Downtown Rochester around the turn of the last century.
Photo credit: Rochester Public Library Local History Division
By SALLY PARKER
After the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass moved to Washington from Rochester, his home of 25 years, he wrote to a friend: “I shall always feel more at home there than anywhere else in the country.”
Rochester has that effect on people. It is a romantic view, perhaps, but characteristic of the nation’s first boomtown. Since the city’s founding 175 years ago, inventive and determined Rochesterians have gone about the business of changing the world.
Among them was George Eastman, who plugged away at popularizing photography until he got it right; the Kodak brand remains one of the most recognizable on the planet. Susan B. Anthony crisscrossed the country in a tireless campaign to win the right to vote for women. Anarchist Emma Goldman began her fight for workers’ rights here. Revivalist Charles Finney, the spiritualist Fox Sisters, and Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, tapped the area’s religious fervor and carried it around the globe.
First a village (1817) and then a city (1834), Rochester began along the banks of the Genesee River. Early millers and merchants were the first to harness the power of the river’s High Falls. Producing flour in mills that hugged the river gorge, Rochester earned its first nickname, the Flour City.
“Every thing in this bustling place appeared to be in motion,” wrote Capt. Basil Hall
in “Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828.” “The very streets seemed to be starting up of their own accord, ready-made, and looking as fresh and new as if they had been turned out of the workmen’s hands but an hour before.”
Thus began Rochester’s rise as a major manufacturing center. Soon came beer, buttons, coffins, clothing, cigarettes, film, optics, medical equipment and nursery products (which earned it a nickname that stuck, Flower City). Goods were loaded onto boats in the Erie Canal to be shipped around the world. Like a finely tuned machine, Rochester industry hummed along for many years.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the success of corporate giants such as Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Gleason and Bausch & Lomb shone through in the community, from the gracious homes that lined leafy streets to the thousands of small businesses that sprang up. Their industrious prosperity carried Rochester through generations. Immigrants poured into the area, drawn by the promise of work.
Homegrown radicals notwithstanding, Rochester became a corporate headquarters town and developed a reputation as conservative and cautious. Noting its high-tech manufacturing base, outsiders described Rochester as intelligent and well-scrubbed.
Early in the 20th century, Rochester’s cultural life exploded. The decade beginning with 1913 saw the launch of the Memorial Art Gallery, Eastman School of Music and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Each is a mainstay; hundreds of cultural groups, here and elsewhere, have their roots in these institutions.
To be sure, like the river that flows through it, Rochester has twisted and turned along the way. Wealth accumulated and the community grew in the first half of the 20th century, but not everyone shared in the area’s prosperity. The heart of Rochester had begun to crumble by the 1950s and ’60s. Prosperity shifted to the growing suburbs, and the city came to be viewed as a drag on the community rather than its engine.
Things were tense for a while. After rioting in the summer of 1964 threatened to destroy once-stable neighborhoods, community groups sprang to the forefront. They addressed the issues, such as substandard housing, that fed unrest, and they remain advocates to this day. Community gardens and neighborhood centers abound, but Douglass’ fight is not over, and poverty endures.
During the 1960s, new construction—including Midtown Plaza, the nation’s first downtown indoor mall—rejuvenated the city’s core, but it flattened entire neighborhoods in the process. Enter the Landmark Society of Western New York. The preservation group fought to keep neighborhoods adjacent to downtown from being wiped off the map. Today, Corn Hill and East Avenue are beautiful, lasting reminders of the group’s work. The society also prevented the demolition of the former Federal Building. Today, the Richardsonian Romanesque structure is none other than City Hall itself.
Urban renewal that re-envisions bustling downtown life is under way today. The monolithic Midtown Plaza is coming down to make room for a plan that redraws smaller city blocks and promotes Main Street retail, residential and office space, including a new headquarters for Paetec Holding Corp., a telecom firm.
Down the street, Renaissance Square—a combined college campus and bus terminal—is slated to rise.
And the city that became the nation’s first boomtown with trade on the Erie Canal is even weighing a plan to rewater the historic canal where it crossed the Genesee River in the heart of downtown.
Capital projects are exciting, but driving Rochester’s success will be its signature brainpower. The University of Rochester has surpassed Kodak as the region’s No. 1 employer. Because of the explosive activity at UR and Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester ranks high nationally for research funding. Area research attracts about $400 million in federal and state funding each year. Thanks to nationally ranked academic programs and growing lab-to-market efforts, companies in biotechnology, imaging and optics, and fuel-cell research are springing up.
Rochester’s resurgence also is fueled by energetic young professionals who are taking the community outside the box and into the future. They are injecting the city with a fresh dose of optimism. Along with other newcomers, they have a fascination with downtown not seen in decades—draping it in art, filling it with music, living in its lofts. Young entrepreneurs are making movies and building collaborations with change makers. From shop owners to telecom CEOs, they are the new face of Rochester.
As it makes the transition from company town to innovative hot spot, Rochester is staring down some of the biggest challenges in its history. Simply put, money is tight.
But the energy is flowing: Necessity breeds invention, and Rochester remains as enterprising in its 175th year as it was in its first.