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Rochester's Unique Place in the Rustbelt Revival

Rochester's Unique Place in the Rustbelt Revival
Wikimedia Commons

Americans are slowly but surely moving back to cities, even to so-called 'shrinking' cities. Consider the very existence of the new term: Rustbelt Chic. Rochester, New York, is a great example of this trend, but it remains unclear if it’s really in a position to respond in a way that grows the momentum.

Rochester, like Detroit, was once a flourishing diversified economy transformed into a company town by the growth and domination of one corporate entity.

When Detroit was a young developing city, its assorted businesses served surrounding farmers. Grist mills proliferated. Shipyards built marine engines and steamships. In fact, Detroit was the first city in the world to produce steamships. But as the nascent automobile industry grew and then shrank from about 500 companies to three dominant ones, all those skills were bought up and absorbed. The automobile industry transformed Detroit into a company town, for which it still suffers today.


Rochester, circa 1930. Courtesy: Rochester Municipal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Rochester experienced a similar early history with a happier present day condition. The city had a great variety of small enterprises producing a variety of fine scientific and advanced technological equipment. Many businesses were doing highly advanced work in precision manufacturing and optical and other scientific products. George Eastman, smartly, bought up and absorbed all that creativity under one dominant mantle, except, of course, for Xerox and Bausch & Lomb, which, thankfully, survived to grow independently. And so Rochester flourished for decades as a company town and, fortunately for the city, George Eastman was a generous and thoughtful philanthropist. The cultural institutions supported by his philanthropy and others gives a quality-of-life appeal to this city not duplicated in many of comparable size.


The headquarters of Bausch & Lomb and Xerox in downtown Rochester, courtesy: David L. Selby/Wikimedia Commons; Eastman Theater, one of Eastman's many cultural institutions. Courtesy: Matthew D. Wilson/Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, Rochester’s economic woes have focused on Kodak’s diminishment. But at the same time, without much attention being paid, Rochester was gaining many new, small, innovative start-ups, particularly in optics and photonics.

University of Rochester Professor Duncan Moore has pointed out that Kodak’s bankruptcy is hardly the catastrophe many imagine, noting that while “Kodak’s Rochester-area employment dropped to fewer than 7,000 from 61,000, the community itself gained a net 90,000 jobs,” a reflection of the city’s reviving economic diversity. Rochester’s rate of patent registration reportedly remains impressive, another healthy sign.


Courtesy: Rochester Rhinos

Rochester, like so many “shrinking” cities, has of course invested huge amounts of public funds in the usual big, formulaic projects designed to re-ignite interest in its declining downtown – a civic center, highway connector, hotel, soccer stadium, a few multi-million dollar failed efforts and, most recently, a corporate tower for PAETEC Holding Corporation that wiped out a popular downtown gathering place.

In fact, after probably close to $100 million in public investment, tax breaks, free land, subsidized parking and infrastructure improvements for this new tower, Windstream took it over and is building a more modest three-story structure, probably a better scale but surely not what was promised.

But the real signs of renewed life in Rochester can be found instead in the self-organized, citizen-based efforts unfolding there.


Rochester's Contemporary Art Center (left), courtesy: bbWiki00/Wikimedia Commons; Little Theater (right). Courtesy: J. Van Meter/Wikimedia Commons

Like many cities, Rochester has numerous traditional neighborhoods that appeal to new arrivals. The Corn Hill, Park Avenue, South Wedge, and Susan B. Anthony neighborhoods all started to turn around when things didn’t look like they could get worse. What did they all have in common? Low property values, thanks to a combination of deteriorated structures that still had strong architectural appeal and enough buyers ready to put in their own energy. If there's any formula for renewal, that’s it.    


Photos from the annual Corn Hill Arts Festival. Via Corn Hill Arts Festival

Rochester also has some smart, small-scale developers renovating former industrial buildings into lofts, taking advantage of historic tax credits, the one reliable source for renovation instead of demolition money.

On a recent visit to Rochester, one local booster said: "Rochester has good bones." Indeed, it has: a surviving, potentially versatile mix of downtown buildings; a number of high quality visual and performing cultural resources; an entrepreneurial community anxious to grow their start-ups in their home city; and several spectacular public open-space sites, probably best of which is the waterfalls at High Falls and the adjacent re-emerging historic neighborhood.


High Falls, courtesy: evilarry/Wikimedia Commons

But like many similarly damaged industrial cities, Rochester is missing the cartilage needed to connect all those bones and add strength to the whole. More than 60 percent of downtown is devoted to parking. How much city can exist between the dead spaces of parking lots? Rochester isn’t even talking about transit, although it has the classic Main Street spine on which to start at least one segment. Even car-dependent cities such as Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles have discovered the virtue of bringing back transit. 

So yes, in Rochester and similar faded industrial cities, the bones are there. But every city like Rochester has to first learn that the big projects never meet their expectations, the small ones always exceed theirs and real regeneration builds momentum with investment in people.

Top image courtesy Chris Tomkins-Tinch/Wikimedia Commons

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and urban critic. Her newest book is The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. All posts »

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