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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:

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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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As we wander around the world looking for cities that can teach us Rochesterians a thing or two about good urbanism, we occasionally stumble across places that are sufficiently astonishing that they must be shared. And so, herewith is a peek at Melbourne, Australia.

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Melbourne, looking north from Port Phillip Bay and the Tasmanian Ferry Terminal.

Melbourne is a big city, with a population of just over 4 million. And it has lots of things wrong with it – expressways that are traffic nightmares, new road construction, a fair amount of sprawl at the edges – although most but not all of this is industrial rather than the more conventional kinds of sprawl we’re used to – perhaps a few too many big sports stadia (though soccer, cricket, rugby, and tennis are all a stone’s throw from one another), a downtown shopping mall: most of the usual crud that affects almost all cities (if you want to see a real mess in the making, go spend a bit of time in and around Bangkok….). So at the very outset, let me be completely clear: Melbourne is not Arcadia. We have not discovered the Beulah Land. But….

We have been thinking quite a lot of late about what a city should look like and how it should be arranged in order to be better prepared for the changes ahead. What changes, you ask? Well here are a few: very soon there will be lots more people, fewer resources and some scarcities, less wealth, our mobility will be different (less actual movement, more movement via technology), there will be fewer cars, energy will be more expensive, the weather will be different, food will be more expensive, local will make more sense (cost, availability) than trans-national or global. When you ask? Oh, any time now.

But back to Melbourne, mostly ready for its future. During our recent visit we had the great good fortune to be guided and toured about the city by friends who have lived there for many, many years. Not architects or urban designers – phew – but smart people who are quite tuned in to their home place. So we saw a lot, and a lot that most tourists would never see: traffic jams, city edges, many of Melbourne’s beautiful and huge parks, the close-in suburbs, neighborhood nodes and their shopping zones, and more. Not to say our visit was comprehensive by any means, but we did manage to get to most corners of the city. And – wow.

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Afoot on downtown Melbourne’s Swanston Street.

Before we reached the gridded and bustling downtown of Melbourne, we took a look around at some of the edges. In a southeastern suburb (though if felt a part of the urban fabric and was only 6 or 7 miles from downtown, and near the city’s edge) of Brighton, we visited the famed Dendy Street Beach, with its amazing and iconic bathing boxes – 82 of them.

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These cabanas – colorful shacks, really – are now selling for $250,000 each – 10 years ago you could get one for $12,000.

As we had a bit of breakfast, our guides (unprompted from us Rochesterians, honest) animatedly told us about their neighborhood in Brighton, and excitedly about their 20 minute commute to downtown. (20 MINUTE COMMUTE – SOUND FAMILIAR, NEIGHBORS?!?). They often grab their grandkids and travel about the city for 20 minutes in one direction or another to a park (the Melbourne parks are an amazing asset) or a museum or downtown to Federation Square (more about that place shortly) on the streetcar. Yup – in Melbourne the 20 minute commute is on a streetcar. Take a look at the Melbourne train and tram map – it’s truly awe-inspiring!

146298746 melb map

And now let’s take a trip down St. Kilda Road and head downtown. The street is wonderfully subdivided into a three part boulevard section: part one is for the streetcars; part two is for through traffic and is adjacent to the trams; part three are the service drives for local access and turning movements. Brilliant.

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Variations on this theme are visible in various parts of the city on major routes, while the trams simply share the rights-of-way in the more dense neighborhoods. Truly, a transit geek’s paradise.

And as the map above illustrates, mobility in Melbourne is more than just trams. The system is a coordinated network of various modes – trains, trams, buses, and more. A network – that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? And thus, a 20 minute commute. But onward.

Arriving downtown, perhaps by tram or train, we find ourselves at the astonishing and beautiful Flinders Street Station.

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And across the street from the station is the city’s main public space, the very odd but entirely tractable, crowded, bustling, and beloved Federation Square. Federation Square is actually a large mixed-use development housing many public and some private functions, museums, retail and restaurants, all built on air rights over the railroads. The buildings are weird, but they frame an amazing and wonderful space that is the living room of Melbourne, and a great jumping off place for a downtown stroll.

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Flinders Street Station and downtown Melbourne from Fed Square.

