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Transit Authority May Rename Mortimer Street “RTS Way”

October 29th, 2014

RTS wants to change the name of Mortimer Street to RTS Way.
By Mike Governale

Next month Rochester’s transportation authority, Regional Transit Service (RTS) will open a new $50 million transit center at Mortimer Street in downtown Rochester. According to a D&C story external link RTS has requested that the City change the name of Mortimer Street to “RTS Way.” Mortimer Street external link has quietly existed between N. Clinton Ave and Saint Paul Street since Rochesterville was incorporated in 1817.

I’ve spent the last five years of my life advocating for Rochester’s public transit system and building a good working relationship with folks at RTS. That’s why I know they will take what I’m about to say as constructive criticism, and nothing more. Here it goes:

Renaming Mortimer Street after yourself is a bad idea. Don’t do it!! Now, let me explain…

The new RTS Transit Center. Mortimer Street can be seen on the left edge of the photo. [PHOTO: informedinfrastructure.com]

Firstly, it’s polarizing

For good reason City code external link prohibits streets from being named after a living person… and I’d go so far as to say we should not be naming our streets after corporations (public or private). It’s just a polarizing thing to do. Unless maybe you’re George Eastman, you’ll never have unanimous consent and many will find issue with it. So why even attempt it?

Show Some Humility

While naming a street after yourself may seem like an appropriate thing to do after you’ve served the community for 150 years, it actually comes across as an unnecessary and self-gratifying move.

RTS wants to be seen as your “friendly” local transportation service. This is why the organization is currently in the process of rebranding itself. They know better than anyone that corporations have personalities – just like people do. For an organization that wants to be seen as friendly, reliable, and service-oriented, narcissism is not a virtue. Humility is.

Respect Local History

The D&C article reports “both the City and RGRTA searched for the namesake of Mortimer [Street] to no avail, officials said.” I don’t know how much “searching” they actually did, but some fairly easy searching through online local history docs external link give us a pretty good idea for who Mortimer was likely named.

Stay with me here…

Abelard Reynolds was one of the original residents of Rochesterville, and father of Mortimer Reynolds. [PHOTO: Albert R. Stone]
In 1812 Abelard Reynolds of Pittsfield, MA stopped at the Genesee Falls on his way to Ohio. During his visit he took an interest in Colonel Nathaniel Rochester’s Hundred Acre Tract and decided to buy a couple of parcels on the west side of the river north of Main St. In 1813 he returned with his family and this is where they built their home.

Colonel Rochester established his 100 Acre Tract on the Genesee River in 1811 and Rochesterville was officially chartered in 1817.
The Reynolds were an enterprising bunch and became very active in the settlement of Rochesterville. They brought with them some iron goods to sell, and they used their home as a tavern, a saddlery, and also the town’s first post office. Abelard was even appointed as Rochesterville’s first Post-master “at the intercession of Colonel Rochester.”

In 1823, on the site of the family home, Reynolds had built a 4-and-a-half-story commercial building – the Reynolds Arcade. Some people said it was the largest commercial building west of Albany at the time! [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library]
In 1823, on the site of the family home, Reynolds had built a 4-and-a-half-story commercial building – the Reynolds Arcade. Some people said it was the largest commercial building west of Albany at the time!

What does this have to do with Mortimer Street (on the EAST side of the river)? So in 1814 Abelard and his wife Lydia had a baby boy. They named him… MORTIMER.

Aww! Baby Mortimer. Cutie!

Mortimer Street can be found on maps dating back to around the time of the founding of Rochesterville and the birth of Mortimer Reynolds. [PHOTO: gccschool.org]
Old maps do show Mortimer Street as early as the 1820s. But I could find no property owners in this vicinity by the same name – at any time.

Now, while I have no direct evidence that Mortimer Street was named for baby Mortimer Reynolds, when one considers that Rochesterville was just being settled (officially chartered in 1817) and how prominent the Reynolds family became during this time, I think it quite likely that a new street could have been named for the family’s newest member.

If there’s even a chance this street were named for baby Mortimer, by itself this would be enough reason for me not to rename it “RTS Way.” But there’s more.

Little Mortimer went on to become a very successful businessman in his own right, and he would do something which I consider to be truly great…

The Reynolds Library on Spring Street. Built in 1856 for Samuel Hamilton. Mortimer Reynolds bought the home in 1877 and lived in it until his death in 1892. The house was remodeled in 1895 and the Reynolds Library (incorporated in 1884) moved from the Reynolds Arcade to this mansion. In 1936 the collection was transferred to the Rundel Memorial Building. The mansion was then sold to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1940. It was later razed for the construction of the inner loop. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library]
When the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Association (the precursor to R.I.T.) went bankrupt in 1877, Mortimer purchased their entire book collection and with it sought to establish a new free library. The Reynolds Library was incorporated in 1884 and opened to the public in the Reynolds Arcade in 1886.

