After 35 years Irene and I are leaving town. Those of you who see my social media posts know that I love the city of Rochester, and that hasn’t changed. We love our city apartment. We love our walkable neighborhood, the shops, the people, the restaurants. Even though we loved our house and neighborhood in Brighton, our decision, four and a half years ago, to move to an apartment on the Genesee river was one of the best decisions we ever made.
So, why are we leaving and where are we going? The short answer is that we’re moving to New Hope, Pennsylvania, to help take care of my mother. The long answer is more complicated.
First, though, this is a long essay and it mixes personal reflections with some observations about leaving Rochester. For me, the two are inextricably entwined. If you’d like to skip the personal, you can jump to the section labeled “Leaving Rochester”.
[Correction: I originally stated that our new apartment was 40% less expensive than our current place. It's only 24% less expensive, but it is 40% smaller!]
[Correction: I originally stated that our new apartment was 40% less expensive than our current place. It's only 24% less expensive, but it is 40% smaller!]
The Long Answer
When we travel, one of the games Irene and I play is fantasizing what it would be like to live in the place we’re visiting. After all, we’re both recently retired, fairly young, and our kids are off on their own. We really can move anywhere we want. We’ve gone as far as organizing trips around this. For example, two years ago we travelled with some friends from the Genesee Rowing Club to participate in the Canadian Masters Championships in Vancouver, BC. The pacific northwest is a hotbed of cohousing communities so, after the rowing, we went on a cohousing exploration. We visited Quayside Commons in North Vancouver, Roberts Creek Cohousing on the Sunshine Coast, Harborside Cohousing in Sooke, Pacific Gardens in Nanaimo, and checked out the site of the then embryonic Fernwood Village Cohousing in Victoria. On the way, we fell in love with the area and the Pacific ocean. I love the ocean, and have since my family spent a couple of summers in Cape Cod forty years ago.
The idea of moving to the the Pacific Northwest stuck with us enough that, early this spring, we took a “shit or get off the pot” trip. Decide to move, or stop talking about it. We visited Vancouver, BC, Nanaimo, BC, and Port Townsend, WA.
The West End neighborhood of Vancouver is an amazing place. It’s an urbanist paradise, filled with restaurants, shops, bike trails, and real neighborhoods. On any street in the West End, you’ll meet young families with children, old men and women, professionals grabbing lunch, workmen, shop owners, and students. From an apartment or condo in the West End, you can walk to the Vancouver Rowing Club (another theme), downtown, the amazing Stanley Park, shopping, movies, crazy good asian food, anything. It’s also among the most expensive real estate in North America. We half convinced ourselves that we might be able to afford a VERY small place there, but after learning that everything sells well over asking price we gave up.
Our next stop was Nanaimo, BC. If Vancouver is a polished urbanist gem, Nanaimo is a rough cut diamond. The city has an amazing harbour, some lovely old buildings, and enough restaurants and shops to keep us happy. Like Rochester, Nanaimo has suffered from years of “mall and sprawl” development. Thankfully, though, it is not as scarred by “urban renewal” as Rochester is. Even better, we could afford to live on the harbour in Nanaimo, and, although the rowing club is a forty minute bike ride away, the harborfront condos all have kayak storage.
Our final stop was Port Townsend, Washington. Port Townsend is an old, Victorian, city on an outcropping off of the Olympic Peninsula. It has a great natural harbor, and many people thought it would become the largest harbor on the west coast of the United States. When the railroad went to Seattle instead, Port Townsend was frozen in time. Decades later, Port Townsend became a haven for artists, and, more recently, it’s become a haven for active old people with a taste for peculiar, but rarely sub-freezing, weather. It also gets a lot of tourists, which means that there’s more going on there than any city of nine thousand people deserves.
We fell in love with Port Townsend. In Rochester, our apartment looks out over the Genesee River. We see the river change with storms, with the seasons, and with the time of day. Erie Harbor is oriented to the river, and the river’s presence is a big part of what has made our four years here so wonderful. Similarly, there is no separating Port Townsend from the ocean. The city is a seaport, and the ocean surrounds the city on three sides. The ocean and the mountains control the weather. The ocean was the genesis of Port Townsend, and will probably be the end of the city as well. It’s always there. In addition, Port Townsend is highly walkable and is a strange, funky, place. And the rowing club is downtown, restores and rows old wooden racing shells, and shares a building with an excellent coffee shop. What more can one ask for?
