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The XX Files

Face facts


In fifth grade, in line for gym, Patty Joyce urged me to try it, just try it. She held her thumb and forefinger right in front of my face. Thin strands of what looked like cotton candy connected them. "It's cotton candy," she said. "Try it." I knew there was no way she could possibly have cotton candy --- there, in line, at school. Yet part of me wanted to believe it. Her badgering had worn me down and I started listening to the desperate little candy-deprived voice inside me.

It might be the real thing, the little voice said. I scraped it off Patty's finger and ate it. The kids in line broke into laughter. The lacy strands stretching between her fingers was dry rubber cement pulled into filaments. I had eaten glue in front of the whole class.

It's not uncommon to realize you're being duped but, out of exhaustion or desperation, you just sort of go along with it. We do this kind of thing all the time. Sometimes the costs are high but short-lived, as with my glue-eating humiliation. Other times the costs are high and last a long time, as with investing a lot of money into a big downtown project and thinking it's going to save the city.

Sure, it would be great to have a gleaming building for the performing arts and public buses or for gambling and drinking and whatnot. But thinking we're going to cure what ails the city --- the high poverty rate, the drugs, and the insane murders of our young black citizens --- with one or two supersized projects is misguided.

Last spring I noticed I was looking older. This seems to happen every year. But for once I decided to do something about it. I went to a plastic surgery shrine for a consultation. Since I was only a beginner, an RN with a beautiful (if somewhat Botoxedly expressionless) face suggested I start with a noninvasive procedure. She explained the differences between peels, microdermabrasion, and Botox.

She decided a peel --- which, as far as I could tell, involved applying acid to my face --- would be best for me. "Burning off the old cells," she said, "causes new cells to grow."

I looked at her, skeptical. "Doesn't cell growth start deep down in the skin, not at the top layer?" I asked. I had taken science in high school. I was no dummy.

"Burning off the old cells causes new cells to grow," she repeated. Her face was a mask of calmness but her voice betrayed impatience. "The new cells will reverse the aging process. After several treatments your skin will actually be younger."

Younger? A smarter woman would have walked away. Unfortunately I had already started to hear that little, desperate voice and it was overriding my common sense. This might be it, the little voice said. The Fountain of Youth right here. In Rochester! In a vial of acid that costs only $200 a treatment.

When we consider slathering on top-dollar projects like the Renaissance Square and the casino to smooth over the aging city's woes, we are succumbing to that little desperate voice that says, This is Rochester's last chance. And, We'd better grab it while we can. Not only is this not true, it skews the whole conversation we should be having.

Focusing on the biggie projects detracts from what makes a city thrive: microbusinesses (what used to be called mom & pop stores), residences, and entertainment outlets like restaurants and theaters. These urban units --- the cells of the city's body, if you will --- generate the jobs, pedestrian traffic, and street life that contribute to the energy of cities.

Little cells of activity and commerce are what we look for when we travel. People who return from San Francisco or Toronto or Paris always talk about how much fun it was to just walk around. They talk about the odd little clothing shop or the funky noodle joint they found.

The great thing about cities, unlike the cells in my skin, is that they don't have a genetically predetermined lifespan. Witness the cool offices built in rehabbed factory space downtown and the old houses that have been converted into stores and restaurants all over town. Working downtown gives owners and employees a stake in the city. Talk to Scott Page, who recently opened Full Moon Vista Bike and Sport. He also organizes the annual nighttime bike race around the Inner Loop. Spin-off events like this, while not anathema to the bigger developments, aren't necessarily guaranteed.

Look at a city like Pittsburgh. Like me, Pittsburgh fell for the big-money superficial approach to improvement. Instead of working on its tax base, it built jumbo venues at taxpayer expense. It is still struggling.

For my part, I shelled out the big bucks for a facial peel. For a week all my skin flaked off as I waited for the new, "younger" skin to appear. My face will be as soft as a baby's butt, the little voice said, except without the diaper. I don't have to tell you that I've still got an aging infrastructure and a credit card bill to boot.

I'd like to see the mayoral candidates discussing this. Not my face --- although if anyone has any ideas, send 'em on --- but specific ideas about the city. Streamlining the process for starting new businesses. Ways to help small businesses that are struggling. Keeping the Empire Zones in the city, where they belong.

Owners of new and older city businesses talk about how hard it is to reach the right people at City Hall, the hoops they have to jump through, and the sneaking suspicion that some corporations and more connected entities get preferential treatment. I know steps have been taken in the right direction, but we need to replace wishful thinking with real, concrete ideas about how to nurture the city's body, one cell at a time.