The Arc of Urban Change: Rochester in the 20th Century

It’s impossible to begin to imagine a next Rochester, or any next city, without understanding its history. In particular, it is imperative to understand how this city got as screwed up as it is during the course of the 20th century. And I do mean screwed up.

Oh, Rochester wasn’t alone – the arc of change for this city has been much like the arc of change for most American cities. But the unique efflorescence of modern urbanism here has resulted from the particular identity and character of this place – climate, geography, history, culture, industry, attitudes, events, governance. Let me explain.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Rochester was home to 162,800 people, and was the 24th largest city in the U.S. By mid-century, the city had reached its peak population of 332,488. At the end of the century, the city population had receded to 219,773. By 2000, the region, which was entirely populated by city dwellers in 1900, had grown to a sprawl of city and suburbs totaling 1,034,090, the 51st largest in the nation.

Rochester, looking northwest. Wiki image.

Again, the features of Rochester’s shift from a centralized city to an auto-dominated, sprawling (and unsustainable) region are the same as most American cities born in the late 18th or early 19th century. The markers along this arc of change are well known to all of us.

Cars, suburbs, shifting places of employment, strip shopping and big malls,  more cars, waning transit, complaints about congestion, expressways, more cars, empty downtowns with literally half the land used as parking lots, increasing strains on city coffers as the wealth, and population, of the region motors into the countryside.

Sound familiar? Everycity, U.S.A.

Carol Stream, Illinois. Photo by Alex MacLean.

But now let’s take a peek at this particular city, and its particular circumstances.

During the 20th century, Rochester was a place of wealth far greater than its size would suggest. Kodak, Western Union, Bausch and Lomb, and in 1906, Xerox, were enormously successful in the early years of the century, and this wealth allowed for the construction of substantial social infrastructure.

Shopping downtown, Christmas, 1915.

Today, we Rochesterians enjoy culture well beyond our census data – a great orchestra, and the Eastman School of Music, (30 cultural institutions started by George Eastman largesse alone), great museums of a wide array, great universities, a great jazz festival, and a summer ‘art’ fair that draws more people than the city’s population. There is much to see and do, and experience, for a city this size.

Throngs at the Corn Hill Arts Festival.

And the city’s population, and now the region’s, is and has been characterized by a very high level of technical skill and scientific and technical education. Beginning in the 19th century, Rochester was home to companies and institutions that needed, and attracted,  a gifted workforce.  In fact, that’s one reason why we’re here.

Amy’s parents came here in the early 1930s, and her father joined Kodak. He was a physical chemist, worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII, and then returned to Kodak. When her parents moved to upstate New York from Pittsburgh, they lived at first in the city. But by the mid 1930s they had moved to the northern suburb of Irondequoit. So it goes.

Downtown Rochester, 1938.

This moment then, the mid 30s, was the top of Rochester’s arc of change – the city population took a dip in the 30s as folks spread out, presaging what was to come. Then, with WWII, the population stabilized and grew a bit due to the war effort, before the inevitable exodus began again, now in earnest, by the 1950s.

So in the late 30s, there was already a lot of hubbub about traffic and congestion. Even though Rochester had a subway beginning in the late 20s, and streetcars until 1941, (pretty early for a streetcar system collapse – they ran in my hometown near Chicago until the mid-1950s), automobiles were king at a pretty early moment.

The Sea Breeze Trolley – gone but not forgotten.

Thus comes the most single most destructive moment in the city’s 20th century urban history – one that set a precedent for all kinds of other really dreadful urban missteps. Not the only big mistake mind you, but the worst. The Inner Loop.

Conceived as a way to alleviate increasing downtown congestion as the city’s population neared its peak, the Inner Loop was born as an idea in the late 30s and early 40s. Engineering began in earnest in the late 40s, and the Loop was under construction by the early 50s. Huge swaths of urban clearing were undertaken to make way for the moatlike expressway – a kind of prelude to the massive urban renewal of the later 50s so common throughout the U.S.

The 1951 Inner Loop plan.

Hundreds of buildings were demolished, and a kind of Maginot Line was created between the fabric of the city and its downtown. And this was only the first of these efforts. Later expressways followed, making it easier and easier to avoid the central city. And of course as it got easier to live away, it got easier to shop away from downtown, and to live all of the rest of one’s life without ever seeing the city itself.

So where does all this leave us? Rochester is a shrinking city with a great history, great richness of culture and social infrastructure, great assets in its population and their impressive capabilities, a lovely city with wonderful tree-lined streets and historic architecture. The surrounding countryside is enormously attractive, the Lake is at hand, the universities are very strong (University of Rochester has now supplanted Kodak as the region’s largest employer). It’s a pretty terrific place. But it is not sustainable, in any sense.

