bit more context, in 1920, when the population of Rochester had reached 296,000, a 35% increase over 1910, there were 45,000 cars in the city, but still less than 15% of the population owned one.)

During those fifty years, mobility for most in this city was on foot, by bicycle, or by streetcar. And the two and three story buildings? They marked the streetcar stops. In mornings or evenings, as you hopped on or off the local streetcar, you could do a bit of shopping, or nibbling, at these places: cafes, bars, shoe shops, cleaners and launderers, bakeries, green grocers, and much more. Then you could walk a block or two and be home.

In the city where I grew up, Chicago, these streetcar stops were tied to the grid, were very regularly spaced at 1/4 miles apart, and exerted enormous force in this same half-century in shaping the city and its neighborhoods.

Block end with trolley cc'ed (4)

Interestingly, the streetcar stops here in Rochester tend to be spaced about 1/4 mile apart also, even though our grid of streets is anything but regular. Even then, we understood that a five minute walk – a 1/4 mile walk – was something almost all of us could manage, even in terrible North Coast weather.

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In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

All the streetcars went downtown because that’s where we all needed to be: for work, to do our major shopping, for our most important entertainment, to participate in our city’s critical institutions. Automobiles wrecked this later, but that’s not a part of this particular melody.

And so in neighborhood after neighborhood, on all the city streets that had them, we can find a similar formal expression borne out of the presence of the streetcar. Even though the streetcar vanished here in 1941 – 75 years ago – it is compellingly clear that the city took its shape and form from streetcars, ideas of walkability, the 1/4 mile walk, and the presence of locally based retail and markets. Here are a few more views.

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Grand

Webster and Grand

Rochester Foresters of America 1922

Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922

Goodman and Garson

Goodman and Garson

Genesee and Sawyer

Genesee and Sawyer

This melody, which most can’t hear anymore, is everywhere around us. And the song is actually more resonant than some may suspect. Listen a bit more.

The development community saw the streetcar and its rails plopped down across the city, and they were happy to follow. We can examine plat map after plat map, and we find that as the streetcar developed, so did the form of our city. At first there may only have been one or two buildings at a streetcar stop. But later, as the car stop became more important or the neighborhood density increased, developers were happy to put up more 2 and 3 story mixed use buildings adjacent to the stops.

By the time of the 1926 plat maps, the streetcar routes were well established, and nearly every streetcar stop was built up. Here’s Clinton and Bly in 1918. The blue checks mark the mixed use buildings at the streetcar stop.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

And though these buildings, and many, many more like them, are either gone now or are becalmed in the idling breezes of our cities, they nonetheless constitute the narrative of how Rochester, or Anytown, got to look and feel the way it does. Even today the truth of this tune is well known – urban development follows the rails.

As with any story in any city, musical or otherwise, somebody always comes up with a revised version – some new take on the old standard tune. Rochester is no different. Here we go.

colby e

This is the intersection of Park and Colby, only a few blocks from us. Yes, it was a streetcar stop. Colby, which runs perpendicular to the plane of this picture, once upon a time dead-ended at the Erie Canal. Here’s a plat of the intersection in 1918.

The two-story masonry building in the photograph is shown here in pink. You can see the streetcar tracks, and at the bottom right you can see the pale blue indicating the Erie Canal.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.

IMG_0002Now the large apartment building shown in the photo is present – it’s the big pink building opposite the little two story pink guy.

But wait. Colby doesn’t dead-end at the canal anymore. Well, the Erie Canal got moved from here in 1918. Where it once was became a fairly large ditch. And what did we put in that ditch? The Rochester Subway. It began operation in 1927, and ran until 1956. Colby Station, shown in this 1926 plat, picked up passengers from both sides of the former Canal, and a pedestrian overpass with stairs gave access down to the platform. Today this exact same place looks like this:

IMG_20160604_180406018[1]

The Colby Station access, now I490, looking east.

After 1940 here we ripped out the streetcar and moved to the suburbs. Population here peaked in 1950, and then plummeted as quickly as it had risen between 1890 and 1940. New mobility caused a fundamental shift in how and where we lived and shopped and worked, just as it had before. Nonetheless, the force of the streetcar was slow to fade, and as we have seen, many of us live in the streetcar city even today. It’s just that there are no streetcars….

