It’s odd that so many Rochester students, when selecting off-campus housing, neglect the City of Rochester. No, Rochester isn’t the sickening sprawl of Henrietta, nor is it, luckily for those of us with shopping, eating and entertainment needs, the Crittenden neighborhood populated by zombies who, after working 16-hour shifts at the hospital, have room for nothing on their minds other than walking home to sleep.
It’s a city – a densely populated area with a diverse crowd, strolling the sidewalks and avenues of glowing neon, abuzz with activity late into the night. Within two blocks of my house off Monroe Avenue, I can procure Big Macs, barbers, beer, bagels, bongs, books and even a couple things that don’t start with “b.”
Yet, for some inexplicable reason, many upperclassmen opt for houses in slightly closer physical proximity to the River Campus. The 19th Ward has all the downsides of urban life with none of the benefits; the Crittenden neighborhood is architecturally abhorrent and a cultural abyss. In either neighborhood, you’ll have trouble living independently without a car, but driving to school would involve parking further away from campus than your house. It’s too far to conveniently walk but too close to be on the bus line. In the Monroe-Alexander-Park-East corridor, however, food, retail and services are all closer than Danforth is to Towers. The seven-minute ride on the free UR bus gets you to Rush Rhees more quickly than you could park a car or walk from Phase.
President Seligman recently indicated the University is looking to cultivate a “university town” in the 19th Ward. These efforts, recognizing that desirability and, therefore, selectivity are strongly tied to the quality of student life, should be applauded. But why try to build a village when you’ve already got a city?
In a zero-growth region like Monroe County, sprawl causes urban decay. Whenever a new house or big-box store is built, property values in the city dwindle as storefronts go abandoned, residents resort to crime and transients move in; sometimes gentrification is attempted with additional construction, as in the case of the Brooks Landing project, and the cycle is perpetuated. The proposed university town would never surpass the magnitude of the city – who are we kidding, 3,500 kids who buy little with real money other than beer (which, as of yet, cannot be illegally downloaded) and Ramen noodles never fueled an economy. Wouldn’t it make more sense to re-invest in existing structures? If the University has a need for office space, why not look toward the Inner Loop near Eastman, an abundance of historic and affordable space?
It’s clear that, due to crowding in the dorms, a mass off-campus migration is imminent, but any economist will tell you a plummeting real estate market is not the place to build more housing. A vibrant, youth-oriented community is also not in keeping with the reality or vision of the immediate surrounding neighborhoods. Crittenden is as sleepy as our other neighbor, the cemetery, and the 19th Ward is just as rife with the prospect of death. Upperclassmen should be encouraged to look just a mile northeast, where the infrastructure for student living is already there.
Urban life has its grittier aspects – just ask the old man who, yesterday, after missing the bus to an AA meeting, stormed across the street to the liquor store – but until I have kids, I have no problem with the eclectic bunch I call neighbors. I did open my door to find a hobo literally standing inside my trash can, but no big deal – I nicknamed him Oscar and pledged to drink more beer so he might live off my five-cent can deposits.
Paradoxically, living off campus has made me more involved with campus life. Without my every need attended to, I found myself striving for goals I would otherwise have been too apathetic to pursue. I no longer felt a walk the distance from the Fraternity Quad to Wilson Commons was an insurmountable obstacle, but rather that a bus ride was entirely reasonable to participate in worthy activities. And being off campus induces a sense of civic involvement – within walking distance are plays, concerts and museums, not to mention the Park Avenue Festival, a city-wide D-Day.
Seligman added that his reaction to the news that he was CEO of the biggest employer in Rochester was sadness, not pride. He promised the University would do what it could to restore our city’s economy to its former glory. But the way to do that is not to exacerbate the snowball effect of white flight and urban decay.
Now, normally, I’m not one for helping, but when halting those trends entails spacious, independent living, fanning myself sensually with the fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills saved, grabbing a garbage plate for lunch rather than garbage from the Pit and walking to UR bar parties almost any night of the week, you can call me Mother Theresa.
And I’ll take that over a hypothetical chain restaurant and office tower that’s taken 40 years to plan any day. Besides, who’s going to patronize the “extended-stay hotel” that anchors the complex – hordes of mothers with severe separation anxiety? I don’t see tourists flying in for an 80-day tour of abandoned liquor stores. Is their market the vagrants who have just been evicted? Or is this just another Fast Ferry, a desperate delusion designed to rescue Rochester from economic despair that, in reality, does just the opposite?
College campuses are unique places where young people walk wherever they need to go. They aren’t your parents’ neighborhood – they’re historic areas where it’s not out of the ordinary to hear music blasting and bottles opening into the wee hours of the weeknights, where stumbling around wearing only a marching drum or tossing broken TVs out windows doesn’t turn as many heads as an outsider might think.
But maybe I was too hasty in using the word “unique.” One other place fits that description.
Rosiak is a member of the class of 2008.