Rochester, New York: Then and Now, Through Video (1963 to 2012)

How the claims in a promotional video stack up today

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The news of Kodak's bankruptcy shed new light on the company's corporate home, Rochester, New York. Rochester's economic identity has long been pinned to its well-established corporate anchors. Beyond these companies however, the Flower City retains a fairly anonymous existence.

This is not the reputation imagined by Rochester Gas and Electric. In 1963, the company sponsored a video that portrayed Rochester as a contemporary metropolis. The video boasts of a city with the most sophisticated universities, sleekest corporations and best urban planning practices money can buy.

Forty-nine years later, the video gives us a glimpse of Rochester itself, as well as insight into how American cities wanted to be perceived in this time in history.

Rochester: A City of Quality from Bryan Darrow on Vimeo.

Throughout the film, Rochester makes it clear that they too believe in the suburban culture sweeping the nation:

Rochester didn't fight the suburbs, or the shopping centers rising to meet suburban needs. It simply capitalized on the things people like about shopping centers; wide varieties of merchandise, the fun of meeting people. And above all, in this day and age, a place to park.

The embrace of suburban living is connected to the new kind of downtown, one that remains economically and culturally vital, but also dependent on those who must drive there:

Having made peace with the automobile, Rochester was in a position to bring the suburbs downtown.

Having made its peace with the past, Rochester can rip out and rearrange streets and sections of that central core to its heart's content.

This vision would not be well-received in 2012. The idea of a city removing sections of its downtown at will is typically seen as thoughtless and shortsighted - most likely a backlash to the era of urban renewal. 

Specific examples of the city's approach to making Rochester more modern and prosperous are shown in the final 10 minutes. With almost 50 years of hindsight now, we can see it did not go quite as planned:

Here's another section that will feel the impact of the bulldozer. Surgery, tough yet tender, for Front Street in the future will be known as Genesee Crossroads - a complex of hotels and apartments, shops and promenades.

Bounded by the Inner Loop (an expressway that did some of the most lasting damage to the city's core), surface parking and an empty lot surround what little remains of Front Street. The legacy of the project, beyond the attractive public space along the river, is primarily its collection of single-use commercial buildings and surface parking.

Likewise in the future, the towering world headquarters for Xerox. Sidewalk engineers have a field day in downtown Rochester. That central core changes fast and furious...

Although Xerox did build its downtown tower, the company moved its headquarters to Connecticut while creating an expansive research park in the suburb of Webster. In 1970, the company established Xerox Parc in Palo Alto. It is argued that these moves helped keep Xerox globally competitive and that Kodak's inability to take a similar path accelerated its descent into bankruptcy.

The city solved the traffic problem and from there on private enterprise took over. Up! Up! Up the girders went. The framework for a new 18-story office building and hotel. The framework for a new retail complex centered about a new route, air-conditioned marketplace the size of a football field...A beautiful dream, yes. A magnificent merchandising idea.

(Right image courtesy of City of Rochester)

The film makes Midtown Plaza into the crown jewel of Rochester's ambitious transformation. In reality, the plaza began to lose its prestige and its tenants to the suburbs towards the end of the 20th century.

By 2007, then Governor Elliot Spitzer visited to announce that the state would fund Midtown Plaza's demolition and help pay for a new 40-story tower anchored by PAETEC (a telecom company). PAETEC no longer exists and the company that bought it will lease space in the redeveloped Midtown Plaza for 300 employees.

The ambitious rhetoric of the 1963 film is countered with this YouTube video using much of the same footage but also showing the plaza's declining state from the last decade (all accompanied by an especially somber score).

At times overzealous, the Jam Handy film has easily set itself up for parody by the city's future residents. Here is perhaps the most cutting of them created in 2006:

Somewhere between the original and the parody is what Rochester really did become. It's a city far from collapse. But it is, in many ways, just as far from the economic relevance it once held.

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