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12/02/2003

 
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This article was recently in the Toronto Globe and Mail seems I am not the only one. Sad really. . .

Ferry bad place

The good news is that Torontonians are getting an exciting new car ferry. The bad news is it's going to Rochester

By JAN WONG
Saturday, November 29, 2003 - Page M1

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- People in this beleaguered city on the south shore of Lake Ontario are pretty excited about a new Toronto-Rochester car ferry promised for May. For their part, people in Toronto have barely noticed. That's all to the good because there are several important reasons why Torontonians wouldn't ever want to come here.

Take Rochester's homicide rate, at triple the U.S. average. The car-theft rate is 2.6 times the U.S. average. Robbery is nearly triple the national rate. Then there's the culinary treasure known -- this is true -- as the Garbage Plate.

For $6 (U.S.), you get home fries and cold macaroni salad, topped with a cheeseburger or hot dog, all drowned in ground meat, hot sauce, chopped raw onions and Day-Glo orange grease. It takes a tattooed cook 14 seconds to assemble. It looks unpicturesque.

"That's why they call it the Garbage Plate," says Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., 61, who is no fan.

Don't sample it at Nick Tahou Hots (slogan: "Home of the Garbage Plate''). At this fluorescent-and-Formica joint, the cheeseburger is as dry as a cracker and the grease pools at the bottom of the paper plate.

"It's supposed to be greasy," says the skinny cashier, who appears to eat elsewhere.

Nick's used to be open all night until it hosted one too many shootouts. Located on West Main Street, it's a quick but perilous walk from the mayor's office, past a homeless shelter, shuttered businesses and a high school for troubled youths.

"You walked there?" Mr. Johnson says. "I wouldn't walk there. Don't go there again. If you had made a wrong turn, you would have been in no man's land." He pulls out sheets of statistics. Rochester's homicide rate, at 17.4 per 100,000, is double New York City's.

In 2001, Rochester had 39 homicides, mostly execution-style hits.

"Only a couple of times a year, a purely innocent person gets shot," the mayor says.

He dreamed up the ferry idea in 1995, a year after he took office. He thought tourism might halt the city's decline. Conjuring up a vision of Torontonians streaming across Lake Ontario, he persuaded New York state to kick in $14-million toward a ferry service.

Currently, the $42.5-million (U.S.) high-speed catamaran is out of dry dock in Perth, Australia. At the Rochester harbour, a 30-minute drive from downtown, work crews are rushing to convert an abandoned warehouse into a terminal.

But neither side has received approval from customs and immigration authorities. And construction hasn't even begun in Toronto. "I'm in the dark as to exactly what kind of structure they're talking about," says Mr. Johnson, who has heard rumours that Toronto's terminal might be a concrete pad covered by a tent.

Henry Pankratz, Toronto Port Authority chairman, didn't return calls. Nor did Dominick DeLucia or Howard Thomas, executives at the ferry company, Canadian American Transportation Systems.

"The last I heard they wanted somebody else to put in money," says Joe Pantalone, a Toronto city councillor who chairs the municipal waterfront group.

In a sign of how few tourists come to Rochester, rooms at Microtel Inn & Suites cost $39.95.

"I get the stupidest calls from the stupidest people," the desk clerk complained to a room attendant the other morning. "Like, 'How big are your rooms?' " In fact, Microtel has queen beds and full baths, and includes continental breakfast, free local calls, cable TV and the morning paper.

Rochester would be a bargain, except that Air Canada charges nearly $900 round-trip for a 25-minute flight. (Advance bookings are $387, with a $150 penalty for any change.) By car, the trip via Buffalo takes about 3½ hours, plus gas and tolls. In contrast, the thrice-daily ferry will cost $40 (U.S.) per car, plus $20 per passenger, or $28 for walk-ons. Shore to shore, the trip takes 2½ hours, an estimate that doesn't include customs and immigration checks.

But such comparisons miss the point, according to Carol Miller, a retired hospital worker (and my cousin-in-law), who has lived in Rochester her whole life. "What do they expect people from Toronto to do when they come here? There is so nothing here."

