Taking root in the Flower City

Skyline of Rochester, NY

Before I moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1974, I had lived all my life – except for college and peacetime military service – in or near Hagerstown in the western Maryland panhandle.  I was discontented in my work and had an opportunity to get a better job in Rochester, but before I accepted, I read books by Henry Clune and others to reassure myself that Rochester was a place with a history and identity and not just some sort of giant suburb.  Like many people in western Maryland, I had only the vaguest notion of an upstate New York separate and distinct from New York City and its environs.

I now have lived in Rochester more than half my life.  I think of Rochester as home and people in Rochester as “us.”  Rochester offers me everything I want in terms of what’s called “quality of life,” and yet it is a community of which I feel a part.

My friend Michael J. Brown, a lifelong Rochester resident, wrote an article in the Fall 2010 issue of Dissent magazine magazine about how living in one place relates to the ancient ideal of citizenship and what you lose when you sacrifice that ideal to the quest for status and success.

What’s at issue is the tension between belonging to a rootless professional culture and a rooted local one. The price of holding on to the latter may be exclusion from the status, power, and income the former offers. It’s not the case, however, that those leaving their childhood homes in places like Rochester are lighting out for wide open spaces where opportunity abounds and careers are simply open to talent. My peers are not leaving to pursue Jeffersonian independence; they’re leaving to enter large professional organizations in which they often become quite dependent—on the caprice of bosses, the vicissitudes of markets, the shifting terrain of mergers and acquisitions.

And this brings me back to how eager I am to tell people why I live in Rochester. It is not because Rochester affords me economic independence (though the low cost of living helps). There are surely capricious bosses and volatile markets here, too. But there is something else. There are the faces and the names of the people around me, each of which has a story behind it, each of which is a buoy anchored in the social sea, helping to orient me. There are the old buildings—the grand facades of high culture, the battered storefronts of the inner city, the sentinel-like pump house on the reservoir hill—to remind me of history and time. What is different in Rochester is that I own a piece of this place, and this place owns a piece of me. I’d like to suggest that this relation is the grounds for a special kind of independence.

via Dissent Magazine

Michael goes on to say:

I feel a sense of ownership over this place; I feel committed to it. I am rooted in it not simply because of the accident of birth. The people I know and love are scattered all over the world, but the highest concentration of them in any one place is in Rochester. It is here that abstractions become tangible realities. Community is not an ideal of political theory; it is the brush of elbows and the rush of friends’ faces amid the Saturday crowds at the Rochester Public Market. The environment is not some photo of a distant stream with a bear pawing for salmon; it’s the Genesee River flowing north into Lake Ontario and passing by Kodak factories and the Genesee Brewery. Politics is not shouting faces on television; it’s the forum on violent crime with the mayor and the police chief at the single-screen movie theater two blocks away.

In Rochester, life moves along tracks other than the career track. People have their jobs, and they work hard at them. But they also have projects outside their jobs. They start discussion clubs, urban farmers’ markets, political action groups, and new schools. There is a conscious sense here of building the community: one vacant lot converted into a neighborhood garden, one old factory turned into an art gallery, one letter to the editor at a time. This is the difference between a rootless professional culture and a rooted local one. For those in the former, the city they live in is the site of their job. For those in the latter, it is the site of their civic life.

via Dissent Magazine

The whole article is well worth reading.  Michael, who is currently a graduate student in history at the University of Rochester, practices what he preaches.  He is active politically, and he founded and leads the Flower City Philosophers, which meets on Wednesday nights alternately at the Old Toad pub and his apartment.

For the benefit of out-of-towners, let me explain the nickname “Flower City.”  Rochester in the early 19th century was known as the Flour City because its economy was based on the flour mills on the Genesee River.  In the later 19th century, Rochester became known as the Flower City because of its leadership in horticulture.  Millions of fruit trees and ornamental shrubs, as well as flowers and flower seeds, were shipped all over the world each year from the greenhouses of George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry and their lesser-known competitors.  This is recalled each year in Rochester’s annual Lilac Festival and in the city’s logo, which symbolically represents both the petals of a flower and the blades of a water wheel.

When I came to Rochester, it was Kodak City.  There were few if any cities the size of Rochester so dependent on a single company, and few if any companies the size of Eastman Kodak Co. so identified with their home city.  In the economic decline of the Great Lakes industrial cities, Rochester was the inspiring exception –  for a time.  Kodak’s benevolence to its home city was made possible by a monopoly position in its industry that doesn’t exist any more.  Now Kodak management, like other big companies, treat individual cities like tokens on a monopoly board.

Rochester has been in economic decline for the past 25 or so years, but I don’t feel regret about moving here or a desire to live anyplace else.  It is like the United States as a whole – moving in a bad direction, but still a good place.

Michael is right about the need for stability and roots, but there also is a need for mobility and wings – a balance between the two.  Communities become stagnant and provincial in the bad sense if nobody ever leaves and nobody ever comes in from outside.  The little towns in Mississippi where civil rights workers were murdered all had a strong sense of identity and historical continuity – which doesn’t make these things bad, just insufficient.

Most Americans, except for the native inhabitants and descendants of African slaves, are the heirs of people who decided to leave their native places and seek a better life elsewhere.  Nathaniel Rochester himself, the founder of the city, was a resident of Hagerstown, Md., who decided in middle age to start a new life on the banks of the Genesee.

There’s a lot to be said for cosmopolitanism, for travel, for living in different places, for encountering ways of life that are different from your own.  The apparent paradox is that the different places, the different ways of life would not exist if there were not people who committed themselves to living in a certain place and pursuing a specific way of life.


In the Flower City, Take Root by Michael J. Brown for Dissent magazine.

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