So, if we fell in love with Port Townsend, why are we moving to Pennsylvania? A few weeks after initiating Jim and Irene’s excellent Port Townsend adventure, we realized our timing was terrible. My mother is in her mid-eighties and has dementia. My sister and her family live nearby, and have taken most of the responsibility for helping first my parents, and then, after my father’s death, my mother. My sister coordinates my mom’s care and, even after my mom moved to a memory care facility, has been the family's “on point” person. She’s there multiple times a week; she makes sure the various caregivers talk to each other; she does a lot of work. My sister and her husband have full time jobs and kids in school. She never would have asked us to leave Rochester, and she didn’t ask us not to move to Port Townsend. It eventually sunk in, though, that for two healthy, retired, childfree, people to move across the country for fun while leaving my sister to care for my mom was just plain tacky.
That priority established, it was time to move to somewhere near my mom. She’s in Yardley, Pennsylvania, so a quick Google search for “rowing clubs near Yardley PA” pulled up the Swan Creek Rowing Club in Lambertville, NJ. Lambertville is across the Delaware River from New Hope, PA. An initial visit, some time with a good realtor and Zillow found us an apartment. So there we are. We’re leaving in July.
There are a lot of wonderful things about New Hope. It’s a small, old, town with a lot of character. It’s on the river, though our apartment is not. It’s a tourist destination and has good restaurants. New Hope is walkable and our apartment is a pleasant ten minute stroll from the heart of downtown. The place is a zoo on weekends, but we’re retired so we can go into town on quiet days. We’re an hour from NYC and Philadelphia where our kids live. We’re twenty minutes from my mother, and a half hour from my sister. I have relatives in Philly, and it will be good to see them more often than we’ve been able to. We can walk to the rowing club.
Also, our new apartment is 800 square feet smaller than our townhouse at Erie Harbor, and this is an excellent way to continue our adventures in downsizing. Irene has some great stuff listed on Craigslist, by the way!
People leave Rochester for a lot of reasons, some real, and some, I think, mythical. Now that we’re in the middle of moving I thought I’d go through a few of them and see how they applied to me.
Reason One: The Taxes in NY are Too Damn High! It Costs Too Much to Live Here!
New York taxes are high, and one of the reasons we liked New Hope is that Pennsylvania does not tax retirement income. Then I investigated health insurance. We currently have a high deductible, HSA eligible, EPO policy through Excellus (thank you, President Obama, for the Affordable Health Care Act). We pay just under $600 a month for this policy. A similar EPO policy, with a higher deductible and no HSA, is nearly $370/mo more. A PPO policy that is HSA eligible is nearly $500/mo more. Given the low state income taxes we’ll probably come out a little bit ahead, but it won’t be much.
OK, but what about property taxes? They’re very high in Monroe County. For us, though, our taxes are folded into our rent. We’ll be paying about 24% less for an apartment that is 40% smaller and is not new, not on a river, not on a bicycle trail, not next to a park, and doesn’t provide bicycle storage.
Cost wise, Rochester is looking pretty good right now. Taxes are just one part of the cost of living.
Reason two: The Weather in Rochester Sucks
I like snow. I don’t like slush. I really don’t like slush that has melted on the sidewalk and frozen into a glass like layer of hip destroying nastiness. On the other hand, summers in Rochester are wonderful, and summers in New Hope are hot and muggy. In the winter I can add clothes, but there’s a limit, even in New Hope, to how many clothes I can take off.
When I was ten, my family moved from New York City to New Jersey. We used to joke that the mosquito was New Jersey’s state bird. This is not a new joke. The WPA Guide to New Jersey: The Garden State tells the following story:
Another legend tells of a group of men working all night in the salt works at the Manasquan River Inlet who were besieged by mosquitoes. The workmen crawled under a large iron kettle. The mosquitoes immediately began drilling into the metal; and as each proboscis appeared on the inside, the workmen would strike it with their hammers, riveting it fast. Finally, when a number had been hammered to the kettle, the mosquitoes simply flew away with it - after which the rest of the swarm made short work of the men.
When I was a kid, my dad told me the following story:
During World War II, the army stationed soldiers to watch over the rail yards in Hoboken, NJ. One evening, a young soldier stood guard, smoking a cigarette and looking across the Hudson to the New York City skyline, which was crimson in the warm light of the fading sun. Two mosquitos peeked out at the guard from behind a warehouse. The first mosquito turned to his buddy and said, “Let’s go carry that soldier off and eat him!”. The second mosquito, older and wiser than the first, shook his head and said, “No. Too noisy. The big mosquitos will hear and they’ll steal him.”
And don’t get me started on Lyme disease.
