A reader here has just asked me a good question about Rochester urbanism and the character and order of this region: what happened? He noted that Rochester was once a dense, compact city, surrounded by neighborhoods of tree-lined streets and lovely homes, in a region rich with all kinds of natural resources – lake, river, countryside. And today – not so much.
East Avenue, 1917.
So, Daniel, here is at least part of what happened. Glad you asked – this will let me get a few things off my chest. I have said some of this before in earlier posts, but I feel like a good rant. Get comfy, because this is going to take a while.
First, the car. I once asked a curatorial colleague of mine, and a historian of technology, to try to tell me what the city of the horse was like – the city before cars, and trolleys. It turns out that that city was pretty dreadful – smelly, filthy, and crowded with big, sweaty, and often sick animals. So when the electric streetcar came along (thanks, Frank Sprague), and later the automobile, city dwellers were enormously relieved. They were happy to jettison their present ills for a horseless future, notwithstanding a blissful ignorance of the almost inestimable price we would pay for a total embrace of the car, and the mobility it provided. Now we know.
A city of horses – Chicago in the early 20th century.
Victor Hugo wrote, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “This will destroy that… The book will destroy the edifice.” In some way, he was saying that the new technology of printing would destroy old ways of story telling embodied in buildings, and cities. And today we can say: “This will kill that… the car will destroy the city.”
Detroit. Plenty of parking.
For the sake of our convenience and in favor of the automobile, we have destroyed the city, and the countryside. I tried once to make a relatively precise estimate of how much of what was once downtown Rochester was now a parking lot. Once I got to more than 50%, I gave up.
Downtown Rochester, from Google Earth.
As another of our readers said recently, “In America we don’t solve social problems, we move away from them.” So the second thing that happened is that it got easier and easier to ignore the poor, the different, the minority, the other. We could just build highways by tearing down ‘their’ neighborhoods, create nearly impregnable barriers between “us” and “them” like the Inner Loop, and drive off into the sunset.
The moat. Photo from empirestateroads.com.
But unfortunately, there is no such thing as geographical salvation. (Who said that first? Not I). Avoiding our differences, and our varying needs, has proven to be both impossible, and almost unbelievably expensive. And still we have the inequities we had, now principally centered in increasingly abandoned inner city neighborhoods. To illustrate this indifference to social needs, and social equity, just take a look almost any day at the pages of our local paper, the Democrat and Chronicle.
There we find that if a crime happened in Rochester, it took place in the “city.” As in: “City man found stabbed.” Or: “City bank robbed at gunpoint.” And if the crime happened somewhere else, the place-name is given, in lieu of the word ‘city.’
From today’s D & C.
I am an outsider, and many locals may think I am lunatic for mentioning this (I may well be lunatic), but this pejorative use of the word city sums up how many in the region feel. I am more than surprised that I hear this quite a lot: the city is the place where crime is, where bad things happen, where poor people, and different people, live. The city is to be avoided, the city is crowded, the city is smelly, dirty, polluted, ugly, dangerous.
Come on folks – you’re talking about Rochester here! Get a grip. Cities are our future, and our friends, not cesspools. The best North American cities – Vancouver, Portland, Chicago, Manhattan, Toronto, others – are now seen as places where you MUST live and work downtown. Not in a suburb like Greece, or Webster, but downtown. And how many folks now live in downtown Rochester? About 4,000. But really people, all the rest of downtown is really safe – it’s parking.
Onward. The third thing that happened as we found it attractive to spread out all over the place is that we began to duplicate, then triplicate, then logarithmically multiply our infrastructure. More and more expressways and roads, sewers, waste water facilities, libraries, public safety forces, streetlights, signposts, gas lines – you name it. And we did this to the extent that today, we can no longer afford all this stuff. And it’s all falling apart.
The physical infrastructure of the civil engineers is crumbling and decrepit. And the attendant social and civic infrastructure is not sustainable either. Just look at your tax bill – we’re maxed out, and constantly arguing about it: what should we close, consolidate, abandon, do without.
Sadly, most of the old infrastructure isn’t worth anything anyway. Whether we are speaking of the need for digital infrastructure to support the life ahead, or sustainable systems of energy and water that will allow us to enjoy a secure and durable urban future, the stuff we need is not the stuff we have now, and the stuff we have now and argue about fixing isn’t worth a damn. Time to start over – get out your checkbooks. Headline: “City dweller scorns new subdivision in Gates.”
Painting by Eric Garner.
The fourth thing we did is to mistake innovation for progress. As I said in my most recent post, Rochester has always been a center for innovation – especially technical innovation. People who track such things point to the enormous number of patents that have been registered by Rochesterians over the last century or so. Good. But not enough.
It’s a bit like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Innovation has to be about more than new stuff. Properly, innovation should be about preparing us to lead better lives. And here I mean that a better life is one that increases the common wealth, and the common well-being. Not just a new flat screen or iPhone, but a truly better life – a life that we can be sure will be available to our children’s children’s children. We no longer have that assurance – things are closing in on us pretty fast, and endlessly we read about the shrinking standards of living we can expect in the future. It’s past time to put on our real thinking caps and figure out how to prepare Rochester, or Anycity USA, for what lies ahead.
And now I’ll quit raving. But wait – one more thing happened, I think worth noting. Fifth, we abandoned the local. What local? Any local. Local food, local services, local artisans, local greengrocers, local butchers, local clothing shops, local lampshade makers, local anything.
I see this so vividly as I thumb through the absolutely extraordinary photo archive of local news photographer Albert Stone. I cherish his archive – it’s an exquisite gift to all of us. His images are powerful testimony to the city we have lost – a city bustling with energy and vitality, and filled with local everything.
Front Street, 1922.
Main Street, 1922.
Why did we abandon the local? Because the local seemed more expensive, slower, less reliable. And that’s how we have defined progress – progress, we say with our consumer dollars, is fast cheapness.
And thanks to all the subsidies we put in place, that definition is fulfilled. Subsidize roads, farmers, energy, any of a thousand things we do subsidize every day, and the national or transnational seems cheaper. But it turns out that this cheapness was and is really, really expensive. Much too expensive. How could we have traded Scrantom’s for Staples? Really nuts.
Scrantom’s last stand – Midtown Plaza. Photo from flickr.
So there you have it, dear reader – five things that happened to Rochester that created the city we have today. Aren’t you glad you asked?
I’ll bet you didn’t expect a full-scaled rant from a raving lunatic.