Rochester and its river, the Genesee.
What better way to get to know a new home place than to imagine it as a case study for examining the next city?
Here we are in our new neighborhood, and in between fresh paint, endless trips to the hardware store, and nearly daily (but very enjoyable) snow shoveling, I am spending time getting to know how Rochester got to be the city we inhabit today. I do this in the hope that I can use Rochester as a kind of object lesson in how our cities can make themselves into fit and durable communities for the future. It’s going to take a while to figure this one out.
Every day brings new discoveries. I have learned the very hard way that only by understanding a city’s past can one speculate about a useful future. And so I have been trying to mine the rich history of this place, trying to understand some of the layers of now vanished Rochesters that have been the progenitors of the city we inhabit today.
Every city disappears every day. What was is gone in an instant, replaced by some new place, altered to fit new circumstances and needs. The bank building at the corner a few blocks away (I think it was a bank building – maybe it was an office building – but it looked like it was about 25 or 30 years old), with its attached multistory parking garage, has mostly vanished since we arrived. We’re not sure what comes next, or why, but that urban fragment is gone, and with it one version of this entire place.
So here are some early thoughts, observations, and discoveries.
As a kind of urbanism, Rochester is as dominated by the automobile as any you know or could imagine. The city of about 210,000, and the region of about 1.1 million, is filled with evidence of sprawl everywhere you go. Downtown has almost no retail, though it was all there once, and almost nothing else, either. Offices for Kodak and Xerox, lots of surface parking lots, but none of the bustling activity that was once daily life. Four big shopping malls, one out in each quadrant of the region, replace what was once all centralized downtown.
The downtown of the present is ringed by an inner expressway loop. And the city, and all its suburbs, are connected by an outer loop. Because Rochester is on a river and on the south shore of Lake Ontario, this outer loop of highways is three-sided, with water on the fourth. Like this:
And here is a look at downtown, encircled by the truly unfortunate inner loop in a kind of shoe shape, like this:
That darker line that enters the picture from the left, humps northward, and then goes out of the frame diagonally on the right – that’s the railroad, the CSX right-of-way also used by Amtrak. The rail alignments have always been central to defining the character of the city. I sensed this, but it was made clear when I made a discovery yesterday afternoon. Here’s what I found:
It’s easy to see the rail line, in the same place in this map of the region created in 1912 as in the shot from Goggle Earth. But even more interesting is another discovery.
In 1911, the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee commissioned Arnold Brunner (who worked with Daniel Burnham on the 1903 “Group Plan” for Cleveland, and sat with Burnham on Washington, D.C.’s Commission of Fine Arts), and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (whose father was so instrumental in creating Central Park and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Rick, as he was known, worked very closely with Burnham in Washington, and probably needs other introduction), along with rail transportation expert Bion Arnold to create a “City Plan for Rochester.” (An interesting side note: The Rochester Civic Improvement Committee was chaired in 1911 by James G. Cutler, who was both a very noted Rochester architect, and the City’s mayor from 1904 to 1907).
Brunner and Olmsted, using a version of the map above, made a plan that looked like this:
This is where things start to get really interesting. Olmsted’s and Brunner’s greenways are now almost all expressways. The late 20th century expressway system was founded on abandoned railroad rights of way, proposed but never realized greenways, or the alignment of the old Erie Canal, which was replaced by the Erie Barge Canal not long after the 1911 plan. Just one example: the greenway running east and west just north of downtown, between the Genesee River on the west and Irondequoit Bay on the east, is the precise alignment of the Keeler Expressway, local route 104, built in the 1960s and 70s.
I guess it will take a while to peel this particular onion….