Sprawl in Greece, NY,  a suburb of Rochester.

What do I mean? Well, perhaps the simplest way to understand the challenges ahead is by doing a little simple math.

The Rochester Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) comprises five counties: Livingston, Monroe (where the city resides), Ontario, Orleans and Wayne. The regional population in a 2007 estimate was set at 1,030,495. The land area of the MSA is 4,869 square miles, or 3,116,160 acres. All of which leaves us with a mess of sprawl – 1 person for every 3 acres.

Does the MSA include farmland and parks and other open space? Of course it does, like any other MSA in the nation. But spreading out like we have means many features of now 21st century life can’t continue much longer.

Spreading out on Ridge Road, Rochester.

Here’s just one reason, without resorting to any environmental mumbo-jumbo: money.

If the region has just over 1,000,000 souls, and has had to build all of the physical and social infrastructure necessary to allow this level of sprawl, there is a limit that we can reasonably expect in taxes extracted versus cash required to pay for the mess. And we are reaching that limit. Every day we read about the fact that there are not enough dollars to pay for schools, repair bridges, keep the libraries open, provide adequate fire service – it’s pretty much an endless list. (It doesn’t help that New York as a state is in major financial trouble as well, and for many of the same reasons). Property taxes here are some of the highest in the nation, while real estate values languish.

So without resorting to facts like global warming, or water scarcity, or an industrialized food system that is eating us alive, or a lack of sustainable energy, or any other of the problems that are closing in on all of us at a breakneck pace, we can talk about the sustainability and survivability of a city, and a region, from a strictly economic perspective. We can’t go on much longer as we have been – we simply cannot afford it.

Or we could talk about governance as another example of  why a region like ours will have to make some fairly radical changes in order to carry on. This part of the nation is a county-strong place – county governments have a lot of power here. The county and the city are wrangling all the time for control of all sorts of stuff – the big one at the moment is schools. But with five counties in the region, a major city, and hundreds of towns, villages, school districts, park districts – you name it – we are constantly tripping over boundaries, and local sets of interest. With all of these separate units of government, there is endless bickering over power, endless NIMBYism, endless attempts to protect one fiefdom or another.

So while our fates are inevitably lashed together, our system of governance is perfectly designed to prevent us from working together on our really big challenges.

I suppose I will have to take some consolation in all these reflections from a few favorite words from poet and essayist Gary Snyder, who said “of all the memberships we identify ourselves by, the one thing that is most forgotten…. is place…. people who can agree that they share a commitment to the landscape/cityscape – even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other – have at least one deep thing to share.”

Maybe this is the tiny patch of ground we need on which to start building the next city.

11 thoughts on “The Arc of Urban Change: Rochester in the 20th Century

  1. I would also like to welcome you to Rochester & encourage you to continue this wonderful commentary. I am especially glad to see that you have zeroed in on the Inner Loop as one of the most destructive of the many disastrous wrong turns Rochester has taken since WWII. As you continue to explore the historic plans that the city commissioned, you may come across a plan by Harland Bartholomew done in the 1920’s. This plan was mostly about preparing Rochester for the coming automobile age. It did not propose the expressway system seen today but rather a remaking of many of the arterial streets that lead into downtown in a spoke & hub pattern. The plan proposed widening these streets into boulevards and it showed the first inkling of an inner loop – a boulevard surrounding downtown into which all of the ‘spoke’ boulevards would converge. While little of this plan was actually realized (it would have required massive demolition to increase the right of way on many streets) its legacy lives on in the form of ‘Bartholomew Lines’, which are reservation lines that inhibit the construction of buildings close to the street. Most of these lines were removed in the 1980’s but some persist to this day.

    The city is working on a plan to rework the southeast portion of the Inner Loop, which is the least used, but I fear that we may still be left with an overbuilt road infrastructure – we’ll have to wait & see.

    A few observations on your previous post:

    On the lack of alleys – while we have a few neighborhoods with alleys, most do not. This seems to be a trait shared with most cities in NYS, including Manhattan. I agree that given our pattern of small lot detached houses, alleys would be a far better way to provide service access. As Jason noted previously, there is great resistance to that here, both due to crime concerns & due to the city’s reluctance to add to its infrastructure. I think the most realistic way to address the crime concern is to gate the alleys & fence the spaces between the houses in order to create a secure perimeter around the block. This concept is beautifully illustrated in Andres Duany’s book, The New Civic Art. While I agree with your recommendation to create alley houses, we have a severe housing abandonment situation in Rochester. The city is working on a ‘greening’ strategy, which is essentially a strategy to identify certain areas for large scale clearance, not for redevelopment but for non-urban uses. I would be interested in your ideas on this subject. Anyway, it seems unlikely that alley houses will be developed in any great numbers. In one of your previous posts from DC, you spoke of the possibility of getting property owners on a single block together to create local power generation. Perhaps this approach would work for the creation of new alleys.

