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Rust Belt Cities: Rather Than Patronizing Young People, Give Them What They Ask For

December 17th, 2012

Cyclist on the sidewalk across the street from the Midtown development, Rochester, NY. [PHOTO: Rick U, RocPX.com]
I want to share with you an opinion piece from RustWire.comexternal link last week. The article was reposted on BuffaloRising.com external link and it’s now made its way down I-90 to RochesterSubway.com. Angie Schmitt begins by blasting attempts to market cities to young people. Angie cites an example from Columbus, Ohio where leaders spent a $30,000 grant to hire a so-called “Gen Y” expert to tell them how they could retain and attract the widely-coveted demographic. “Why didn’t they just ask the young people that live there what they want, and maybe put the $30,000 toward that?” she asks…

Cleveland, OH. [PHOTO: Chris Gent, Flickr]And she goes on to lambast her own city of Cleveland for a marketing campaign external link which aims to bring back young professionals who have moved away. The problem with this effort as she sees it, is that it’s based on the myth that Cleveland has only an “image problem,” or that Cleveland is a great place to live as-is. But when Angie looks objectively at her hometown she sees glaring shortcomings. Cleveland’s net package of assets are “not compelling enough right now to attract young people…the way they are in places like San Francisco, New York, Boston.”

So what exactly is it that Angie and other young creatives find so attractive about San Francisco, New York, and Boston? She boils it down to this… “bustling sidewalks, community spaces,” and, drumroll please… “the freedom to get around and lead a fulfilling life without a car. This is exactly what New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and a handful of other cities that are winning the young-people-attracting game are focused on.”

Pedestrian plaza at 14th and 9th, NYC. [PHOTO: NYCstreets, Flickr]
Being from the New York City area myself, I can tell you it’s not often realistic for smaller cities like Rochester to model themselves after these places. If only money grew on Lilac bushes, right? “Nonsense,” Angie says. Read the following excerpt from Angie’s article, and when you’re finished tell me if these same observations do not also apply to Rochester:

Young creatives crave walkable urban places. I am one of them. And believe it or not that is the major reason I moved to Cleveland. Cleveland has been blessed, by nature of its old age, with a relatively walkable built environment and even a decent transit system. But somehow Cleveland can’t recognize that this is its greatest asset. Cleveland continues suburbanizing the city — to a greater or lesser extent — and it embarks on a new marketing campaign to tell the world it’s not nearly as bad here as everyone thinks.
Example: If 75 young people show up at a public meeting and demand a bike lane: there — right there is part of your answer. Cleveland’s existing young people want bike lanes. But somehow, in the actual hierarchy of city priorities, 75 young people’s wishes rank far, far behind those of favored developers. A young professional attraction campaign that tackled that problem: that would be a campaign I could get behind.

Chicago cycle tracks. [PHOTO: Steven Vance, Flickr]

Or what about when the city of Cleveland wanted to tear down a historic downtown building and replace it with a parking garage? And hundreds of young people expressed opposition? Again right there, young people who live in Cleveland were expressing their preferences very clearly: they want a dense, walkable downtown — not a car repository for suburbanites. Again, that is the moment the city had a chance to win the hearts and loyalty of young people, but again, young people’s clearly expressed preferences were outweighed by those of a favored developer.
If Cleveland is losing young people to other cities, the correct response is to look at what is attractive about those places and emulate them to the extent that we can — and I think we can in a big way. New York has Janette Sadik-Khan and pedestrian plazas external link. Chicago has Gabe Klein and cycle tracks external link. Those are the young professional attraction mechanisms in those cities — they are city employees empowered to make real changes to the built environment. And they are killing us, while we fumble for our own solution, or deny that we have a problem.

Ok young Rochesterians… Here’s your chance to tell your civic leaders what you want (believe it or not they DO read RochesterSubway.com). So drop a comment below. Coincidentally, the City of Rochester is also updating the Center City Master Plan, and they’re asking for opinions external link. So let’s give it to them.

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 17th, 2012 at 8:06 am and is filed under Opinion, Transit + Infrastructure, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Rust Belt Cities: Rather Than Patronizing Young People, Give Them What They Ask For”

  1. Carlos Mercado says:

    A few of you have heard my “sermon” already. Those of you who are, say, under 35 (or still look it) should appear regularly at City Council and County Legislature meetings and get right in their old faces. With all respect and good manners, tell them flat out that YOU are the future and YOU have the ability to relocate to a Boston or San Francisco unless the City/County gets moving on issues like car-free transportation and workable urban streets. Let them know in no uncertain terms that you will not be patronized but you will watch to see what they do in the months ahead. If they stay “business as usual” then you will wave goodbye from your moving van.

