Let me start by saying I’m not against development. I’m not against the performing arts or vibrancy or bright lights or entertainment for the citizens of our cities. These are all elements of a larger picture that is the rebirth of our urban centers. Let me say this again… these are elements that, when utilized correctly, can fuel the far bigger picture of erasing our decades-old mistakes and creating downtowns made for livability, not entertainment.
And then we do it again. The mistakes that we looked to vanquish, we revisit once more, throwing money and effort into the unsustainable but easily sellable illusion of our downtowns as nothing more than massive entertainment utopias, with no other purpose than to mesmerize the senses with bright lights and manufactured vibrancy.
Rochester’s Parcel 5 debate rages on, with The Rochester Broadway Theater League, Mayor Warren and countless other major players continuing their “we know best” stance in the creation of a $85 million theater on downtown’s most coveted piece of land, an open lot that once housed an urban mall. Despite countless city council meetings featuring packed rooms of residents who believe this area is the perfect location for mixed use public space, the currently underfunded performing arts center project continues to march forward.
Just when we thought it was bad enough, news emerged this week that the project would feature an IMAX Theater and other entertainment options, billed by the mayor as “an entertainment complex that will anchor our downtown with hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.”
Time and time again we have seen it, in Rochester and countless other cities across our country. Attempts at manufactured vibrancy with a focus on high-end entertainment so often falls short, or falls down completely. In our city alone, we have seen the disaster of the Fast Ferry and the subsequent struggles of The Port Of Rochester. The promises of College Town, too, have so clearly floundered, showing us all what happens when we try to create vibrancy with big buildings and massive entertainment complexes rather than investing in our people. Instead, it’s the areas of incremental growth like The Public Market area, Village Gate, North Winton Village, Park Ave. and other organic success stories that continue to be the locations of choice for our citizens and visitors alike. It is our festivals driven by our artists, our creative food and drink vendors and most of all our vibrant and diverse people (not lavish buildings) that bring out the best in our Rochester.
The engine of power and resiliency isn’t being fueled by massive entertainment complexes, it’s being driven by individuals and groups who have chosen to do their part to create and innovate for the good of our citizens. The restaurants and shops, the neighborhoods and startups, the small businesses and visionary artists that have slowly been changing our Rochester for a decade have done so for the sustainable good of their city, not simply to count the number of visitors at the turnstile for a single demographic. They know that a city is about its people first, and while we will always welcome visitors with the most open of arms, they are not the reason we build, create or innovate. We do it for our city, for our area, for its people and for a sustainable, self-created future.
There will always be the need to reintroduce our cities to populations that have been estranged from our city centers for decades. The importance of inviting everyone into our powerful urban nests that we are beginning to create cannot be understated. But the moment that this becomes the focus of our city’s revival, we begin the same unsustainable spiral of relying on outside patronization for the purpose of our own economic solvency.
I was born in Chicago to parents who are accomplished classical musicians. My uncle is a cellist, a music teacher and a composer. My aunt and another uncle are both professional violinists. One of my cousins plays in the Denver Symphony and another is a talented singer songwriter in LA. My grandfather was one of the most respected music teachers in the Greater Rochester Area. I grew up with the greatest appreciation for fine arts and how they lift us all. But my opposition to the RBTL Performing Arts Center proposed in Parcel 5 has nothing to do with the arts and everything to do with the clear reality that this is not the right project for a space that could do so much more for our citizens of all backgrounds, walks of life and socioeconomic statuses. While cities like Columbus Ohio are seeing incredible investment around their commitment to public space, the powers that be in Rochester continue to push for a project that simply doesn’t fit Parcel 5 and worse, continues to ignore the intelligent voices of its own residents.
When we announce that the future of our city depends on ushering in people from outside it, we send a clear and unwavering message that our people aren’t good enough. When we commit our most coveted parcels of urban land to the proliferation of tourism rather than listen to the growing crowds at city council meetings begging for their voices to be heard, we are telling our citizens they are not strong enough to lift us into the future. When we build our cities around entertainment rather than livability for all people, we send a message that we have not only ignored our previous mistakes, we welcome the chance to make them again at the expense of our citizens.
I am all for development, the arts, and the future health of our downtown. But I am unwavering in my belief that when we build our city centers around entertainment destinations and ignore the the will of our citizens, we set a course for an urban center that has no core, has no pride and has no future.