A Venetian Rochester: What Could Have Been

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While I’m often one to call for the honoring of historically significant buildings and spaces in our cities, I’m not an urban preservationist.  I’m not someone who blindly believes we must keep everything the same for the sake of history, memories and the like.  I believe in taking a big picture approach to how we carefully build our cities around our most historic artifacts, while allowing for the fluid and necessary approach to advancement as our cities continue to redefine their purpose and their identity.  To think carefully about how we incorporate history into our vision for the future is harder than simply supporting or panning any change to existing infrastructure that might be considered “a piece of our history.”

In the last week, a discussion about Rochester’s former Erie Canal Aqueduct (also the former Rochester City Subway route) over the Genesee River has resurfaced in a number of spidering online urbanist conversations.  The structure, which has had “three lives” (the aqueduct, the subway tunnel and now a city street) is at the center of a controversial plan to re-imagine the bridge as walkable pedestrian-only corridor that connects the east and west sides of Rochester’s urban waterway.

The former aqueduct that ferried boats across the Genesee River and through Rochester’s downtown
Today, the Broad Street Bridge moves car, bike and pedestrian traffic where boats and subway cars used to be king

I don’t like to look back and say “what if…” OK, that’s a lie, I do, I really do. Rather, I don’t let my reflection on our urban past get in the way of my desire to transition our cities toward a brighter, more human future. But this discussion about the former aqueduct got me to thinking about what Rochester would be like if we NEVER DIVERTED THE ERIE CANAL. What if the historic waterway still flowed through our city’s midst instead of being re-routed several miles south in the early 20th century? What if we looked out of our downtown windows and watched boats go by? What about a dinner cruise as you and your significant other gazed out on a beautifully illuminated Rochester skyline? Wait, wait, I can do better… dare I say the words? Water Taxi. Mic Drop!

The Chicago River teams with tour boats, water taxis and kayaks alike. It has been the focus of that city’s downtown revitalization

In a weird way, our rust belt cities and the Erie Canal share something in common… they were both centers of industrial production and movement. Today, they are redefining their image as arteries and centers of activity, entertainment, and social interaction. Canal towns to the east and west of my home city have built a strong, attractive base around the waterway. Coffee shops, ice cream stores, breweries, bike trails, kayak rentals… towns like Fairport, Pittsford, Brockport and Spencerport have benefited greatly from the re-incarnation of the Erie Canal as an artery for activity, physical fitness and leisure, as well as aesthetic beauty.

Fairport, NY
Fairport, NY
Pittsford, NY

Since boats cannot traverse Rochester’s downtown on the Genesee River due to the presence of the Court Street Dam and, of course, the 96-foot waterfall just north of the city, there is a sort of “disconnect” between Rochester and it’s lone waterway. And still, the city has grand plans to reconnect residents and visitors to the river, which of course is a welcomed initiative. But to think that we had an approachable downtown canal that could have been the central focus of Rochester’s revitalization, the way it has in many of its canal towns, is really interesting. I picture an almost Venetian feel in the heart of the city, with tour boats, kayak and paddle board rentals in the water and joggers and bikers lining its banks. I envision travelers walking the short distance from the convention center, eager to hop on a ferry that might take them across the famed aqueduct and through the city’s downtown. I imagine people coming for miles to take pictures of water crossing over water, a truly rare achievement of engineering.

But alas, the canal was diverted from Rochester’s core 100 years ago, and the aqueduct became home to The Rochester Subway. No one could have predicted how this “practical” change negated what could have potentially been one of the most powerfully transformative pieces in Rochester’s revival.

And the subway? Interestingly enough, with so much renewed emphasis on the importance of public transit today, Rochester’s rapid transit railway would likely be a welcomed piece of the city’s fabric if it was still in existence. Even as an entertainment piece as much as functional transportation, it would likely draw tremendous attention from curious families, urban enthusiasts and history buffs.

Rochester’s abandoned subway tunnel as it crosses the Genesee. This structure was also part of the former Erie Canal Aqueduct

OK, now I’m getting away from myself. Yes, I am fully aware that the infrastructure and operating investments needed to keep the canal in downtown Rochester, or the Rochester Subway functional, would have been completely prohibitive. Who could have predicted that the fundamental shift in urban identities, from industrial to service and leisure, would have us all screaming for these historic city artifacts to be revived for the purpose of entertainment 50 to 100 years later.

But that’s the lesson here, if there is any. This post isn’t about a problem or a solution, it’s about carefully looking at anything we change, destroy or infringe upon in our cities with a critical and careful eye. Can we look 50 years into the future and see how that building, that space, that piece of art or relic might be re-imagined in the distant future? It’s something we should all be thinking about… not to halt the wings of progress, but to give us perspective on what really matters, and what might matter more in the future. Riding a tour boat gliding on a bridge that crosses the Genesee River on a warm summer night would be something nearly everyone in this state would pay good money to do today. If only…