Archive for the ‘Upstate New York’ Category

What is your city telling you?

February 7, 2011

Paul Graham is an essayist, computer programmer and venture capitalist who lives in Cambridge, Mass.  In one essay, he said the greatest of a city is determined by what it tells its inhabitants they should be.  How can a city send a message?  By providing an audience that applauds certain things and not others, Graham says; by providing peers that understand certain things and not others.

Paul Graham

Here are the messages he received from cities he has lived in.

Boston/Cambridge, Mass.: Be smart.

Silicon Valley:  Be powerful.

New York City: Be rich.

San Francisco/Berkeley.  Live well.

Los Angeles: Be famous.

Washington, D.C.: Be an insider.

Paris, France: Do things with style.

London, England: Be aristocratic

If this is true, what would be the message of Rochester, N.Y.?

The message I get from the city is this.

Rochester, N.Y,: Be nice.

I have to back up a little before I go on.  Any city is a different city to members of different social classes and groups.  Rochester wasn’t a very nice place to that high school athlete who, a couple of years ago, was shot dead on the street for supposedly looking disrespectfully at a peer passing by on the street.  So when I speak of Rochester, I speak of my own particular Rochester, which I don’t claim is everybody’s Rochester.  And in any city, or for that matter any large group, you can find people with almost any conceivable goal in goal.

At the same time, I think I have some basis for my claim about Rochester.  The old American Demographics magazine once did a survey on helpfulness and kindness in different American cities.  They sent people to different cities who asked strangers for directions, dropped their wallets and pretended not to notice and so on.  As I recall, Rochester always ranked high, maybe highest, in people who gave directions, retrieved and returned the wallets and so on.

Drivers are always quick to pull over to the side of the road and stop when they hear a fire engine or ambulance approaching, which, I’m told, is not always the rule in other cities.  I’ve never encountered road rage in Rochester.

In an earlier era, the famous anarchist Emma Goldman was radicalized by her experience of working in a Rochester garment factory, but during the time I’ve lived here, Rochester has been a city of labor peace.  This is partly because George Eastman of Eastman Kodak Co. and Joseph Wilson of Xerox Corp. pursued more humane policies than did, say, Ford Motor Corp. or General Motors Co. in Detroit.  But even the GM branch plants in Rochester had better relations with workers than GM in Detroit.

I have a sense of Rochester as a community and not just a collection of people who happen to live in a certain place.  If you’re a Rochesterian, do you have that sense?  If you live somewhere else, do you think your city is sending you a message?  What is it?

Click on Cities and Ambition for Paul Graham’s essay.

Slay the gerrymander!

November 2, 2010

I just got back from voting at my neighborhood polling place.

I voted in New York’s 28th congressional district, the so-called “earmuffs” or “headphones” district, which looks like this: –

I voted in New York’s 55th state senate district, which looks like this: –

I voted in New York’s 131st state assembly district, which looks like this: –

And I am sure these far from being the most absurdly and arbitrarily drawn congressional and legislative district.

The only requirements for drawing district boundaries are that (1) the districts be roughly equal in population and (2) the boundaries not be drawn to intentionally reduce representation of minority groups.  Isn’t it time to add (3) the districts be compact in shape, (4) the districts as much as possible, subject to requirements 1-3, respect historic governmental and community boundaries and (5) the district be drawn by a non-partisan commission, subject to an up-or-down vote by the state legislature?  It might even be possible find a computer algorithm for doing this.

I voted for Kenneth Krause, the Republican candidate for Assembly, because he has signed a pledge to support non-partisan redistricting of the Assembly.  Of course the Assembly is gerrymandered to favor Democrats, as the state Senate is gerrymandered to favor Republicans, so he has less to lose than if he were a Republican.

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Taking root in the Flower City

October 13, 2010

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

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Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

October 10, 2010

Saul Alinksy is considered the father of modern community organizing.  In the 1930s, he was a labor organizer for the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and then turned to organizing poor people in slum areas, first in his native Chicago and then nationwide.

Saul Alinsky

His community organizations, like labor unions, existed for the purpose of putting pressure on established authorities in order to force concessions.  Alinsky sought confrontation rather than conciliation because he thought this taught poor people they were capable of exercising power.  In 1971, a year before his death at age 63, he wrote a book called Rules for Radicals in which he shared the lessons of his experience.

1.  Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.

2.  Never go outside the experience of your people.

3.  Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.