An interior view of the Reynolds Library on Spring Street. [PHOTO: Rochester Public Library]
Mortimer Reynolds died in 1892 and he left his home, a mansion on Spring Street, for the library’s new headquarters. In 1933 the Reynolds Library merged with the Rochester Public Library to form the bulk of Rochester’s new Central Library. The Reynolds Collection is maintained to this day at the Rundel Memorial building.

That is pretty cool. If Mortimer had nothing else named for him other than the street, he probably should have.

And now in 2014 (on the 200th anniversary of his birth and 130th anniversary of the Reynolds Library) we are going to strip Mortimer’s name from the map??

We might as well rename the Mortimer Street Parking Garage the “RTS Parking Garage” while we’re at it.

In Conclusion

If you are the Transportation Authority; that probably means you have more important things to spend your time on than renaming streets. Besides the fact, it’s more than a bit tacky to propose to name a public street after yourself – even if you do own the newest and biggest building on the block. And most importantly, you don’t get to erase local history simply because you were unable find its source.

Mortimer Street should remain Mortimer Street.

• • •

UPDATE 1: This story is evolving in the comments section below. Dave Gottfried points to another Mortimer – Mortimer Johnson – who was son of Rochester’s 5th Mayor, Elisha Johnson. This seems make more sense, as Mortimer Street is located within the Johnson & Seymour Tract established by Elisha Johnson and James Seymour.

UPDATE 2: There may be a 3rd possibility. Brian Sharp (D&C) tweets, “There also is a Charles Mortimer who was a civil engineer at the time and lived on North Street.”

• • •

Let them know what you think

Contact RTS:
(585) 288-1700 or email [email protected]

Contact your City Council external link member:

Carolee A. Conklin
[email protected]

Matt Haag
[email protected]

Dana K. Miller
[email protected]

Jacklyn Ortiz
[email protected]

Loretta C. Scott
[email protected]

Adam McFadden, South District
[email protected]

Carla M. Palumbo, Northwest District
[email protected]

Elaine M. Spaull, East District
[email protected]

Michael A. Patterson, Northeast District
[email protected]

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 at 12:03 am and is filed under Opinion, Rochester History, Rochester News, 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.

34 Responses to “Transit Authority May Rename Mortimer Street “RTS Way””

  1. Jim Mayer says:

    And, on top of all that, I just plain don’t like renaming public places. There is comfort in continuity.

  2. patsy6 says:

    Hear, hear! I heartily agree.

  3. Great work on this Mike! Couldn’t agree more.

  4. Alinda Drury says:

    Well researched – well written – well reasoned. I say, stay with Mortimer.

  5. Dave Gottfried says:

    Hey – I posted this on Facebook, but will post it here too… It’s not Mortimer Reynolds:

    I’ve been searching for an answer to this Mortimer Street question, and I don’t think it is named after Mortimer Reynolds. The street is older than him… he was born in 1814, and if the street has been named Mortimer for at least 200 years, that would have coincided with his birth. According to maps from 1820, the street was Mortimer Street then, so it’s unlikely it was Reynolds. Also, this land fell into the Johnson-Seymour tract. I’ve been searching to see if either Elisha Johnson or Orson Seymour had children named Mortimer, and as it turns out, Elisha Johnson – who was also our 5th Mayor DID have a son named Mortimer. In fact, Mortimer killed a man in Rochester in a duel and had to flee – eventually ending up in Florida of all places, and later he ended up in Tellico Plains, in Monroe County, Tennessee, where he then worked at the Tellico Iron and Manufacturing Company, which, interestingly, supplied the SOUTH in the Civil War. So anyway, my best guess is that the street is named after Elisha Johnson’s then young son, Mortimer.

  6. Patrick says:

    What a terrible idea… A city with history needs to embrace the past and changing historical streets to something as generic and bland as “RTS Way” is about as dumb an idea that RTS could have proposed…

  7. Dave that’s interesting quite possible. Perhaps we could have the street re-dedicated to Mortimer Reynolds 😉 We could even rename it, “Mortimer Street.”

  8. Patrick says:

    Dave, nice story… Either way, the fact remains that if we somehow NEED to change the name of one of our historical streets, it should be to something that actually adds value, culture, history, etc.. to our city. RTS Way is at best unimaginative and at worst just offensive…

  9. Dave Gottfried says:

    I just don’t like how the whole, “both the City and RGRTA searched for the namesake of Mortimer [Street] to no avail, officials said.”

    It really didn’t take me too long to figure out that the land, including Mortimer Street, which was owned and laid out by Johnson and Seymour, was likely named Mortimer after the son of own of the OWNERS OF THE LAND! LOL

    And, as it turns out, the Johnson family has a really interesting history.