    On our long blocks – I have also noticed this & I like your idea for pedestrian connections. It is interesting to note that many of the east-west blocks in Manhattan, especially on the Upper West Side are similar in length to some of our blocks. As I recall, Jane Jacobs studied these blocks, compared them to shorter blocks & concluded that the shorter blocks were more conducive to a lively street life. Most neighborhoods in Rochester were essentially developed as streetcar suburbs so the long blocks are usually perpendicular to the old streetcar lines. It was more important to get to the streetcar than to go over to the next residential street.

    On walkscore – I’m a little skeptical on the accuracy of this program. My parents’ house in the town of Brighton, not far from your house, scores 65. I seriously doubt if there is a significant difference between the walkability of their neighborhood & yours, so maybe you are better off than you think!

  2. Tim, my many thanks for your kind words, and all of your comments. You can be sure that I will keep up the commentary here on the blog – I have so much to learn about this city, and I am most intrigued with all of the possibilities.

    I have located a copy of the Harland Bartholomew 1929 study, thanks to Roger Brown, and I will take a look at it in the next several days. I am most interested to see how the 1929 recommendations relate to the street commentary in the 1911 Brunner/Olmsted plan. So much of that plan had to do with streets – I guess Brunner and Olmsted could see the handwriting on the wall, even by 1911. By then, Henry Ford alone had produced nearly 100,000 cars.

    Certainly a boulevard loop on the city’s surface would have been better than the moat we suffer with today. Even in 1929 there was still some talk about urban convenience – urban avoidance came just a wee bit later, unfortunately.

    As to alleys, while I lament their absence, clearly we are not about to see an alley-build program in Rochester. But as you may have read in other posts here, I do believe that the opposite of, and requisite counterweight to sprawl is density. Density begets mixed uses, walkability, and a very large increase in the quality of urban living, including making the city much more sustainable.

    So one question I am musing about is how to increase density in a typical Rochester city block that has no alleys. No answers yet, other than my proposal for snickets. I will continue to think about this.

    By the way, a typical Manhattan block is 264 by 900 – about a minute to walk in the short direction and about three minutes in the long. Big, but still workable. Lots of cities have rectangular blocks laid perpendicular to what were once streetcar lines – this is one of the absolute animating principles of Chicago’s rigid grid, for example.

    Now as to abandonment, clearance, new open space, and the fate of a shrinking Rochester (as in so many American cities), I think a “greening plan” is a fine idea.

    But if I were suddenly made the resident autocrat here, I would be very tempted to institute an instantaneous urban growth boundary. Inside – new construction is good. Outside – nothing new. Nothing.

    This is not very “free-market” of me, but the results of unrestrained sprawl are all around us, they are destructive of our environment and the quality of our lives, and there is no real sign that too many folks understand the increasingly dire consequences.

    I don’t know where the boundary is – I will keep thinking about this. But I do think that instituting some kind of regional growth control is definitely in order. This idea will no doubt be greeted with tumultuous and immediate joy by all the officials in the region….

    And as to walkscore, I agree with your assessment. We walk to lots of things from here, but mostly because we are not afraid to walk a mile in a single direction. If you draw a one mile radius around us, we can walk to an amazing array of urban stuff. I guess it’s just that most folks don’t walk much anymore.

    Again, thanks Tim.

  3. You have my vote for resident autocrat! Unfortunately there only a handful of places in the US with anything like an urban growth boundary and none of them are in this state or any northeastern state. We love our local rule! So we are left with the problem how how to densify a shrinking city in a region that may also be shrinking or is at least a no growth region. We live in a sprawl with no growth environment. For every new house or square foot of retail space that is built, one is abandoned, almost always in the City of Rochester. It seems to me that this will begin to change as we get deeper into the peak oil situation, but we will probably be one of the last regions to realize that our car dependency is killing us. The Rochester region has one of the shortest commute times in the US – & loves to brag about it. So what do you think of a combination densification & greening strategy? Densification downtown & in the more viable neighborhoods & greening in the areas that are too far gone. It could be something like Christopher Alexander’s idea of urban fingers extending into rural areas, bringing the rural within walking distance of the urban.

  4. Thanks for the vote!

    I understand that everyone here loves their local rule, and their short commutes, but I still find it quite odd. At an early moment I tried to google the city’s department of planning, only to find that there wasn’t one. It’s embedded in Monroe County. You know far better than I how all this works, but it does seem like lots of disconnections, overlaps, and gaps and lacunae, leading to some very clear inequities and injustices. Maybe it’s just me – I am new here and I don’t really know how things work quite yet.