4.  Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

5.  Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

6.  A good tactic is one your people enjoy.

7.  A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8.  Keep the pressure on.

9.  The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

10.  The major premise for tactics is the deployment of operations that will maintain a constant pressure on the opposition.

11.  If you push a negative hard enough, it will break through into its counterside.

12.  The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

13.  Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.

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Hydrofracking and carbon caps

October 6, 2010

Like almost everybody else I know, I oppose the environmentally destructive practice of hydrofracking – horizontal drilling for shale gas using hydraulic fracturing.  But without the development of large-scale and practical alternatives to natural gas and other fossil fuels, we will have no alternative in the end.

New York state is on top of the northern edge of the Marcellus Shale, a large mostly-underground shale formation extending below West Virginia and parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.  There are large quanities of natural gas in the pores and cracks of the shale, and conventional technologies are incapable of extracting it.

Hydrofracking involves fracturing underground shale formations by means of shaped explosive charges, and then forcing out natural gas by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure.  This requires millions of gallons of water per well.

Part of the water stays in the ground and, opponents say, could work its way into the ground water.

My default position is that we should refrain from hydrofracking, and, for that matter, from surface mining for coal or deep ocean drilling for oil as long as we possibly can.  The natural gas, coal and oil have been underground for millions of years.  They won’t go away if we wait another 10, 20, 50 or 100 years to dig them up.  Maybe in the meantime affordable substitutes for fossil fuel will become available.  Maybe better methods of extraction will be developed.  Maybe there will be some sort of breakthrough which I can’t even imagine.

But hope is not a plan. Easy-to-get natural gas, coal and oil have been used up.  I heat my own house with natural gas, and I know it has to come from somewhere.

Demand for natural gas is increasing at a rapid rate because of the likelihood of caps on emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gasses that is heating up our planet.  Caps on carbon dioxide mean less use of coal and oil and, in the absence of a commercially-available alternative, more use of natural gas and nuclear energy.  Natural gas is clean burning, and nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gasses at all.

One irony is that release of natural gas (methane) into the atmosphere is one of the problems associated with hydrofracking. While natural gas is clean burning, raw natural gas is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses – much more powerful than carbon dioxide.  So it is possible that the increased use of natural gas, whose purpose is to slow down global warming, may help make the problem worse.

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It’s true what they say about property taxes

September 29, 2010

I have long questioned conventional wisdom about property taxes, but an article in this morning’s Democrat and Chronicle and a little checking of my own shows I am wrong and the conventional wisdom is correct.

The conventional wisdom is that New York state has exceptionally high taxes, and the driving force is not so much state income and other taxes as it is local property taxes.  My question always was: Does this apply to where I live?  The bulk of New York’s population is in New York City and its suburbs, but upstate New York is so different as to be like a whole different state.

Our property tax rates are high in terms of assessed value, but my guess is our assessments are low compared to equivalent properties in places such as Boston and San Francisco.  The real estate bubble that inflated house prices in so much of the country largely bypassed my part of New York state, so I may well be paying less in taxes than places where tax rates are lower.

Unfortunately my speculation does not stand up to facts.  The data collected by the Tax Foundation does show a huge range in what New Yorkers pay in county property taxes.

In Westchester County, the affluent New York City suburb, median homeowners paid $9,004 last year in property taxes, which was 1.66 percent of the median $547,700 assessed value of their homes and 8.74 percent of their median $109,692 income.  In St. Lawrence County, in the rural North County, median homeowners paid $1,613 in property taxes, which was 2.01 percent of median $80,300 assessed value and 3.08 percent of $52,389 median income.

Even in St. Lawrence County, a relatively poor county, taxes were none too low compared to the United States as a whole.  The Tax Foundation reports that median U.S. homeowners paid $1.917 in property taxes last year, which was 1.04 percent of median $185,00 assessed value and, more to the point, 3.03 percent of median $63,369 income.

Here in Monroe County, median homeowners paid $3,891 in property taxes last year, which was 2.89 percent of median $134,500 assessed value and 5.86 percent of median $66,369 income.  That’s a lot.  Even though the assessed value of our property is below the national median and even though our income is only slightly above the national median, we still pay twice as much on average in property taxes.

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Eastman Kodak and the idea of loyalty

September 10, 2010

I don’t know if there was ever was a Fortune 500 company more paternalistic than Eastman Kodak Co., and I am certain there never was one that enjoyed greater loyalty from its employees.

