Sunday, May 18, 2014

Why we moved from sunny Florida to Rochester, NY

Downtown Rochester, NY

A friend termed it “wonderfully counterintuitive” when we told him we were moving from Florida to NY’s third largest city to semi-retire.  Most people weren’t that polite.  A more typical response was a Catch-22 inspired question, “are you crazy?”

The truth is that 18 years in Florida left us burned out by the hot, sticky weather, and with a sense that we never quite fit in.

We’ve always had a connection to Rochester.  My wife and I met here when we worked at Citibank and we’ve traveled here for summer vacations many times over the years, finally investing in a condo on Canandaigua Lake a few years ago.  Still Rochester is not a logical choice for most and has its own array of good, bad and ugly.

The Good

Rochester is a college town with a highly educated populace and the entertainments that educated north easterners enjoy — music, theatre, museums, outdoor sports and dining.  

Kodak founder George Eastman wasn’t the city’s founder but he might as well have been.  He laid the groundwork for technical manufacturing that continues to be a Rochester strength. He established the Eastman School of Music, among the best music schools in the country. His name adorns buildings at both of the major universities here and his mansion – now a museum – anchors its swankiest street, East Avenue. 

The festival season kicked off last week with the Lilac Festival.  Next month, the highlight will be the Rochester International Jazz Festival.  Last year’s attendance approached 200K.  You don’t have to enjoy jazz to appreciate the festival or to appreciate its significance.  In a small city, an event like RIJF wouldn’t exist were it not for a ready audience of people who crave non-mainstream entertainment.

The job engine of Rochester was The Big 3 (Kodak, Xerox and B&L).  In the wake of their now diminished presence, a very entrepreneurial culture has sprung up.

But, the emotional connection springs from Rochester’s existence at the juncture of Brooklyn wise-ass and Midwest nice.  Sarcasm is not mortal combat here; it’s just fun.

The Bad

If you know the difference between latitude and longitude, you know the winters are bad here.  This one just ended was among the worst with record setting, sub-zero temperatures.  But, we have our consolations, too.  I have considered proposing a new city motto, “Rochester – No hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, drought, wildfires, mud slides or dustbowl but Icy”.  Whaddaya think?

More than the weather, taxes are at the top of the ‘Bad’ list.  New York has the highest tax burden of any state in the nation.  We also have the highest debt per capita; so, there’s little hope of relief in the foreseeable future. 

The Ugly

When I worked here in the last century, downtown Rochester was an energetic place.  Citibank’s offices were located at State and Main along the Genesee River.  At lunchtime, it bustled with be-suited bankers, lawyers and other professionals.  There was a robust choice of upscale restaurants.  It was a cool place to hang out.

That’s no longer the case. The city feels hollow. 

A local study now rates Rochester as the fifth poorest city among the nation’s 75 largest. We have the state’s second highest crime rate (Buffalo is slightly higher), more than 3 times that of New York City.

Rochester is not alone in this quagmire of poor neighborhoods, weak families, lousy schools and lack of opportunity.  It’s a national problem. It’s not only a shame; it’s shameful for a nation of so much wealth.

The programs implemented and promoted by liberals for the last 50 years have not worked. But, it’s worse that conservatives seem to be in denial.  To say that everyone should succeed on their own merits ignores the lack of equal opportunity among our urban poor. 

Rochester’s city school system has been ranked worst in the state and, to make matters worse, the state’s best (in Pittsford) is only a few miles away.
The Erie Canal in Fairport, NY
Local efforts among the non-profit community have shown some progress. National organizations like the Urban League are active here.  And, there is also an active charter school movement in the city.  By September, the city will have 14 of them.

But, none of these efforts have reached the critical mass necessary to lift the community out of poverty.

Yes, we love it here.  But, we are happily ensconced in the charming, little Village of Fairport along the Erie Canal.  For Rochester to be a great city again, we must find a way to address our greatest challenge:  our inner city, urban poor.



  1. Brian Bandarra
    VP Sales and Operations - PureSleep at Art Van Furniture

    Very interesting perspective. We did something similar when we recently moved back to metro Chicago from Houston. While we feel a little better about Houston than you may feel about Florida, you comments about Rochester ring true for many parts of Chicago. We too live in an " enclave" that shields us from some of the real challenges cities face.

    I think we fix it by getting involved. I'm still a couple of years away from being able to engage these problems full-time, but I think it is worth doing.

    Great note.

  2. Heather G.
    swimming instructor and caregiver

    I admit that I too wondered about your sanity, although the hurricanes terrify me enough that it would be difficult to live there, and I just visit! Personally, I was born in four seasons, I grew up in four seasons, and I like four seasons. That said, I rely very heavily on the people who fix snowblowers and lawnmowers, in order to live where I do (northwestern lower peninsula of Michigan).

    About your slogan for Rochester: I would end with ... 'but we do have ice'. Or 'snow'. Or you could go with a shirt I saw when at college in Northfield, Minnesota: Welcome to x! We have four seasons. Snow, snow, no snow, and snow.

  3. Jeffery Pyle
    Senior Software Developer at Undisclosed

    Well, somebody has to live in Rochester, I guess.

    We just relocated to the Las Vegas area. We lived here a decade ago and now my wife and I are determined to stop moving in circles -- If we relocate again, we're not moving back to Kansas.

    What we like about the area is sunshine. There's plenty of it, even in the winter. Almost never any snow or ice to deal with, and as people often tell us, "it gets hot [here]." We also have found people in Las Vegas are friendlier, happier and actually take pride in living in the area. Cost of living is good and we really like all the natural attractions nearby. For my work, the businesses are more likely to embrace new technology instead of doing the same old thing they've been doing for years.

