Tonight, I biked home from a meeting at Java’s Cafe in Downtown Rochester. I turned my two-wheeled machine down Union Street, a path I would never have chosen just a few years ago. As I passed the brand new apartment buildings on my right, I pulled the right brake lever and slowed to a stop. I stood there on the Union Street Cycle Track and took a picture of the quiet, warm, inviting beginnings of a new neighborhood that used to be a beaten, ugly, underutilized sunken highway.
For those of of you who aren’t aware of this urban caterpillar-to-butterfly story in downtown Rochester, here it is in a nutshell… In 1965, Rochester, a booming hub of 300,000 people, welcomed the completion of a sort of circulator highway known as The Inner Loop. This 2.68 mile ribbon of road soared above and plummeted below the city’s street level, allowing fast and easy access to downtown Rochester without actually having to drive through it. At the time, it was thought that this prioritized type of automobile access was good for cities as they moved into the future. But the decimation of poor urban communities to create connective highways, and the barriers that these types of expressways became with regard to neighborhoods, sliced the fabric of cities across the United States. In Rochester, The Inner Loop, which was thought of as revolutionary, became a moat, enabling further racial and socioeconomic divide. The Flower City became the city that was so easy to drive around, there was no reason to actually see it, visit it, or experience it.
Fast forward to Rochester a decade ago, reduced to a population of 200,000. Most of downtown’s “big three” employers, Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb are gone. The Inner Loop expressway remains, seeing just 8,000 cars per day, about the traffic volume of a moderate-to-busy two-lane side street. Certainly not enough traffic to justify a 6 lane expressway. Rochester had to make a decision… to invest in the upkeep of this seldom-used crumbling circle to nowhere, or fill it in to create hundreds of thousands of square feet of reclaimed, development-ready space. Rochester chose the latter.
Slowly, the East side of the Inner Loop is becoming a new neighborhood. For 50 years, nothing existed here but spinning concrete, serving the proliferation of Rochester’s demise. Today, for the first time in half a century, people call this space home.
Whether you’ve heard this story a hundred times, or you’re reading this with novel curiosity, I cannot state how truly important this project is, not just for Rochester, but for the country. The Flower City is one of hundreds of cities big and small that were deeply damaged by the construction of urban highways. In Syracuse, for example, they are still talking about removing the I-81 expressway. In Buffalo, they are just beginning to form ideas about what to do with the towering Skyway expressway. In Rochester, those debates are over… we’ve done it… or rather, we’ve completed the first phase. This “average” city has done something that has made us the envy of cities in our state, our region, and our nation.
The Inner Loop Infill project is the most powerful continuing urban project in Upstate, New York, and the rest of the country is starting to pay attention. When people comfortably sleep on the same space that used simply move cars, we know we’ve started a revolution, and one that is a long time coming.
I never ride along Union Street without remembering what used to be there. The budding new neighborhood reminds me that there’s always hope for our cities as we continue our mission to transform the barren worlds of concrete and asphalt into fertile fields of human prosperity.