When I first came to Rochester, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, Kodak seemed more like a cult than a company.  Kodak never asked its employees to sing a company anthem or do gymnastics in the morning, as Japanese companies of that era did, but if it had, I am sure they would have been glad to do so.Kodak was one of the last examples of the age of the “organization man,” in which security was given in return for conformity.

I wouldn’t really want that era to return, but I don’t regard the age of the disposable employee as an improvement.People in Rochester said that once you were hired by Kodak, you were set for life.  There were people who were the second or third generation in their family to have worked all their adult lives at Kodak.  There were people whose whole lives revolved around Kodak.  They spent their spare time at the Kodak recreation center, they attended plays at the theater in Kodak Building 27, they banked with Eastman Savings and Loan Association (not actually a part of the company) and saved up for retirement in the Kodak Savings and Investment Plan.

All this security was repaid by a devotion to the company that is hard to understand in the light of the way things are today.  In 1980, Kodak announced a new consumer product – a snapshot camera with film on a disc instead of a roll.  We reporters at the Democrat and Chronicle naturally wanted to find out in advance what the announcement was going to be.  All of us had friends and neighbors who worked for Kodak (one in eight employed persons in the Rochester area worked for Kodak), and thousands of them knew what the announcement was going to be.  But nobody said a word.  The Kremlin-like secrecy was complete.

I had just started to cover Kodak for the D&C.  The company gave me a Disc camera to try out, and, as luck would have it, the camera short-circuited and melted the internal parts.  I wrote a light-hearted article about it, treating it the subject fairly gently, I thought.  Kodak loyalists in the community didn’t think so.  I was inundated with angry phone calls accusing me of playing into the hands of the enemy, Fuji Photo.Kodak Disc 4000

The Disc didn’t turn out to be as successful as Kodak hoped and, for that and other reasons, the company began layoffs a couple of years later than continued for more than a decade.  Kodak employed 50,000 people in Rochester through the 1970s, and in 1982 employment here shot up to 60,000.  The following year Kodak began a series of layoffs that have continued ever since.  Employment locally is now below 7,500 and falling.

By the time I left the Kodak beat in 1992, the feeling of loyalty had been replaced with a sense of betrayal.  The angry phone calls came whenever I wrote anything that reflected favorably on the company.

A friend of mine, a Kodak patent attorney who lost his job in the downsizing, said he came to realize the profound ambiguity of the idea of loyalty to a corporation – or any other organization.  You can be loyal to people, and you can be loyal to ideas, he said.  But if the people change, and the ideas change, what are you being loyal to?

Business executives such as CEO Jack Welch of General Electric – called “Neutron Jack” because, like the neutron bomb, he made the people disappear and left the buildings standing –  said that companies such as Kodak did their employees no favor by holding out the false hope of lifetime employment.  The employees were set up for a worse fall than if Kodak had been tougher all along.

I think there is truth in that, but there is a middle ground between treating employees as children and treating them as commodities.  A business corporation can’t be like a Mommy and Daddy to its employees, but it doesn’t have to follow Welch in terminating the supposedly worst-performing 10 percent of employees every year.

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Money down the drain

June 28, 2010

The Democrat and Chronicle this morning had an excellent article on how the aging Rochester, N.Y., water distribution system allows 24 percent of the treated water to leak out before it reaches customers.  The corresponding figure for the Monroe County Water Authority, which serves the Rochester suburbs, is 15 percent. This range is not unusual for cities in the Northeast.

Wouldn’t this be a good time to start work on repairing these deteriorating stuctures?  Since this work is going to have to be done somehow sometime, why not now, when our country needs to create jobs to keep our recession from becoming a full-blown depression?

The financially strapped City of Rochester and Monroe County governments aren’t in a position now to start big infrastructure projects. The pressure on them is to do the reverse – to defer maintenance.  The American Recovery Act of 2009 did provide some funds for infrastructure improvements, mainly of roads and bridges, but there is much more to be done.

And, yes, since we’re in the middle of a recession, the federal government would have to borrow to provide funds to help repair municipal water systems. But we, the taxpayers, would get a return on this investment, in the form of a more efficient and less costly water supply.  And the longer the wait in making these repairs, the more costly they’ll be.

