Revisiting Rochester’s Identity: The “Flour” City?

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Rochester, this one’s for you.

Ask any Rochester, NY resident about the city’s nickname. Go ahead, I’ll wait… nah never mind, I’ll just tell you. The City of Rochester has had the nickname “The Flower City” since the 1850s, when it boasted the worlds largest seed company, The Ellwanger & Barry Nursery, among other major seed companies. The city’s logo is based on the shape of a flower, representing a deeply “rooted” history in its identity. The city’s most famous event is the annual Lilac Festival in Highland Park. Indeed, Rochester’s nickname seems to fit the history and culture of Rochester perfectly.

Highland Park in Rochester is a popular destination when the Lilacs are in bloom

Rochester has also been called “The Image City” due to the form presence and prestige of Kodak and Xerox, which are now shadows of their former Rochester footprint. Clearly, this nickname hasn’t taken, likely because the wounds of job loss from these formally massive corporations are still fresh.

So for a moment, let’s turn back the clock a bit. Before 1850, Rochester was known by a similar-but-different nickname… The Flour City. That’s right, Rochester’s High Falls area was the largest producer of flour in the entire world. In fact, in the first ten days of the Erie Canal operating in Rochester, 3,600 tons of flour were shipped to the Hudson. Rochester’s first boom wasn’t based on a fragrant Lilac, it was rooted in the blue-collar industrial grinding of American wheat. The city’s first draw was the promise of hard working labor jobs in the more than 20 flour mills along the Genesee River. And while Rochester’s current backbone is based in the health care and academic sector, the industrial bones of The Flour City are still, to some extent, visible.

In High Falls Rochester, some of the architectural bones still show the city’s flour mill history

The revitalization of Pittsburgh, the unquestioned “Steel City,” has been built around an arts and culture scene that has taken over its long-departed industrial bones. But the flavor of hard work as a symbol of success is still there. No, Pittsburgh will never be the blue-collar titan that it once was, but the spirit of hard work, American grit, and honest labor live on in the “by the bootstraps” revival of the storied American city.

When I travel to Utica, or Rome, or Troy, or countless other cities in Upstate New York, there is a belief in the re-activation of former industrial space as a source of a “repurposeful heartbeat.” In other words, cities are being resurrected on the appreciation of, and identity with, a blue collar past and a service-oriented future. While the manufacturing state of our cities will never be what it once was, the grassroots revitalization efforts are reflections of the hard-working past imbedded in our urban identities. This, mixed with a repurposing of our urban infrastructure, is vital to our urban success stories today, as we blend city excitement with historical context.

High Falls in Rochester was the site of the world’s largest flour production

With this in mind, I’m going to make a bold statement. Rochester should rebrand as The Flour City once again, reconnecting residents and visitors with the gritty, blue collar perseverance of its former incarnation. Place grinding wheels along our sidewalks, and build a giant one at the Parcel 5 site in Center City with “ROC” prominently displayed on it. Reconnect our city with a past that inspires hard work and an appreciation for our former industrial heritage.

A flour grinding stone wheel in Rochester

Will Rochester, or most cities for that matter, ever be a hotbed for manufacturing again? Absolutely not. But harnessing the former spirit of honest labor, hard working people and our original unique personality may, ironically, be just the thing this city needs to step forward into a progressive future. Rochester, say it with me… let’s bring back The Flour City!!