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September 25, 2008

Western New York Visited

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As long-time readers might recall, I spent more than four years living in Albany, New York while working as a demographer at the then New York State planning agency. My task was to create county population forecasts. So, in addition to my usual weekend wanderings near the Hudson River and other destinations of choice, my job required occasional visits to all the major metropolitan areas to meet with planners and other data consumers. Aside from the eastern part of Long Island, I've been to most parts of the state.

But I moved from New York in December, 1974 and seldom get the chance to visit it. When I do, it's usually the eastern part of Upstate. That means I've essentially lost touch with many places I had known and had a professional interest in.

Happy me, I just returned from a trip from Boston through parts of Canada that ended with a drive from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, along U.S. 20 to Canandaigua and concluding in the Rochester area where a cousin of mine lives. The weather was fine (room-temperature and sunny) and the leaves were beginning to turn color here and there.

I wrote about Buffalo here and was especially interested in seeing how it was coping with its long-term decline from being a prosperous, major city. We hopped off a freeway and drove into downtown from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (which was closed that day). After a quick turn through the center we got on Broadway and headed east, seeing what there was to see along that axis all the way to Canandaigua.

Coming into town we spied several old, abandoned factories. Along Broadway out to around the city limits there were boarded up businesses, vacant lots that might well have had house at one time, and a strong sense of economic loss. Nancy mentioned that she had seen not one supermarket on that stretch (though surely there must have been a few lurking nearby).

Downtown was in better shape; a few new office buildings were in evidence, though they weren't large ones. The most impressive structures were old ones on Niagara Square -- a grand hotel (formerly the Statler, now in seeming limbo status) and a fabulous high-rise city hall . completed in 1931 (the link has photos, including one showing the decorated dome top).

By the time we were in eastern Erie County, what we could see from the road looked normally prosperous -- based on what I recall from Upstate in the early 1970s. On the other hand, I wasn't struck seeing many new structures other than the odd fast food joint or supermarket. So the impression I got was that rural areas were holding their own.

(A word about impressions. They easily can be wrong. For instance, back in the 70s Utica was known to be on the skids, yet it looked okay in general and there were a few new (but small) commercial areas. One really needs solid, comprehensive data to be sure of what's really happening. So take all my observations here with a 10-pound salt lick.)

The Rochester area did well during the 1960s. The removal of Xerox's corporate headquarters and the company's later troubles along with Kodak's loss of dominance in the imaging industry halted the region's growth since then. Basically, it seems to be holding its own, which means it's doing much better than nearby Buffalo.

We did a quick turn through downtown, which seems to hollowing out here and there. On the other hand, the nice suburbs to the southeast looked very impressive. If you are in the area and like looking at fine, older houses, consider this itinerary: Approach the city from the southeast along Monroe Avenue (state highway 31). Turn right onto Clover Street (highway 65), then turn left on East Avenue (highway 63) and follow it to downtown. The Clover and East sections (not Monroe) in Brighton and Rochester have the good stuff. More can be found in nearby Pittsford. We had the advantage of perfect, almost-fall weather; winter should make it all seem more bleak. (This is near Michael's boyhood stompin' grounds, so perhaps he can give us the perspective of a former local.)

Unfortunately, I was driving and not picture-taking. I did take a few shots of the rebuilt part of the Erie Canal at Lock 32 as well as photos of the new airport terminal (new to me -- I last flew in/out of Rochester in 1982). I wrote about small airports here, using Yakima, Washington as my example.

The Rochester airport illustrates the latest wrinkle in airline survival tactics. In 1982 my planes were the then-common Boeing 727 tri-jets which are comparable to today's 737s and Airbus 320s. I saw exactly one 727 in Rochester; it was a cargo plane. There were no 737s or 320s. All the passenger planes were either turboprops or those small "regional" jetliners. Every passenger ramp I saw was tilted downwards to accommodate those small, ground-hugging craft. The reason for this is that Rochester is (and was, even in 727 days) a second-tier airport. One can't hop a non-stop to San Francisco or Paris from there. A study of the arrival/departure board indicated that flights from Rochester went no more than about 500 miles to destinations such as Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington. Airlines are putting their standard-size liners on longer routes and shorter routes with high passenger densities, and Rochester doesn't qualify even though its region has about a million people.

Here is a sampling of my photos.





These were taken at or near Erie Canal Lock 32 in Pittsford.


Two views of the interior of Rochester's airport terminal. We had to kill a couple of hours here, and the wait was pleasant. Not crowded or noisy, just enough customer services. That old control tower in the upper photo is the real McCoy. It was built in the late 1920s and used for about 20 years. Twenty feet of the base was chopped off so that it could fit in the terminal for display.

The view from the terminal window. Plenty of space and two runway systems, but the tarmac was lightly used while we were there. That's a turboprop liner used for short, thin routes. Note how low the passenger ramps are positioned.

Here's our Brazilian-built American Eagle Embraer regional jet arriving from Chicago. That's the largest airliner I saw there that day.



posted by Donald at September 25, 2008


Upstate New York is edenic. Did you ever think of working up a painting from the photos you've taken of the Erie canal? It's every bit as paintable as Constable country.

Posted by: ricpic on September 25, 2008 9:11 PM

What especially nice, good contrast photos of the canal, Donald. Airport...feels institutional. No, not even that: I wouldn't propose this awful grey/white/charcoal-with-pink highlights scheme even for detention center.