Hers is a typical Rochesterian psyche, less civic boosterism than civic dumpsterism. Indeed, last June a number of local organizations offered a "Reality Tour" of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.

Ms. Miller offers her own blightseeing tour. At the ferry docks, she points out abandoned buildings. "The beach is polluted," she says over the roar of front-loaders. Later, she drives her family van over potholed streets to the downtown core. Here, on the Genesee River, is Rochester's star attraction: a 30-metre waterfall.

High Falls is no Niagara Falls, but it did power Rochester's first flour mills. On this sunny November day, the footbridge is deserted. "I hate to tell you this, but it's like this in the summer, too," Ms. Miller says. "To be honest, I wouldn't come here day or night alone."

Downtown, all-day parking is $3. A nearby heritage building is vacant, with smashed windows and torn plastic sheeting. Traffic is so sparse it's unnecessary to look left or right when crossing the street. But pretensions to a bygone era remain: no-left-turn signs on every downtown corner.

Two hundred years ago, High Falls made Rochester the largest flour-milling city in the world. A hundred years ago, George Eastman invented the 10-cent flexible film roll and the $1 Brownie camera here. His 50-room mansion, which now houses a museum of photography, is the city's only five-star attraction. In 1932, at the age of 77, the lifelong bachelor declared his life's work done and shot himself in an upstairs bedroom.

Rochester's decline can be traced to governor Thomas E. Dewey. In 1948, Rochester voted against him when he ran for president, ensuring he lost the state -- and the White House. Two years later, Mr. Dewey saw to it that Interstate 90 bypassed Rochester on its way from Buffalo to Syracuse.

Today, digital technology has slashed employment at Eastman Kodak Co. to 21,000 from a high of 60,000 in 1982. Two other main employers, Xerox Corp. and Bausch & Lomb Inc., have also cut jobs. In the past decade, Rochester's population has shrunk 6.3 per cent to 220,000 (Greater Rochester has about a million) and taxable city property values have plunged 15.3 per cent. It now ranks 173rd among the nation's 200 largest metropolitan areas in terms of job creation and economic performance.

At the end of a depressing tour, Ms. Miller is pressed for a genuine Rochester attraction. She suggests Wegmans, a supermarket. Don't laugh. "It's the store where I take my relatives and out-of-town visitors," Neil Stern, a food-industry analyst, told The New York Times.

Cher went there this summer. Wearing dark glasses and a cowboy hat, she signed autographs and cooed to the manager, Bill Congdon, "I'd love for you to build one of these stores in Malibu where I live."

At 130,000 square feet, the Pittsford Plaza Wegmans offers a caviar bar, a kosher deli that authentically boils the bagels before baking, and a less authentic Chinese buffet. The fish department cooks to order, free. The flower department has a five-day guarantee on roses. You can hook your latte cup onto your shopping cart. Your toddler can "drive" a red plastic car also hooked, yes, to your shopping cart.

Aside from gargantuan restaurant portions -- the Scotch N Sirloin offers 48-ounce slabs of prime rib, Nick Tahou Hots sells 42-ounce drinks -- everything in Rochester seems to be disappearing. Downtown's revolving restaurant has closed. The nightly laser show at High Falls has been mostly discontinued. Even the Red Wings baseball team had five consecutive losing seasons, including, in 2002, its worst in 23 years.

"Then they moved the team to Ottawa, and immediately it got better," says Mr. Johnson, who himself was trounced this month in a race for county manager.

Not surprisingly, Rochesterians prefer to look to the past. Visitors are told to go to Mount Hope Cemetery, where Frederick Douglass, the slavery abolitionist, and Susan B. Anthony, the women's suffrage leader, are buried. Her home is another attraction, but everyone from cab drivers to Ms. Miller to the mayor warned against venturing into the neighbourhood (just past Nick Tahou Hots).

"Oh, we have no problem here," Joanne Middleton, the docent, insisted to the one and only visitor of the day. "The neighbourhood is fine."





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