All in all, I don’t think the weather in southern PA is better than the weather here, though it’s certainly different. For me, the worst part of Rochester weather is ice on the sidewalks and trails, and that is fixable with a small application of will and money by the city and county governments. Message to the city: clear the damn sidewalks in the winter!
Reason three: The City is Dead
No, it’s not. Downtown has been a mess for a long time, but with the new influx of residents it’s showing some spark, and the east-side neighborhoods are alive and exciting. The poverty in some of our other neighborhoods is a real problem, but I’ll talk about that later. One of the things that I’ll really miss about Rochester is the mix of millennials, boomers, and others that live, work, and play in the city. The young people I meet around the city are passionate, friendly, involved, and, well, just delightful human beings. I feel more connection with them than most people my own age. The City of Rochester is troubled, but it’s growing, changing, and very much alive. I will really miss being part of that.
Reason four: Black People
OK, I said “black people” to be provocative, but so much of the negative crap about Rochester on social media is pure racism, and so many of the real issues that the area faces are linked to structural racism and the intersection between race, class, and poverty, that I had to bring it up. Every time I hear the words “personal responsibility” I want to scream!
Look, Rochester is highly segregated by race and income. Poverty, especially generational, long term, poverty, is tragic on multiple levels. It’s tragic for those trapped in it; it’s tragic for the children born into it; it’s tragic because of the wasted lives and potential; it’s tragic because it affects everyone in Monroe County, whether they live in the Crescent or a suburban cul de sac. It’s a financial, social, and moral drain on our entire community.
For me, though, the most discouraging problem of poverty, race, and class in the Rochester area is not the homeless people; it’s not the gangs; it’s not the crime; it’s not the terrible schools. The really discouraging problem is that our community, with all of its intelligence, money, and resources, absolutely refuses to do anything that would make a real difference. Ever since the city hollowed out, the political dynamic in Rochester has been simple: keep the poor people in the city. That’s been the goal of town governments through exclusionary zoning. It’s been the goal of county government. It was true in the days of redlining, and it is true today.
We’ve made progress in some ways: it’s no big deal for a Black family to move in down the street, especially if she’s a doctor and he’s an engineer. Money always helps. At the same time, though, the conscious decision to segregate our community by race and class remains. We have created an environment where far too many Black and Latino people grow up in poverty, attend substandard schools, live in neighborhoods without jobs, can’t get to the places where the jobs are, and can’t get hired anyway. We have created a world where even those trying their hardest to succeed are only one tiny setback away from financial disaster, and then, when the nearly inevitable occurs, we blame the victims for lacking “personal responsibility” or their “culture problem” or their “welfare dependency.”
This coupling of race, poverty, and class is so pervasive and widespread that, for many of us, it’s nearly invisible. It’s just the way it is, and so the problem is framed as “Black people” and not the system and wider culture that oppresses them.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t born yesterday, and I don’t believe that victims are always innocent. People who are victims can do foolish or terrible things, and their victimhood in no way excuses their actions. At the same time, there’s no way to solve intractable problems without understanding them. We can empathize with a victim without ignoring his or her faults, mistakes, or even crimes. Empathy is not absolution. But, if we don’t empathize, if we don’t try to understand, if we don’t listen with both our hearts and our minds, if we don’t take responsibility for our own actions and circumstances, how can we help? How can we effectively support our neighbors who want and need the kind of stability, safety, and opportunity that is the norm for most white people in Monroe County.
I’m afraid that our most intractable issue is not the poverty, or the schools, or the lack of jobs in the city. The most intractable issue is getting the people of Monroe County to acknowledge that this is our own damned problem, and to commit the time, energy, social capital, and money needed to effectively address it. I find this deeply discouraging, and I often want to just run away. And, yes, I know that’s shallow, and I know that running away is only an option because I’m white and have money, and that’s still the way I feel.
Reason 5: The City Government is Corrupt, Incompetent, Pathetic, Etc.
First, see “Reason 4”, above.
I’m sure the city government has some waste and inefficiency. So does the county government. So do most large corporations. Don’t get me started on the State of New York. As far as I can tell, groups of people form large, messy, organizations that are wasteful and inefficient. Some are worse than others, and there are always horror stories. I know people who have had bad experiences with city agencies; at the same time, my own interactions have been largely pleasant, effective, and hassle free.
I don’t blame the city for not effectively addressing poverty. The city has a lot of poor people, which drives down property values, which decreases tax revenues, which means the city has no money. Job creation requires capital, so concentrated poverty is not going to be solved from the inside. Mayor Warren has brought new focus on the dynamics of poverty in the city. That’s a good thing, though not likely to be enough. The city doesn’t have the resources.
