Main Street

Main Street

January 26, 2011 Political Change Social Change 8

“Mayor Robert Duffy One City Lecture Series:” Downtown!

With exquisite politeness I was ushered to the coat room and presented with refreshments.   Was it just me, or was a choir of angels blowing a heavenly fanfare over that FOOD?  There were strawberry cream puffs shaped like swans, chocolate cream squares, miniature fruit tarts with the sugar proudly glistening over jewel-like slices of strawberry and kiwi.  I never had food like this!    Would it be greedy to take three?

As I was chowing down, the panelists were introduced by someone who nervously coughed to us that downtown “really was in the midst of a TREMENDOUS renaissance.”   The first panelist was Heidi, looking like a television newscaster in her cherry-red jacket.   From her mouth came a smooth flow of numbers and statistics: more people were moving into downtown, and paying higher rents.  There were housing projects in the pipeline, and businesses were starting to relocate.  Everything was looking up, but we needed to create walkable intimate green spaces that would appeal to the modern shopper.  And Syracuse was still ahead of us, damn them.   If we could perfect our formula for drawing in money and shoppers, maybe we could catch up with Syracuse.  And the “open air bus terminal” on Main Street was a “failed experiment from the eighties.”  No businesses wanted to open on Main Street becaus of all the buses.

The second panelist was Susan, who told us with enthusiastic triumph about the cute little businesses flocking to Rochester.  What sticks in my mind is a story about a couple from San Francisco who wanted to flee high property values / cost of living.  So they researched all the cities in the USA and picked Rochester as the best place to open their restaurant.  Moved here without knowing a soul in the city.   I wish she had told us why they picked Rochester, but it is impressive that our reputation is “going national.”  Still, nobody wants to open their doors on Main Street.

The third panelist was the police chief, Jim Shepherd.  He explained how the city was a pizza pie cut that had been cut into various numbers of slices over the years.  Each slice of pie was covered by a different policing team.  Since downtown was the “hub of the pie,” pretty much all the teams operated there and there was “no policing unity.”  I started thinking about pizza and getting hungry.  By the time I had controlled my growling stomach, he was talking about how suburbanites were afraid to shop in downtown Rochester.   In the minds of suburbanites, Rochester is a place of crime and gang warfare.  “But if you look at Downtown on our policing map, it’s completely dotless!  And I say dotless because that’s how we keep track of crime on our maps– with dots!”

Then the organizer said, “I’m going to walk around with the microphone, and in the interest of time, could you please remember that a question is ONE SENTENCE with a question mark at the end?”   I laughed out loud, knowing that questions at events like these were NEVER one sentence long.   Everyone looked at me like, “What are you laughing at?” and I quieted my unseemly chuckles to ask the first question.  “I’m confused about why the buses on Main Street are so bad for businesss.  You’d think the increased flow of people through that area would be GOOD for business.”  I know I shop at the Family Dollar because it’s on my transfer point.  I’d never set foot in the place otherwise.

My question received highly polished answers from all three panelists.  Phrases like “racial and economic stratification,” were bandied about.  Downtown Rochester is a place the whole community shares, everyone from the CEO to the homeless man, explained Heidi eloquently.   I started reading between the lines.   Does the CEO wants to rub shoulders with the homeless man?  Of course he doesn’t.   How much better if the buses (and the people who wait for them) were tucked into a new Transit Center where they wouldn’t inconvenience anyone.  With the noisy smelly buses gone, we would have room for some nice parking spots, they explained.

At this point I looked around and counted the number of black people in the room.  One.  She raised her hand and explained how she had picked up this delightful flyer at the Memorial Art Gallery which told her about all the festivals taking place in Rochester.   Maybe if the suburbanites had access to these delightful flyers, they would want to come into the city more often.  I sat back and let them make their speeches one by one.  My friend from the Ant Hill Housing Cooperative, John Lam, told us about an iphone app which let you do instant comparison shopping via the Internet.   Could big box stores survive in the face of such consumer knowledge?  An old man said, “We call ourselves a downtown?  There’s no place to buy a hammer!” I remember that one, because I too am very incensed about how difficult it is to buy a hammer in Rochester.

I glanced at my watch and saw the Q&A was fast coming to and end.   I strained my hand into the air– I had to make my point, I had to make it.   Something had been boiling up inside of me this whole time. Only how to phrase it in the politically correct language?  “I liked what you said about everyone sharing downtown, from the CEO to the homeless man,” I began.  “But the problem is, there’s no interaction between them!   There’s just this absolute cultural divide between social classes.  We should be bridging that cultural divide.  That’s why this plan to put the buses in a Transit Centre troubles me.  That’s just strengthening the trend of racial and class stratification.   Why don’t we do something better?  What about improving the public transportation system in Rochester to the point where upper class people actually want to use it?  Then there would be plenty of big shoppers getting off the buses on Main Street.”

