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Democrat and Chronicle

January 28, 2009 - 8:50am

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.

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