Some of the departments and people I know in city government are wonderful. The planning department, for example, has some really first rate people and is doing great things. They research best practices and actively promote the changes that have been most effective elsewhere. In particular, we are blessed with planners who understand that cities do not thrive as pale imitations of suburban shopping malls. Cities thrive because they have enough people, living, working, and playing together, to create vibrant local economies. The best cities are messy and congested. As Yogi Berra said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Cars and cities don’t play well together, mostly because cars take up so much space. When we tear down half of our buildings for parking lots we create a world where it’s easy to park, but where there’s no place to go. It doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, I have the impression that Mayor Warren doesn’t quite get modern urbanism. Her actions suggest she knows, as well as anyone, that Rochester will rise or fall with the success of downtown. When she came into office many people were concerned that she wouldn’t support downtown, but I don’t think that’s been a problem. On the other hand, too many of the “big picture” proposals that have been floated are not compatible with good urban design. I think the water park, the casino, and even the performing arts center (though that’s the least bad of the three) just miss the boat. They’re all variants on a tired theme I’ve heard too many times: build “something” so that “other” people (suburban dwellers, tourists, convention goers, etc.) will come to our city and spend money. Then everything will be good. It doesn’t work that way. Thriving cities attract people from outside because they are exciting, busy, places, and not the other way around. I strongly believe that we need to focus first on making the city a better place to live. We need creative jobs that bring in wealth. We need people living near those creative jobs. We need service jobs and businesses so that city residents spend their money inside the city, and so that all of our neighbors can make a living. We need transportation that links the places where people live and work and play. When we get that right, people from the suburbs will come and play too.
I Really LIke This Place
I’ve lived in Rochester for 35 years and I love this place. I came here for graduate school, stayed, got married (twice), raised a family, owned a couple of houses, and retired. My neighborhood in Brighton was wonderful and the schools were great. My wife and I live in an apartment with drop dead gorgeous views of the city, the Freddie-Sue bridge, and the Genesee River. Our patio looks right out at the Fourth of July fireworks. We’re across the street from Swiftwater Brewing. We can bicycle to our rowing club without crossing a street. How bloody amazing is that. Rochester is a great place to live.
I’m going to miss my friends and teammates at the Genesee Rowing Club. I’m going to miss the wonderful kids and parents of the Brighton Rowing Club. I’m going to miss gliding down the river at dawn on a summer morning and seeing a great blue heron leap into the air and soar over our boat. I’m going to miss the flowering trees in springtime, and I’m going to miss the blazing colors of a Genesee River fall.
I’m going to miss my Xerox friends and colleagues. I spent thirty years at Xerox, in research and in the office products group. I had fun until the day I retired, and I appreciate the trust and human decency of my immediate management. They always understood that there are things more important than work.
I’m going to miss the wonderful, friendly, people at Hart’s Local Grocers. Everyone there is friendly, the breakfast sandwiches rock, and they’re just a few minutes away by bicycle. Yes, I admit to buying 64 oz bags of frozen mango chunks at Wegmans, but Hart’s has nearly everything we need, and we can get in and out of the store in way less time than we can at a bigger place. I buy diced tomatoes; I don’t need fifteen varieties of tomato sauce.
I’m going to miss Abundance Food Coop. They’ve been around forever, and have the best bulk food department in town. Plus they’re nice. I think moving to the South Wedge will be a great opportunity for Abundance, and it will be great for the Wedge to have a full sized grocery store right on South Ave!
I’m going to miss our neighborhood haunts: Hedonist Ice Cream, Cheshire, Solera, The Tap and Mallet, John’s Tex Mex, La Casa, Harry G’s, Coffee Connection, Mise En Place, Boulder Coffee, The Beale, Napa, ButaPub, The Cub Room, Orbs. I know I’ve left many out. I’ll miss our walks downtown to check out the progress at Midtown and to visit Fuego or Aunt Rosie’s or brave Drifters doing the pioneer thing on Main Street. I’ll miss walking to the Jazz Festival and the Aztec Mocha’s at Java’s. I’ll miss the Bernese Mountain Dog at Dogtown Hots and the Cumin Lamb at Han Noodle Bar. I’ll miss the friendly owner at Mt. Hope Convenience and the grease at Lin’s Garden. I’ll miss chatting with Andy and the staff at Swiftwater Brewing. I’ll miss the beer and food too. I’ll miss the Little and the Cinema. I’ll miss the street festivals and the food trucks. I’ll miss the public market.
There’s so much going on here.
Enjoy it all, and don’t fuck it up.
Love and best wishes,