The Cambridge Garage

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.




The Teachable Urban Past

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.


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.

DSCN3155 (2)DSCN3156 (2)DSCN3153 (2)DSCN3154 (2)

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.

The Loss of the Local

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:

Saigon Street Scene 02

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)


Colombo, Sri Lanka


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:


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


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.


The City Disappears

“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.


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


This is what that place used to look like.


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:


And today it is big, green, and gone.





Site of Rochester Parking Day, 09.16.16 – Franklin and (ahem) Pleasant Streets. Scorched earth.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Change is inevitable. Change is a law of nature. We know that the landscapes of our cities and towns will change, although we are never certain what that change will look like, or how it will touch our lives.

But much of the change in the landscapes of our communities happens suddenly, and erases most of the preceding and precious narratives without leaving a trace of those older tales about our lives in a place. Gone, lost, forgotten.

I believe that the best cities – or towns, villages, hamlets – are those that sustain the greatest number of stories of us –  our families, who we were, who we are, what we did, what we do, what made sense, what makes sense – intact and legible for the longest time, available to the greatest number of citizens or occupants, visitors or migrants, whether we are coming or going, returning or escaping.

I think about this all the time. Our chronicles, our histories, are lodged in real places. When architect Otto Block made our house the first house on our side of our street, and lived here only yards away from the Eastern Widewaters of the Erie Canal, what was life like? What was he thinking? How were he and his neighbors getting along in that particular lost Rochester?

Our house, or Otto Block’s house, in 1906.

I find myself reflecting on lost places and lost memories this evening for two reasons. First, on Friday we”celebrated” Parking Day here in Rochester by occupying one of the infinite number of our downtown surface parking lots. As part of the day’s events I made a brief talk about the very nearby Franklin Square. I opened a plat book from 1875 to show what the Square once looked like – it was spectacular:


Our Parking Day site was the surface lot where those homes were just to the left of “Amity Street.”

Today, this part of our city looks like the image below, and in a distressing irony, Amity Street has become Pleasant Street.


Franklin Square, at the upper red arrow below, was destroyed in the 1950s as the Inner Loop was built. As you can see, plenty of room for parking, and on any day….


But the house at the lower red arrow, above, is visible on the 1875 plat map. Somehow that building, and the carriage house behind it, evaded the last 150 years of massive destruction. Once, that house belonged to Mary Fitch. It’s visible here, in 1919, after Franklin Square had been remade by Olmsted and was truly glorious.

franklin-squareTo orient yourself, rotate your computer about 45 degrees to the right.

So Mary Fitch, and her house, are still with us. Mary Leffingwell Fitch. We can open books, and trace her with ease. In 1875 she was a widow, and had been living there since 1866. Her late husband was Ahira Fitch (1799-1865), and before he died they lived at 84 Clinton. Their house on Clinton is now a parking garage. Ahira was a leather dealer, a tanner, and a currier. He had his gold watch stolen in the spring of 1847. I could go on….

So their narrative survives in our city. We can find them, touch them, and in a tiny way know them. For what we see in most of downtown though, it’s pretty hopeless:


The second reason I am reflecting on the nature of place and remembrance this evening is that on our recent trip to Chicago, we discovered that the house where my father was born in 1916, 1038 Diversey Parkway, is now gone. My brother Doug has written quite wonderfully and touchingly about our loss here:


I really would like you to read his thoughts – he is an insightful historian and writer, he is enormously articulate, and he truly understands what it means to treasure our stories.

Our Dad’s house looked like this, in 1918. He was 2. (He was delivered by the doctor who lived next door).

Taken about 1918.

The life there was like this:

1038 Diversey Parkway, Chicago. Taken about 1918.

There he is with his big sister, Vivian.

And today? This:


Our time is so short. Our stories are so brief, and then they are gone. But how things got to be the way they are is important, and what happens next is too. When we are gone away, will anyone be able to find the slightest glimmer of what we knew, what we thought, what we loved? Maybe yes, mostly no.

We could change much of this: it would only require us to rearrange our priorities. But we have not, and we will not.

Once upon a time, in the now-distant 1890s, and after a long and arduous fund raising campaign notable for the $1,000 donation of the President of Haiti, a sculpture to honor and remember Frederick Douglass was begun. Sidney Wells Edwards was the sculptor. The completed monument was dedicated on June 9th, 1899, five years after Douglass died. 10,000 people attended the ceremony. Teddy Roosevelt, then New York’s Governor, was here.

The monument was located at what is now St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. In 1910 the site, in the upper left portion of this map, looked like this:


The Frederick Douglass Monument, in front of the train station and not far from Franklin Square.

Just a block from the train station, the site was selected because of its prominence. As Mayor George E. Warner observed at the dedication, “It is fitting that it should stand near a great portal of our city where the thousands who enter it may see that she is willing to acknowledge to the world that her most illustrious citizen was not a white man.”

As a side note one potential site, in the Olmsted designed Plymouth Park (now Lunsford Circle), perhaps the oldest neighborhood in the city, was rejected by the neighbors.


Plymouth Park, in the Corn Hill neighborhood, 1931.

For years after the dedication the monument was the site of celebrations and gatherings.




1911 – the Grand Army of the Republic convention.


Celesta Foster of New Orleans about to lay a wreath, 1911. Denis Washington holds the umbrella.


A celebration at the monument, 1924.



After 42 years at St. Paul Street and Central Avenue, and mostly because of the endless railroad traffic nearby, the monument had become “grimy and sooty.” And so a committee was formed, and a decision was made to move the monument to Highland Park. The place in the park for the statue was within a few hundred yards of where Douglass had once lived, on South Avenue. Not exactly the apex of city life, but away from the grime of the trains.

And so today the statue stands, as it has for 75 years, in the park. It was rededicated on September 4th, 1941.


Not exactly a compelling location, but there it stands.

In reflecting on this story, I have found myself longing for a new home for Mr. Douglass, a place that is again a great portal of our city. Maybe where the Inner Loop used to be, because he once lived at 297 Alexander – don’t bother looking it up, it’s a parking lot – just a few feet away. Or perhaps at the entrance to our new train station, soon to become a fitting, and central, urban threshold.

Any significant city is measured in some way by its monuments and memorials. These comprise the most important chapters in the narrative of any place. I sense that we are not properly serving a critical moment in our urban story with Mr. Douglass off in Highland Park. He seems so forlorn and abandoned there. We all need to see him, and reflect on his life, every day. And we need his wisdom, now more than ever.

“Men do not live by bread alone. So with nations. They are not saved by art, but by honesty, not by the gilded splendors of wealth but by the hidden treasures of manly virtue; not by the multitudinous gratification of the flesh, but by the celestial guidance of the spirt.”

Frederick Douglass, 1857.

“I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.”

Frederick Douglass, 1869.






Alphabet Soup

Other things are percolating here, but while they brew, here are some peeks at something I’ve had some fun doing: my urban infrastructure lexicon. The project began during a visit to Cutler City, Oregon, to have an art weekend with my dearest and ever-inspiring artist sister.  With her egging me on, I started by sketching the alphabet, like this:

028 (2)

029 (2)

Here are a few of the results. In order, we have “H,”


And then “M,”


And then “N,”


And “O,” (maybe this is “Q”)


And finally, “U.”


Four bridges and a subway.

I have picked this up again and the ones I am puzzling about at the moment are “G” and “R.” Hmm. We’ll see what happens.