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A new Smugtown


Frank De Blase had a dream about a Rochester future with no guns, free parking, free health care, free pot, a new train, and cherry pie.

It was raining hammers and nails when I stepped off the East Avenue EL Train — locals call it the "Slaughter Express" — and into the neon-dusted area called New Smugtown, just outside the high rises of center city.

Amid its shuffle and hustle, the Friday night downtown crowd wove though the torrent of inclemency that ricocheted off umbrellas, hats, and bare heads. The people moved with a buzz and purpose, undeterred. Rain is nothing new in Upstate New York; it can't drown the mood.

My date brushed me off for the evening, so I flew solo, taking in the sights and sounds and smells. I strolled past buskers banging banjos and guitars, and jackleg preachers offering their "get out of hell free" testimony, and into the 24-hour diner on the corner of East and the future. I shook off the rain like a water-logged Labrador, bellied up to the counter, and got to the point.

"Cherry pie and a coffee," I said to Roberta, the robot behind the counter. She made a few bleeps and bloops before copping to the vintage waitress vernacular she'd been programmed with. From the waist up she was classic waitress: black and white uniform, scrambled yellow hair. From her knees down, she rolled around on wheels and a nice set of treads.

"Coming up, handsome," she cooed. "You want room for cream, sugar?"

"Make it as sweet and creamy as you."

A young couple sat down next to me at the crowded counter and the male half of their equation started to grouse about the counter's congestion as well as the shoulder to shoulder activity out on the street.

"Look, man," I said. "This is the downtown we dreamed about in 2016. Did you know this area was a ghost town at one point? And before the firearm ban in 2017, you ran the risk of being shot?"

I tell the kid about how since the mayor implemented free parking in the area for those who don't take the train, people flock downtown for a night of dining, dancing, or a stroll through Bob Duffy Memorial Park, which sprouted up where the Inner Loop had been.

The PR prattle pressed on.

"Just look at that keen scene out there would ya?" I said. Around the corner, lines of moviegoers stretched out from the new RKO Palace on Clinton, re-created from the one made popular in Rochester in the last century. What was it: 1928 to 1965? Once the train, rideshare programs, and bicycles rendered RTS obsolete, the theater that once promised "Glorious action in vivid technicolor!" came back.

And the city is safer now, too. The sky is peppered with traffic drones (affectionately referred to as "Big Brother Birds" or "BBB's") monitoring intersections and thoroughfares. Beat cops rarely deal with traffic infractions anymore; it's all drones sending tickets straight to your phone. You can accept or decline the penalty, but the latter will cost you a day in court — some things never change. But there are far fewer automobiles, and everyone enjoys the slick, inexpensive transport of the whisper-quiet EL Train.

"And how about that economy? Sure, there's no more Kodak to speak of — the last employee, the CEO, laid himself off in 2020 — but Rochester is the photonics capital of the world. And since city schools were bought and privatized by Tom Golisano, and teachers paid their worth, this town is breeding its own workforce.

"You kids may not remember, but not too long ago, marijuana was illegal. Sure, they set up dispensaries, but the squares and the insurance companies screwed it up; it was finally made legal in the entire nation thanks to President Sanders."

I won the guy over with my ballyhoo and pitch. So I said a little louder for the benefit of any lingering naysayers lurking about: "So step out into the Rochester night and give it a try, baby. But before you do, I can't say enough about this cherry pie."

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