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012 Stitch

The intersection of South Clinton and Bly, in Rochester. The green and tan building on the right of Bly is early – from before 1890. The red building on the left of Bly dates from around 1915.

Recognizable? It should be – it is almost certainly present in your city – perhaps right around the corner. Even now this configuration can be found in every neighborhood in our city. Most often, two two-story buildings to the left and to the right at intersections of busier and less busy city streets. Storefronts on the ground floor, apartments upstairs. Beyond them, houses to the left and right, and down the side streets. A familiar tune, but can you make out the lyrics?

Sometimes the houses adjacent to the storefronts are replaced by other two story mixed-use buildings, if the intersection is of two busy streets. In extreme cases there may be a few three story buildings. There are almost always ground floor storefronts. What is the story this tune is telling us? This.

Electric streetcars began here in 1890. The population of the city was about 135,000, and growing fast. Really fast – about 25% to 35% each decade until 1940, when for the first time the population decreased. So let’s focus on that half-century: 1890 to 1940.

(To add a bit more context, in 1920, when the population of Rochester had reached 296,000, a 35% increase over 1910, there were 45,000 cars in the city, but still less than 15% of the population owned one.)

During those fifty years, mobility for most in this city was on foot, by bicycle, or by streetcar. And the two and three story buildings? They marked the streetcar stops. In mornings or evenings, as you hopped on or off the local streetcar, you could do a bit of shopping, or nibbling, at these places: cafes, bars, shoe shops, cleaners and launderers, bakeries, green grocers, and much more. Then you could walk a block or two and be home.

In the city where I grew up, Chicago, these streetcar stops were tied to the grid, were very regularly spaced at 1/4 miles apart, and exerted enormous force in this same half-century in shaping the city and its neighborhoods.

Block end with trolley cc'ed (4)

Interestingly, the streetcar stops here in Rochester tend to be spaced about 1/4 mile apart also, even though our grid of streets is anything but regular. Even then, we understood that a five minute walk – a 1/4 mile walk – was something almost all of us could manage, even in terrible North Coast weather.

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In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

All the streetcars went downtown because that’s where we all needed to be: for work, to do our major shopping, for our most important entertainment, to participate in our city’s critical institutions. Automobiles wrecked this later, but that’s not a part of this particular melody.

And so in neighborhood after neighborhood, on all the city streets that had them, we can find a similar formal expression borne out of the presence of the streetcar. Even though the streetcar vanished here in 1941 – 75 years ago – it is compellingly clear that the city took its shape and form from streetcars, ideas of walkability, the 1/4 mile walk, and the presence of locally based retail and markets. Here are a few more views.

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Grand

Webster and Grand

Rochester Foresters of America 1922

Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922

Goodman and Garson

Goodman and Garson

Genesee and Sawyer

Genesee and Sawyer

This melody, which most can’t hear anymore, is everywhere around us. And the song is actually more resonant than some may suspect. Listen a bit more.

The development community saw the streetcar and its rails plopped down across the city, and they were happy to follow. We can examine plat map after plat map, and we find that as the streetcar developed, so did the form of our city. At first there may only have been one or two buildings at a streetcar stop. But later, as the car stop became more important or the neighborhood density increased, developers were happy to put up more 2 and 3 story mixed use buildings adjacent to the stops.

By the time of the 1926 plat maps, the streetcar routes were well established, and nearly every streetcar stop was built up. Here’s Clinton and Bly in 1918. The blue checks mark the mixed use buildings at the streetcar stop.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

And though these buildings, and many, many more like them, are either gone now or are becalmed in the idling breezes of our cities, they nonetheless constitute the narrative of how Rochester, or Anytown, got to look and feel the way it does. Even today the truth of this tune is well known – urban development follows the rails.

As with any story in any city, musical or otherwise, somebody always comes up with a revised version – some new take on the old standard tune. Rochester is no different. Here we go.

colby e

This is the intersection of Park and Colby, only a few blocks from us. Yes, it was a streetcar stop. Colby, which runs perpendicular to the plane of this picture, once upon a time dead-ended at the Erie Canal. Here’s a plat of the intersection in 1918.

The two-story masonry building in the photograph is shown here in pink. You can see the streetcar tracks, and at the bottom right you can see the pale blue indicating the Erie Canal.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.

IMG_0002Now the large apartment building shown in the photo is present – it’s the big pink building opposite the little two story pink guy.

