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Posts Tagged ‘Memory and the city’

parking-day-091616_edited-1-2

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?

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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:

franklin-square-1875-plat-2

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.

parking-day-091616-aerial-02

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….

parking-day-aerial-ppt

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:

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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:

https://alamedahistory.org/2016/09/18/the-end-of-history/.

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:

1038-after-copy

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.

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Cities contain us. Cities hold our stories, our dreams, what we wanted to be, what we failed to become, the way we lived, what we built and why. A good city has swarms of stories, and a best city is a city in which the most narratives remain legible for the longest possible time.

Stories of people. And in even modest sized cities, this means millions and millions of stories. For which we can and should give endless thanks.

Herewith, one pretty interesting story about our place. Get comfy: we’re going to Carthage.

In 1809, at a place that is now called St. Paul and Norton Streets in Rochester, and which is also the home of the Lower Falls on the Genesee River, a few folks settled on the east bank of the river and called their little spot Carthage.

Lower Falls (2)

Photo by Sheridan Vincent. Carthage would be near the green tank and the bad modern building.

Carthage was below the lower falls on the river, so if you had goods to ship, you could take them to Carthage, and from there they could go out onto Lake Ontario and into the wide, wide world.

A few years passed and in 1816 a couple of rich Rochester guys, the two Elisha’s (Strong and Beach), bought 1,000 acres of land that included Carthage. By 1818 there were 40 buildings there.

But there was a problem. Isn’t there always a problem? Carthage was on the east banks of the River, and so if you were coming from the west, you could not get there to ship your stuff. The entrepreneurial Elishas decided to build a bridge across the river so everybody could come to Carthage, and by 1817 they had amassed $16,000 in state and local funds to do the deed.

The bridge was completed in 1819. It was over 700 feet long, and stood 200 feet above the river. Some described it as the eighth wonder of the world. (Have you ever wondered how many eighth wonders there must be? I have….)

Carthage bridge

Unfortunately, the bridge fell down in 1820.

And by 1825 the Erie Canal was here, and Carthage was doubly obsolete. Poof.

Enter our intrepid Rochester hero, Albert Stone. In 1908 he made this photo:

Carthage monument 1908

 

The monument was a column, a vent for sewer gas, a watering trough for local horses, and the holder of a plaque to the memory – the stories – of Carthage.

The column lasted quite a while. It is visible on a whole host of plat maps until sometime between 1925 and 1936.

I bumped into Mr. Stone’s picture this afternoon, and kept pulling on its threads until Carthage had fully emerged.

Good stories in good cities last a very long time.

Turn the page.

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