I remember Sue calling me up on a Friday night and telling me that she and a bunch of our friends were headed for a cool coffee shop in the city. I rolled my eyes… My 17 year-old brain couldn’t fathom why she would want to go all the way into the city for a stupid coffee. Couldn’t we just go to Denny’s down the road?
Yes, this staunch urbanist was once a suburban dweller, perfectly happy to stay within the confines of his little town. Even though I was born in Chicago, I thought cities like that were urban anomalies. My home city of Rochester, in my mind, could never have the kind of awe-inspiring power that a city like Chicago had. I was wrong.
Begrudgingly, I tagged along that night. I remember walking down Gibbs Street, a short, single lane, one-way street with very little traffic, to our destination, Java’s Cafe. The street was pretty, with one end lined with trees and tulip planters, while the other housed Eastman School of Music, adorned with lights that illuminated an overhang above the wide brick sidewalk. People sat outside Java’s at cafe tables and on wooden benches, taking in the summer night over a shot of caffeine.
We walked inside the coffee house and ordered… I had a Shot In The Dark, basically some sort of chocolate espresso blend, or something. It came with whipped cream and sprinkles, and was kind of amazing. The walls were covered in eclectic street art, and the atmosphere was very bohemian and approachable. In spite of my previous hesitation, I instantly fell in love with the scene.
It wasn’t long before I started leading trips into Rochester myself. I started dating someone who lived in an emerging neighborhood called “The South Wedge,” another slice of friendly urbanity that started to change the way I saw my city. And as my urban curiosity grew, my city began to show signs of life, with cocktail bars, interesting restaurants and colorful shops popping up everywhere. Eventually I moved from my suburban dwelling to Rochester, where I live to this day.
Today, I am as high on my city and it’s progress as anyone could be. But part of me wonders… would I have ever connected with Rochester in the way that I did without those first trips to Gibbs Street and Java’s Cafe? Would I have recognized my city’s potential if I hadn’t appreciated all the elements that make Gibbs Street special?
If you haven’t realized it already, there’s a lesson here I want to share. Sometimes, we love an urban space so much and don’t know why… usually it’s in a place where traffic takes a back seat to humanity. It’s a place where lights accent the ambiance of the street. It’s a place where nature encroaches on concrete, and architecture compliments the overall experience. It’s the cafe that spills out onto the sidewalk, where a careful dance of passers by and small groups of coffee drinkers blend for a scene that is always in motion. It is in these places where we fall in love with our cities, even if we don’t have the words or knowledge to appreciate why. These are the places that inspire even the most urban-tentative of us to embrace the glowing pockets of city life, leading us on the journey to revisiting our urban cores once again.