But wait. Colby doesn’t dead-end at the canal anymore. Well, the Erie Canal got moved from here in 1918. Where it once was became a fairly large ditch. And what did we put in that ditch? The Rochester Subway. It began operation in 1927, and ran until 1956. Colby Station, shown in this 1926 plat, picked up passengers from both sides of the former Canal, and a pedestrian overpass with stairs gave access down to the platform. Today this exact same place looks like this:

IMG_20160604_180406018[1]

The Colby Station access, now I490, looking east.

After 1940 here we ripped out the streetcar and moved to the suburbs. Population here peaked in 1950, and then plummeted as quickly as it had risen between 1890 and 1940. New mobility caused a fundamental shift in how and where we lived and shopped and worked, just as it had before. Nonetheless, the force of the streetcar was slow to fade, and as we have seen, many of us live in the streetcar city even today. It’s just that there are no streetcars….

How we move defines our urban places. How we move is  powerful, even seductive music. The city of walking and density and mixed-use and localness is a city whose song has ended here in Rochester. But if we can remember that melody, if we can relearn that song, then we can have that place again.

“The moon descended
and I found with the break of dawn
you and the song had gone
but the melody lingers on”

Irving Berlin, of course

Thanks to Jason and Jane.

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In a hundred years in any city, change is pervasive. We constantly reshape our urban places to suit our sense of what is most important, most desirable, most necessary. And so here, on Scio Street just north of East Avenue, in Rochester, we can see what that refocusing has created, thanks to Mr. Stone.

Scio Street 1912

Scio Street, looking north from East Avenue, in 1912.

Scio street 2015

Scio Street, looking north from East Avenue, 2015.

Yes, as far as the eye can see on the west side of Scio, that is a parking garage, for about 750 cars.

The little street visible in the 1912 image, on the right, is called Bell Alley. Today if you strolled over to take its measure, you would find this:

scio street 2015 (3)

If you walked down Bell Alley to Matthews Street, and then looked back towards Scio, you would see this:

Bell Alley Mathews to Scio 1924

So it has gone, in almost every city in America. Ahh – progress.

I should probably stop snooping around at these photographs….

 

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For those of you who have been following us here at A Town Square for a while – 8 years(!?) – what follows may seem like a bit of heresy, but, as we often say, onward.

It didn’t have to turn out this way. It’s true that the way it has turned out is what Henry Ford wanted, and the Rockefellers, and Le Corbusier, and GM, but it really didn’t have to turn out this way.

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Mr. Ford, looking rather smug.

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Mr. Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.

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GM’s Futurama – the nightmare that came true.

Cars have wrecked nearly everything in most every city in the world, and almost everywhere it’s getting worse.

beijingtrafficjam2

But the car has never required us to behave with almost unfathomable stupidity. The car never required us to build beltways and inner loops, to raze our downtowns, rip out our terrific multi-modal transit systems, sprawl across our countryside, and build ridiculous strips of monomaniacal shopping. Cars themselves never said we had to abandon the dense, fine-grained, walkable and heterogeneous fabric of our city centers and neighborhoods. It could have been otherwise.

So, car people, you can keep your cars, and motor along. That’s the heresy part – we haven’t usually left much room for the future of the automobile in the next city.

Here in Rochester, as in cities across the world, our task is clear: find ways to put the car in its proper place. And we are actually making some progress. Our inner beltway, here called the Inner Loop, which savaged our downtown for nearly 60 years, is at least in part going away at last. Hurrah!

Filling in the Inner Loop

Finding the proper place for cars is, quite simply, a very difficult task. Achievable, certainly, but very challenging. And so as we travel to cities, we watch carefully for evidence that others are getting it right. We want to learn these lessons, witness the results, and then share the good news. Here are a few examples.

The Old town of Krakow, Poland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first on the UNESCO list as that list began in 1994. Old Town is encircled by Planty Park, constructed on the foundations of the city’s medieval walls. At the heart of Old Town is Rynek Glowny, Market Square, one of the most sensational bits of urbanism on the planet, and unknown to me until 3 weeks ago. (When we stepped into Market Square a few days ago, I had two instantaneous thoughts: “Why have I not known about this place – -it belongs in the top five anywhere”, and “Where are the cars that are usually molesting even the finest urban spaces on earth?”).

