Greetings from Rochester, New York

The following was originally published on my friend’s great, recently retired blog, Big London Little London.

Autumn usually provokes a wave of nostalgia in me. The crisp weather and smell of fallen leaves always remind me of my Western New York hometown. Every year, my family did typical white people activities like apple picking, carving pumpkins, and baking pumpkin seeds. Fall will always remind me of my birthday, of our family getting along, and of my home, which I’ve moved away from but still remember longingly.

Rochester, New York is a mid-sized Rust Belt city (pop. 215,000; metro 1 million) with a rare north-flowing river and a port on Lake Ontario. What we lack in largesse we make up for in ingenuity and gruff charm. We are the birthplace of roll film, Xerox, and the white hot dog (don’t ask). Throughout its varied history, Rochester has been a key outpost in textile manufacture, classical music, and the Underground Railroad. Rochester has also developed an inexplicable accent, which broad linguistic studies never seem to get quite right. It’s a combination of nasal vowels and hard consonants that’s not Buffalonian and not quite “Great Lakes,” but uniquely working-class Rochesterian. Henceforth, you shall know the name of our fair city as “Raaaah-chster,” emphasis on the first syllable.

Rochester – despite any alarmist stories you may have heard – can be a pretty great place to live and work. Of course, I’m partial to my hometown. But for being such a small city, Rochester is rife with historical, cultural, and culinary goodies. It’s home to a few major research universities, most notably the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. We have diverse gay bars and clubs. Art house movie theatres and independent coffee houses have survived the onslaught of the multiplex and Starbucks. Rochester is also lucky to have a nationally renowned symphony orchestra and one of the top music conservatories in the world, the Eastman School of Music. Perhaps what I miss most is the thriving greasy spoon scene, with charming Greek-owned diners sprinkled all over the city and suburbs, offering omelettes and spanakopita at all hours. But the crowning jewel of Rochester’s international reputation is Wegmans, the locally-owned supermarket chain. (You may know it from the recent Alec Baldwin commercials.) I am not exaggerating when I say that Wegmans is the best grocery shopping experience I’ve ever had. And yes, I have been to the Loblaw’s at Maple Leaf Gardens. At Wegmans, shit is relatively cheap and the people are awesome. Come to think of it, almost everything in Rochester is cheap! Homes, liquor, going out, shopping, it’s fabulous!

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The things that make Rochester wonderful are more impressive when considered in their social and economic context. Rochester, like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, was devastated by the collapse of manufacturing in the 1980s and ’90s. Rochester’s economy was once based largely on the success of Eastman Kodak, which at one time employed over 60,000 Rochesterians. But starting in the 1980s, the region’s top employer eliminated or relocated roughly 50,000 Rochester jobs. In such a small metro area, that is damn near catastrophic. The city endured the concomitant exodus of the middle-class and white, and has emerged a deeply segregated, impoverished American city. About half of the city’s residents are black or Latino, and a full one-third of the urban population – and 46 percent of children – live in poverty. I would even argue that this statistic is artificially low, since the minimum income that defines poverty is shockingly low. Sadly, the city averages about 47 homicides per year. This is, incidentally, the exact number of homicides in Toronto in 2011, a city TEN TIMES the size of Rochester. Guns, drugs, poverty, and ineffective public institutions conspire to make life in Rochester difficult for many.

Clearly, Rochester can be a rough place to live. It is a tragedy that many of Rochester’s young black men will not live to see their thirties, that drug organizations control some of the city’s neighborhoods, and that many cultural activities and social programs are inaccessible to the city’s poor. But Rochester is surviving. The region’s thriving medical, academic, and high tech sectors — which include Xerox, Bausch and Lomb, and the U of R and its teaching hospital complex — allowed Rochester to pull through the economic collapse better than other similar cities. With some luck and some intervention from the federal government, my hardscrabble hometown will retain its charm.

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