Site of Rochester Parking Day, 09.16.16 – Franklin and (ahem) Pleasant Streets. Scorched earth.
Sic transit gloria mundi. Change is inevitable. Change is a law of nature. We know that the landscapes of our cities and towns will change, although we are never certain what that change will look like, or how it will touch our lives.
But much of the change in the landscapes of our communities happens suddenly, and erases most of the preceding and precious narratives without leaving a trace of those older tales about our lives in a place. Gone, lost, forgotten.
I believe that the best cities – or towns, villages, hamlets – are those that sustain the greatest number of stories of us – our families, who we were, who we are, what we did, what we do, what made sense, what makes sense – intact and legible for the longest time, available to the greatest number of citizens or occupants, visitors or migrants, whether we are coming or going, returning or escaping.
I think about this all the time. Our chronicles, our histories, are lodged in real places. When architect Otto Block made our house the first house on our side of our street, and lived here only yards away from the Eastern Widewaters of the Erie Canal, what was life like? What was he thinking? How were he and his neighbors getting along in that particular lost Rochester?
I find myself reflecting on lost places and lost memories this evening for two reasons. First, on Friday we”celebrated” Parking Day here in Rochester by occupying one of the infinite number of our downtown surface parking lots. As part of the day’s events I made a brief talk about the very nearby Franklin Square. I opened a plat book from 1875 to show what the Square once looked like – it was spectacular:
Our Parking Day site was the surface lot where those homes were just to the left of “Amity Street.”
Today, this part of our city looks like the image below, and in a distressing irony, Amity Street has become Pleasant Street.
Franklin Square, at the upper red arrow below, was destroyed in the 1950s as the Inner Loop was built. As you can see, plenty of room for parking, and on any day….
But the house at the lower red arrow, above, is visible on the 1875 plat map. Somehow that building, and the carriage house behind it, evaded the last 150 years of massive destruction. Once, that house belonged to Mary Fitch. It’s visible here, in 1919, after Franklin Square had been remade by Olmsted and was truly glorious.
So Mary Fitch, and her house, are still with us. Mary Leffingwell Fitch. We can open books, and trace her with ease. In 1875 she was a widow, and had been living there since 1866. Her late husband was Ahira Fitch (1799-1865), and before he died they lived at 84 Clinton. Their house on Clinton is now a parking garage. Ahira was a leather dealer, a tanner, and a currier. He had his gold watch stolen in the spring of 1847. I could go on….
So their narrative survives in our city. We can find them, touch them, and in a tiny way know them. For what we see in most of downtown though, it’s pretty hopeless:
The second reason I am reflecting on the nature of place and remembrance this evening is that on our recent trip to Chicago, we discovered that the house where my father was born in 1916, 1038 Diversey Parkway, is now gone. My brother Doug has written quite wonderfully and touchingly about our loss here:
I really would like you to read his thoughts – he is an insightful historian and writer, he is enormously articulate, and he truly understands what it means to treasure our stories.
Our Dad’s house looked like this, in 1918. He was 2. (He was delivered by the doctor who lived next door).
The life there was like this:
There he is with his big sister, Vivian.
And today? This:
Our time is so short. Our stories are so brief, and then they are gone. But how things got to be the way they are is important, and what happens next is too. When we are gone away, will anyone be able to find the slightest glimmer of what we knew, what we thought, what we loved? Maybe yes, mostly no.
We could change much of this: it would only require us to rearrange our priorities. But we have not, and we will not.