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St. Paul’s in the background, Fed Square bustling all round, and the weird architecture visible at the right.

After a Fed Square lunch, it’s time to have a walk.

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Yes, the mobility network includes bike sharing.

As if the streets are not wonderful enough in what is called the Hoddle Grid, because downtown was laid out in 1837 by Robert Hoddle in the form of a rotated grid, there are a whole host of fabulous arcades.

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And bunches of snickets – mid-block narrow walks lined with food and shops.

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We enjoyed everything about downtown, and we were completely taken as well by Melbourne’s equally amazing neighborhoods. Cities can be terrific places.

But then it was time to visit yet another Melbourne astonishment: the Queen Victoria Market, the Vic. This unbelievable place, with its roots in 1850, is now the largest public market in the Southern Hemisphere. The market is huge, has more stuff in it than one can comprehend, and it has 2,000 square meters of solar panels on its roofs (about 22,000 square feet), generating more than 250,000 kilowatt hours of power (enough to fully power 25 homes for a year). Here we go:

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The doughnuts are a much prized Vic foodstuff.

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Miles and miles of the real stuff of markets – fruit, veg, cheese, meats.

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Yes, that does say “Kangaroo Fillets.”

We were energized and instructed in Melbourne. It is a wonderful place, and has much to teach about what makes good urbanism, in any hemisphere. I wish we could take our local leaders there for a visit – they might see a few things of value, and learn a few things. Perhaps like this:

Lessons –

The 20 minute commute is not about cars

Mobility is a network

The public realm of blocks and streets and parks fundamentally defines a place

Walkability trumps everything, whether downtown or in neighborhoods

Density is good, whether downtown or in neighborhoods

Even weird architecture can make a great urban place, especially if it is surrounded with fantastic historic urban fabric

 

Go to Melbourne and see for yourself – it’s worth the trip.

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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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1923, Edgerton Park.

Max Frisch, Swiss novelist (and architect) once said, “Time does not change us. It just unfolds us.”

True, I think. Like maps, our lives unfold until all is revealed. And so it is with cities, as we unfold the stories of their places time after time.

I have been unfolding the stories of a particular portion of our city for quite a while. It has taken me months to put the pieces together to create an unfolded map of  just this one particular spot. The stories crisscross back and forth over a very long time in our city – 165 years to be exact. Get comfortable – this one is going to take a while.

This particular place in our city has had many names in many eras: Western House of Refuge, State Industrial School, Exposition Park, and finally Edgerton Park (named in memory of former mayor Hiram Haskell Edgerton, who has appeared in our pages previously).

Just under 40 acres, this place has been home to juvenile delinquents, trade school students after the children’s prison was reformed in the late 1880s, hundreds of thousands of Rochesterians from across the entire city and region attending the annual Exposition from 1911 until the late 1940s, Glenn Miller and his orchestra, the 1950-51 NBA Champion Rochester Royals, high schoolers (Jefferson High School is a part of this site), model train buffs, and today neighbors and all kinds of recreators. It’s an amazing, complicated place. The map across time of Edgerton Park is really a guide to the changing life of our city.

For me, it all started with this:

A parade. It’s 1908, and Mr. Stone is showing us what was called the Industrial Exposition Parade. Moving up and down Main Street are floats exhibiting all manner of Rochester businesses: milliners and tailors, shoemakers, photographic supply houses – a long list of local enterprises. The notes accompanying the photograph explain that this parade was a precursor to the annual Industrial Exposition at Edgerton Park. Hmm, I thought – what the heck was that? I was puzzled – because today, Edgerton Park looks like this:

In the distance at the right is Jefferson High, and a bit to the left is the Edgerton Park Rec Center. And then: a running track, a children’s water park, tennis and basketball courts, and a whole bunch of ball fields. Sensing a rather large gap between what I could see and what I was beginning to sense were the other lives of this place, it was clearly time to investigate. Here we go.

In 1846, the State of New York created the Western House of Refuge. When complete, it was the first reform school in the United States – home to young delinquent boys. The place opened in 1849, with 50 children. By 1875, the legislature agreed that girls could be housed here as well, and the place kept growing, with more and more buildings added to house the swelling roll of inmates.

In 1870, the place looked like this:

And in 1872, like this:

A walled prison in a bucolic, ex-urban setting.

