January 15, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Twenty-somethings to the rescue 

Three new groups try to save downtown --- one beer at a time

Kelly Tiberio has fond memories of the childhood years she spent living in Rochester with her grandmother. The 27-year-old freelance writer and editor currently lives in Fairport, where she graduated from high school, but from 1982 to 1988, she lived off Lake Avenue, not far from downtown, in what she describes as a "beautiful, old, city home [in a] beautiful neighborhood."

            After high school, Tiberio moved back into her grandmother's house, but found that the once-beautiful neighborhood had become an urban battleground.

            "I was surrounded by drugs, prostitution, gun shootings," Tiberio says. "It was crime-ridden. It was becoming the ghetto."

            Less than a decade before, Tiberio had felt comfortable sitting in her grandmother's front yard on summer afternoons, drinking iced tea and reading magazines. By the mid-'90s, that was no longer an option.

            "I wouldn't get in my car without locking it immediately after," she says. "When I drove down the street, at every stop sign, you're on your toes. You're suddenly at this heightened state of awareness about your safety levels."

            After two break-ins, Tiberio's grandmother had bars installed on the ground-floor and basement windows. She then had the old home repaired and refurbished in preparation to sell it. After two years on the market, it was finally sold to a couple from Mississippi who, Tiberio says, "kind of didn't know what they were getting themselves into."

            "Here's a gem sitting in the middle of this horrible neighborhood," she says. "If you picked that house up and moved it into a suburb, you could sell it for 200 grand. She barely got $40,000 for it."

            Before long, the house was foreclosed, vacated, and up for sale again.

            Then it became a murder scene.

            Tiberio's grandmother was visiting her home in Fairport about two years ago when they were shocked by a local TV news broadcast. "On comes a story about a man who was shot in daylight on Ravine Avenue," Tiberio recalls. "They showed the [scene] and there's our house. The guy was shot in our driveway. The reporter's standing there at the end of our driveway, telling us about this homicide.

            "That really freaked me out."


Tiberio's experience may be extraordinary, but her fears about downtown Rochester are typical of people her age. Many, if not most, twenty-somethings are freaked out by the prospect of driving through, let alone living in, most parts of Rochester. "I know a lot of people who won't even go downtown by themselves," Tiberio says.

            Some young people with the choice to live elsewhere have chosen to reside in Rochester. The Park Avenue area, with its relatively high rents but low crime, is one of a handful of urban neighborhoods these brave souls have hunkered down in.

            But in the last decade, as downtown neighborhoods like Tiberio's grandmother's have deteriorated, tens of thousands of young adults have simply decided to move away. Census figures show that the area's twenty-something population shrank from about 172,000 in 1990 to roughly 133,000 in 2000.

            This trend perpetuates itself, as the lack of peers makes Rochester an even less desirable place for people in their 20s to live. Businesses suffer as the area's "brain drain" makes it more difficult to find qualified employees locally or attract them from afar. Local retailers, restaurants, and cultural institutions lose the significant revenue this relatively free-spending consumer demographic could provide. Neighborhoods are sapped of the vitality young, educated people bring to an area.

            In short, we're turning into Utica.

In the last year, three organizations have been formed in an effort to reverse this trend.

            Last spring, a group of young Rochesterians --- including Tiberio --- organized The City Walk, a monthly pub crawl created to draw people downtown and make them more aware of what the city has to offer.

            Last summer, four young people founded Rochester-Area 20-Somethings, or R.A.T.S., to give Generation Xers more opportunities to mingle and make social and business connections.

            And most recently, two of the original R.A.T.S. founders started another, similar organization, Rochester Young Professionals.

            All three grassroots, non-profit organizations are dedicated to changing young locals' negative perception of our region. The groups' organizers all insist this perception is largely unfounded --- and that Rochester's positive attributes are just hard to find.

Aside from fears downtown is a dangerous place, two of the most commonly held, negative perceptions of Rochester are that there are no good jobs here and the social scene sucks.

            "There are a lot of what I'll call 'sexy' opportunities elsewhere --- both from the professional standpoint and, honestly, the social standpoint," says ex-R.A.T./RYP-co-founder Christopher Burns, 27.

