Saying goodbye to the “Downtown: The Way It Was” photos

Saying goodbye to the “Downtown: The Way It Was” photos

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 4/16/17 See Rochester’s unhealthy relationship with nostalgia

David Andreatta’s essay last Sunday April 16th, “Rochester’s unhealthy relationship with nostalgia,” is provocative and bold.

In the diligently documented piece, Andreatta discusses the remaining historical photos from the “Downtown: The Way It Was” exhibit that, within the next few weeks, will be removed from building facades.  As Andreatta explains, the public art installation was mounted eight years ago to coincide with the city’s 175th birthday.  While not necessarily designed to be permanent, the photos are still displayed, but many are decrepit and many are already covered up.  Soon they will all be gone.

boarded up

I followed in Andreatta’s footsteps and also learned most of the photos are fading or not visible. 4/17/17

Andreatta’s article is provocative because he does not mourn or lament the taking down of the photos — that he describes as beautiful. Instead he sees the photos to be emblematic or indicative of “the crippling crush Rochesterians have on their past” and a “mass refusal to let go of yesteryear.”  Andreatta’s thesis is that the exhibition is “symbolic of both the neglect that haunts pockets of downtown and the city’s unhealthy relationship with nostalgia.”

Andreatta may be right.  The photos — bustling downtown in stark and negative contrast to boarded up storefronts — contribute to a narrative that the best days of Rochester are behind us.  The days when people worldwide heard “Kodak” and thought “Rochester.”

Of course, nostalgia is in the eyes of the beholder. Black Rochestarians do not wax nostalgic for conditions that led to the 1964 riots and the 1971 racial disturbances in the schools when busing failed.  See Revisiting Rochester black history

On another level, Andreatta’s essay is bold simply because his newspaper thrives (apparently) on a rich staple of history-based and nostalgia-tinged features:  Roch Roots, Retrofitting, Remarkable Rochesterians, etc. In that same Sunday edition was a maybe-it-was-better-back-then article on long gone Easter parades.

andreatta 2

Democrat and Chronicle, 4/19/17

Given the age demographics of D & C readers — especially those (like myself) who cling to their print subscriptions — it’s hardly surprisingly that nostalgia for the Good Old Days sells.  Andreatta, pretty bold to rock the boat.  And soon enough, the essay drew a critique in the print edition.

To me, Andreatta’s perspective is valid.  I think the letter writer missed Andreattta’s point. David was not undermining the historical contributions of Douglass or Anthony, but highlighting the potential counter productiveness of nostalgia.

That said, I will miss the photos.  I discovered the exhibit belatedly when researching Rochester’s greatest soldier, General Elwell Otis. I keenly remember searching for the photos of the Otis Parade and Arch, suddenly reliving that day in 1900 when — triumphantly — downtown Rochester was the way it was.  Tracking down all the other photos, I spent the rest of the afternoon transported back in time well over a hundred years ago. Last Monday I took what will probably be my last look.  See Remembering General Elwell Otis on his Day, June 15th: Rochester’s imperial war hero

Ultimately, what I drew from Andreatta’s essay was the exhibit’s creators, Ken Sato and Gerard DiMarco, doleful explanation that they had hoped to replace and update photos on a regular basis but couldn’t get funding.   DiMarco was disappointed in the lack of interest in the project that “could’ve been a very colorful and personal and quite a thing for visitors to see.”

NYS Militia passing through the Otis Arch, June 15th, 1900

NYS Militia passing through the Otis Arch, June 15th, 1900. From Remembering General Elwell Otis on his Day, June 15th: Rochester’s imperial war hero

Since I first discovered the photos, my unscientific observations match DiMarco’s commentary.  When downtown, I would make mental notes whether anyone even stopped to look at the photos. I almost never saw the exhibit catch the attention of a passerby or someone waiting at a bus stop.  Most were transfixed by their phones.

Maybe that lack of interest was because the photos weren’t updated.  Or maybe people shared Andreatta’s perception that the photos became an exercise in crippling nostalgia.  My hunch — and fear — is that when the photos go down they won’t be missed, except by a few buffs with overheated imaginations — which says more about our historical ignorance than it does about our nostalgia.


On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. And remembering the Buffalo Soldiers on Veteran’s Day

One hundred years ago when America entered the War to End All Wars. And Rochester.

Revisiting Rochester black history

Celebrating the first Otis Day (June 15th) with the General’s sword at its new home: the Military Society of Rochester

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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