How we move defines our urban places. How we move is  powerful, even seductive music. The city of walking and density and mixed-use and localness is a city whose song has ended here in Rochester. But if we can remember that melody, if we can relearn that song, then we can have that place again.

“The moon descended
and I found with the break of dawn
you and the song had gone
but the melody lingers on”

Irving Berlin, of course

Thanks to Jason and Jane.

The narratives – the stories – that any place has to offer us often occur in multiple chapters. We need to find ways to keep listening as these stories slowly unfold before us. So it is with Carthage – another installment.

1817 was quite a year in this part of the world. For example, in 1811, Nathaniel Rochester began laying out the streets and lots of Rochesterville, his town, and by 1817 the population had soared to nearly 1,500. In that same year, Colonel Rochester sought to ensure the future of his burgeoning community by sitting on a committee that was petitioning the state to bring the Erie Canal to Rochester via a northern route from the Hudson. As we know, he would succeed.

Meanwhile Elisha Strong was busy in Carthage. Even though this part of the Genesee River gorge was thick with bears and wolves and wildcats, and home to rattlesnakes “as thick as a man’s arm,” he and his fellow attorney (and later judge) Elisha Beach were undaunted.

And now enter the third Elisha: Elisha Johnson.

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Nice looking guy. Dickens’ Bumble the Beadle perhaps?

Johnson, like his friend and colleague Strong, was a Canandaiguan. An engineer, Johnson owned land upstream (south), adjacent to Colonel Rochester, and in the year 1817- yup – he gave 80 acres of land to Rochesterville (the city didn’t become Rochester until 1834) that would become Washington Square Park – our city’s central urban space.

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Washington Square Park, Memorial Day, 1909

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President Taft and the GAR parade at Washington Square Park, 1911

In 1817, Carthage looked like this, in a plat map created by Elisha Johnson:

Map of Carthage 1817 Elisha Johnson

This was a bit ambitious…. Carthage was tiny, and about to become home to a huge bridge construction project, and then a gigantic collapse, as we’ve learned. Maximum population in Carthage could be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Interestingly the later development of Rochester proceeded much as Johnson outlined in his map of 1817.

In the 1830s Johnson, ever the entrepreneurial engineer, would build a horse railroad from Rochesterville to Carthage that hauled freight to an inclined plane that allowed cargo to reach the river from its eastern banks. The railroad carried passengers too, in two carriages. One was named Grieg, the other Duncan. The railroad, one of the first of its kind in the nation, would become a model for later streetcars. And shortly thereafter, Carthage was annexed by Rochester.

carthage_rr_coach

I don’t know if this is Grieg or Duncan

Meanwhile, in 1817, Rochesterville looked like this:

1817 mapNorth is, oddly, to the right in this image – a map not made by either Colonel Rochester or Johnson. A couple of years later, Colonel Rochester’s ambitious plan for his nascent city looked like this:

1820%20map

Of course the place didn’t look quite like this plat: the population in 1820 was 1,502. Here is a view from a bit earlier, 1812, to give you a sense of the difference between the hype of the maps and the reality on the ground.

rochester-1812

Main Street and the Genesee River (soon to become the heart of downtown Rochester) looked like this in 1812:

mainstbridge1812e

The bridge at Main Street and the river, looking west

But the Canal was headed toward reality, and once it arrived, the city exploded. Herewith, below, a lovely map of Rochester from 1827, by none other than Elisha Johnson. The population? About 9,000. Note the presence of the canal.

Johnson-1827

Washington Square Park, marked with the letter M, is between the larger letters F and O in the word Fourth, in the lower right

So there you have it.

In 1838, Elisha Johnson became the fifth mayor of Rochester. He fought on the wrong side of the Civil War while living in Tennessee with his brother Ebenezer (a former mayor of Buffalo….), was pardoned by Sherman, moved back north to Ithaca, and died there in 1866.

So our cities are made, Elisha by Elisha.