As the 19th century came to a close, reforming the reform school became an increasingly pressing matter. Corporal punishment was banned, hard labor reduced, bars on windows removed, real schooling instituted. In fact, by the late 1880s, the Western House of Refuge was renamed. It became the State Industrial School, and inmates were now taught trades in addition to their regular classes.

In 1900, the place looked like this:

That’s the Erie Canal running diagonally at the far left. The School had a tiny railroad that carried supplies (mostly coal) from the Canal to the building that housed the boilers, the dining hall and the power house.

And as you can begin to see, the city had moved out to and now surrounded the School. Time for change. In 1902 the State purchased 1,000 acres of land in what was then the nearby but very rural Rush, New York, and the move began. By 1907, the site was abandoned. Now what?

The City of Rochester bought the place, and transformed it into Exposition Park, home to what had begun as the Industrial Exposition Parade. Voila – now I was getting somewhere.

But before Exposition Park would open, a certain canny photographer visited the place to show us what it looked like as a reform school. Here are a few of the images Mr. Stone shared with us.

This is the Main Building and the main entrance to the School, facing east and Backus Street (Backus was an early Director of the Western House of Refuge). Mr. Stone took this image from the middle of Phelps Avenue.

The portion on the left, with the arched openings, is the chapel. Remember that part of this huge rambling building – you’ll need it later.

Demolition is underway – the boiler room/power house/dining hall is biting the dust in the middle ground. In the distance is the Main Building, and again the chapel is seen on the right. You’re looking east.

And finally, this, from 1910:

Looking north, towards the School. Streetcar tracks. In both directions. Remember this – it will become very important later. Very important.

So, with demolition complete, Exposition Park could open. From the looks of the parade in 1908, I expected to find that this annual event would prove to be some kind of glorified trade show. Boy, was I wrong.

Concerts:

1911.

I think the bandstand is one of the odder structures I have seen. Here’s another view, from 1922. To the left of the bandstand is the zoo, complete with apes and bears and ostriches.

The ostriches, in 1917.

Exhibitions by the Historical Society:

1913.

Art Exhibitions:

1912.

Every manner of sports competition imaginable, but lots and lots of horse contests of various kinds:

1919.

In 1918, the place looked like this:

Here’s Mayor Edgerton opening the Expo sometime in the 19 teens:

Oh sure, the latest technologies were showcased:

Yes, that’s a lawnmower – 1920.

And as time passed, lots and lots of car exhibitions:

1924.

A couple of favorite exhibitions from this period include:

This is an exhibition of stolen autos, held in 1920.

The cars were stolen in the midwest, but shown here. Hmm.

And this one:

An exhibition of “Fruit Diseases and Injurious Insects,” 1921.

Huge crowds were the norm. Here are two views. Often these events were at the 4th of July, or revolved around patriotic events linked to World War I.

4th of July, 1917.

4th of July, 1918.

I could go on, and on, and on. Clearly this place was at the heart of city life in those days. Folks could hop on a streetcar, or later the subway, and then walk a block and join the throngs. It must have been an amazing place – a kind of annual mini-World’s Fair. The more I looked, the more astonished I became at the heady life of this place.

Here’s Edgerton Park in 1926. By then, Mayor Edgerton was gone, and the place had taken his name.

Notice that the Erie Canal is gone now, and in its place, at the far left, is the word “Transit.” This was our beloved subway.

You could get to Expo Park by subway, or by streetcar on one of at least two car lines. Kodak Park was only a few blocks south, and this part of the city was dense and bustling.

But more. After his death, a monument to Mayor Edgerton was erected, and it looked like this:

1929.

It’s on the left, in front of the peristyle where visitors bought their tickets. I have not been able to figure out what happened to the monument – it’s gone, but I don’t know where. Maybe you know.

Back to the Expo. Every year one of the most wonderful features was the baby contest.

That’s Richard Eyer and Doris Sedgwick, in 1926.

There are many images of this particular event – apparently a favorite of Mr. Stone’s. Here’s another:

Virginia Grace Coxon, in 1923.

The Expo survived the Depression, and went strong until the 1940s. But it faded after World War II, and I couldn’t figure out what happened, or why.

