Can we ever really bury the past?

Last week we went to Boston for a few days and drove into downtown via an underground highway. Our hotel was right on the water and across the street there was a long and skinny park. The park contained windy pathways, places to sit and a few light installations. Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of people using the park in early January. Regardless of the weather, I had a hard time imagining people using this funny park, surrounded as it is by roads and hotels.

Why does it matter how well-loved this park is? Well, it’s the outcome from the Big Dig, a multi-year, multi-billion dollar project to bury a highway and build a park in its place. Many American cities have highways that cut through the downtown, Rochester and Syracuse included. If you’ve ever had to cross underneath or overtop of one of these highways, you understand what kind of a physical and psychological barrier it can be. Recently, there have been proposals to bury or lower parts of the Rochester and Syracuse highways (see here for Rochester and here for Syracuse).

20130112-170116.jpgMy gut reaction is to support initiatives like the Big Dig that aim to tear down these old highways and build more walkable and connected downtowns. I’m not sure what the future will hold for the highways in upstate NY, but the outcome in Boston definitely gave me pause. Over time and as the surrounding streetscape evolves, I’m sure the park will come to seem like a more integral part of the neighborhood. For now, however, I’m not sure that we can effectively bury the past.
20130112-175449.jpgThis picture was taken in Albany, NY.

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Decline becomes Art in Detroit

This recent NYT’s article highlighted a number of recent films about the City of Detroit.  I’m keen to see this one in particular called Deforce.  According to the website for the film, it chronicles the city’s long struggle with political oppression.  It looks like an important film.  Check out the movie trailer, below.

Just last week I attended a presentation by the YWCA in Rochester about ending racism.  I learned that the high school graduation rate for African American or Latino students in Monroe County (which surrounds Rochester) is about 50% (it’s 60% for NYS).  I’m not sure how things compare in Canada.  Maybe the situation is equally as grim.  I was just surprised to learn that things were so bad.  A 50% graduation rate?  What’s happening?

Canal to Road to Canal

The Rochester Business Journal recently reported on an idea floating around Rochester to turn Main Street into a canal once again. Main Street cuts east to west through downtown Rochester and used to be part of the Erie Canal. In this amazing photograph, below, you can see the horses walking along the side of the Canal (see here for more amazing photos). Apparently the horses were used to pull barges through the Canal. Such an interesting piece of history.

Nice architecture but terrible streetscape

There are some beautiful buildings in downtown Rochester. And the Genesee River runs right through downtown. And yet to be downtown is somewhat unpleasant. This streetscape is totally lacking. There are lots of parking lots and buildings with no commercial on the ground floor, which means that you can walk for blocks without passing anything in particular. There seem to be no coffee shops, no grocery stores and no place to shop at all in fact. It’s a bit tragic.

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New Ideas Day

According to the NYT, Pod Cars will be introduced in Amritsar, India.  Personal.  Rapid.  Transit.  Can you imagine?

According to the Vancouver Sun, the City of Vancouver is planning to build a greenhouse on the roof of a city parking lot.  What an interesting use of space!

The Next American City is opening a Storefront for Urban Innovation.  I wonder if something like this could work in Geneva?

The battle to save the old Cataract Building in downtown Rochester is heating up.  See here.  I took this picture of the Cataract Building while we were in Rochester this weekend.

Why isn’t Rochester on Lake Ontario?

Rochester’s downtown is located about 12 kilometers from Lake Ontario.  The Genesee River runs from Lake Ontario through the city and cuts right through the middle of downtown.  It struck me as odd that the downtown was located so far from Lake Ontario.  Other cities on the Great Lakes – Toronto, Buffalo, Chicago – are all located right on the lake itself.  I know that the Erie Canal was important to this region, but Rochester was incorporated before the Erie Canal came along.  So what’s up with the inland location?

According to my in-laws, Rochester was established along the Genesee River in order to capture the energy generated by High Falls.  What?  There is a giant waterfall in downtown Rochester?  I had no idea.

Rochester road maps

This weekend we spent some time in Rochester with my in-laws. I learned that my uncle in-law used to take the subway to get to high school. The subway! The subway was torn down and replaced with a highway called the I-490. The I-490 is the road that cuts east-west across the city.

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Now if you look at the map for the subway, you can see how the I-490 was probably built on top of the blue line.

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Now take a look at the map below — Indian trails are overlaid onto the City. The blue subway line/I-490 looks like it used to be an Indian trail. If also looks like the horrible “inner loop” (which is a big highway that chokes off the downtown from the rest of the city) was also an Indian trail.

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The first time that I drove through Rochester, it was clear to me that this was a very car-oriented city. I figured that the great highway battles of the 60s and 70s that took place in Toronto and New York did not happen in Rochester (and if it did, those in favour of building highways won the day). I also assumed that the highways that crisscross the region must have been an invention of that era. And yet, the routes – circling the downtown and cutting east-west across the region clearly have a much longer history. While the technologies used to travel — by foot, by subway and by car — have changed over time, the actual pathways have remained remarkably consistent.