Carthage

Cities contain us. Cities hold our stories, our dreams, what we wanted to be, what we failed to become, the way we lived, what we built and why. A good city has swarms of stories, and a best city is a city in which the most narratives remain legible for the longest possible time.

Stories of people. And in even modest sized cities, this means millions and millions of stories. For which we can and should give endless thanks.

Herewith, one pretty interesting story about our place. Get comfy: we’re going to Carthage.

In 1809, at a place that is now called St. Paul and Norton Streets in Rochester, and which is also the home of the Lower Falls on the Genesee River, a few folks settled on the east bank of the river and called their little spot Carthage.

Lower Falls (2)

Photo by Sheridan Vincent. Carthage would be near the green tank and the bad modern building.

Carthage was below the lower falls on the river, so if you had goods to ship, you could take them to Carthage, and from there they could go out onto Lake Ontario and into the wide, wide world.

A few years passed and in 1816 a couple of rich Rochester guys, the two Elisha’s (Strong and Beach), bought 1,000 acres of land that included Carthage. By 1818 there were 40 buildings there.

But there was a problem. Isn’t there always a problem? Carthage was on the east banks of the River, and so if you were coming from the west, you could not get there to ship your stuff. The entrepreneurial Elishas decided to build a bridge across the river so everybody could come to Carthage, and by 1817 they had amassed $16,000 in state and local funds to do the deed.

The bridge was completed in 1819. It was over 700 feet long, and stood 200 feet above the river. Some described it as the eighth wonder of the world. (Have you ever wondered how many eighth wonders there must be? I have….)

Carthage bridge

Unfortunately, the bridge fell down in 1820.

And by 1825 the Erie Canal was here, and Carthage was doubly obsolete. Poof.

Enter our intrepid Rochester hero, Albert Stone. In 1908 he made this photo:

Carthage monument 1908

 

The monument was a column, a vent for sewer gas, a watering trough for local horses, and the holder of a plaque to the memory – the stories – of Carthage.

The column lasted quite a while. It is visible on a whole host of plat maps until sometime between 1925 and 1936.

I bumped into Mr. Stone’s picture this afternoon, and kept pulling on its threads until Carthage had fully emerged.

Good stories in good cities last a very long time.

Turn the page.

Convenience

In a hundred years in any city, change is pervasive. We constantly reshape our urban places to suit our sense of what is most important, most desirable, most necessary. And so here, on Scio Street just north of East Avenue, in Rochester, we can see what that refocusing has created, thanks to Mr. Stone.

Scio Street 1912

Scio Street, looking north from East Avenue, in 1912.

Scio street 2015

Scio Street, looking north from East Avenue, 2015.

Yes, as far as the eye can see on the west side of Scio, that is a parking garage, for about 750 cars.

The little street visible in the 1912 image, on the right, is called Bell Alley. Today if you strolled over to take its measure, you would find this:

scio street 2015 (3)

If you walked down Bell Alley to Matthews Street, and then looked back towards Scio, you would see this:

Bell Alley Mathews to Scio 1924

So it has gone, in almost every city in America. Ahh – progress.

I should probably stop snooping around at these photographs….

 

For those of you who have been following us here at A Town Square for a while – 8 years(!?) – what follows may seem like a bit of heresy, but, as we often say, onward.

It didn’t have to turn out this way. It’s true that the way it has turned out is what Henry Ford wanted, and the Rockefellers, and Le Corbusier, and GM, but it really didn’t have to turn out this way.

po3015a_henry-ford

Mr. Ford, looking rather smug.

voisin-plan-cmp

Mr. Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.

futurama cropped

GM’s Futurama – the nightmare that came true.

Cars have wrecked nearly everything in most every city in the world, and almost everywhere it’s getting worse.

beijingtrafficjam2

But the car has never required us to behave with almost unfathomable stupidity. The car never required us to build beltways and inner loops, to raze our downtowns, rip out our terrific multi-modal transit systems, sprawl across our countryside, and build ridiculous strips of monomaniacal shopping. Cars themselves never said we had to abandon the dense, fine-grained, walkable and heterogeneous fabric of our city centers and neighborhoods. It could have been otherwise.