Where Americans are moving

June 18, 2010

Forbes magazine has an interesting on-line utility.  It is a map of the United States showing all the counties. Click on a county and you can see how many people came there in 2008 and what county they came from, and how many people left in 2008 and what county they moved to.

Monroe County, N.Y., which is where I live, showed a lot of heavy red lines, showing people moving out, and not too many black lines, showing people moving in.

Click on this to see it.

Upstate New York and the Spiritualists

February 18, 2010

I just finished reading The Heyday of Spiritualism by Slater Brown, a used paperback I bought the other day at Bookends, a used-book store on Jefferson Road in suburban Rochester.  It told me a couple of things I hadn’t known about the Spiritualist movement.

I always thought Spiritualism originated with the Fox sisters in Hydesville, near Newark, N.Y.  That would make Spiritualism one of two major religious movements to originate in Wayne County (the other being Mormonism, originating in nearby Palmyra). But according to Slater Brown, it has a long history, going back to the origins of hypnotism and Mesmerism in 18th century France and including the visions of Immanual Swedenborg in 18th century Sweden.  I always thought that the Fox sisters when old admitted their mysterious spirit rappings were a hoax. But according to Brown, that also is wrong. The source of information of the alleged confession is a hostile and unreliable source that the Fox women would hardly have confided in.

Reading the book made me recall what a great intellectual ferment took place in upstate New York during the 19th century. The women’s suffrage movement originated in Seneca Falls, N.Y.  The Shakers and the Oneida Communithy were based in upstate New York.  Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass not only both lived in Rochester, but they knew each other and were good friends. Upstate New York was a stronghold of abolitionism and Universalism (and many Universalists were strongly interested in Spiritualism).

Later on upstate New York became a center of manufacturing industry – Bausch & Lomb Inc., Carrier Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., General Electric Co., IBM Corp. and Xerox Corp. For the most part they were located in this region of the country not because of any geographic advantages or natural resources, but because certain creative individuals happened to live here.

All this seems a contrast to upstate New York today. (If I’m missing something, please add a comment). What is it that makes a region or a nation a hotbed of creativity in a particular era? Is it a matter of chance? Is it a result of certain talented and enterprising individuals happening to be born in one place rather than another? Or are there historical and social factors that can be understood and – maybe – duplicated?

No more bragging about upstate New York snow

February 14, 2010

I guess I can no longer brag to my friends back in Maryland how severe the winters are in upstate New York. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that Washington, D.C., has had nearly 60 inches of snow this winter and Baltimore has had 80 inches, much of it during the big storm last week. In contrast, here in Rochester, N.Y., we’ve had only 65 inches and no severe blizzards (so far).

The great thing about Rochester is that the community is geared for snow and takes it in stride. Back home, it always came as an unexpected emergency.

When I was a little boy growing up in western Maryland, a snowfall of just 4 or 5 inches would have made me ecstatic. The county superintendent of schools would have been sure to call a “Snow Day” and I would have to day off from school.

Later, as a grown-up newspaperman covering mayor and council meetings in my home city of Hagerstown, Md., I got used to the annual ritual of “economizing” by turning down requests for new snowplows and eliminating contingency funds for snow emergencies.

Some winters, there was hardly any snow at all. And when there was, Bill Potter, the city street superintendent, and his team of mechanical geniuses could somehow get the city’s antique snowplowing equipment working. And if they couldn’t, well – snow will always melt.

All that was 45 or so years ago, and I don’t know how things are now. But it made me appreciate how the Rochester area, including the county and town governments, are organized for winter. Native Rochesterians take for granted the fact that, the morning after a snowstorm, the main roads and streets will be plowed and the side streets will be plowed not too long after. That is not a universal rule.

Here in Rochester, we even have sidewalk snowplowing, which I’d never heard of before I moved here. In Hagerstown, the standard method of keeping sidewalks free of snow and ice was to fine property owners who didn’t. If you were aged or infirm, you’d better be able to hire a teenager to do it for you.

We’ve had blizzards which knocked out electricity and telephone service, including a couple of ice storms over the decades in which service wasn’t restored for weeks. But for the most part, even after the worst storm, life was soon back to normal.

I came to appreciate, as the people in Washington, Baltimore and Hagerstown must, the efforts of the snowplow drivers, the telephone and electric company linemen and all the other people whose efforts make it possible for the rest of us to have food and water, stay warm and go about our daily lives. And it made me appreciate as well the importance of being prepared for the worst, and not gambling with false economies.