            Burns, a venture consultant at the Lennox Tech Enterprise Center (a business incubator), says local college students are often wooed away by big companies that can afford to send recruiters to area colleges. Although, locally, the Big Three --- Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb --- are downsizing, Burns says there are plenty of opportunities available at small, growing Rochester firms. People just have to be made aware of them.

            Burns cites GR Recruits --- a new program, initiated by the Rochester Business Alliance and local colleges, that educates students about business opportunities in the area --- as a step in the right direction. His nascent Young Professionals group seeks to complement that effort by matching students and recent graduates with older peers who can show them the ropes of Rochester's business community.

            When it comes to the social scene, Burns concedes that bigger cities attract our twenty-somethings away --- "particularly if they're single" --- by virtue of the sheer number of people their age living in such metropolises. "In a relatively smaller community, you have to look a little further to find those [social] things," he says. "I'm one to argue that they're here nonetheless, but you have to look harder."

            "The biggest thing, at least for the guys, is 'Oh, there's no women here,'" says ex-R.A.T./RYP-co-founder Chris Bourne. The notion that Rochester's twenty-something social scene is sterile and stale is false, Bourne, 20, says. "I criticize people for saying that, because they're not doing their homework. If they can't find something here to do, if they can't meet people, they're not trying hard enough.

            "I see women walking the streets all the time," Bourne says (not referring to prostitutes, we should add). "So I don't see what the problem is."

            A big part of the problem, says R.A.T.S. co-founder Matt Hammond, is ignorance of downtown's social attractions. Hammond, 24, is a Missouri native who moved into the Park Avenue neighborhood last spring. He says he's met many people who've lived in the Rochester area almost all their lives, but who've never heard of, say, Parkleigh --- the trendy mini-department store on the corner of Park Avenue and South Goodman Street --- or, for that matter, Goodman Street itself.

            The Cobbs Hill area is "another great place to go and see the skyline and stuff like that," Hammond says. "I told some people about it and they hadn't even heard of Cobbs Hill. That blows my mind."

            "I see it as a big marketing campaign," Bourne says of his and other groups' efforts. "It's trying to change perceptions, trying to get people out there."

Of course, airbrushing the World's Image Center's image can only do so much. The factors that fuel that perception --- failing, underfunded city schools; high taxes and reduced services; violent crime; crumbling inner-city neighborhoods; a downtown that's a ghost town after 5 p.m. --- need to be addressed with practical solutions.

            Two of the area's most prominent and contentious  issues --- property taxes and the state of city schools --- are of little or no concern to twenty-somethings, most of whom are renters with no children.

            At least at the county level, public officials seem out of touch with this fact. Hammond and his fiancée, R.A.T.S. co-founder Laura Allen, met with representatives of County Executive Jack Doyle's office last summer to come up with an initiative to keep young people in the area.

            One of the ideas a county official floated involved a reduced mortgage rate for young homebuyers. "I had no idea where this guy was coming from, because he was talking about early twenty-somethings buying houses," Hammond says. "To me, that boggled my mind. That's not so much an issue, because we're renting."

            Though the couple are still years from deciding where to start a family, Allen, 23, is already being advised to do so outside the city by one influential lobbyist. "My mom keeps saying, 'If you're gonna buy a house when you get married, don't buy it in the city, because if you have kids, then they'll have to go to city schools, and those are no good,'" she says.

            Nevertheless, Allen's not ruling it out.

            There's a general sense among local twenty-somethings that city schools are underfunded, but little sense of how that or other problems can be fixed.

            Asked what could be done to improve city schools, Burns says, "To be honest with you, that's not something that comes up in casual conversation, because for so many of us, the prospect of having children is so far into the future."

            Burns says the new "Rochester: Made For Living" marketing campaign --- a collaboration between the county, the Greater Rochester Visitors Association, and Greater Rochester Enterprise --- misses the young demographic he represents by emphasizing the benefits of raising a family in Rochester.

