Seven Years Later: How An Iconic Concert Helped Change Rochester’s Downtown

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I stood with my hands in the air, one holding a cheap beer, cheering at the top of my lungs as I watched the charismatic performer thunderously spraying the crowd with instrumental magic from behind a trombone, of all things. In an eclectic blend of Jazz, Rock and Hip Hop, the energetic musician played to a packed house of mesmerized festival-goers at the Harrow East Ballroom in Rochester. His band, equally dripping with talent and confidence, matched him step-for-step, creating a gritty ballet of sound with a gut-thumping beat that seemed to penetrate the soul.

I don’t recall the exact date but I’m, going to say it was about 10 years ago. This was the moment that Rochester was acquainted with the truly unique sound that is Trombone Shorty.

OK maybe it was my first experience with the trombone-wielding phenom. Troy Andrews, born and raised in New Orleans, quickly became a fan favorite on the streets of The Big Easy. His connection to The Flower City began as an Artist In Residence at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in downtown Rochester. Just as in New Orleans, Mr. Andrews, know now as Trombone Shorty, captivated audiences in my city, culminating in the Rochester International Jazz Festival performance that set one of Rochester’s most historic venues on metaphoric fire.

You’re unlikely to hear Trombone Shorty’s music on any pop radio station. But just ask almost any Rochester resident who he is and they’ll smile and regale you with tales of his Jazz Festival performances. His Rochester fame had grown so much that a year or two after the concert I described in the opening paragraph, he was the headlining act on an outdoor stage at the intersection of East Avenue and Alexander Street in front of thousands of screaming fans, many of whom climbed signs and light poles to get a better look.

Fast Forward to 2016. Rochester was embroiled in a growing debate over a central patch of downtown land that will forever be known simply as Parcel 5.

The rocky lot that used to house one of the most ambitious downtown malls

The former site of Midtown Mall, which was the brain-child of famed mall-builder Victor Gruen, Parcel 5 was a 1.2 acre rectangular piece of land in the center of in-process or completed apartment-based repurposing projects such as Tower280, The Metropolitan, The Sibley Building and more. While the city sought development options for the space, advocates like Ray “Ray Ray” Mitrano, Steven Carter, Mary Lupien, Richard Glaser and myself envisioned this sad, empty moonscape as a swath of urban greenery, mimicking the successful Columbus Commons in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

The argument was solid, but it needed examples of what Parcel 5 could be if activated. Enter the aforementioned Trombone Shorty’s signature event at Jazz Fest’s Parcel 5 stage in June of 2016, marking the first major city-sponsored event at the empty lot. Thousands of people stood, cheering, clapping, and vibing to the music while standing on an uncomfortably rocky surface. The equivalent of a gravel parking lot surface did not deter the crowd from absorbing the iconic musical energy, while basking in the colorful lights and heights of an evolving downtown that had struggled for so long. Unknowingly and ironically, city government, who’s intentions were to develop the lot, gave park proponents like myself exactly what they needed.

The first time The Rochester International Jazz Fest featured the Parcel 5 Main Stage in 2016

Photos from the performance gave Parcel 5 green space advocates the visual proof they needed to show city officials, community leaders, and friends what was possible. Many who were there saw the empty lot for the first time, and the introduction of the space as an outdoor event venue created a buzz in the community that spread like wildfire.

In April of 2017, and in the face of the growing activism mentioned above, the City of Rochester announced that local developer Robert Morgan would be tasked with constructing a massive new performing arts center on the Parcel 5 footprint. Activists warned that creating a complex that betrayed the desires of downtown residents new and old in an effort to cater to suburban show-seekers who could park their cars in the existing underground complex, see a show and exit without ever experiencing the power of a changing city was flawed.

With every public and social media fight to transform Parcel 5 into green space, green space proponents used a myriad of photos from Trombone Shorty’s 2016 concert as well as photos from the similarly-attended visual spectacle of the Fringe Festival event that was held at Parcel 5 a year later. Both events showed the potential for the plot as an urban activator and an attractive event location that could be utilized throughout the year.

Fringe Festival 2017

But plans to transform Parcel 5 into a performing arts center moved along despite pushback from downtown residents. Activists such as myself put up a formidable fight, but there was a point when we knew the administration at the time was simply going to do what it wanted to do. That being said, the activism combined with a stalled timeline due to lack of additional funding for the creation of the performing arts center and the subsequent withdrawal of the $25 million investment from billionaire Tom Golisano fueled the project’s uncertainty. The nail in the coffin for the arts center was the eventual 2019 indictment of developer Robert Morgan on charges of fraud.

With no other suitor, the City of Rochester finally gave in to the voices of Rochester residents and put down sod on the former rocky moonscape in May of 2021. After 6 years of advocacy, Parcel 5 would finally be transformed into green space.

In the two years since, Parcel 5’s relevancy has been the source of debate. Some state that the valuable parcel of land would be better suited for development in the spirit of urban density. Instead, the plot has become an occasional event space and a place for downtown residents of new apartments to walk their dogs. But I believe the need for space like this will become more important as Rochester’s downtown population continues to grow.

Fast forward to last weekend when I stood in the soft grass on Parcel 5 and listened to Trombone Shorty’s brilliance yet again. The majestic lights of the transforming city spilled out before the crowd, inspiring the magic of the performance and of the perfect summer night.

Trombone Shorty returns to the main stage at Parcel 5 seven years after his first iconic performance on the site

Sometimes it takes one day, one night, one moment and one event to fuel change. I’m not implying Parcel 5 in downtown Rochester wouldn’t be a park today if Trombone Shorty hadn’t made his mark in the Flower City. Parcel 5’s incarnation as green space was the unquestioned result of tireless activism, financial miss-management and legal calamity. But no one can deny the visible effect that the Big Easy artist had on a local movement in a mid-sized rust belt city. Trombone Shorty’s electrification of a city space on a beautiful summer night so many years ago played a small role in visually representing what this parcel of land could be if it was effectively activated. It is the perfect example of how one event can help change the course of our communities, and that nothing in our communities exists in a vacuum. Some will read this and undoubtedly think this is a stretch, but it’s a narrative that I believe has merit.

A floral themed group bike ride in Rochester, beginning at Parcel 5

As I stood there on the grassy piece of green space with the beautiful city rising above me, tapping my toe to Trombone Shorty’s music, I felt like, in some small way, we green space proponents had a role in creating the moment. Parcel 5’s future is uncertain, but its current role as green space in the middle of downtown Rochester is a small win for (forgive the pun) grassroots activism and collective effort.