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The cars, except for local residents and service vehicles, were banned in the Old Town in 1998. The qualified ban certainly does not mean no cars – it just means cars in their place. The streets are commanded by walkers, and the cars – with a few exceptions in our experience – do not assume that everyone will instantly jump out of the way. Truly, shared space.

Header-Shared-Space-Preston-Fishergate-smart-magazine-panorama

Ahhhhh: shared space.

Another great example of a city with the car increasingly in the right place is Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Yes – on an island in the middle of the Atlantic.

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, and boasts a population of around a million. Santa Cruz is the largest city, and the island’s capital. We have been visiting Santa Cruz for quite a while – our first visit was not long after they began service on their streetcar system (now 2 lines, 27 stations, about 10 miles in length).

DSC03101

During each visit we could see the city, already a very nice walking city in 2007, improving, becoming less car-centric, with rights-of-way increasingly biased to pedestrians and flaneurs, or as they may say in Santa Cruz, paseantes ocioso. In our most recent visit, the transformation was startling. Plaza de Espana, redesigned by the Swiss architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron, is wonderfully revived and enlarged, and has become a true downtown centerpiece.

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But best, the coastal highway that was once a barrier, and introduced rapidly moving automobiles to downtown Santa Cruz, is now GONE. As it approaches downtown from either direction (remember this is an island – it’s all about the edges), it dives beneath the city, includes turn-offs into hidden parking, and then rises to emerge on the other side, clear of the central city.

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The residue of this, of course, is a very substantial increase in the walkability of Santa Cruz. And as if this wasn’t enough, this has been coupled with changes to most of the downtown streets. They are now paved in cobbles, many feature bollards (or no bollards, ala shared space), and all are linked to the already substantial network of ped streets. Progress!

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When we were in Berlin recently, we found their “Urban Transportation Development Plan 2025: Sustainable Mobility.” Berlin is not exactly a car-free city, nor even a shared space city, but the city’s Senate recently adopted the plan (politics and transportation are always uncomfortable bedfellows) which says, in part: “In the future, mobility is more barrier-free, socially just and eco-friendly. Compact and traffic-efficient spatial structures (hmmm – I wonder about this) facilitate active mobility for all, and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, Berlin can look forward to the image (and reality, I trust) of an appealing major city which is, at the same time, one of the most pedestrian friendly in Europe.”

Berlin model panorama (1280x626)

Berlin – the future.

Now this is not exactly breaking down the door of progressive downtown planning, but it is remarkable for the fact that a city of almost 4 million can find the collective will to say that cars are not their only, and probably not their best, future.

I wonder what it would take to get our City Council to enact such a document? Or your city.

The work of putting the car in its rightful place is the work of building a truly convenient city, and a much better, if not good city. Perhaps if we could see our way to merging convenience and goodness we could make some progress. Onward!

REUTER/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Cairo – Reuter/Abd el Ghany.

 

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Our Governor here, Andrew Cuomo, has just announced that the State of New York will be forking over $1 billion to the city of  Buffalo, to aid a city in crisis.

Yup – a cool billion.

As you can imagine, the howls of disbelief and anger in Rochester and Syracuse are deafening. These three cities, the Moe, Larry and Curly of upstate New York urbanism, are nearly identical in rates of poverty, crime, joblessness, screwed up downtowns, massive sprawl, infrastructure no one can pay for, municipal budget deficits, crummy schools, and any other metric you might imagine to measure cities in crisis.

All three cities are a mess, with huge challenges ahead. All three cities have a rich and deep store of narratives, and all three were once gorgeous, vital, robust, bustling, and unique. All three cities have systematically choked themselves with inner loops and outer loops and loop-de-loops, sending  jobs and institutions and families out of town, and fast. All of which got me to thinking.

Maybe the fact that our city didn’t get the dough is actually a blessing. Maybe we can put our heads together and figure out just exactly what we would do with that kind of money, so next year, or the year after, when we here might win the Governor’s massive lotto game, we can get started right away. Let’s think about this for a minute.

(Of course it could take years to get an agreement in any of the Stooge Cities as to how to spend a $1 million windfall, much less $1 billion – but onward).

Here’s what we should do (with thanks to Edward Glaeser and his wonderful, problematic book, “Triumph of the City”): City, County, and area leaders and institutions should come together to harness the extraordinary energy and innovative talents of our region – our people – and especially our young people. Doing all that they can to foster a spirit of invention and entrepreneurship, our leaders should commit to a central locale for a potent, new, and powerful economic engine: our central city. By bringing the energy of our most gifted citizens together in a dense urban setting, collaboration and the free sharing and transfer of ideas and invention will yield new jobs, real growth, and a new vitality for Rochester and its surrounds. History teaches us that innovation and invention benefit most from close quarters – cities.

Where should we create this new regional economic engine room? Well, there are a bunch of recently cleared blocks in downtown Rochester where an old enclosed shopping mall used to be. It was called Midtown Plaza, and it was at Main and Clinton – our city’s historic crossroad intersection. Now it’s big and empty, and will be for the most part for the foreseeable future. A great spot for our power center.

From the Democrat & Chronicle.

At the moment, RIT is building the Golisano Institute of Sustainability out in the suburbs on their windblown campus. Of course this kind of Center should be downtown, since no human settlement is more sustainable than a dense, walkable city. Maybe we could allocate a few dollars to move the building to Main and Clinton.

Our local Community College, Monroe Community College, is about to enlarge their downtown presence substantially – probably in former Kodak buildings over by our ball yard. So they will be downtown.

University of Rochester is spread out all over the place here. They began downtown – maybe we could lure them back with a portion of their facilities.

So we gather the best and the brightest – well at least some of them – and we get them to go to work inventing a useable future for our region. Meanwhile, we take whatever is left over in the $1b grand prize and we give it all to our urban infrastructure, social and physical. Many of my fellow Rochesterians may not agree with me, but it seems clear that the health and viability of our region is inextricably tied to the health and viability of our city.

And in late-breaking news, we learned Friday that Rochester has won a kind of booby prize in the state’s urban lotto. The Governor has awarded us $100 million so that we can improve an interchange on one of our loop-de-loop expressways. Everyone here seems to think this is a fabulous development. At the risk of being lynched, I say: NUTS!

The intersection in question, I 390 at Kendrick Road, is a southern point of access to U of R and their medical campus. Sandy Parker, of the Rochester Business Alliance says: “All of that area is extremely congested, so without this project coming into being, it would restrict further expansion of the U of R and RIT.” Take a look at this extreme congestion.

Joel Seligman, President of the U of R, declares that the project will be “transformational to the region’s economic future….” State Assemblyman  Joe Morelle says that this project will “help take us to the next level.” All of them should be ashamed. This project is a massive make-work that is a total and absolute dead end. Basta.

As it happens, I know this intersection very well. In the spring, summer, and fall, I am here multiple times a week, at many different hours of the day. This place is many things, but “extremely congested” is certainly not one of those things. This is just the kind of defective thinking that is leading us further and further from a useful urban future.

A truly ridiculous project, whose time has come and long gone, and yet cheered on by our regional and institutional leaders. Do we really still believe that road building is what we should do to preserve and protect our community? I wish I could laugh – it is laughable – but I can’t. There are 100 million better things we need to be doing here. Expressway interchanges are nowhere on that list.

Sigh.

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Almost every day as I wander around this place in images of times gone by, I find signs of who we once were. Perhaps these signs also point to what we may hope to become.

Witness this:

July 13th, 1913. The automobile is a Franklin. That’s Jimmy Feeney at the wheel – service manager for Franklin. City Sealer John Stephenson is about to pour a measured gallon into a glass container. Officials look on – after all, it’s a National Efficiency Demonstration.

And the answer: 57.2 miles on one gallon of gasoline.

Franklin Automobiles went out of business in 1934.

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Staib’s Saloon, Blossom and Winton, 1913.

Of course it was an imperfect arrangement. Streetcars in cities were an important, even critical, part of early 20th century urban life, but like any human conception, not without the occasional flaw.

Like the one above, when a streetcar crashed through the front door of Staib’s Saloon. Perhaps the motorman was thirsty….

One of the biggest challenges was keeping autos and streetcars separated. As on Main Street, below in 1919, officials experimented with a variety of controls to assure that the transit modes stayed clear of each other.

Which of course they didn’t.

Parsells Avenue, 1915.

Monroe and Crosman, 1923.

And often the sudden presence of a car or truck on the tracks would induce various kinds of mayhem.

On St. Paul in 1922, a truck bumped a streetcar off the tracks, and it promptly hit a fire hydrant, causing a small tidal wave.

Not sure how this next one  happened right downtown, but it sure drew a crowd.

 

Methinks somehow a rubber-tired vehicle was involved….

