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Once upon a time, North Water was a district that featured garment manufacturers, technology innovators, shoe makers, brewers and distillers, warehousers, and more than a few squatters.

From Main Street, North Water proceeded to Central Avenue and the railroads.

 

Most, though not all, of the buildings on the river side of the street were large masonry loft buildings, housing manufacture and warehousing for retail. In April of 1924, the Lawless Paper Company had a huge fire, and crowds gathered to gawk.

 

Lawless Paper burns, April of 1924. Note the house on the left side of the street, behind the crowds. That’s Marie Lappitano’s.

The small buildings, above, were destined for demolition to make way for an enlarged Chamber of Commerce, thanks to the largesse of George Eastman

And many of the buildings on the east side of the street – opposite the river side – were small, older, residential, and mostly removed, like the Marie Lappitano house at 88 North Water above, built in 1865 and about to vanish, in this view from 1922. The house disappeared by 1926 or so.

Here’s a map from 1962 that shows what Water Street and Front Street were like just moments before they disappeared into the jaws of urban renewal. (Thanks to M. Denker for this plan).

The idea was to replace all of the run-down, old fashioned and dilapidated urban fabric on both sides of the river with this:

Above, the Tishman proposal, and below, the I.M. Pei proposal.

And today:

Photo from Panoramio by Soxrule 19181.

In another city, Chicago, their riverfront revival looks like this:

Our work lies before us. If we can keep images of the rich and historic life that was Water and Front Streets in our imaginations, and if we can be cheered by what’s possible, we can make a better city.

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Look.

Front Street interior, 1956, photo by Kenneth Josephson.

Hall Brothers Lunch, Main and Front, RPL.

Front and Central, now the Inner Loop, RPL.

Market Cottage, a hotel/boarding house, RPL.

Front Street denizens, 1960s, W.C. Roemer Collection.

Otmen’s (or Ottman’s) for jazz, down on the right at 45 Front (a former meat market), W. C. Roemer Collection.

“Urban Renewal Demands This Building.” W. C. Roemer Collection.

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With as little commentary as possible, here are two views of our city. First, a view from the 1950s or 1960s.

Downtown Rochester. Main Street at the bottom of the image, the Genesee River, and Front and Water Streets on either side of the waterfront, running north and south.

And the same view in 2016.

The street running parallel to the river on the west bank was Front Street. On the ground, Front Street used to look like this:

I am old enough to remember when cities thought that tearing themselves down in the name of renewal was a good idea. I remember thinking then – I was in Chicago at the time, a city certainly not immune to defective thoughts about what it meant to renew a place – that the whole mental framework beneath the notion of “urban renewal” was defective. My classmates and I could see the failures everywhere around us, but there was no turning back for most places. Too late.

If we still had the city in the first image, and in the last images, we would be rich beyond words.

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19-23 Cambridge Street.

I have tried and tried and I simply cannot figure out this urban mystery. It all started with a simple proposition: in the city of the horse, where did neighbors go for the occasional rental, or to house their beasts between uses? Did every neighborhood have a stable or livery of some kind? Only the really wealthy ones (but didn’t the wealthy usually have their own stables)? Did it cost a lot to gain use of a horse for an important junket to, say, Batavia?

Years ago, I asked a colleague, a historian of American cities and technology, to explain the city of the horse to me.

What was it like? I asked. She told me via a reading list she proffered. And not surprisingly, the story is not too terrific. Mountains of manure, sick animals, noisy, smelly – it became easy to imagine that urbanites were very grateful when Frank Sprague finally invented the electric streetcar (in 1888).

But in our neighborhood, or in other city locales here, I have searched and searched for the local liveries. No luck. I still can’t figure out how this worked. I have looked at plat maps for our neighborhood all the way back and – nothing. Where the heck were all those horses when they weren’t on the street?

(Note here that Cambridge Street is literally just around the corner from Park Avenue. Park Avenue was where the streetcar ran, starting in around 1890. The streetcar was aligned on Park because the wealthiest Rochesterians, who lived a block away on East Avenue, did not want the trolley in front of their homes).

What I have found, which is pretty interesting and worth relating, are local garages, and the story of how the automobile bedded down in our lives in its infancy, quickly supplanting its four-legged predecessor. Let’s pursue that, since the horse mystery remains unsolved.

