In A World Heritage Site in our Backyard: preserving and profiting from the history, culture, and ecology of the Lower Falls Gorge, George Payne offers a comprehensive and persuasive rationale on why and how the Lower Falls Gorge can become a a World Heritage Site.
On May 28th, on one of the three tours George gives of the Lower Falls Park and Gorge, about 15 people gathered at Maplewood Park. We were fortunate to have with us Austin Retzlaff, a gifted photographer. Austin kindly shares his visual montage and narrative.
Except where noted, the photos were taken by Austin. George took the one above of the top half of a dilapidated bicycle that has been standing on its island long enough to be covered with a thick layer of dried mud.
Hike to Rico’s Cave: An Experience Of “Two Rochesters” by Austin Retzlaff
When I saw the Facebook event — Hike to Rico’s Cave at the bottom of the Genesee Lower Falls Gorge — I was immediately interested. As a 24-year-old living in the Rochester suburbs for the summer, anything to get me out of the house and out into an unfamiliar area of the city is definitely my cup of tea. Plus, the trip was being organized by George Payne, who I knew back from when he was working at the Gandhi Institute in 2012. So I told my buddy Avi about it, and on the beautiful morning of the event, we pulled up to the scene.
The walk was to begin in Maplewood Park and Rose Gardens, an iconic feature of the northwestern part of Rochester. I’d passed by the park many times, but never gone within. From what I could see of the park, it was well-landscaped, serene and idyllic– a happy public space, nestled right in the crux of where the downtown area begins to fade into the more residential territories along the Genesee River as it flows north towards Lake Ontario.
We encountered George and the rest of the group at the trailhead. George offered an excellent account of the area’s history as it related to the Underground Railroad movement of the 1800’s, describing Rochester’s role as a safe haven for the “freedom seekers” in their journey to flee the oppression of slavery. In the beautiful sunlight, the park looked far removed from those days of terror. Yet, as we would soon see, the park still plays host to a new generation of “freedom seekers,” seeking escape through even more dangerous methods.The visible signs of drinking and drug use on the trail didn’t spoil the occasion for me, but it did make me think about community life in Rochester today. While our own, fairly racially homogeneous group of active, mobile, socially engaged Rochesterians was enjoying the trail for its intended purpose, there was clearly a large contingent of people who were using this park as a spot to secretly resort to vices. In a way, it was like we were in two cities: the Rochester that serves as a benevolent playground for the fortunate people who are accommodated by contemporary society, and the Rochester that plays host to darker, unresolved stories of addiction and poverty. It reminded me of standing on South Avenue, where on the same street one can observe boutique chocolateries and upscale wine bars, just a few blocks down from housing projects and very visible cases of urban poverty and homelessness.
Another story of Rochester’s dual identities unfolded as we proceeded along the trail towards the bottom of the gorge. We stopped to observe the top of the falls, as well as the mighty bridge spanning the river, and a largely dormant Kodak facility on the other side that had once drawn power from the river using hydroelectricity. At one time, Kodak was a major industrial power, bringing affluence and innovation to Rochester. Now, the natural splendor of the falls was the most vibrant thing to be seen from this vantage point.
As we drew up to the base of the falls, we marveled at their beauty and the excitement of being in such a dramatic and inspiring location. Yet we hadn’t even ventured into the destination of our hike: Rico’s Cave. Rumor has it that it is named such because of a Puerto Rican flag painted on a stone outside the entrance, but something about that explanation had an air of unresolved mystery to it still.
The cave went several hundred feet back before ending in a large bowl-shaped cavern, with a hole in the ceiling leading up to who knows where. I later learned that the opening goes up over 20 feet before emerging in the woods near a McDonalds in the area.
All in all, our journey through the gorge was very worthwhile, and gave me reason to develop my perspective on Rochester. I recommend this journey to anyone with a good pair of hiking shoes and a sense of curiosity… you never know what you might discover.
NOTE: State Senator Rich Funke recently produced this video about the Lower Falls Foundation