  10. Dave, I agree. Do you know what year Mortimer Johnson was born? I’m still unclear as to what year the street was named. I can’t find any map from before 1820 that shows Mortimer, but I haven’t hit the library yet.

  11. Dave Gottfried says:

    OH, I just posted that on Facebook too! Mortimer Johnson was born in 1806, and the land was subdivided by Elisha Johnson in December of 1817, so Mortimer would have been 11 years old at the time.

  12. ACW says:

    Great research! Even the sound of the word “Mortimer” is interesting and worth preserving. Plus, how many other Rochester streets are named after a character in Shakespeare? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_IV,_Part_1

  13. Urban Explorer says:

    Hear hear! Well done piece. Keep it Mortimer Street!

    And yes, to RTS, you’re doing so many good things now. Show a little humility.

    On a related topic, why does the city default to new streets or renamed streets being “ways”? Samuel McCree Way, Sawdey Way, Brookscrest Way Andrew Langston Way? What’s wrong with the solid, dependable, historic word “street”?

    Where are our poet geographers? Or geographer poets? Why can’t we name our places with some elegance? Try to say “Brookscrest Way” out loud. Your tongue trips awkwardly over the ‘kscr” consonant cluster and it gets caught in your throat.

    “RTS Way” is little better. Bland. Anonymous. Place-less. Corporate-speak. Might as well be a cul-de-sac at an office park in Henrietta… or New Jersey… or Bangalore.

  14. Urban Explorer says:

    ‘Mortimer Street’ shows up on Elisha Johnson’s map dated March 30, 1818 and entitled ‘Map of Johnson and Seymour’s Land on the East side of the Genesee River at Rochester.’

  15. Dave Gottfried says:

    Urban Explorer – yup, that makes sense, as the land was subdivided in December of 1817. I think this all lines up and makes sense! There is a good collection of Johnson family genealogical and historical documents, including clippings, located at one of the Buffalo libraries. I’m trying to find, just to satisfy my own curiosity, the story behind the duel! So far no luck, but I’d imagine something will turn up.

  16. This is all rather intriguing. On one hand, Mortimer Reynolds was the first white child born in Rochester (in 1814 – before incorporation). At the same time, the first actual land sold in the city was in 1821, at the corner of Clinton and Mortimer, but it was said to be called Mechanic St. at the time. Mind you, all of this comes from the seminal work on Rochester history, http://goo.gl/BmHQjf, but it may be incorrect. The 1820 map of the Johnson tract (before the first lot was sold in 1821) shows Mortimer St. already on the map – http://photo.libraryweb.org/rochimag/rpm/rpm00017.htm.

    Strange to say the least. I should imagine an afternoon at the library would allow all of this to be fleshed out pretty well.

    Changing gears to the actual renaming – the renaming of streets in a city is relatively common. I think the middle ground that would be appropriate here, though, would be having the honorific of RTS Way on the street rather than renaming the street entirely. Also, and as a sort of side note to this, if RTS was thinking about having the street renamed after them, the least they could have done is installed a proper sidewalk on the street. It’s awful as it is, and should maybe just be closed to vehicular traffic all together now and made into a public plaza.

  17. Mr. Denker! Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind we can sort through this and figure it out. The City & RTS saying “we tried but couldn’t find anything” makes no sense at all.

    And l think you’re thinking what I’m thinking regarding renaming the street. In NYC I know I’ve seen streets that literally have two names; with one being sort of ceremonious. Perhaps RTS would accept having a second street sign placed below the “Mortimer Street” sign??

    I think we could all live with an arrangement like that, maybe?

  18. I think it’s optimal. Heck, my barber in DC was honored with a renaming of the street he’s on – http://goo.gl/tWQNRs!

    Please note, if anyone here is ever in DC and needs a cut, I cannot recommend Signor D’Ambrosio enough.

  19. Urban Explorer says:

    Personally, I don’t love the “honorific” idea. It’s all rather pointless and confusing, especially to outsiders or newcomers.

    After almost 70 years, does anyone actually call Sixth Avenue in Manhattan the “Avenue of the Americas”?

    Closer to home, there are “honorific” signs at the corner of Broad and Exchange designating it as “War Memorial Square.” There is neither a square or a memorial (the memorial is hidden away inside the building)… discuss.

    Also, where’s the honor for RTS? I realize I’m sort of arguing against my own “honor Mortimer” argument here, but does RTS really want their name on what has become a crappy alleyway with a sidewalk only on one side?