In a wonderful article in the Automobile Trade Journal of December, 1918, we learn the story of a man called J. Lawrence Hill, and his Cambridge Street Garage, at 19-23 Cambridge Street.

He rented Cambridge Street in September of 1912, announced in The Carriage Monthly of that year.

 

We might call Mr. Hill a visionary: in 1912, there were 900,000 cars in the entire U.S., and just 4,000 cars here in Rochester. By 1922, there were 40,500 cars here, and 10,700,000 cars in the U.S. His crystal ball was completely dialed in.

In fact, in 1916 Mr. Hill created a second garage, on Plymouth Avenue, allowing him to service 250 cars there, in addition to the 225 cars he could care for on Cambridge.

One of the things that Mr. Hill clearly understood was that the car was, at that time and for the next decade or so, the province of the wealthy, and as we have learned, the wealthiest of the Rochester wealthy were only a block away.

Mr. Hill’s garages were all about service. You could “store” your car – his word – for the evening for 25 cents, or for 50 cents for the day. He had five departments: electrical (there were a lot of electric cars in those days) accessory, repair, garage, and battery. He had two “service units,” trucks used for emergency repair and service, available 24 hours a day. He invented all manner of record keeping methods to keep track of his customers and their needs, he built a giant facility for “freshening” the batteries of electric cars, and his “Well-lighted Wash-Rack” was staffed solely by women. And he allowed NO TIPPING of any kind – compromises the fair and excellent service he said.

Mr. Hill stayed on at Cambridge Street until 1919. In 1920, the place was taken over by George Leader – The Leader Garage – and he stayed with it until at least 1935, as you can see from the plat map below.

Much more recently – in 2000 to be exact – the Pardi Partnership took over the property, opened up the roofed parking area, restored the building enfronting Cambridge, and created office and commercial space. So the narrative is still all here.

19 – 23 Cambridge today. Image from the Pardi Partnership.

Inside the renovated garage, above and below.

Except for one small detail: in the city of the horse, where were the neighborhood stables? One of you will tell me, I am sure.

 

 

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Sometimes teachable cities can emerge from the mists of history – old urban places can often teach us just as powerfully as new and emerging places sometimes (rarely perhaps, but sometimes) do.

We found ourselves reflecting on this notion of older-urban-fabric-with-lessons during a recent visit to San Francisco. We had the great good fortune of visiting friends Lynnie and Steve in North Beach, and we shared a lovely evening that included a most informative walk along Grant Avenue. Many of you will know this place much better than we do – home to the ‘beats,’ Café Trieste, City Lights books nearby, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. Today, a vibrant neighborhood, very urban, with Coit Tower nearby to the northeast and Chinatown down the hill to the south. A truly great urban place.

But here’s the thing about this neighborhood: just over 100 years ago, it vanished. First there was the earthquake, and then there was the fire. Though Grant was still there – it’s an old, old San Francisco street (maybe the oldest)– it was totally decimated in 1906.

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Near Grant Avenue, 1906

With all the former residents living in tents in the park, and nowhere to work, shop, or gather, a new neighborhood had to be constructed, and urgently. And here begins the lesson.

As they rushed to rebuild their city, San Franciscans chose to construct what they knew to construct: low-rise mixed-use urban fabric, mostly made of wood and enfronting existing streets, a result of a wide understanding of how cities should look and work. They built this stuff really fast, and really inexpensively. Whatever the latest in urban architecture looked like in 1906, this wasn’t it. This was the city that was lodged in every San Franciscan’s memory and log book: simple, direct, no-bullshit.

And guess what? It worked. In fact it worked so well that it survived, and today it is the precious fabric of a wonderful urban place.

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Lesson: when rebuilding your city, go for the simple and the direct. Try not to innovate. Try not to be too creative, since your neighbors are waiting. Feel free to do what you have seen before, and what you know has worked before. Try not to do anything unfamiliar. Serve needs. And have faith that the narrative of what you did will survive, and be treasured.

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I made a presentation the other day entitled “Teachable Cities.” I looked at 10 cities from around the world that had lessons for us as we shape our own urban places, lessons about water and waterfronts, about cars and traffic, about alternate forms of urban mobility, and about constructing or reconstructing a public realm meant for us to inhabit rather than to whiz through, and past.