So, car people, you can keep your cars, and motor along. That’s the heresy part – we haven’t usually left much room for the future of the automobile in the next city.

Here in Rochester, as in cities across the world, our task is clear: find ways to put the car in its proper place. And we are actually making some progress. Our inner beltway, here called the Inner Loop, which savaged our downtown for nearly 60 years, is at least in part going away at last. Hurrah!

Filling in the Inner Loop

Finding the proper place for cars is, quite simply, a very difficult task. Achievable, certainly, but very challenging. And so as we travel to cities, we watch carefully for evidence that others are getting it right. We want to learn these lessons, witness the results, and then share the good news. Here are a few examples.

The Old town of Krakow, Poland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first on the UNESCO list as that list began in 1994. Old Town is encircled by Planty Park, constructed on the foundations of the city’s medieval walls. At the heart of Old Town is Rynek Glowny, Market Square, one of the most sensational bits of urbanism on the planet, and unknown to me until 3 weeks ago. (When we stepped into Market Square a few days ago, I had two instantaneous thoughts: “Why have I not known about this place – -it belongs in the top five anywhere”, and “Where are the cars that are usually molesting even the finest urban spaces on earth?”).

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The cars, except for local residents and service vehicles, were banned in the Old Town in 1998. The qualified ban certainly does not mean no cars – it just means cars in their place. The streets are commanded by walkers, and the cars – with a few exceptions in our experience – do not assume that everyone will instantly jump out of the way. Truly, shared space.

Header-Shared-Space-Preston-Fishergate-smart-magazine-panorama

Ahhhhh: shared space.

Another great example of a city with the car increasingly in the right place is Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Yes – on an island in the middle of the Atlantic.

DSC03062 (1242x956)

Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, and boasts a population of around a million. Santa Cruz is the largest city, and the island’s capital. We have been visiting Santa Cruz for quite a while – our first visit was not long after they began service on their streetcar system (now 2 lines, 27 stations, about 10 miles in length).

DSC03101

During each visit we could see the city, already a very nice walking city in 2007, improving, becoming less car-centric, with rights-of-way increasingly biased to pedestrians and flaneurs, or as they may say in Santa Cruz, paseantes ocioso. In our most recent visit, the transformation was startling. Plaza de Espana, redesigned by the Swiss architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron, is wonderfully revived and enlarged, and has become a true downtown centerpiece.

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But best, the coastal highway that was once a barrier, and introduced rapidly moving automobiles to downtown Santa Cruz, is now GONE. As it approaches downtown from either direction (remember this is an island – it’s all about the edges), it dives beneath the city, includes turn-offs into hidden parking, and then rises to emerge on the other side, clear of the central city.

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The residue of this, of course, is a very substantial increase in the walkability of Santa Cruz. And as if this wasn’t enough, this has been coupled with changes to most of the downtown streets. They are now paved in cobbles, many feature bollards (or no bollards, ala shared space), and all are linked to the already substantial network of ped streets. Progress!

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When we were in Berlin recently, we found their “Urban Transportation Development Plan 2025: Sustainable Mobility.” Berlin is not exactly a car-free city, nor even a shared space city, but the city’s Senate recently adopted the plan (politics and transportation are always uncomfortable bedfellows) which says, in part: “In the future, mobility is more barrier-free, socially just and eco-friendly. Compact and traffic-efficient spatial structures (hmmm – I wonder about this) facilitate active mobility for all, and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, Berlin can look forward to the image (and reality, I trust) of an appealing major city which is, at the same time, one of the most pedestrian friendly in Europe.”

Berlin model panorama (1280x626)

Berlin – the future.

Now this is not exactly breaking down the door of progressive downtown planning, but it is remarkable for the fact that a city of almost 4 million can find the collective will to say that cars are not their only, and probably not their best, future.

I wonder what it would take to get our City Council to enact such a document? Or your city.

The work of putting the car in its rightful place is the work of building a truly convenient city, and a much better, if not good city. Perhaps if we could see our way to merging convenience and goodness we could make some progress. Onward!

REUTER/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Cairo – Reuter/Abd el Ghany.