    But it is a certainty that many of the most urgent urban issues must be addressed by some other kind of governance than what exists.

    I too think fuel costs will be one vehicle (so to speak) for increasing urban density. I am in the process of reflecting on other means. Stay tuned.

    In the end, it’s disheartening that folks here don’t see the clear connection between astronomical taxes and sprawl. Maybe it just doesn’t hurt enough yet. It will.

    Yes, densification plus greening I think makes sense. I sent you a link to a terrific video clip that discusses this very idea. It could be a great addition to the urban scape.

    Clearly there are equity issues involved, making it harder to achieve fairly. But great cities have always been nodal – walkable, mixed use neighborhood communities making up the fabric of the city. In the best of cities, these nodes are made accessible and are connected together by a variety of mobility options. We have our work cut out for us.

  5. Another great post. Just a couple thoughts:

    “This part of the nation is a county-strong place – county governments have a lot of power here. ”

    Yes and no. In comparison to southern and western states, I would actually say our counties are rather weak. There’s no such thing as “unincorporated” areas in New York State. Every square inch of the state is part of a local municipality (two municipalities if you live in a village; villages are legally part of the town they sit within). I’ve always thought New York suffers from the worst of both worlds: we inherited strong local town and village government traditions from New England. However, unlike New England, counties in NYS do count for something, to the competition and duplication and overlap between the sub-state levels of government here are intense. I went to graduate school in Ontario and was amazed and jealous that the Province of Ontario could summarily re-organize local government as it saw fit. Generally, about once a generation it seems. In New York, we’re constrained by the fact that once a local government is created (most of them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) it is nearly impossible to get rid of it.

    “I tried to google the city’s department of planning, only to find that there wasn’t one. It’s embedded in Monroe County. ”

    That’s more a function of the city’s poorly designed website and lack of emphasis on planning. The Monroe County Planning Department deals with the limited issues that state enabling legislation lets counties deal with. It is basically an advisory entity to the towns and villages, since almost all land use decisions are local.

    The city and some of the larger suburban towns have planning staff to assist with land use decisions. Many suburban municipalities, including some quite large ones, and almost all rural municipalities, have untrained citizen boards making crucial land use decisions with little guidance except that coming from the applicant’s engineer/architect/attorney.

    The City of Rochester, in my humble opinion, compared to its more dysfunctional upstate cousins (Buffalo and Syracuse) does a decent job of planning, especially considering the population (declining), market (weak), and political pressure to say yes to any development (very strong).

  6. Jason, I am heartened to hear that the city has some kind of professional entity charged with land use and planning. Good.

    But. It’s the overlaps that are killing the region. So many taxing bodies making so many overlapping, and often contradictory, decisions. It just doesn’t work.

    In the Chicago region, my home place, there are literally thousands of units of local government of one kind or another. This is just plain nuts.

    So high on our “fed up with Albany” list should be putting in place the kind of legislation that allowed Toronto to go regional, and reorganize itself as the moment demanded. They are ahead – not light years ahead, but ahead, for sure.

    I guess my new motto has to become “Think locally, and act locally.” We need to get very aggressive about figuring out how to make the GREATER Rochester region work as one place legally. If that can happen, then the city-state can actually begin to figure out how to sustain itself, economically and in every other way.

  7. I would not so much call the inner loop a Maginot Line. Remember the Germans easily skirted around it. The inner loop is more like the Berlin Wall with similar results for anything on the wrong side.

  8. A thought as I catch up on these great posts: if the city can carry on a reasonable planning process, while the villages and towns are mired by conflicting governance, then the city will eventually win as people look for rational alternatives. That is, if there really is the force of necessity behind the re-urbanization so many of us hope for. It will be a market-driven evolution in that sense. The city needs to recognize the need to exercise guidance for the market (as the 1911 study spent so much effort to illustrate) and demonstrate how that can be superior to the chaos elsewhere, both for investment and for living.

  9. Carl, thanks for your thoughts. Glad you are enjoying the posts here.

    It’s amazing to me how enlightened leadership can act as a force to shape the market. The market is a wildly unenlightened place – any examination of our history tells us this is so.

    But real leadership can be a potent force in directing atttention to getting things that count out of the market, not just things. The list of cities where we can see this is long: Chicago (I know the results are mixed, but there is much that is teriffic); Portland; Ann Arbor; Cincinnati – I could go on.

    The market will never give us leaders with vision who understand what our cities need to become to help assure our futures. Only voters can do this. And constant conversation about what we need that we don’t have, why we need to think differently about how we live, and why it is increasingly urgent that we shove the market in new directions.

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