During the conversation that followed the presentation, someone asked me this: “In the cities you have visited, what is the single biggest problem you have discovered?” I think they thought I would say cars. I said this:

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Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon – Vietnam

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Lima, Peru

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Mumbai, India (yes, that’s a temple folks are lined up to enter)

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Near Bangkok, Thailand

No city is unscathed. Perhaps a better word is uncompromised. Some cities have fared better than others (often for complex reasons mixing intent with serendipity), and perhaps a top ten list would make an interesting post sometime. But the loss of the local, or the supplanting of the local with the not-local has done enormous damage to our places of human habitation. And I am not talking here about locally grown free-range chicken. Well, not about chicken alone.

Our own American version of this phenomenon looks like this:

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Or if we’re feeling particularly cranky, like this:

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Increasingly, from Lima to Louisville, everywhere is more and more like everywhere else. By design. In fact we have devised whole building types that assure that we have no idea where we are. A good example: airports.

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You might not believe me if I told you where these places are, but they are on four different continents, and yet they are completely indistinguishable. From the top: Toronto, Warsaw, Sao Paolo and Singapore. No local chickens to be seen here….

In futureworld, those places that are most resilient, most able to withstand the vagaries of change in whatever form it may come, those places that are most rooted in their local soil, most like themselves, least tempted to appear in any way to be like somewhere else, are those places that will thrive most gracefully, most successfully.

Or to say this in a different way, if you can choose to be anywhere (thanks to technology and global economics) won’t you choose to be somewhere unique? Won’t you choose to be somewhere that is not like everywhere else? Current analysis says yes, you will.

Take a look at this listing of the value of local character, compiled by the Ministry of Environment in New Zealand:

“Key findings (of our study include):

Urban design that respects and supports local character can:

•attract highly-skilled workers and high-tech businesses

•help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions

•potentially add a premium to the value of housing

•reinforce a sense of identity among residents, and encourage them to help actively manage their neighbourhood

•offer people meaningful choices between very distinctive places, whose differences they value

•encourage the conservation and responsible use of non-renewable resources.”

Readers: the local is nice, and homey, and makes us feel good. AND – don’t miss this – the local is worth real dollars.

At the heart of any place – Rochester, for example – are a host of specific details that are of enormous importance to any real place, any place that values its local character. Geography – eight miles from a Great Lake on a river flowing north, with a waterfall in its midst. History – a canal makes a hamlet into a city thanks to the relentless lobbying of the guy the place is named after. Climate – 120 inches of snow in the winter, a relatively short growing season, and a great place for grapes, apples, peaches. People – one particularly successful businessman caused the establishment of countless institutions of culture and education. Neighbors – in 1975, the Swillburg neighbors succeeded in assassinating an expressway that would have leveled their quarter of the city, and truly wrecked the place beyond the mid-century car debris that was already everywhere. We have a lot of local that we can foreground – certainly better than we do now – as we build our local “brand.”

It is increasingly important that we resist any force for homogeneity exerted on our home places.

TOKYO - DECEMBER 25, 2012: A Taxi at Ginza District December 25, 2012 in Tokyo, JP. Ginza etends for 2.4 km and is one of the world's best known shopping districts.

While it is perhaps true that the Ginza in Tokyo (above), or Times Square, or Piccadilly in London derive their characters from the presence of non-local schlock (Ricoh is a Japanese company we admit), and interestingly they are oddly quite similar, study after study underscores that we want to live a local life, and a local life has substantial economic value.

And now it’s time to find our way home.

 

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“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

 

As the city disappears around us, it is easy to feel lost.

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This is what I saw today, above, on one of my very regular routes.

main-and-laura

This is what that place used to look like.

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Lost. I mean literally. Where am I, now that that place I knew is gone? That place was how my memory recalled my latitude and longitude.

I mean figuratively. How can we live in a city that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar, when so many physical places, and so many of our memories and narratives, are being deleted.

But Howard, I am told, these places are derelict, they are falling down, they house bad people doing bad things, and they are ugly.

I see. But it’s not the buildings. It’s us.

Before today, it was this:

main-and-laura-2

And today it is big, green, and gone.

 

 

 

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