In the Flower City, Take Root

In the Flower City, Take Root

When I tell people that I live in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., their most common response is, “Why?” Rochester is the fifty-first largest metro region in the United States, a tad smaller than Buffalo and a tad bigger than Tucson. The local delicacy is called the “garbage plate” and is best served after 2 a.m., with a side of Lipitor. Rochester is a snowy place. It is a place where corporate giants—Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb—once stalked the land but now skulk amid layoffs and falling profits. Rochester is a city with grinding urban poverty, but its suburbs are rather prosperous places from which crops of upwardly mobile students are harvested each graduation season. These students often leave the region, either for college or for work, and many never return. The city elders wring their hands over this “brain drain.” The downtown core of the city is deserted after dark and, increasingly, during the work day. Large suburban business parks with rolling green lawns and constructed drainage ponds are luring businesses from the central skyscrapers. Some have characterized Rochester, along with cities like Buffalo, Detroit, and Baltimore, as dying. If I lived in New York, Washington, Boston, Seattle, or San Francisco, no one would ask me why. And yet when people ask how it is that I live here, I am eager to tell them.

Perhaps I should first say why many people, and I include myself, have left the places they come from or at least seriously contemplated doing so. Moving from small places to larger ones is a major theme in American life. People from farms and towns, from other regions and other nations, have come to large American cities for work. They have also come to experience the buzz of such places, to “be a part of it” as Frank Sinatra sings of New York. As a kid reading books on ancient history, I wondered about the people alive at the height of the Roman Empire who didn’t live at the center, who weren’t among the bread and circuses, the politics of the forum, the enormous power of the city of Rome. Such people were, I later learned, described by the term “provincial.” Not only were they people living in the provinces, they were also people whose world was thought to be narrower—materially, intellectually, and culturally—than those living at the center. I wondered whether some future kid reading history would ask how a person living in my own time could have made a life somewhere other than in the great metropolises of our age. Would such a person even be a part of history?

If the glamour of the center pulls us in, the reputation for dullness that surrounds remaining at home pushes us away. At the holidays, I’ve sat in airplanes listening to my fellow twenty-somethings commiserating with each other: “I liked going home, but if I had to stay there one more day I’d shoot myself.”

In a culture where “helicopter” parents can extend adolescence well into the third decade of an offspring’s life, there is undoubtedly merit in striking out on one’s own. But what’s at issue here, I have come to believe, is not simply independence. What’s at issue is the tension between belonging to a rootless professional culture and a rooted local one. The price of holding on to the latter may be exclusion from the status, power, and income the former offers. It’s not the case, however, that those leaving their childhood homes in places like Rochester are lighting out for wide open spaces where opportunity abounds and careers are simply open to talent. My peers are not leaving to pursue Jeffersonian independence; they’re leaving to enter large professional organizations in which they often become quite dependent—on the caprice of bosses, the vicissitudes of markets, the shifting terrain of mergers and acquisitions.

And this brings me back to how eager I am to tell people why I live in Rochester. It is not because Rochester affords me economic independence (though the low cost of living helps). There are surely capricious bosses and volatile markets here, too. But there is something else. There are the faces and the names of the people around me, each of which has a story behind it, each of which is a buoy anchored in the social sea, helping to orient me. There are the old buildings—the grand facades of high culture, the battered storefronts of the inner city, the sentinel-like pump house on the reservoir hill—to remind me of history and time. What is different in Rochester is that I own a piece of this place, and this place owns a piece of me. I’d like to suggest that this relation is the grounds for a special kind of independence.

AS A boy I learned of ancient Rome; as a college student I learned of ancient Greece. In Athens, the citizens of the polis are thought to have experienced what the eighteenth-century French thinker Benjamin Constant called “the liberty of the ancients,” and what more recent political theorists label “positive liberty.” Athenian citizens were selected for public office by lottery, and their assembly comprised the entire body of citizens (though women and those not born of Athenian parents were excluded from citizenship, and much of the hard labor was performed by slaves). The essence of this Athenian liberty was the citizens’ freedom to determine the policies of their city, to shape the course of the common life. Such positive liberty differs from the “negative liberty” that Constant called “the liberty of the moderns.” This liberty is negative because it is the absence of intrusion upon private life. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the presence of self-governance. It is not freedom from external constraints; it is freedom to be a self-determining person or community, to partake in public life. In Athens, the freedom to participate in the life of the city was regarded as a defining characteristic of human beings. To live outside the city was to live outside the political and cultural community that allows humans to exercise their capacities for reason, rhetoric, imagination, and artistry. He who lives outside the city, Aristotle said, “must be either a beast or a god.” For Aristotle, “man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces.” To denounce someone for living without an attachment to a city seems harsh to contemporary readers, but the very forcefulness of this language tells us that the Greeks took their civic communities seriously. Athens was not simply a place where people lived; for the citizen, Athens was life itself.

Though the “liberty of the ancients” may sound alien to us today, it is nonetheless appealing. In fact, its appeal lies in our sense of its absence, our lack of civic self-determination. We too seldom experience commitment to something outside the self (but that serves self-development), something larger than the individual (but that tangibly involves individuals we know and value). Yet we yearn for it. Witness the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. It brought young Americans off campuses and into the streets. They went on the road to campaign in places like Dayton, Ohio, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Sarasota, Florida. I was one of them. The day of the New Hampshire primary, I knocked on doors in the towns of Antrim and Hillsborough. Obama’s primary defeat was heartbreaking, but the campaigning was not. The way it called upon my strength of mind to make the case at every door, my strength of body to trudge through snowy back roads, and my strength of will to approach isolated houses whose owners, I anticipated, had had enough of political canvassers—all this made for a sense of a day’s labors done well and for a worthy purpose. But presidential campaigns are fleeting things. If they leave us inspired, they leave us wanting more.

