A new Downtown Rochester? Re-habbed buildings are nice, but European style streetscapes and a real pedestrian culture would transform our fair city (Source: esd.ny.gov).
Monday, April 2, 2012 Munich - A film we shot in South Africa in 2010, entitled "Lucky" (2011) is making the rounds of film festivals, worldwide. While it is impossible for me, due to time and money, to attend and speak at all the festivals, we couldn't turn down a paid stay in Fribourg, Switzerland (SEE the Fribourg International Film Festival).
Fribourg is a fantastically preserved medieval city, founded in 1157, and currently has a population of about 35,000. At 2,000 feet above sea level, its air is only slightly thinner than is Rochester's (415 ft. above sea level), yet Fribourg affords one an amazing view of the snow clad Western Alps. But for me, what makes Fribourg so special (like Zürich and Munich, etc.) isn't the Alps, or its stunning ancient architecture: European towns and cities such as these have central town and city squares, off limits to cars, that foster an enormous pedestrian-retail-café culture.
While Greater Rochester certainly has its public marvels, like Park Avenue, the East End, Corn Hill, East and University Avenues, and Erie Canal villages, the average European village or city has many times the amount of public, pedestrian space as does Rochester, let alone Boston, Philadelphia, et. al.
An unfair comparison? Yes, but that is the point. We Rochesterians must aspire higher. What follows is a case by case, point by point comparison of Greater Rochester (and in certain aspects, America), with my observations from my many trips to this side of the pond. However, this analysis will not be limited to the use of public space, nor the preservation of historic buildings: Culture, food, sport, and transportation are fair game as well.
Urban Europe vs. American cities like Rochester: Better Bread and Chocolate meets Superior Hotels and Shopping. There are great, Ma and Pa bakeries in Rochester, to be sure. And when it comes to chocolate, Stever's is plenty fine. But you haven't lived until you have dined on indigenous European cuisine.
From the cheese, baguette and wine of France, to Toucher Chocolates of Zürich, Europe has it all over the U.S., and Rochester, when it comes to many types of foods. Many European food and beverage choices are superior to those found in the States, due mainly to how fresh and low-tech Europe prepares its food, and thus knows how to keep it simple (the fewer ingredients, the better).
But enough prose, and long winded paragraphs:
Ball Park Hots: Sorry Zweigle's and Sahlens, but Munich 1860 has you beat. I attended a Bundasliga soccer game at Allianz Arena (a 70,000 seat stadium), and was in awe of the white hot, roll, and mustard I downed as the game began between 1860 and F.C. Hansa. Delaware North food concessions: Sit the f___ down. You should be booted out of Rochester's sports venues, like F.C. Hansa booted 1860 to a 1-0 loss.
Car traffic and road quality: At least in my experience, America, and especially Rochester, gets the nod in this category. There is always some way around a traffic jam in Rochester. Roads in our city, and Monroe County and the metro are usually wide, well maintained, and grid-like. Too often, not so in much of Europe.
However, Europe's narrow roads and traffic jams highlight one of its charms: Narrow streets often mean walkable real estate, which then lead to outdoor cafés (by the thousands), and curio shops. And Western Europe's traffic jams are not only due to narrow thoroughfares, but occur because Europe, in general, is far more densely populated than is the U.S., or Greater Rochester. (QUICK FACT: France, and the State of Texas are nearly the same size geographically, yet France--with 62 million people--has nearly 2&1/2-times the population of Texas, at 26 million.)
Hotels: If charm met everything when judging the quality of hotels, motels, inns, and B&B's, then continental Europe would out poll Rochester and America every time. But there are other factors, indeed.
Your average (and even sometimes above average) hotel in Europe has no screens on the windows to prevent the intrusion of insects (though often there don't seem to be many of the pesky buggers); small bathrooms (our bathroom in our Fribourg hotel was so small we had to leave it to change our minds); sometimes a king or queen bed is merely two smaller beds, pushed together, with a common mattress cover sheet; etc.
In Greater Rochester and the U.S. in general, often a Country Inn & Suites, a Fairfield Inn, a Holiday Inn Express, and just an average Marriott along an interstate highway are much better hotels than nearly anything you'll find in many medium to small size cities in Europe.
Occasion for Social Encounter: Back to the village or city square idea. This, in my opinion (and I know I am not alone) is the most important cultural advantage to Europe, versus, the paved over, big box, chain restaurant, retail hell that America has become.
Why is the average American (as well as this author) overweight? Yes, we eat junk food, but so do Europeans. The problem is, we Americans (and we Rochesterians) hardly ever walk, anywhere. The exact opposite is true in much of Europe. If a European isn't boarding an efficient, fast train, or a street car (not even named Desire), or a taxi, our European counterpart is walking, and walking, and then walking some more.
Despite the high quality of food in Europe, I always lose weight when I travel here, because I walk so much. You know what they say, when in Zurich...
In terms of social encounters, nothing beats the atmosphere of the average European city square. Here you will find laughing children running around with parents in tow, parents who are not paralyzed by the irrational fear of crime; outdoor cafés (sometimes even with umbrellas); Italian ice cream (the best on the planet; sorry Abbott's or Tom Wahls); and decent retail.
Instead of a boring, two story Windstream building, why not make the former Midtown site into something even Europeans could be proud of? A city square!
Smoking: One reason not previously mentioned as to why Europeans (and most of the world) are thinner than your average American: They all smoke cigarettes (or it seems so).
I'm an asthmatic, and I despise cigarette smoke (I'm even now allergic to it), but it seems no matter where I go in Western and Central Europe, I am annoyed by some nicotine-addicted chuckle head, who could care less about those around him or her, or, whether or not non-smokers enjoy the idea of second hand smoke and its cancer causing effects. Big advantage to Rochester, and the U.S.
And Finally... I'm not renouncing my American citizenship anytime soon. I was born in the U.S. (Genesee Hospital), and will likely perish within her 3.6 million square miles. I love my country, and my home, in Monroe County. But we could learn much from our European brethren.
The standard of living in most of Western Europe, and some of Central Europe, is similar, on a per capita basis, to the U.S. and Canada. However, many comparisons are inherently unfair. America must spend an inordinate amount of money and resources to defend the free world, and to make sure there continues to exist a NATO and the United Nations. We still are an enormously generous country, giving billions of dollars a year in public and private funds to the world's needy. So sometimes infrastructure improvements, like some of the suggestions I've made in this and other articles, go wanting.
But we are a democratic, free market, capitalistic nation, and once we begin to pay down our enormous public (and private) debt, there will be money in the not-too-distant-future to help us decide exactly what kind of American--and local--culture we want for ourselves, our kids, and our grand kids.
Do we want a Cracker Barrel restaurant and a Walmart on every corner, with too few sidewalks, and fewer places to walk to? Or, should we get out of our cars more often, properly fund Amtrak & RTS, walk to a friend's house, or to a café, retail establishment, or Saturday matinée?
For your heart, your blood pressure, and as a cure to loneliness, perhaps it's time to drop some of the American bravado and arrogance, and take a closer look at what most of Europe is doing quite right, thank you.
And frankly, what's "quite right" isn't just happening in Europe (but maybe that's a future article?).
-Christopher J. Wilmot, (with sidewalks, just one short mile south of the Village of Pittsford, NY).
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