I got a dazzling smile for that one.  “Are you thinking of running for mayor?” Heidi joked.  “I absolutely agree with you….” and then I was treated to a series of speeches about how brilliant and inspired my proposal was.   As a Bard college graduate, I felt vaguely let down.  When you shake your fist at the Man, you don’t want the Man to pat you on the head.   We mingled around afterwards talking and someone muttered to me, “The problem is, they don’t know HOW to get the upper-class people to use public transportation.”

I guess when the suburbanites drive through Rochester they think the crowds of people waiting for the bus look scary.  I take the bus, and I sit with them every day.  They aren’t scary.   The colder the weather gets, the faster the jokes fly.   Sure, I have plenty of complaints.  Everything smells like cigarettes and diesel exhaust.  They don’t bother to furnish enough seating for the number of people who have to wait.   By the time I get home (a VERY long time) I’m frozen like a popsicle.  But yesterday, someone saw I looked tired and offered me their spot on the bench.

And yet.  Would I still be out there, if I had a car of my own?


8 Responses

  1. Seth says:

    What’s really interesting is seeing how the reputation of the public transportation systems differs between cities. I lived in a Rochester suburb for 18 years and never rode the bus. There was a bus stop a block away, but why do that when I have access to a car? But here in Boston, I only drive to places that are hard to get to on public transit. And so does everybody else–you see everyone from the homeless man to the businessman on the T. I think what makes the difference is that Boston is a much denser city than Rochester, and its traffic is something to be avoided where possible.
    But a bus is, I suspect, a bus. Riding one in Boston can’t be that different from riding one in Rochester. And riding a bus certainly has its downsides–you have to wait, you might not get a seat, you have to share your space, you can’t be sure it’ll be on schedule. None of those problems with a car. The downsides of driving only develop when the traffic gets bad–stress from driving in heavy traffic, waiting in traffic, losing time due to traffic, etc. Rochester’s infrastructure is that of a city that used to have really bad traffic. The roads still have special bus-only lanes, but you don’t usually see the traffic bad enough that they’re necessary (oh, how I wish they existed in Boston). There was a subway system than ran from the 1950s until, I think, the 70s, and until the time it closed down, there were enough people who wanted to use it that it was profitable. Ironically, if there were still a lot of people going by car to the downtown area, the bus would be more appealing.

  2. Peter says:

    Let me first just say that your comment about being “patted on the head” made me laugh so hard I felt like I was going to throw up. I guess you caught me in the right mood.

    And I definitely agree with Seth about the driving: People in Montreal are willing to put up with A LOT to avoid the downtown traffic (not to mention parking hassle) and it’s definitely a density thing. I know people who live on the West Island (think:suburbs) who can drive and have cars but still use commuter trains and the metro system to get to McGill.

    Also, I’m not sure why, but this reminds me about a story one of my professors told: McGill Administration was putting out a draft of “inclusive language guidelines”, and he took issue with some aspects of it (his example was that the document says that language that portrayed a group as “powerless and maligned” should be avoided. He responded with “What about, say, Child soldiers in the Sudan? Are the ’empowered’ etc.?”) Their response was to put him in charge of redrafting the release.

  3. Catherine says:

    “When you shake your fist at the Man, you don’t want the Man to pat you on the head.”

    THANK YOU; I will be laughing the rest of the day. Possibly the rest of tomorrow, too.

    The core of Toronto is dense; but the GTA area is sprawling. Both the roads and the transit system are inadequate to the needs of a growing population. Public transit is used by all ranges of income and class, currently anyway — lots of suits on the subway. But we recently elected a mayor who strongly prefers improving the roads to improving public transit, and the TTC is currently considering service cuts to a large number of bus routes, due to underfunding. One of my fears is that this will end up with rich folks in cars and poor folks on public transit; it is so wrongheaded I don’t even know where to begin.

  4. The guy that muttered is correct – they don’t know HOW to get the top part of the income distribution on the buses. It will happen naturally if the density of downtown Rochester gets to that of Boston or Toronto, but that will take decades if ever. Maybe make a place that buses can go but that cars cannot park within five blocks of, like a pedestrian mall?

  5. Marjorie says:

    Improving the bus service is a great idea, but has anyone thought about limiting parking? Fewer and more expensive parking areas make a difference. It’s easy to drive only when you know you can park.

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