  2. Jay says:

    Not for nothing, but many young professional types (“the future” in Rochester terms) have been involved in engaging the local government before. I get the sense that they’re happy to stick with the same tired track of targeting big development at the expense of little but meaningful advances, only to see it flounder or fail a couple years down the road. The best successes have come when concerned citizens just do it, then hope the city stays out of their way.

  3. Wendy says:

    Many of these amenities are planned for I-Square. We as a community must find a way to keep and attract young people. They’re telling us what they want but unfortunately real change is often times difficult. It takes strong, educated leaders who are willing to do what’s best for the community as a whole and not fulfill their personal agendas or those of their supporters. There are many examples of success stories that we can learn from-this is a great article highlighting a few http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/16/small-towns-think-big/1637047/

  4. MS says:

    Thanks for this blog; I’ve really enjoyed it.

    Young, educated professional here. I just moved here from Boston, and, unfortunately, were it not for the job, I’d just as soon move back. So I don’t really have an investment in this place, and you won’t see me at a city council meeting (sorry about that).

    However, I couldn’t agree with this article more, or with the general sentiments expressed on this blog. I’m interested enough in this place to learn more about it, and I hope you guys succeed, and the city council steps up and listens to you.

    My Two Cents: Since moving here, I’ve been extremely disappointed that there’s no pedestrian culture here, nothing to walk to, no people on the streets, etc. Despite the fact that I specifically chose to live in what locals told me was the most “pedestrian-friendly” area (Park Ave), I still can’t walk to a decent supermarket.

    Yes, there are a few pockets with little restaurants and bars, but I’m shocked at the number of people who just drive up, park right next to them on the curb, get out of their cars, and just walk ten feet straight into the restaurant. Yes, there is also a good supermarket in the area (East Ave Wegman’s), but it’s moving in the exact opposite direction and building a colossal suburban style “Super” Wegman’s, with a correspondingly huge, destructive parking lot.

    Let’s be real: I have a college degree, I make good money, and I spend it. Here, I don’t find anything that appeals to me — only a few restaurants, shops, or bars within a walkable radius. Do you know what that means, City Council? That means that me and my money stay home. Thank goodness there’s at least a Trader Joe’s.

    I wish you guys at Roc Subway the best, and I hope you stay in their faces and give them the statistics on where young college-educated people want to live. Because quality of life matters, and young educated people know better and are going elsewhere. Good luck!

  5. Rob says:

    I moved back here after living in Charlotte, NC for a couple of years. One of the main things you notice in Charlotte compared to Rochester is the amount of street lights. Yes, Main St now has plenty of bright lights but once you leave that, you’re in the dark and it’s considered “un-walkable” at night by most.

    As a young professional here I have been waiting for something to happen. So many great ideas for downtown are often over-looked so that the City can favor developers that will bring business here that have a high potential of failing due to the lack of people who stay in the downtown area after work is over. In the Cascade district you can find new, high end condos for rent (seems to be around $1,900 a month). And if I live there what am I suppose to do at night? The area isn’t well lit, the closest restaurant is Nick Tahous, and where would I get my groceries? If I have to drive everywhere…why pay so much to live in the city?

  6. Susan says:

    I go nuts every time I drive by Rochester’s most beautiful asset, the gorge, and see it lined with old factories and welfare offices. And everywhere I go–no bikes, no skates, no climbing allowed.

  7. David says:

    Whatever my age, I live in the city to live a CITY, dammit, and not in a denser version of the suburbs.

    Fewer cars, more mass transit and more walkability – and you’ll attract that all-important 20-60 demographic :)

  8. Thanks, Mike. Good piece, and good discussion.

    Just one addition to the discussion. I am not a young professional. I am not even a middle-aged professional. But my cohort – the well-ripened creative class – wants just the same things: a real city, a city that is walkable, accessible without cars and their endless damage, dense, filled with bustle. A city with robust civic and public realms, and a private realm with every kind of mixture and choice.

    Rochester was just like that once. We wrecked it. Our work lies before us.

    A lot of us gray hairs do speak out to the Mayor and Council and whomever else might listen. Nothing yet….

    As a visiting planner said here recently, we need transformations, not transactions.

  9. Rob says:

    I think both David and Howard put it best.

    But if we keep showing up and they keep not listening to us…what is the next step? We want to start bringing people of all age groups in before it’s too late and the city is written off completely by people and businesses alike.

  10. Adrian says:

    I’m a young professional who wants a lot of the same stuff (dense, walkable urban core with stuff to do, etc.). Let’s just remind ourselves that not everything is going to hell. The South Wedge is much safer than it used to be and it has a lot of great restaurants, etc., including a small grocery store.

    Not that I don’t also have a gripe list. Tops on my gripe list is RGRTA. I just wish they would run more than one bus every 30 minutes. How is someone supposed to take the bus home from the bar if the bus doesn’t run during bar closing hours, and only runs once per hour after 5pm on the weekends? Public transportation is not designed to turn a profit, it’s designed to provide a service. We don’t ask the Fire Department to turn a profit…

  11. Jeff H says:

    Personally, I think what makes a city attractive to people is – people. And the reality is that our downtown isn’t full of people anymore. Look at the dozens of photos on this website for evidence of what used to be.