I knew that hockey was played in the old arena in the late 40s and 50s. I knew that the Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) won the NBA championship here in game seven of the 1950-51 season. I knew that the PAL (Police athletic League) started a fabulous model train layout in the 50s, aimed at giving children something creative to do, and which thankfully survives. But I could not figure out how the place went from being at the heart of the city to being a big neighborhood park.

Today, a few more views.

First, a view of the park in almost the same place as Mr. Stone’s image of 1910 – the middle of Phelps Avenue looking west at the chapel. Remember the chapel? Good. There it is – the Edgerton Park Rec Center.

And here, a view looking toward what was once the Erie Canal, then the
Rochester Subway, and today a berm.

And here, another view of the park today.

Today, the park is an important part of the neighborhood. A few events at the park draw folks from across the city – dances, the model trains, athletic contests, the water park, and others. And the city is conducting a few special events in this, Expo/Edgerton Park’s centennial year.

But as the city dispersed after World War II, and Kodak dwindled, and the car took over the streets, the park went from central to the life of the city to peripheral, at best.

It’s this last part that I could not figure out. What was it that pulled the plug on this place? Dances and concerts continued into the 50s. Glenn Miller – yikes. Basketball – big time. Hmm.

And then last week, the last piece of the puzzle emerged. We had lunch with some of Amy’s long time family friends, from her old neighborhood. She baby-sat for the family, and the matriarch of the family, an M.D., grew up in the Edgerton neighborhood. She remembered the Expo, and the concerts and the music. She remembered the dances especially, jitterbugging into the night.

She said: “Things were different after the War (World War II).” And then the light went on, at last.

The city pulled out the streetcars in 1941. Symptomatically, Expo Park ceased in 1947.

And the subway ceased in 1956. In 1957 the former World Champion NBA Rochester Royals moved to Cincinnati, and thence to Sacramento.

Our lives changed radically here in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, like lives in cities across the nation. Edgerton Park, so long a central part of the life of the city, was now abandoned, and marooned. The river of city life had shifted, and today the map shows only a small creek where once had been a mighty stream. Chapter closed.

Today Edgerton Park remains an important place in our city. While the neighborhood is poorer than the old days, and abandoned buildings are visible, it would be wrong to underestimate the role the place continues to play in the life of the city. But there are no more throngs, no monuments to beloved mayors, no baby contests, no exhibitions. The city does not teem to the park on the 4th of July. It’s pretty quiet now.

165 years in the life of any city is a long time. Edgerton Park has unfolded before my eyes, from prison to school to gathering place to home for great city moments, and now, simply, a park.

Perhaps we made some mistakes along the way. The future’s map is unclear. But certainly we will not go back to where we have been.

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Despite the bad news about cars and the cities they have ruined, we can report that we saw some amazing transit systems during our recent walkabout. Okay fellow transit nerds, herewith, three examples.

In Hong Kong, we delighted in riding the double-decker streetcars. The system, now over 100 years old, is wholly owned by a private entity: Veolia Transport. Fare is HK$1 for us gray hairs, HK$2 for others. The system has 161 cars, 30km of track and 118 stops in its entirety. Heavily used (80,000,000 riders annually), the system runs on 1.5 minute headways at peak operating hours (no, that’s not a typo – 1.5 minute headways. Practically a moving sidewalk of trams !!).

The tram looked like this not too long ago:

And today, with its new cars and wrap-around advertising, it looks like this:

This is true no-frills transport. Enter at the rear of the car, sit if you can find a seat, plug a $1 coin in the box as you leave up front. Oh, and pick up your feet – they ain’t kiddin’ about the tight schedules. Downtown stops have shelters – it rained and rained on us – but elsewhere not. There is absolutely nothing fancy about this system, but it really works.

In Singapore, we rode the subway, and we can report that while we have not ridden every subway system on the planet, this is the best we have ever seen by some distance.

During planning for this system in the 70s, a bus-only system was considered, but planners concluded that the requisite flood of additional buses would fill roadways already groaning with traffic. So in the 80s Parliament opted for a subway. Good choice, Parliament. Even as the basic system opened, Parliament understood the need to continue the expansion of the system, and this expansion continues today.

