Brooklyn vs. Rochester
By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft
Someone I knew from New York City wrote to me yesterday with what seemed to be a snickering attitude.
“What, Rochester?” he wrote, implying “Where the heck is that?” I can’t condemn him, I’ve had the same attitude, and still do, just a little.
I’ve lived near New York City, and the immense range of activity it offers, most of my life. Then, starting six years ago, I began a series of moves to places with a ton of caché: Mystic, Connecticut, then Paris and Barcelona. Then I fulfilled a life-long dream and moved into NYC itself: the Upper East Side of Manhattan (for two months), and Brooklyn (for four years). Brooklyn in its own right is such a storied city. I saw baseball caps with “Brooklyn” on them in France and Spain.
How Can I Search for the American Dream Here?
Where the heck, on the other hand, is Rochester? The downtown has two tall buildings and is dead at night. There is a more lively neighborhood of cafes and restaurants known as the Park Avenue neighborhood, and I’m searching for an apartment in it. But even that neighborhood doesn’t seem to have much “there” there, not after the electromagnetic force of Brooklyn.
I must suspend judgment of Rochester as a city, as a venue for the arts, as a place that fosters my creative inspiration, until the pandemic eases. It won’t feel like home until ballroom dancing resumes, and the theater group I want to be involved in (as a mere set painter, not as the superstar that I, in reality, am) springs into action again, and the Wild About Writing circle can meet in person. And in Rochester, I will be able to afford to hear live classical music regularly at the Eastman School of Music! Carnegie Hall was beyond my reach.
I do miss Brooklyn. Not so much living there, because life was tough, overwhelmed by tons of stressed-out strangers in a brick, asphalt, chain-link, and razor-wire jungle. But I miss being FROM there. I wrote on my Amazon author profile that I’m a writer who lived in Paris, Barcelona, and now Brooklyn. Those place-names have caché. I’m a sucker for caché. I’m a location snob, I admit it.
“Rochester, New York” has ZERO cache. But maybe it should have a little. It is a unique epicenter of social justice. Harriet Tubman lived near here. Frederick Douglass lived here, wrote here, and delivered his famous speech here, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?", delivered on July 5, 1852, addressing the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. Women’s rights were championed by women in this area, notably Susan B. Anthony, who lived and wrote in Rochester. Another example of social compassion: Rochester Institute of Technology has a nationally recognized center for deaf students.
Brooklyn had advantages. I could choose all kinds of organic fruits and vegetables at the Flatbush Food Coop, a 10-minute walk. I can’t find that variety here, and you have to drive to the grocery store. I could walk to three Indian restaurants, three Mexican, two burger joints. I could have lavender lattés at Café Madeline. I don’t know of a café in Rochester that has even dreamed of serving them. Prospect Park, with world-class design, was a 10-minute walk.
In Brooklyn I lived near three international airports that could take me on direct flights to friends in France or family in small cities like Asheville, NC, Providence, RI, or Rochester, NY. I could easily grab a bus to visit family in Bethlehem, PA. I could easily take the train to Fire Island or to the Jersey Shore. Now that I’m in Rochester, I’m closer to one part of my family but have bigger hurdles to overcome to get to the rest. And getting to the Atlantic Ocean is a huge undertaking.
In Brooklyn, I felt I was in the center of the world. On Ocean Avenue, during my quarter-mile walk to do my laundry, I heard voices from Pakistan, Liberia, Panama, Jamaica, Barbados, Senegal, Kazakhstan. At any given moment on Church Avenue, I could make videos for my little grandson of trucks of every shape and size and function, and long, articulated city buses.
Here at this house in Rochester, it’s quiet. Once a week a garbage truck goes by. But I can do my laundry downstairs instead of trundling it a quarter of a mile each way.
There were other downsides to Brooklyn. In spite of my best efforts to build friendships and stay connected, I felt acutely alone. The streets felt dangerous. People were indifferent (of course they were, we were all strangers to each other). It broke my heart to see groups of young men hanging out, passing a joint, with tons of pent up energy and talent but lacking the education—and faced with racism in hiring practices—that prevented them from getting into a decent job, unleashing that talent, making a living wage, and making a contribution. They could have run a company—or a country—but were trapped.
I felt a keen desperation in the atmosphere on the streets. I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood. As rents leapt upward, people were more and more worried about making rent that month. I could feel the anxiety in the air. So many people lived hand to mouth with no hope of a better life – and angry about that fact, and about the racism that locked them into this predicament, locked them out of the American Dream.
And then there was the dog poop. Many people did clean up after their dogs, but enough people didn’t that there was a hazard when out walking or pulling a cart full of laundry. I had to keep my eyes on the sidewalk. Which might have been just as well—looking at groups of young men passing a joint might get me in trouble, so I had to keep my eyes down anyway. Which I didn’t like. As an artist, I love to look around and notice things. I want to look at people and imagine their lives. In Brooklyn, that wasn’t wise to do because you might notice a crime. I really hated keeping my head down.
Here in this suburb of Rochester, I can smile and give a little wave to the people I pass when I’m out walking, and get one in return. We’re privileged to be living in a lovely neighborhood. I’ve nicknamed it “The Arboretum” because of the stately huge shade trees, and blooming trees, and shrubs. During the summer there were eight-foot-tall hydrangeas in some gardens, burgeoning with blossoms, exuding charm.
So I’ll start life anew in Rochester. I have to overcome my location snobbery and embrace the advantages this situation offers. One of them might be a sense of dislocation. Exile has proven to be good for my creativity in the past, especially in Paris and Barcelona, and it’s helping me again, I believe.
I have discovered, to my joy, that I really love swimming in Lake Ontario. I thought the lake would never suffice, not after the joy of being in the Atlantic surf at Fire Island or the Jersey Shore. But the lake has its advantages—most days, it’s quiet enough for me to really swim without having to fear being inundated by breaking waves, as I would in the Atlantic.
Also, in spite of the pandemic, I’ve made a new, in-person friend! She has put me in touch with working artists in the area, including a local set designer. I’m working on a novel about a set designer, so that interview will be very interesting!
Brooklyn is a great place. I miss it, and I’m so relieved to be out of it.
How about you? Do you have mixed feelings about a place you used to live? Or that you live in now? Comment below!