The Importance Of Urban Exposure At A Young Age

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In 2017 I wrote a piece about my journey from a suburban kid to an urban advocate. The short version is this… I was born in Chicago but moved to suburban Rochester, New York when I was 3. I would return to Chicago regularly to spend weeks with my dad, who lived in a third story apartment on Halstead street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Whether it was my love of riding the “El,” visiting the museums, or just getting tacos at Las Fuentes down the street, Chicago was a magical place for me growing up. Cubs games, concerts, train rides… all without using a car.

I had a fine upbringing in the suburbs of Rochester, but I never thought Rochester could have elements of what Chicago has. I saw The Windy City as something of a Mecca that could not be replicated, and I saw my own city as a depressing joke. And in fairness, Rochester’s downtown at the time was beginning to “bottom out” with the exodus of the tech giants that helped sculpt the city’s economy, Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. It would be 20 years before life in the form of downtown living and small business growth would start to return once again.

As a third-ring suburban kid, Rochester’s lifeless downtown had little that drew my eye. I lived the suburban life, unaware that the negative view of my city was part of the problem I would try so hard to fight against many years later.

But I loved Chicago. I loved my time in New York City, the few times I had been. It was my time in these places, and my parents’ desire to expose me to the magnificence and beauty of city life that helped me recognize the first hints of revitalization in Rochester.

The change started around 2012. The city received a $17 million TIGER grant to close the east side of the underutilized Inner Loop expressway in an effort to create nearly 1 million square feet of space for private investment. Black Button Distilling opened up shop on Railroad Street near the public market, becoming the first downtown Rochester distillery. Genesee Brewing opened their Brew House, a tasting room, restaurant and gift shop overlooking the largest urban waterfall in the United States. It was a move that reconnected the beer-giant with city residents, welcoming a new generation of craft beer fans.

Solera became Rochester’s first wine bar in the emerging South Wedge neighborhood. TRATA, an approachable but elevated food and drink experience with incredible architecture opened in the historic Armory building adjacent to Cobbs Hill Park. City Grill and Havana Cabana (neither of which are still in existence) added new dimensions to Rochester’s East and Alexander nightlife district.

Suddenly, a city that had been the laughing stock of young Rochester metro residents became the place to be. Even suburbanites began to take notice, as the city was beginning to attract more outlying visitors for reasons other than the handful of annual festivals.

Rochester’s food and drink explosion was complimented by dozens of residential apartment projects which would propel The Flower City’s population to new heights. Work began on a new downtown local bus terminal, and years later, a new Amtrak station. Bike lanes were added with nearly every street paving, and one-way streets were converted to two-way access.

I like to think I was an early adopter, as my exposure to these elements in larger cities guided me to identify the stars that were beginning to align. I had seen all of this before, so I started seeing it all come together as a multi-dimensional way of waking our city from a deep sleep. Finally, as much as I loved Chicago, I loved that my city was starting to add elements that made my Windy City experience so grand.

Yesterday, I gave a friend and new Rochester resident the grand tour of the city, finding that there was simply not enough time in the day to show off all of the points of interest, new and old. I was so excited to show her everything that truly makes me believe this is a city headed in the right direction. Because I love it here, I love what we’re doing here, and to be honest, I’m pleasantly surprised with nearly every new move.

Yes, there are decades (and with the issue of racial tensions in the city, centuries) of infrastructure, development, legal, social and economic mistakes and atrocities that will take more than a meager 11 years to mend. Questions regarding social justice in our city, gentrification, displacement due to rising rents, and conversations about “who’s city is it” are in high gear. Crime, housing, transportation and healthcare equity need to be rigorously addressed. Racially charged zoning, neighborhood scars from decades of Redlining and social covenants, the building (and subsequent removal and repurposing) of the downtown Inner Loop expressway still leave so many in the shadow of the “revitalization” that the city is going through. We must be vigilant in tackling these problems with force and conviction. Never would I assume that we are doing more than scratching the surface of real social and economic “progress” for everyone in my city, or in any city in the U.S. But I am optimistic that we are on the right path, albeit a very long one.

Likely everything I’ve written to this point would have been lost on me if I hadn’t had significant exposure to the urban environment at a young age. I grew up knowing but a few Black and Hispanic families in my own community. The exposure to Chicago helped me understand what a diverse population looks like and why it’s important to experience and prioritize.

My white-washed suburban childhood would likely have veiled me from the power of what great cities can be, as well as the horrors of what people of color have had to endure in urban America. While this blog may have found life in a trip to Utica, NY 8 years ago, my ability to connect and identify with urbanistic dynamics could not have been possible without being exposed to a large-scale urban environment and everything that comes with it.

The title photo of this blog is a picture of me as a toddler in Wrightwood Park in my old Chicago neighborhood. In November of 2022, I took my mother back to Chicago for a short weekend. She had not been in 20 years, but she marveled at the city she once knew, and the city today. She captured this photo of me in the same neighborhood park. It was a powerful moment for both of us.

Approximately 38 years after the title photo of this blog, I sat in a swing in the same park in Chicago.

If you’re a parent, now is the time to introduce your children to city life. You have the ability to show them that cities have the power to inspire and entertain. They have the fortitude to be inclusive and equitable if we do the right things. They provide dense urban living and employment serviced by transit that adequately serves the nurse who relies on social mobility and the doctor who chooses sustainable transit as a practical and sustainable mobility solution.

Cities are far from perfect, but exposing the next generation to the urban reality will always be beneficial. Take the time to ensure that your children understand the dynamics of urban life, and how they can make a difference!