    People simply don’t work or shop downtown anymore. Do a survey of the area, and ask those who drive roads like 531, 31, and route 104. Find out where they are coming from, and going to.

    I’m sure you’ll find they are coming from the outlying rural communities and counties, driving into the big city for work right?

    No – actually they (and people in the city) are driving to places like Victor and Henrietta to shop and work. They are those places where huge business parks with car friendly parking lots and easy off expressway access exists.

    They aren’t taking public transportation – because they simply can’t or won’t. If Rochester made it so “all roads” led to downtown for business and for shopping, maybe you’d see Rochester hustling and bustling like the old days.

    But until then – people will continue to divert themselves via expressway to Victor and Henrietta. It’s just easier. Maybe downtown should be moved to either one of those sub-burbs and we can call it a done deal.

    My vote? I would like to see “green laws” created that force companies to redevelop existing buildings and properties for use, before they are allowed to make brand new sprawling campuses in the country, sparkling in a way as to woo young people to them.

    Big business loves big brand new buildings – it gives the guy who owns it a sense of pride and “better than”. And these “business parks” are what is drawing jobs, commerce, and young people away from the city.

    Bike trails and wide new bright sidewalks aren’t the answer to drawing people back to the city alone.

    Forcing business to use/re-use existing spaces already built downtown is. But that would be socialist and green who-ha hippy. And who wants that? Definately not Mitt Romney.

  12. @Jeff, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think Ms. Schmitt is necessarily focusing on sidewalks and bike lanes though. She also mentions density and “the suburbanization” of Cleveland, (i.e. “when the city of Cleveland wanted to tear down a historic downtown building and replace it with a parking garage”)… and all these are issues that you mention of course need to be solved regionally. Because if the City of Rochester and the outlying burbs are competing with each other to attract businesses from the same small pool, the burbs may win in the short term, but we’ll all eventually lose. Victor and Henrietta won’t stay shiny and new forever – there’s always a greener field just beyond the horizon. So yes, without a vital downtown core, the entire region slowly dies.

    @MS, I’m from the NYC area and like you, there are days I think about moving to a “real” city. But there are more times, especially now that I have kids, where I find myself thanking my lucky stars I decided to stay in Rochester. I’d never be able to afford the house I’m in now, for example, if it were located in a larger metro. And there really are a ton of things to do and discover here every day…. without many of the hassles I find in places like NYC. So I stay, and I fight for gradual improvements. But RocSubway isn’t a bunch of people… it’s just me. I rely on you all to help spread new ideas, write letters, and attend a public meeting on occasion. Even if I convince my current City Council members of nothing, I know I’m better off because in the end I can say I did something.

    And for you “gray-haired” people (and you know who you are) I’m glad we have you to give us some pointers now and then and to show us who’s door to kick in. You provide the wisdom, and we’ll try to bring the brawn and raise the volume.

  13. Jim says:

    we’re taking steps in the right direction, but it does seem we’ve inherited a bombed out skeleton of a city. Many parts of downtown and certain neighborhoods have been leveled and would be unrecognizable to someone from pre-1950 Rochester. We have people that are interested, I just don’t know if we have enough. So far city hall seems to want to compete directly with the suburbs and suburbanize the city, that’s a fight we’ll lose. There are glimmers of hope, but it seems city hall never follows through on the good ideas.

    I think an important part of all this will be to get businesses back into the city. Downtown is dead after 5pm, but a lot of neighborhoods are dead from 9-5 as people go to work. We don’t seem to have the live/work thing going on in many neighborhoods.

  14. @Jim, I love that point you just made… “Downtown is dead after 5pm, but a lot of neighborhoods are dead from 9-5 as people go to work.”

  15. The “walk/don’t walk” signs need to be more in sync with the traffic lights, and give you adequet time to cross the street. I start cross when it says “walk”, then it changes mid-mango, and I have a-holes practically running me over and yelling at me.

    Also, start a PSA campaign to educate the public about the laws for sharing the road.

  16. @Riley, I couldn’t agree more. Ask the City of Rochester to implement Lead Pedestrian Intervals (LPI) at all major crosswalk signals. Basically giving pedestrians a head start before the traffic light turns green. Read more at:
    http://streetswiki.wikispaces.com/Leading+Pedestrian+Interval

  17. Will Prouty says:

    Great article, and just as great are the comments following it. I lived in Toronto for 10 years, in four different neighborhoods, without owning a car. I could always walk to a grocery store or a restaurant, and use transit when needed. Walkability, convenient public transit and mixed usage development seem so important for a thriving city.


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