    I’m not sure how much stock I’d put in Mr. Peck’s “seminal” work, Mr. Denker. Legally, the city didn’t exist until 1834, so it would be land sold in what is now the city. But even then the 1821 date doesn’t make sense as Mssrs. Rochester, Carroll, and Fitzhugh purchased land in what is now the City of Rochester sometime before 1811. Although the title may be suspect, Ebenezer Allen purchased land in what is now the city in the late 18th century.

  20. I mean, there’s a reason I said it may be incorrect…

    That said, squares suffer the same sort of genericism that ways do. Hell, is Times Square a square? Hint: no.

    I think just because the technical term is honorific, it does not, in many cases, convey much honor. I mean, think about a place like Kirkland, WA, where nearly every street in town was renamed (from actual names to just numbers). Every one of the numbered streets carries the honorific of it’s old name, but good luck getting mail there.

  21. Urban Explorer says:

    True enough. Although Times Square is at least a large-ish public open space. War Memorial “Square” is just a wider bit of sidewalk. Wishful thinking.

  22. The more interesting “square” in the area of the War Memorial is the park on top of the municipal garage. Sadly, it suffers from the same issue that plagued Bryant Park (which is a square, despite not carrying the name), in that it’s elevated. When streets were completely awash in horse manure, elevated parks were appealing. Once the street was cleaned up, though, elevated parks became isolated, which allowed less savory activity to multiply. The new park over there is beautiful, if anyone has the chance to check it out, but barren. Not unlike the elevated park above Milwaukee’s Transit Center (brought it full circle, boom!): http://goo.gl/9nPVpM.

  23. Justaguy says:

    Great post.
    When Bronson Ave. was renamed Dr. Samuel McCree Way many in the City Fire Dept. that worked in the area said “nothing against Dr. McCree, but has anyone looked into who the Bronson’s were and why a street was named after them in the first place?” Of course not.

    ‘History is written by the victor’ is the line and history can also be ‘disappeared’ by them (disappeared used in the same way as it is used referring to many in Central & South America who ‘vanished’ under various regimes). What I see in many decisions such as this Mortimer St. one fall into one of two categories: corporatism or revenge.
    Neither are legitimate reasons. Especially the “it’s our time now” revenge view which could lead to the renaming of streets every 30 years as demographics change.

    For what it’s worth, wouldn’t ‘Transit St.’ make more sense than ‘RTS’? I mean, if you are trying to make it a name that is helpful for those looking for it? Kinda like Mill St.? Mustard St.? Driving Park?

  24. Patrick says:

    Good point @Justaguy… I still think preserving historical street names, etc.. is the best route. But, if you are going to change it, come up with something better than “RTS Way”. That name sounds like something an underachieving middle school class would suggest…

  25. Alinda says:

    The City has specific rules about renaming streets, including obtaining approval of a majority of adjacent landowners, which in this case is a moot point. Part of the process, if I remember correctly, is a hearing with the Planning Commission – at which the public are free to voice ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ comments. The Commission then makes a recommendation to City Council – and there is, again, another opportunity for public input. I hope all of the thoughtful comments I’ve read here will be reiterated for the public record.

  26. Jimmy says:

    This begs the question, Will they have to rename the Mortimer St. Garage, RTS Way GARAGE?? How stupid would that be? RTS is doing a great job fixing their outdated system but they have to remember they wouldn’t survive without taxpayer money (correct me if I’m wrong). They are in no position to get a street named after them.

  27. I’m not sure that last one should be the judgement for street names. I mean, the streets themselves are almost entirely taxpayer supported themselves. That said, it would lead to an odd position for the garage you reference.

  28. Michael Brisson says:

    I wrote to Matt Haag of City Council and received this reply today,


    I have talked with my colleagues and I do not believe we will be moving forward with this concept.



  29. Interesting. I trust Matt… but I wouldn’t count the votes until they’re in.

  30. Russ S. says:

    Michael, keep up the good work!
    Considering the apparent mentality of those involved in this ridiculous proposal, perhaps “RTS WAY” was chosin bekaus nobudy their cant spel “MORTIMER STREET”.

    If it has to be changed, “RKO WAY” in memory of the RKO Palace would be a better choice.
    Russ S.

  31. Dennis S. says:

    After reading this article, and all the comments that followed, I have to say that I found it all very interesting. My own opinion is that they should not rename streets. Most of these streets have historic significance. Changing the name can effectively remove any future curiosity anyone may have over the history of a street or neighborhood. Historically the city has not been a very good custodian of the history here. Silver Stadium is a very good example here. There are many others as well. I say, leave the roots to our history alone. Good, bad, or indifferent, it is still ours, and should not be wiped away with a pen or bulldozer.

  32. By the way, isn’t there a John F. Kennedy Square in the same area as War Memorial Square?

  33. Oh, my mistake, it’s at the Liberty Pole. Another historic structure for Rochester.

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