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High Falls, a 96-foot cataract (Photo by Paul Ericson)

Rochester's Stories


Rochester is a curious blend. It's a sophisticated city with world-class music, galleries and restaurants. But it's also an unpretentious small town, where locals are happy to give directions or dig your car out of a snowbank. East Coast chic meets Midwestern friendly.

Big or small, Rochester is industrious. It has been from the start. When the new Erie Canal pushed its way through the city in the 1830s, trade to the western frontier was exploding. Rochester grew overnight. The city was the Young Lion of the West, a pace setter, America's first boomtown.

By the time George Eastman founded Eastman Kodak Co. in 1889, Rochester was booming in all kinds of industries-clothing, beer, seeds and plants, optics, tool and die. Dominant players have been Gleason Corp., Bausch & Lomb Inc. and Xerox Corp. Soon Kodak led the way-in both employment and local philanthropy, not to mention the world film market. "Kodak" became a household word.

But Rochester wasn't all business. Social reformers of the 19th century were equally driven. Frederick Douglass lived with his family in Rochester during his most productive years as an abolitionist orator and publisher. He was world-famous, but with like-minded locals he too ushered escaped slaves onto boats in the river, heading for Lake Ontario and freedom in Canada. Susan B. Anthony lived here almost her whole life. She traveled the country into old age, speaking out for women's rights. Political activist 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 spread it around the globe.
Downtown Rochester

By foot or car, a spin around downtown tells some of Rochester's stories.

Start your tour on West Main Street near Broad and Fitzhugh streets, Plymouth Avenue and Exchange Boulevard. This is where the city began, in wooded wilderness once occupied by the Senecas, one of the nations in the Iroquois League. They sold it to settlers, and in the late 1700s Ebenezer Allan received a tract of land to build a mill. In 1802, sensing prospects for a mill town, Col. Nathaniel Rochester and two others bought the land, known as the 100-Acre Tract. This is where Rochester began, first as a village (1817) and then a city (1834).

Rochester's early businesses harnessed the power of the Genesee River. Producing flour in mills that hugged the river gorge, Rochester earned its first nickname, the Flour City. Settlers used the flour for trade with the Seneca Nation and later for shipping west.

You'll find evidence of these early mills in the Brown's Race Historic District in High Falls. Head north on State Street and turn right at Platt. Today the buildings in High Falls house businesses and loft apartments. The river is an impressive sight as it tumbles 96 feet over the falls on its way north to Lake Ontario. It's one of just a handful of downtown waterfalls in the country. For a great view, walk over the Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge.

Head back to State Street and note Kodak headquarters across the street, next to Frontier Field. Return to Main Street and turn right; less than a mile away is 17 Madison St., where Susan B. Anthony lived with her sister Mary, a school principal. It's a museum today. Visitors can stand in the parlor where Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872. Most of the homes on the street and around the nearby park look much as they would have in her day.

Follow Main Street back downtown. For businesses, the Powers Building at 16. W. Main St. was a fancy address. It was the first in the state outside of New York City to have a passenger elevator, gas illumination and marble floors. As Rochester grew more prosperous, owner Daniel Powers added floors to maintain the building's status as tallest in the city.

Activist journalists were busy down the street. In the Talman Building, 25 E. Main St., Frederick Douglass published nationally known anti-slavery newspapers from 1847 to 1863-first the North Star and later Frederick Douglass' Paper and Douglass' Monthly. Also in that building, abolitionist Harriet Jacobs operated an anti-slavery reading room, and the building is said to have been a station on the Underground Railroad.

Right across the street in Reynolds Arcade, one of Rochester's first major commercial buildings, Abner Cole published the free-thought newspaper the Liberal Advocate under the pseudonym Obadiah Dogberry.

As you cross the river, look south to the Broad Street bridge. The Erie Canal once crossed the river there on an aqueduct, which still exists under Broad Street. When the canal was rerouted south of the city, the aqueduct was used for the rapid transit system until 1956, when trolley service ended. The aqueduct is open for occasional tours, and the city hopes to build a park that would rewater the canal bed over the river.

After you cross North Clinton Avenue, notice anything odd? The vast expanse on the south side of East Main was once Midtown Plaza, the nation's first enclosed downtown mall. Midtown made headlines around the country when it opened in 1962, and it was beloved by local residents, who still talk fondly of downtown's headier days. This part of downtown was a bustling shopping district for many years before suburban development moved retail to the suburbs.

Like many cities, downtown Rochester is readying changes that embrace new office, retail and residential space. The eight-acre parcel is bordered by Clinton Avenue and Broad, Chestnut and East Main Streets. Plans include new office buildings, residential units, shops, restaurants, park space and streets. Telecom firm Windstream will open new offices for 300 workers here in 2013.

On the other side of East Main is the Sibley Building. Once the largest depart-ment store between New York City and Chicago, today it's the downtown location of Monroe Community College. Two blocks east, at the corner of East Main and Gibbs Streets, is Eastman Theatre, performance home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Kodak founder George Eastman built it. The theater is housed in Eastman School of Music, part of the University of Rochester and one of the nation's leading music schools. In the Miller Center across Gibbs is Sibley Music Library, the world's largest university-affiliated music library, with three-quarters of a million volumes.

City neighborhoods

The Eastman School anchors the East End, a 24/7 neighborhood with nightclubs, galleries, restaurants and a booming housing market for the town house and loft apartment set.

Nearby is the Park and East Avenue neighborhood, cited as one of the greatest catalogs of 19th- and early 20th-century urban residential architecture in New York. Many of Rochester's biggest mansions are on East Avenue.

South of the city center is a cluster of small neighborhoods referred to as the South Wedge. Here homes range from stately painted ladies to new riverfront apartments, and small businesses thrive.

The oldest neighborhood in the city is the elegant Corn Hill, prized for its magnificent architecture and annual arts festival. Corn Hill's historic housing ranges from early and mid-19th-century workers' cottages and carriage houses to elegant Greek Revival and Italianate mansions. Newer condos and town houses round out the offerings.

The 19th Ward, which lies next to the Genesee River across from the University of Rochester, is one of the largest and most diverse neighborhoods. Developers are adding retail and services for nearby students, faculty and staff.

Maplewood, in the city's northwest, is filled with solid centenarian homes on tree-shaded streets. Maplewood Park's rose garden is a community asset.

Read on for a look at the towns, villages and best rural routes of Greater Rochester.

© Rochester Business Journal





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