Streetcar workers occasionally went on strike (as railway companies found ways to operate the trolleys with fewer employees, for example), but the show had to go on. And it did.

I can hear OSHA inspectors nationwide groaning at this image. But hey – it worked.

Judging by all the smiles, everyone was having a pretty good time in spite of the work stoppage.

Main and Fitzhugh, 1910.

So mishaps and hiccups notwithstanding, the streetcar city worked pretty well.

Moral of the tale: cities are for feet, then rails, then cars.

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I have been spending a fair amount of time recently trying to understand the streetcar city we once had. Say in 1929 or so.

Why, you might ask? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, the routing of the streetcars of so long ago is nearly identical to the routing of today’s bus system. This may seem counterintuitive to some who realize how much this place has changed in the last 80 years or so – sprawl has emptied the city, changed where we live and work, vaporized downtown retail and entirely changed our patterns of urban life. But the routes, right down to the route numbers for many routes, are intact. More about this later.

And then I got to wondering about how it was to move around the city in those days. In 1929 we had subway, streetcar, bus, and trackless trolley (electric buses running on power from overhead lines) in addition to interurbans and long distance passenger rail. Today we have bus. And our cars, endlessly our cars.

Anyway, I found a map of the streetcar, bus, and subway routes from about that date, and I have been puzzling over it for some time. Here’s the map:

The solid lines are streetcars, the dashed lines are buses, and the subway is a doubled line with dashes inside. There were something like 10 bus lines and about 15 or more trolley lines.

Remember this: in those days the city was nearly twice as populous in nearly half the land. There was not yet a large non-city population (regional population). Downtown was, well, downtown: bustling, filled with jobs and retail and entertainment – the destination. The map shows so many routes going there because that’s where everyone wanted, and needed, to go.

The fare was a dime – about $1.25 today – and there were transfers so that you could change streetcars, or change modes, from streetcar to bus to trackless trolley. (Today there are no transfers – it’s a buck a ride, and another buck on the bus you have to transfer to).

In fact the streetcar transfer was invented here, by a man named John H. Stedman, 1843 – 1922, in 1892. Notably, Stedman also invented the fuzzy pipe cleaner. He’s buried here in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

I digress. There were also weekly passes. For a buck, you could ride anywhere anytime, all week.

The streetcars were pretty comfy, actually. We know this because Mr. Stone photographed their interiors in 1918, as they were disinfected during the influenza epidemic. Take a look.

In the winter, the cars were heated by coal-fired stoves. During WWI coal was rationed, so the railway system positioned coal stations across the city where a conductor could get a handful of coal lumps to keep the home fires burning.
This guy looks like he is having a real ball.

Perhaps I have digressed again.

In the 20s, the streetcars ran from 6:00am to 12:00pm – 18 hours a day. But here’s where the comparison to today starts to get a bit, well, revealing.

At peak, the headway – the distance between trains – was about 5 minutes. The longest headways were in the evenings, and were about 15 minutes.

Today, the bus system runs about 20 minute headways at peak, and off-peak headways sag to about an hour or more.

And if you were inclined, there was an interurban between Rochester and Syracuse that ran every 30 minutes.

So over 80 years ago, you could move around our city almost as quickly on the streetcar/subway/trolley/bus system as in your car today. Maybe we’re not as smart as we think we are.

And you could get to Syracuse, downtown to downtown, from here as fast or faster than you can get there today, in your car. Hmmm.

Now, a short glimpse at today’s bus system. Here are a couple of images of the bus routes today. I have taken these from the RGRTA website. They offer a 14mb image of the system map that is pretty nearly impossible to use – slow to download, gigantic, and cumbersome, at best. Come on guys – the 1929 map is a snap to use.

First, the overall system:

Looks kind of familiar, yes?

And now a snapshot of the system in downtown:

So in 1929, you could get downtown (you wanted to go downtown) quickly, and transfer easily to other parts of the city.

Today you have to go downtown (you may want to go there, or you may want to go elsewhere, but you have no choice), usually pay a second fare to transfer to another bus, and go out of downtown to your destination.

Lots has changed in our region in the last 80 years. As I said at the outset, we no longer live, work, shop, or loiter in the same places we did then. But here’s the thing: it was a 20 minute city then, and it’s a 20 minute city today. Except that in those times, it was 20 minutes using transit. Today, you are in your car.

Is this progress? Maybe. Maybe not.

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