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.
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.
In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:
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 Grand
Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922
Goodman and Garson
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.
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.
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.
Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.
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:
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.