            "When [the campaign] says it's a great place to raise a family, I'm coming at it from the perspective of my peers: 'OK, that's off in the future. You're telling us something that we're not thinking about and, in a sense, don't need to be thinking about for a while.'

            "The 'Gee, it's a great place to raise a family' message is something that I think all of us intuitively know, so it seems kind of odd to tell us things we already know," Burns says. "Marketing towards the people that are already here and aren't likely to leave --- that is, families that are here or later-stage career people --- isn't where the emphasis should be put. Rather, [the campaign should be] grabbing the attention of people that are more likely to leave, which are those folks between college age and getting married and having children. Those are the ones that are, frankly, more likely to be footloose and fancy free."

When it comes to addressing Rochester's fundamental problems, the twenty-something organizers had little to say about major public policy issues, capital projects like stadiums and ferries, or political solutions. Instead, they focused on minor municipal improvements they believe would have a major impact on their peers' perception of the city.

            Making downtown a clean, well-lit, culturally rich place with plenty of parking was a common suggestion, as was improving public transportation. Several twenty-somethings lamented the demise of the EZ Rider, the free shuttle that took nocturnal revelers around downtown until it was discontinued last June, the victim of city budget cuts.

            Several of the groups' organizers also say more needs to be done to lure local college students off campus and into downtown. Again, more accessible public transportation was seen as a solution, as well as further awareness-building of Rochester's cultural attractions.

            Hammond thinks having a state college closer to Rochester --- in addition to SUNY Brockport --- would also help by providing another option for students that's neither a community college (Monroe Community College) nor a relatively expensive, private school (Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester).

            Bourne suggests further improvements to the area's public beaches and other waterfront attractions. He'd also like to see a small subway downtown, perhaps one linked to the suburbs. People say Rochester is too small to have a subway system, he says, but "if you have a subway system, what do you think is gonna happen? It's gonna get bigger."


The City Walk has roughly 700 people on its e-mail list, and draws upwards of 70 people to its monthly events. (It should be noted that the Walk is not specifically geared toward twenty-somethings, though locals in that age group tend to make up the bulk of the participants). R.A.T.S.' mailing list has grown to about 500 young adults, and their events attract a similar number of people. The Young Professionals group is less than two months old, but Burns says about 75 people have already expressed interest in joining.

            As their ranks swell, these groups have the potential to enliven Rochester's social scene, build business networks, and become a significant source of volunteer labor. (In addition to various social and networking events, the groups also organize fundraisers and projects for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and local schools.).

            The new groups also have the potential to become a powerful political force, but at this stage, the organizers are wary of taking official political stands, for fear of turning off potential members.

            "We're trying to keep the group open to just about everybody," says Hammond. "Pretty much the stance we have is, we have no stance. We keep it totally apolitical."

            The City Walk organizers have come closer to engaging in what could be termed "activism." Early on in its existence, the group made City Walkers aware of the congressional redistricting process and its potential to dilute Rochester's voice in Washington by combining our district with Buffalo's. They were careful, however, to frame the issue in non-partisan terms.

            "We want to emphasize remaining neutral," Tiberio says. "We don't want to lean one way or the other too heavily and scare people off, but we want to be able to give people a voice and raise awareness, because we recognize that there's a need for our generation to get more involved."

            This year, Tiberio says, the group plans to establish focus groups on a variety of social and cultural issues in the community. Volunteers would research topics, then make their findings available to fellow City Walkers. Again, the information would be presented in a non-partisan, strictly informational fashion.

            "That will be a phenomenal way to give people a voice in the city and take it to that next step," says Tiberio, who adds that "right now, we're taking baby steps, we're building relationships first and establishing this strong sense of community to kind of get people in their comfort zone, so that they feel they can really step out and be a part of the larger picture.

            "We also want local leaders and local government to realize that we are an audience for them," she says. "They could be coming to us to say, 'Hey, here's a group of citizens who are young. We need them to be aware of the issues that are going on. We need their votes.'"

            For more information, visit www.thecitywalk.com, www.rochesterarea20somethings.com, and www.RochesterYoungProfessionals.org.

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