  4. Eric Werme
    Tech Staff at Oracle

    I'm 3/4 Swedish and don't like hot and humid weather. New Hampshire is a good place, though I'd like to trade a month of winter for spring. By the time it's warm enough for spring, summer can blow in on SW winds.

  5. Alison Brown
    Feminist Civic & Social Organization Leader

    Congratulations. I have a cousin up there, a former Kodak employee. Rochester has an awesome group of people involved with the I have been watching the peregrine falcons there on-line for over a decade and they never disappoint, nor do the people who watch them and write about their ups and downs.

  6. Fred Bosick
    Operations Analyst, Modis contractor at Ford

    "The programs implemented and promoted by liberals for the last 50 years have not worked. But, it's worse that conservatives seem to be in denial. To say that everyone should succeed on their own merits ignores the lack of equal opportunity among our urban poor."

    It's only half true. This city and the bulk of northern industrial cities failed because business and industry failed or moved out. The nearby town with the good schools is populated by former executives/descendants who cashed out or moved the industry out of Rochester.

    It's easy to blame "liberal' policies on the destruction of the inner city, but how did it work before the decay? Lots of good industrial *jobs* to support workers and (1 income)families.

    The failure of large cities is a direct result of the policies carried out to enrich the 1%; offshoring, mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing, financialization of the economy, tax laws drawn up to favor those who can buy the government, etc.

    On the other hand, having 4 distinct seasons is invigorating.

  7. Timothy M. Taylor
    Founder & President at Project F.A.R.M.S. - Social Entrepreneurship

    John - we should get together. Grew up on Skaneateles Lake and the environs of Syracuse. I lived in Windermere, FL and eventually made it back to my 69 acre farm on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake (just north of Wells College and McKenzie Childs). Thinking of moving back to Longboat Key, FL. I see you're looking for someone to head up the biz in Syracuse. Situation of Syracuse similar to Rochester - two great old cities in need of a resurgence.
    Tim '73

  8. Skip MacMichael
    Director, I&E at Amtrak

    Charlottesville, Virginia, and surroundng area might be a better choice: better weather, lower taxes, and a growing ecomomy.

  9. Michael Drapkin
    Principal Advisory Management Consultant in the Enterprise Risk Management practice at Drapkin Technology Corp.

    That is the home of my alma mater, the Eastman School of Music - still ranked the number one music school in America by US News. Enjoy their fantastic and mostly free concerts there!

  10. John Modrak
    Summer Traveler awaiting start at Business School

    Gents, would love to join, I just got out of the Navy, Class of 07, actually driving back to Rochester, NY this week. Will be around until Mid-June and then all of July, Mr. Calia, I just spent quite a long time reading your blog, I am very intrigued and inspired by the 4 or 5 posts I read.
    Best, and Beat Army,
    JD Modrak

  11. Pete Clarke
    Business Development Director

    John, I dont know.. you like high taxes and you don't care about your second amendment rights??.. As you know I grew up in Syracuse , so I can blast away.. LOL. I would never move to NY. But thats me :) I am glad you are enjoying it. Have fun on the lake this summer :) Pete

  12. @John. Reach out to me when you get here. I'll buy you lunch. (an offer available to any alum who travel to Rochester.)

    @Pete. Taxes are taxes and home is home. Should I send you my pictures and videos from yesterday's Memorial Day parade.

  13. Pete Clarke
    Business Development Director

    True-- Upstate is beautiful and has wonderful people.. :)

  14. Timothy M. Taylor
    Founder & President at Project F.A.R.M.S. - Social Entrepreneurship

    Official federal founding city for Memorial Day is Waterloo, NY - half way between John (Rochester) and me (Union Springs). I participated in march of cemeteries in Skaneateles, NY with VADM Bob Murrett, USN (Ret) and RADM John Paddock, USN (Ret) and 40 others. It's a BIG deal here in CNY.

  15. Sean McGinty, MBA
    Quality Manager at Amtraco LLC

    I grew up in Utica, but my family moved to Minnesota just as I entered USNA so I've only been back to upstate NY for a few visits and for nuclear prototype training in Ballston Spa. I've lived in a lot of places and visited a lot more, and I still think upstate NY is one of the most beautiful areas of the country.

    I now live outside Milwaukee. The climate and topography are very similar to western NY, and the place names come from the same Native American tribes that inhabited NY so I can actually pronounce most of them correctly. From time to time I've considered moving back to NY, but the issues of taxes, liberal politics and the long term sluggishness of the economy there have kept me in the Midwest.

    By the way, since Utica is located in the Mohawk Valley, it gets about half as much snow as the surrounding areas outside the valley, and the temperatures in the winter tend to be warmer too, usually staying in the teens and twenties. The trade-off is perpetual overcast. During some years Utica has had fewer sunny days than Seattle.

  16. Jim VanDerKamp
    Director - Operations Safety at Hawaiian Airlines

    I was born in Rochester and grew up in Wayne County just to the east. You have NO idea how much snow you're in for. I went to Navy immediately after graduation from high school and have been moving south and west ever since. I now live in Kailua, HI. When I pulled a snow shovel out of my pack out, someone asked me what it was... and that's when I decided I could stop.
    Upstate is beautiful but the winters are long and brutal.
    Good luck!

  17. Emily Elizabeth Windsor-Cragg
    PINDAR at The Cosmos

    John, you have just become one of my heroes, because I have had the same experience and have been intimidated into not talking about it. :hug: