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Could Batavia learn about downtown development from Rochester?

By Philip Anselmo

Maybe this headline should read: How Batavia can save downtown by doing the opposite of what Rochester does... Allow me to explain. Most of us in the area remember the Fast Ferry flop. For Rochesterians, the very word ferry still stings like a jellyfish whip. In a poor attempt to promote cross-cultural relations between Rochester and Toronto, the city sunk millions into a ferry that would cart folks back and forth from the two cities. We all know where that went—nowhere.

Why? One reason that I'm guessing at, is that you're not going to boost your own city's cultural wealth by sending your residents elsewhere. Keep them here. One good way to do that is to offer low-rent studio space to artists in neighborhoods they can afford to live in. Rochester has done this on North Goodman Street, where the city's cultural center faces Village Gate, a quaint shopping center, and Anderson Alley, an old button factory turned into studio space. Ditto Artisan Works off of Winton Road.

Some of you may be wondering why we should give the artists a break. Look at New York City. Wherever artists flourish, along comes business: initially in the form of good eateries, but soon, small shops begin to pop up, followed by large banks. This, unfortunately, then leads to the phenomenon known as gentrification, when all the rich folks with a penchant for what the hipsters have built, simply move and take it over. Go to Brooklyn sometime if you don't believe me. Of course, artists alone do not create this environment. A lot of the appeal is based on a sort of myth of the authentic urban experience: a city block that looks, smells and feels like a city block should feel. It's got natives, it's eclectic, the people have roots there, and the place has a cultural vibe all its own. Again, this is the myth of the authentic urban experience. But as we know, myths are often rooted in actuality.

Rochester has much of this authenticity in many parts of the city. The idea being bandied about for Renaissance Square was designed—or so I believed—to provide a catalyst to further this sort of authentification downtown, which has unfortunately lost its flavor, its character, and, in many cases, its business. With that in mind, the city thought to build a big theater, a cultural mecca right downtown to draw folks in, rather than push them out. Flanking this theater would be a bus terminal, so people can get to and from the theater, and a satellite campus for Monroe Community College, so people can go there to learn, as well. That was the plan anyway.

From the Democrat & Chronicle:

A decision announced Monday to move ahead with the Renaissance Square project will allow federal funds to be spent on a bus station and a community college campus.

Funding for the third part of the project, a 2,800-seat theater, has not been secured and if the money isn't raised, the theater won't be built, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and Sen. Charles Schumer said during a joint appearance in Rochester.

"The likelihood of federal or state funds being raised for the theater is unlikely for the foreseeable future, certainly for the next few years," Schumer said. "Given the economic situation, it's difficult to raise private funds, so moving forward with the community college and the bus terminal is very important. We don't want to hold things up any longer."

Some of you may be saying: "Big deal. No theater. Who cares." Rochesterians should care. What sort of "Renaissance" with a capital 'R' does Rochester hope to effect with a bus station and a satellite campus? How will these two components bring people downtown? Going ahead without the theater would mean, in my honest opinion, not going ahead at all, but just standing still, which Rochester has proved itself quite capable of doing over the past few decades.

So Batavia, take a lesson. Do not do what Rochester does. This does not mean sink all the tax money into expensive cultural projects. What it means is play up your strengths and appeal to the culture of your population by creating an atmosphere that is hospitable to making and performing the arts. The rest will follow.

Batavia already has the authentic urban experience on the Jackson Street block downtown: good eats at locally-owned restaurants, established shops that appeal to people's curiosity and the mall. Uh, wait a second. Scrap that last one. Literally: scrap that last one. Large-scale programs such as Summer in the City do a great job of attracting people to this part of the city. But it's a one-time, thanks for your patronage kind of event. What about micro-celebrations. How difficult would it be to close up a lane of parking across from Margueritas and the Jackson Street Grill, set up some tents, tables and chairs, and serve a summer evening outside. Maybe book a juggler or something to keep folks entertained. I'm sure there are better ideas out there.

Although technically not downtown, the Harvester Center and the many buildings around it, offers a perfect place to start incubating: businesses, artists, offices and public spaces. Maybe above all else: public spaces. Small courtyards where people can gather, grab a drink, listen to some live music, whatever. Maybe a violinist in the local philharmonic can be persuaded, via a modest monetary encouragement, to practice a few nights out in the open, outside a coffee shop that fronts a courtyard in the now verdant square that once was an indsutrial wastescape.

Whatever you do, Batavia, just don't do what Rochester does. No matter how pretty you paint it, you can't call a bus terminal a renaissance.

Howard B. Owens

The thing about artist types -- they may not be rich, but they are conspicuous consumers. They want to be see and be seen. They hang out at book shops and coffee shops and cafes, and they shop for cloths. They create traffic that draws other traffic. Appeal to them, and you have a chance to thrive.

It's too bad GCC is located so far from downtown.

Jan 28, 2009, 9:40am Permalink

Growing up in Rochester for the first 18 years of my life, I second every word of this article.

Seriously, this article right here is the best thing I've seen written on this site to date.

Jan 28, 2009, 12:53pm Permalink
daniel cherry

Great story Philip.I feel you are so right.we do have jackson square events, fridays ,during the summer.Genesee county is rich in history, and,culture.I am a local artist.I think a true artist does it because, they have a deep, aching need, to express themselves.I dont think they do it for material reasons.They'd starve.People don't understand like we do how important art and culture are.Music is art.What you do, video that i would say, is a form of art.We have very talented artists here.I really enjoyed going to the High Falls district, in Rochester.The ramble was an event that came from a meeting at 'GO ART'.IN the beginning it was supposed to be a music and Art festival.Where people like myself could show their art and not pay to show it.It has become quite an event.They even have a website now. .I wish i had time to help with the events like the Ramble.It takes many many hours of planning.Thanks to Mr Burkel.And Bill Mcdonald.And Many many more.Events like these truly bring the community together.People come from around the country to the ramble.Just to come home and see old friends.It brings Buisness to batavia.The Christmas in the city and Summer in the city do the same.If an image is worth a thousand words.The one of the christmas in the city on my blog must be.You can see it brought people together and they all look very happy.Where would they have it with no mall?If they do tear it down there needs to be a place to gather for people.I think if there were more space more people would go to the events now at jackson Square.It gets pretty crowded.Imagine a world with no art.It would be pretty bleak wouldn't it?There wouldn't be a Batavian.No music.No movies.I liked the main st coffe.They let artist like myself and others show their work.Are they open yet?Whats the new name?I liked peices.Apriland Tom.They were true art lovers.And if it were not for them i wouldn't be a local artist.I never realized how photography is an art form.Someday i will have my own show at "GO ART".They do alot for our community also.Art tells a story.I hope the people do realize how art, and culture, are so important.

Jan 28, 2009, 3:16pm Permalink
Philip Anselmo

Thanks, Dan. Yeah. The concerts in Jackson Square during the summer on Friday nights are a great way to bring people out. I say go even further. Scale it down. Make it more common, yet more spontaneous. Like the idea of the practicing violinist. Or regular sidewalk chalk competitions. You want people to know that when they go downtown, no matter when, something's going to happen. At base, I believe that's one of the main attractions of the metropolis. There's no reason smaller cities can't try it themselves.

Jan 28, 2009, 4:19pm Permalink
Purple Hayes

I moved to Brooklyn after living in Batavia my whole life. I can vouch for the effect of gentrification, but I think people in Batavia would be less violent towards development. Most of my friends grew up in genuine Suburbia, but I feel proud that I can say I grew up in a place that wasn't sprawling with strip malls and chain restaurants -- at the time at least.

I came back for a visit earlier this month and was shocked by the Target, Super Wal Mart, etc. Those are the kinds of things that don't promote a thriving urban environment. For some reason, I'll never figure it out because I'll never be 14 again, but it's cool for kids to go to a 24 hour Wal Mart in the middle of the night. Who wants their kids roaming around in abominations like Wal Mart?

When Main Street Coffee showed up, bands started playing in Batavia and people from surrounding towns would drop in. It was sort of the "If you build it they will come" sort of scenario. But it seems like things dissipated with MSC because the right people that made it happen had all gone separate ways. I left Batavia because I wanted to be alone, but I wanted to be in a stronger community of artists and writers. I can't guarantee I would've stayed if the arts community had been stronger, but it would've been nice if I had actually participated more in programs like GoArt. But, I think that issue goes deeper into the schools system. There needs to be more teachers like Mr. Trosey at BHS who encourage students to embrace their intellectualism and explore different modes of creativity. Kids need to learn who to think creatively not just so they can make art, but also so they can promote change and actually have confidence to apply ideas to Batavia.

Batavia has the potential to be a very important city in the future, especially with the financial situation as it is. For the most part, the city is walkable. When fuel really becomes an issue, people won't be able to afford driving from one side of town to the other, so a centrally located grocery store, downtown area with banks, drugstores, etc. will be key. It seems like Batavia used to be a thriving area for people who enjoyed a simpler way of living -- grabbing a cup of coffee at a diner just to bump into friends and to chat with the restaurant staff, going for a walk to actually see what local shops were up to. Which is why the history of Batavia needs to be promoted. I laugh at my mom every time she tells me I should bring visitors from out of town to the Holland Land Office or to the Library, but those are historical Landmarks that used to be instrumental in the foundations of Batavia. Basically, people need to look at the way Batavia once was so they can see how it really used to be a hot-sport worth going to.

In regards to affordable housing for artists, I think this was brought up in response to the problem with drugs in Batavia, but so long as there is cheap rent in an area as depressed as Western New York, the people who need the living space are going to be the ones to take it first. Artists will live pretty much anywhere because they see beauty and potential in things that would indicate otherwise initially, but some people will take what they can get because it's all there is.

All in all, I think what Batavia has to offer could grow exponentially if things were to change from the ground up. Batavia needs teachers that will instill open-mindedness and flexibility in students and public figures should be open to change and they should help to facilitate change by instating a dialogue with the Batavia of the past. Finally, Batavia should take some foresight into account when planning the next steps of the city. Places like Buffalo (and Brooklyn -- with many objections from the Hasidic Jews and drivers) are building more bike lanes and spreading the word about going Green. I have to say, I don't know a single artist or creative person that would move to a city of any size if it weren't Green.

When I'm neck deep in student loans, if Batavia has changed for the better, I'll consider moving back.

Jan 30, 2009, 9:12pm Permalink

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