|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHO WILL LEAD?