60 North Street

Block by block, I am slowly piecing together a lost city. The more I unearth, the more I am fascinated by what was once Rochester. The fineness of urban texture, the richness of that urban life a century ago, is long gone now. But the traces are beguiling, sometimes sad, and always suggestive. As I sift through the images, I can hear the life on the street, and almost smell the lunches being prepared at Mike Miller’s diner, at 60 North Street. Let’s go for a walk.

This is the Salvation Army’s Citadel Building, on the east side of North Street (now Liberty Pole Way….), in 1907. Notice the little house to the right in this photo – you’ll see it again a few more times. To the right of the house is Achilles Street – named after a Civil War veteran and city benefactor, Henry L. Achilles. So: the intersection of Achilles and North.

Sometime in the early teens, Mike Miller came to North Street. Mike found an old rail car somewhere, and decided it would make a great place in which to open a diner. Which he did – here’s a view in about 1914.

He’s set his diner against the wall of the Salvation Army, and on the front lawn of the little house. Always open, day and night, ladies and gents.

In 1917, the lettering on the diner had changed, as had the weather, but Mike was still at it. Only now, an addition to the little house made a storefront for a glove shop, and Mike and his diner had slid a bit south. Now Mike was right at the intersection of North and Achilles.

Dining Car No. 29 must have been a good place to grab a meal – by 1917, Mike’s name was in the window.

 And two years later, Mike was still at it.

The glove shop had become a tailor, but Mike soldiered on, serving up his quick lunch.

Directly across the street, there were other little establishments – a jeweler, a laundry, another lunch spot. Mr. Stone must have just had two eggs over easy at Mike’s before he made this image.

Around this time there was a murder in the neighborhood. Mike’s night clerk, Bill Kelly, who was all of 18, was slain by a fellow named Tony Chireco, aged 20, from Buffalo. It was big news, so Mr. Stone was on the scene.

The murder happened right outside the diner, next to the church. If we enlarge the photo, we can see the crime scene. Mike’s diner is just beyond the church, below the Salvation sign.

Later the church was demolished – Second Baptist – to make way for the formidable Baptist Temple, which remains in place today. Stone took a picture of the Temple in 1925, two years after it was completed.

Mike’s diner is still there, at the lower left of this image, across Achilles Street from the Temple. Here’s another view.

By this time – 1925 – Mike had been at it for over a decade. Ten years later, in 1935, a view of the City Plat is equivocal. The Salvation Army Citadel is still there. The little house with the storefront addition is still there. The Star Palace Laundry, across the street, is still there.

Is the diner? Not sure. It appears that there is a dotted line next to the storefront addition that could be Mike’s diner. Would the City have platted a railroad car sitting on someone’s lawn? Hard to say.

Today the stories of North Street, Mike’s diner, quick lunches, bustling sidewalks, crimes in the night, and clattering streetcars are all vanished.

Here’s the intersection of North and Achilles today, oriented just like the City Plat, above.

All gone.

I am reminded of something Christopher Lasch wrote, in a book entitled “The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.” He was making a distinction between nostalgia, which freezes and idealizes our past, and real living memory, which leads us to our future.

He said: “(Memory) draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present, and future as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us.”

Thanks to Mike Miller, and 60 North Street, I, for one, expect more for our city.

12 thoughts on “60 North Street

  1. Check that out – an intersection with surface parking at all 4 corners. Talk about the Jane Jacobs ideal of street life!

  2. David, nice piece. Thanks for sharing.

    I agree with what you said in your writing. Every city passes away to the next, like the seven Troys all piled atop one another.

    And yet every pile of cities, and all their attendant narratives, generate a peculiarity, a circumstantial particularity, that is unique. The Buffalos that have passed away to make room for Buffalo are not like any of the former Rochesters, or Uticas, or any other place. They are all uniquely Buffalo.

    Which is why I believe that if we want to know how to make the next Buffalo, or Rochester, or anyplace, we must look back and understand those former versions of our current home places. The lessons they can teach us are powerful – lessons about inhabiting a physical place with character and richness and sometimes with grace. And they have other lessons as well, about who we were, and who we are, and what we believe in, and why. Just as Mr. Lasch said, these former places teach us about “our basic disposition to the world around us.”

  3. Exactly. A while back I wrote about a proposed mega project in Buffalo from back in the early 70’s designed by Paul Rudolf. About 1/5th of the thing was built before recession hit. Buffalo has a long history of big plans that go nowhere. In the 70’s Buffalo still thought of itself as a place that could accomplish anything and gigantic projects like this one were not seen as pie in the sky. The city still thought in big terms and that it could play with the big guys. Since that time Buffalo has been pummeled from every direction. That think big can do attitude disappeared quickly after the 70’s

    What I found interesting is that today the trend is for Buffalo to think big again but now does it on a small project basis (for the most part). Some incredible renovation projects have recently happened because people believed they could happen and should and must happen. These projects were accomplished in the face of a very powerful collective urban sense that Buffalo could no longer accomplish anything of import any longer.

    This mega negativism is very powerful in the rustbelt. It has been fueled by local media constant job losses and industrial decline. It is reinforced by the blight left behind by sprawl. I am sure you have experienced it in Rochester. I wrote the Rudolph story because in Buffalo there is a crop of developers doing renovations that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – big warehouses in edgy areas, buildings without roofs and floors and burned out shells restored to like new! These guys have gotten the yes-we-can in Buffalo spirit back and it is a major growing force.

    In the comments section I was accused of being nostalgic for the old powerful buffalo of the mega project days when in fact I was celebrating the idea that the a city needs to know where it came from and how it relates to its past. If you keep focusing on the big stuff that never happens you risk missing the big stuff right in front of you that is happening.

    I am not sure how this relates to your story but If I think of that little storefront building you are trying to save It is the same thing. You can focus on the wave of poverty and crime that swept the area or you can focus on the greater potential of the place and the energy it can attract you will be able to make a place people want to be in. It is not nostalgia. Blah blah blah

  4. Another quote from Mr. Lasch helps me to understand why I find stories like 60 North Street, or 72 Conkey, or Franklin Square, or Riley Triangle (all of which I have written about here) so essential, so critical, so important to come to grips with. I think this quote will resonate with you, and your understanding of Buffalo places and narratives as well.

    Mr. Lasch says: “Anyone who has ever come to a small town as a stranger, even if he has lived in similar places before, knows that such towns are not interchangeable and that what the outsider finds hardest to penetrate, when he comes to a new place, are not its customs but its memories, its lore, its highly particularized narrative history, its hotly contested accounts of that history, its feuds and factions, its smoldering enmities and apparently irrational alliances. These are what unavoidably exclude the outsider and unite the insiders in spite of the most bitter disagreements. It isn’t his alien manners but his lack of access to a common fund of memories that marks him as an outsider.”

    I am the stranger here, and to put it as simply as I can, I am trying to locate and gain access to this place’s common fund of memories.

  5. That is so true and we have all experienced this when traveling. Unfortunately our society is very fear based these days and it seems like everything is geared toward sameness and predictability everywhere. Its part of the reason we have spent the last 60 years trying to eliminate our cities and isolate ourselves to the greatest extent possible form others.

  6. Mr. Decker, you are a truly gifted writer. Your pieces like this are as good as time travel. I can feel myself transported back to the daily life of the long-gone North Street. Well done sir! I eagerly look forward to the book.

    As a non-native Rochesterian, I also identify with, and treasure, your (and Mr. Lasch’s) quest for the collective memory of a place.

    Two small observations:
    – I’m surprised that lovely little carpenter gothic single family house at the corner of North and Achilles lasted as long as it did into the 20th century, being only a block from Main.
    – I had always assumed Achilles Street fit the classical-revival nomenclature of Rochester (Ajax Alley, Atlas Street, Corinthian Street, etc.) and Upstate New York (Utica, Ithaca, Attica, etc.). I never would have thought there was a Mr. Achilles.

    And while I know I must resist the pull of nostalgia and hope for the future, I am still filled with melancholy over what has been lost.

  7. Jason, many thanks for your very kind, and gratifying, words. As I am touched by the precious stories I am excavating, strata by strata, I am touched as well that others feel the pull of an earlier time, and the richenss and, yes, sadness, of a time and a place now evaporated.

    As to Lasch and nostalgia, I believe he is encouraging us to realize that inevitably history is not lost, but is a part of us now, and certainly a part of what is possible in this place. He wants us to remember that we stand on Mike Miller’s, and Albert Stone’s, shoulders. We can, and should, draw comfort from their city as we imagine the next Rochester. We certainly need their city more than the one we have now, and its existence is its possiblity for us, as writer and poet Wendell Berry would say.

    This afternoon I discovered some of the most astonishing images I have yet seen of this place. Stay tuned – more to come.

  8. I think you touched on an important idea when you talk about history being a part of what is possible. When we erase all memory of what happened we also lose a sense of what is possible in a place. When a great city is transformed into a low level suburban sprawl based system we lose connection with the greatness that once was and begin to accept the degraded as the the best possible scenario. So many generations have now only been exposed to second rate environments in the country that our collective psyche no longer demands anything of quality. We just accept the trash as the only thing we deserve or can achieve

  9. Quite true, I think. If all we can remember is what we have, then what we can become, and should become, is wildly handicapped.

    And this in a culture that is notoriously ambivalent about history. We Americans place way, way too much value in ideas like individuality, and unfettered license (I was going to say freedom, but to me, freedom implies responsibility: license does not). We believe that going to the supermarket and having 50,000 choices is an inalienable right, not a foolish – even destructive – reality.

    In the last several days, I have spent many, many hours with Mr. Stone, walking the streets of this city. I have looked at many thousands of his images. As in more than several thousand images. And I say to you, and to all my readers: this city was once the best kind of city we could ever hope for. It’s likely that you can say the same for your home place. Memory is the key: turn that key to find your future.

    And we are removed from that place by only two or three generations. This was once an amazing city whose urban fabric and urban life were what some of us dream of when we imagine the next Rochester.

    Perfect? Not by the longest possible distance. It was gritty, filled with heartache and trial, unjust in many ways, ugly in many places, bustling almost to distraction.

    A man named Rattlesnake Pete kept an establishment (museum, saloon, and snake pit) just off the Front Street market that was, well, pretty weird. And that market was a pretty sketchy place, with all kinds of characters.

    My favorite was Chicken Murray. When the first snow arrived here, Chicken would commit some kind of crime and get sent to jail, knowing he would pass the winter with a roof over his head and plenty of warmth. He got his knickname because while he was in the joint, he made it his job to prepare chicken for all his fellow inmates. Come spring, he was back on Front Street, ready for action.

    So: not perfect. In fact, quite flawed, as any human contrivance must, inevitably, be. Cities are our hope for a resilient and sustainable future, but cities are very imperfect constructs. We must always and forever keep striving to perfect our human communities, but we must also know what good cities, even great cities, look like and feel like.

    And that other Rochester, which is just barely out of reach but is still very much a part of our local fund of memories, was nothing less than sensational. More to come.

  10. I see by Google Street View that the intersection of Achilles and Liberty Pole Way (formerly North Street, if I am not mistaken) is still the venue for the Salvation Army. Some echoes of the earlier Rochester can still be heard…


  11. Yes. The Salvation Army is still at North (Liberty Pole) and Achilles. In fact, they built a new building in 1940 that extends right to the intersection of Achilles and North. When they built the new building, they demolished the little Italianate house with the retail addition, and perhaps Mike’s Diner. The only thing left at this intersection from the old days is the fire hydrant, which hasn’t moved one inch, though the hydrant itself is newer.

    In other times, and there are great pictures to prove it, this corner was the starting point for marches and parades aimed at outing sinners and offering salvation. My favorite is from 1915. Mr. Stone shows us a group of very sober looking folks preparing for a march. There is a man dressed as a whisky bottle, and another dressed as a “Booze” bottle. Both are flanking a man holding a sign that reads: “The Hospital, The Jail, The Poorhouse, A Drunkard’s Grave.”

    The label on the “Booze” costume reads: “The Quickest Road to Poverty, Insanity, Death and Hell.”

    Echoes yes, but it is a bit quieter at that corner these days.

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