I do want to talk here about what a next Rochester might look like, and how the city might be transformed into a useable, durable, and sustainable urbanism to serve its future. I intuit that this shrunken city (population of 332,500 at its peak in 1950, about 219,000 today – a reduction of slightly more than a third) and its sprawling, auto-dominated region of about 1.2 million faces some pretty staggering challenges ahead. But before that conversation can begin, its back to urban basics.
The simplest and surest way to get to know any city is to take time to understand its streets and blocks. I am embarked on that task here, in our new home place.
Rochester in 1912.
The oldest and central part of the city, downtown, is sufficiently aged, and has been sufficiently cut up, moated by the laughable Inner Loop, ravaged by horrific 20th century modernism, and assaulted by surface parking lots, that if there is a useful pattern to the streets here, it is not discernible.
Downtown Rochester from 10,000 feet. Google Earth.
But if one sifts through the archives a bit, some patterns do emerge.
Once, most of the city’s diagonal streets converged on downtown. I noticed this clearly when I found an old street map from 1912, above, and another from 1955 – before the Inner Loop – below.
1955 map of downtown Rochester.
Downtown was a nexus of converging diagonals – Monroe, East, St. Paul, South, North, Clinton, and of course, Main, among others.
This convergence corresponds nicely with the Genesee River waterfalls: these falls were the central point of Rochester’s beginning. It was here, in 1789, that Ebenezer “Indian” Allen built the first grist mill (Rochester’s nickname was The Flour City, though now it has become the Flower City – lilacs), and a tiny enclave of outbuildings.
The population in 1790 was only about 25 souls, and the mill didn’t stay in operation for long, but the city had been born.
Allen’s mill, on the banks of the Genesee, in 1789.
By 1800 the land had passed into the hands of Colonel Nathaniel Rochester. Rochester moved his family to the area in 1808, and began surveying his 100 acre tract, and creating parcels for sale, in 1811. His basic unit of property was a quarter acre lot – a size that sounds familiar to us even today.
But Rochesterville was still pretty rough round the edges:
Bucolic Rochester, 1812.
A few years later, in 1823, the Erie Canal arrived, followed shortly by the railroads, and the little village blossomed into a full-fledged city – more than 20,000 people by 1840, almost 5 times the population of Chicago at that time. By 1900, Rochester was the 24th largest city in the entire country.
Rochester and the falls at night, 1925.
Busy streets of a buzzing city divide the land into blocks, our next subject of inquiry.
Rochester is a city with few repeating patterns in its street and block forms. The roads and resulting blocks seem to go every which way. Part of this perception is a result of my upbringing, in the rigidly gridded fabric of Chicago.
When Col. Rochester undertook his parcelization in 1811, his blocks were rectangular, as was the custom of the day. By 1817, the city’s blocks were laid out as shown in the image below. North is to the right on this map.
Rochester map, 1817.
If you look closely, you can see that the alleys, as well as the streets, have names. I would love to say that alleys are a feature of most Rochester blocks, but alleys are decidedly not a feature of most Rochester blocks. In fact, there are very few alleys in this town, but when you can find one, it usually does have a name. Haags Alley, Parker Alley, Jordan Alley. Most of the oldest blocks with alleyways were in the central city, and were blown up in the quest for the Inner Loop. Harrumph.
(No alleys means that increasing the Rochester urban density, which I believe all cities must do in order to become sustainable, will be more difficult than if alleys were present. In Rochester, alley housing, or as the Canadians more delicately call it, laneway housing, will be hard to achieve. But more about that later – let’s stick to basics).
By 1820, the city looked like a burgeoning hamlet. The map from 1820, below, seems a bit optimistic – is this a marketing brochure? – since the population was only 1,502.
Rochester map, 1820.
The streets and rectangular blocks are oriented by the river, and the alleys persist.
By 1827, as the city’s population neared 9,000, the basic orientation of streets and blocks was quite well established.
The grid of blocks and streets east of the river has pivoted to a northeast and southwest orientation, with East Avenue as its main east-west drag. East Avenue is the street that joins Main and Franklin at the little triangular urban space in the right center of the map. This little triangle would eventually become home to the Liberty Pole, which today is lighted during the holiday season.
We went to the lighting ceremony this year. The city hopes every year that the ceremony, with its parade and bands and ice skating and general hoo-ha, will bring lots of folks downtown. This year there were probably 300 people in attendance. Oh well.
The Liberty Pole.
Parenthetically, (this whole post is parenthetical) the Liberty Pole at this intersection has a deep history. The first one was erected in 1846 by the East Side Boys, a political club. It lasted until a storm in 1859. It was replaced, in 1861, by the version below.
This version lasted until 1889, when it was felled in a storm. Then it was 75 years until James Johnson would create the Liberty Pole we have today. Anyway, that’s the intersection of Franklin, East and Main. Back to the blocks.
As I was musing, the 1827 plat shows that most of the basic orientation of the blocks was established at a very early moment in the city’s history. South of the third ward, a north/south orientation arises, and in the fifth ward as well. The orientations of 180 years ago would establish the basic urban kit of parts for the city for generations to come.
Consulting Rochester maps from the later 19th and early 20th century testifies to the fact that the basic approach to city making here was pretty well established before 1830.
Outside of downtown, the city is, except for a handful of older commercial corridors, principally characterized by single-family residential neighborhoods. As a result the blocks are not very deep, with two homes back to back at between 230 feet and 300 feet or so.
While the blocks are not very deep (no alleys, alas), they can often be quite long. Once you have understood the basics of block depth, which may be called the warp, the woof of block length just seems to go on. It’s quite common to find 1,000 foot long blocks here. Not really conducive to mixed use, walkable neighborhoods, I’m afraid. We need mid-block snickets, or cut-throughs, so walkers can move about easily.
Walkers. In Rochester, most neighborhoods were not created with walking in mind. There are a couple of exceptions, but our new neighborhood scores only a 46 at www.walkscore.com. Rats! – in DC we were a 91, and in Chicago we were a 94. Get in the car, I guess.
So. A brief look at streets and blocks in Rochester. I am learning how the city came to be the way it is. Next up, I need to think about what happened here after the city reached its peak population of about 333,000, in 1950, and it began to move from 32nd largest city in the nation to today, when it is the 99th largest city in the country.
More work ahead. Rochesterians – what have I missed? Or screwed up? Onward.