But, more importantly, what did you think of Montreal?

Posted by: Tatyana on September 25, 2008 10:00 PM

I used to live in Buffalo for 5 years. I stopped visiting after a while because it was just too depressing to see the annual decline each time I went back. Every couple of years the population was significantly less.

Posted by: T. AKA Ricky Raw on September 26, 2008 5:51 AM

My grandparents retired to Canandaigua back in the early '80s. I visited there for the first time in ages not long ago. It looked about the same, which would seem to be a good thing given the dismal alternatives. Pretty place, wonderful main street. I dunno if the party scene on the lake is as it once was but I suppose it must.

Posted by: ERM on September 26, 2008 9:15 AM

Interesting post! Some questions:


Donald wrote:

As long-time readers might recall, I spent more than four years living in Albany . . . .

But I moved from New York in December, 1974 and seldom get the chance to visit it.

In 1982 my planes were the then-common Boeing 727 tri-jets which are comparable to today's 737s and Airbus 320s.

Benjamin writes:

I don't get the connection to the year 1982. Is this a typo?

- - - - - -


Donald wrote:

. . . . I spent more than four years . . . working as a demographer at the then New York State planning agency. My task was to create county population forecasts.

Benjamin writes:

The job as a demographer doing population forecasts in New York State in the very late 1960s and early 1970s (when presumably the state was sliding downhill) for the state government (which presumably wouldn't like this trend) sounds interesting. Some questions to just get a brief idea of the situation:

Generally speaking, what forecasts did your department come up with? What were they based on? Was there pressure from higher ups to minimize any hints of the state's decline? How on or off target were these official forecasts?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 26, 2008 9:34 AM

I see the answer to question "1" is in the post:

. . . I last flew in/out of Rochester in 1982 . . .

Whoops! Sorry I missed it. I must have been focusing on the nearby mention of the Erie Canal -- an interest of mine since childhood.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 26, 2008 9:49 AM

ricpic -- Nice thought, but I'm not sure I can paint with the degree of delicacy to handle the trees well. Will think about it, however.

Tat -- The pix are unaltered from the camera dump -- no 'shop or crop. Excellent weather was a big factor. All I did was frame the shots.

I'll probably do something on Montreal later. Basically, I enjoyed it better than in previous visits, though I hate driving in it.

Benjamin -- As for the forecasts, I was the tech semi-flunky and my bosses had to worry about the small-p political impact. The big worry was that the state as a whole would start to lose because birth rates were still falling at the time and net migration was already negative. We assumed slow growth. Another "rule" (not revealed to the public) was that we would predict losses only for areas already having demonstrated loss.

Accuracy? Forecasts are almost always off, and the error generally increases with time from the benchmark date. Maybe I'll dig out the data and do an analysis.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 26, 2008 9:58 AM

I believe Jet Blue still flies 320's to Rochester on its JFK and Orlando flights. They may have replaced them with regional jets, though it's hard to tell from the airline's website.

Posted by: Peter on September 26, 2008 10:05 AM

Nice travelogue. You get the feeling of western NY too, though I'll also co-sign ricpic's view of the area as "Edenic." The Park Ave and East Ave parts of Rochester are about all anyone needs to explore of the city (though a few buildings and blocks smack downtown still have some oldtime magic). And Pittsford has done a great job, don't you find? A onetime canal town that's now a prosperous 'burb, but that hasn't lost its town center, and has been wise about capitalizing on the canal. I'd love to know their secret -- how they avoided turning into a nowheresville suburb, which is what too many of the towns around Rochester have let happen. I suspect that loads of money didn't hurt.

Did you spend a little time in Canandaigua and then venture through the rest of the Finger Lakes? Curious about your responses to that stretch.

And eager to hear more about that demography career, esp. what your bosses were up to politically.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 26, 2008 11:29 AM

Michael -- We were time-constrained so far as Finger Lakes were concerned. Part of the morning was spent seeing Niagara Falls from the American (Goat Island) side. Then the Buffalo drive-by. It was around noon before turning east, and we had to be at our motel by four to retool for our 5 p.m. visit with my cousin. We were able to spend a little more than an hour in Canandaigua. Checked out the end of the lake, looked at the courthouse area, shopped on the main drag and had crepes 'n' coffee at a nice little restaurant.

I'll probably write more on NYS demographics now that you and Benjamin have ganged up on me. The politics thing had to do with the precarious state of the planning agency (which I'll explain when I do a posting). The idea was not to make waves. As it happened, the agency vanished a short while after I left.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 26, 2008 12:39 PM

" Plenty of space and two runway systems, but the tarmac was lightly used while we were there."

probably because it is generally not a city that attracts many vacation-goers .

"Basically, it seems to be holding its own, which means it's doing much better than nearby Buffalo."

from what I've heard (since when I visit Rochester I never go downtown), downtown Rochester is pretty void of businesses and is crime ridden. I have heard that Buffalo, a pro sports town, has a better economy than Rochester and has more of a night life. The entire city of Rochester has 2 bars packed per weekend night, and the rest of them are empty. Basically I think there is a rivalry between the two to see which one can be the most boring.

Posted by: mike gimble on September 26, 2008 7:00 PM

Love the grey/white/charcoal-with-pink highlights color scheme.

Fabulous photos! More please.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 27, 2008 2:31 AM

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