 

Gone

72 Conkey is gone. The City of Rochester has torn this building down.

The building was built in 1879. It was a corner grocery for 100 years.

We have written previously, and at some length, about the struggle to save this building. Others have as well: http://www.rochestersubway.com.

Working to build a better city here sometimes seems almost hopeless.

Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_015 autocorrect

The Good City, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338.

Panorama 3

Rochester, New York, 2013.

What if Rochester were a good city? Would it be different than the city we live in today? How would it be different?

I find myself reflecting on these questions because I remain preoccupied with my sense of the difference between a good city and the city we have become, the city of convenience.

First, and reasonably, you may ask: “What is a good city?” This is a worthy question, and one that merits our reflection at some length.

I would say that a good city is a city that is healthy, sound, robust, sturdy and strong. I might further say, hearkening back to the seven ancient virtues of western philosophy, that a good city is characterized by justice, courage, hope, charity, prudence, faith, and temperance.

So we’re not quite there yet…. In fact not many cities score all the way to “good.” But I would contend that achieving “good” is a correct, perhaps the most correct goal of the citizens of any city. And “good” is a very, very difficult goal to achieve in the context of our contemporary urban life.

If a city were a good city, jobs would be abundant; education would be thorough, of the highest quality, and accessible to all. Poverty would not disappear, but the inequities that are so much a part of urban life among the poor would not be the heavy burdens they are today. In shorthand, it would be good to live in a good city. Better than living in most cities today. Melbourne comes close, as perhaps do Copenhagen, Auckland, and Vancouver. Our city is a long distance from the good city.

But today we measure our city’s success by its convenience, defined as “the quality of being suitable to one’s comfort, purposes or needs.” Ironically, this particular definition continues: “the convenience of living near shops, schools, libraries” (thefreedictionary.com). And once we have realized that comfort and convenience have become our new urban yardsticks, we then should ask ourselves: “for whom is our city comfortable and convenient?”

I4901(1)

I-490, Rochester New York, photo by Erdman Anthony.

The newspaper here in Rochester yesterday morning offered me a tiny little window on this disconnect between the good city and the convenient city, and provoked me to further investigation. The paper said that in our urban region over 80% of us commute to work alone in our cars, while only 2.5% of us use public transit. Oddly, though the figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau and seem thus to be reliable, 3.4% of us walk to work – more than use transit.

(Just as a frame of reference, 56% of New Yorkers, and 24% of Torontonians commute to work on pubic transit).

Then it was time to dig a little further. In the city itself, 69.5% of commuters drive alone in cars, 7.7% use transit and 6.7% walk to work. Further, I learned that 26% of city dwellers have access to 0 vehicles for their commute.

What can we begin to deduce from these statistics?

Well, first, public transit doesn’t seem to be working very well for anybody, whether suburbanites or city dwellers. Transit use is low in the city and negligible in the surrounding suburbs. When walkers and transit users are nearly the same percentage of commuters, you cannot reason that you have stumbled into a good city, where walking prevails. Instead, you can only reason that the transit system is broken.

In fact, with a little poking, I discovered that the busiest bus line in our region carries 2,270 riders on a weekday, and the busiest bus stop saw 400 users a day (in a location, I note, with almost 20,000 employees). As context, in New York City a busy Manhattan bus line carries 43,000 commuters per workday and in Buffalo, the downtown light rail carries 15,700 riders per workday.

And next, city dwellers have higher transit use than suburbanites, but many fewer have cars. More research required here, but it’s sounding a little like an equity issue. If you don’t have access to a car, and you don’t use transit, are you unemployed (unemployment rates are as high as 40% in some our city neighborhoods)?

And then there is the car/convenience equation. In the last 15 years, nearly $500,000,000 has been spent here on three expressway interchanges alone. This seems a bit obscene in a city ranked as the 5th poorest in the U.S.

So on this Labor Day weekend I am reflecting on the city we have made and how it works, and for whom. And I am trying to imagine a counterpoint to what I see – a better city that could eventually become a good city. The differences seem a bit stark.

More to follow, I suspect.

“When distance and convenience sets in, the small, the various and the personal wither away.”

― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

 

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