Today, the system comprises 130 kilometers of track, and carries about 2 million people a day, or 744.8 million people a year, making it the 15th busiest subway in the world (Singapore is the world’s 33rd largest city – folks there like their transit).

We can report that, as any good system must be, the MRT in Singapore is completely intuitive to use. Really clear, really simple. We found ourselves easily upgrading and exchanging our credit card-like tickets –  piece of cake.

And the system is gorgeous, spotless, quiet, and comfortable. Anybody know of a better system?

In Dubai, we rode the subway all over the place, on its runs both above and below grade.

And guess what? It is a direct and complete knock-off of one of the best systems that exists: Singapore’s.

But for the station tile patterns and a few other quite minor variations, they are interchangeable.

We rode the Dubai system one afternoon when it was absolutely packed – jammed to the limits – and it was still remarkable in every way.

How could you go and see this, without a terrific subway system?

Skiing, Mall of the Emirates. Completely goofy, but then so is Dubai.

And then we came home to our humble, mostly unusable bus system. Maybe if we built a giant indoor Hawaiian surfing park at Eastview Mall, we could get better transit….

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In the never-ending process of building and rebuilding our cities, we make choices about what’s important – where we live, where we work, how we get from place to place. Every choice we make is accompanied by consequences, some intended, some not. And some of the nastiest consequences of our rottenest choices stay with us in our marred urban places for a very, very long time. 

Our city, Rochester, has made some really bad choices in the last half century. Every city has done similarly. Not every city has torn itself down, built an expressway moat, paved all of downtown for parking, moved every bit of retail to the suburbs (with a few notable exceptions, thankfully), and ignored its best natural assets, it’s true, but every city does have a few lulus.

Our beloved Inner Loop.

And now our city is about to spend $132,000,000 on a couple more stinkers. A bus barn downtown for our lamest kind of bus system, and a huge subsidy for about 750 jobs in a new corporate headquarters downtown. I have written about both these projects here, and so I won’t revisit those discussions again.

Instead, I want to think for a moment about what would happen if we took that money and made a few different choices.

A recent visitor to our city, urbanist and Brookings Fellow Christopher Leinberger, observed that Rochester is being “lapped” by many other cities of similar size, and many with fewer assets. We fall further behind in assuring the vitality, value, and usefulness of our city, and region, with every passing day. Our priorities are really screwed up.

And what does Mr. Leinberger say is the most powerful tool in transforming cities, and in creating new value and vitality downtown? Transit. He calls transit, and transit tools, the rudder that steers the ship that is the city, and region.

So how could the $132m be put to better use here, creating greater value and reinvigorating our urbanism? Just two examples are amazing, and instructive.

First, Cincinnati. Population of the city: 335,000. Population of the region: 2.2 million. Bigger than Rochester, but not so much bigger: about a third larger in the city, and about twice the size in the region.

Cincy is planning a streetcar for its downtown. The alignment is set for the first phase, and the cost of the 5 mile system has been pegged at around $100 million. Already developers are investing in sites and projects along the route. The system is estimated to increase property values downtown by something like $380 million, and the system is estimated to spark $1.4 billion in development once it’s up and rolling. This is a return on investment of about $14 for every dollar in. Not bad.

The second example, Portland, is the poster child for investing in change that makes radical improvements to urban value, and quality. Their streetcar system, with a cost of $149 million, has now induced over $3.5 billion dollars in economic development. So the folks in Cincy are being conservative, as they should be, but realistic about the impact that fixed guideway rail transit (streetcars) can have on their urban future.

I have been doing transportation work across my entire career: I am a fully qualified transit geek. But I am not urging our City Council and leadership (three mayors in the last month – not bad, yes?) to swap the mistakes they are about to make for streetcars because I like to play with trains.

No, I am asking our leadership to change course because I have an abiding passion for cities, this one included, and a belief that this place can be so much better if we shift our thinking, realign our priorities, and start making good choices for our future.

Will the upcoming investment here of $132 million in our two downtown projects create value for our city? Yes. I’m not sure how to calculate what will happen, but will we see over $1.8 billion in new value created, at the rate of $14 out for every $1 in, as in Cincy? No. Will we see our downtown revitalized? No. Will we be making an investment that will change the course of our city and our region? No.   

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment, it’s an oncoming train. We can change that.

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