The positive liberty of the ancients was not a function of the political season; it was a way of life. The small scale of the polis—estimates put the population of Periclean Athens at 250,000, of which far fewer than half were eligible citizens—facilitated civic participation. Surely the endemic warfare among Greek city-states and the hard work performed by slaves also played their part in laying the foundations for the positive liberty of the citizen, for these offered him ample questions of great moment to deliberate on—nothing less than war (alas) and peace—and the freedom from labor necessary to do so. But political participation can also perpetuate itself. A virtuous circle forms that quickens the bond between citizen and city: the dearer the city becomes to the citizen, the greater the citizen’s zeal for lending a hand in its affairs.

Today, it’s as though this virtuous circle has become a vicious one. People stand in relation to their political community as spectators stand in relation to spectacle. They are observers rather than participants, and they are often disgusted observers. When they do participate, it is often simply to display this disgust. Witness the Sarah Palin rallies, which amount to the venting of spleen. To the extent that the Tea Party calls forth a response from the Left, it is likely to come in the form of shouts. The two sides are more apt to cover each other with spittle than convince each other with smarts. What’s missing is a field for meaningful action, a forum for the public use of reason, a pathway to civic life.

I THINK I have found such a pathway here in Rochester. I feel a sense of ownership over this place; I feel committed to it. I am rooted in it not simply because of the accident of birth. The people I know and love are scattered all over the world, but the highest concentration of them in any one place is in Rochester. It is here that abstractions become tangible realities. Community is not an ideal of political theory; it is the brush of elbows and the rush of friends’ faces amid the Saturday crowds at the Rochester Public Market. The environment is not some photo of a distant stream with a bear pawing for salmon; it’s the Genesee River flowing north into Lake Ontario and passing by Kodak factories and the Genesee Brewery. Politics is not shouting faces on television; it’s the forum on violent crime with the mayor and the police chief at the single-screen movie theater two blocks away.

In Rochester, life moves along tracks other than the career track. People have their jobs, and they work hard at them. But they also have projects outside their jobs. They start discussion clubs, urban farmers’ markets, political action groups, and new schools. There is a conscious sense here of building the community: one vacant lot converted into a neighborhood garden, one old factory turned into an art gallery, one letter to the editor at a time. This is the difference between a rootless professional culture and a rooted local one. For those in the former, the city they live in is the site of their job. For those in the latter, it is the site of their civic life. The tradeoffs involved here are very real. The price of living in a place like Rochester might be the curtailment of one’s career. There simply aren’t the opportunities here that there are in the larger cities. It is this reality that has led some to characterize Rochester and other mid-size cities in the older, non-Sunbelt portions of the country as dying places.

Ironically, civic life springs from this perception of urban death. In the spring of 2008, I attended a conference in New Orleans. Our group heard from local leaders on the effort to rebuild the community following Hurricane Katrina. Expecting them to be marked by the tragic blow their city had suffered, I was startled by their sense of hope and their enormous energy. They were thankful for the opportunity to renew their city. Katrina was terrible, but it was also an opportunity for new thinking, new projects, and new collaborations. Most strikingly, I could see that these civic leaders were ignited by the very real way in which their city needed them. It was time for all hands to be on deck, for all who loved New Orleans to rally to it, for the citizens to find in the rebuilding of their city something like what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.” We don’t need hurricanes to arouse this sentiment in the people of our cities, nor do we need the wars that plagued the Greeks and ultimately struck down their ancient liberties. What we need is a sense that our efforts are meaningful, and this sense is to be found in our left-behind hometowns and dying cities, in places like Rochester. These places are fields for our civic action, and they are places where our efforts can be vital, direct, and discernible in their results.

William James wondered what might happen if “there were, instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years part of the army enlisted against Nature.” I think James was on to something. But what James’s proposal may—and its latter-day descendants the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps do—miss is the opportunity to mobilize (or foster) the affective bonds that young people have to the places they’re from. Instead, these programs often uproot people from the communities they’re in and place them in new locations. My proposal is for a national youth service program that gives participants the chance to shape the future of their own communities. Dispensing with the martial metaphors, I’d call this program (C)itizens (I)n(V)olved (I)n (C)ommunity, to be known by its catchier acronym CIVIC. As Paul Goodman observed fifty years ago in Growing Up Absurd, “We have to learn again what city man always used to know, that belonging to the city, to its squares, its market, its neighborhoods, and its high culture, is a public good; it is not a field for ‘investment to yield a long-term modest profit.’” CIVIC aims to make good this lesson.

THIS PROGRAM would address the constellation of social problems I’ve laid out. It would stem the “brain drain” from places like Rochester by retaining young people, at least for a time. During that time, however, CIVIC participants would either strengthen or form the civic spirit that promotes the virtuous circle I have described. Participants would experience the natural environment by clearing trails, cleaning shorelines, and maintaining parks. They would learn the infrastructure of their community by installing solar panels and creating urban gardens. They would staff farm markets and beautify bus shelters. They would immerse themselves in the community by collecting oral histories from elders in nursing homes, providing transportation for those who cannot transport themselves, and tutoring elementary-school children in literacy and math. In the second year of CIVIC, they would be handed some of the keys to the city in addition to their ongoing community work. Here is where the proposal differs from the “youth work camps” that Paul Goodman and others have discussed. CIVIC participants would have regular jury duty. They would be elections inspectors. They would have column space in local newspapers. And they would enjoy voting membership in municipal legislative bodies. In Rochester, for example, the second-year CIVIC class would have one voting seat on the city council. They would attend all meetings of the council and deliberate about the matters before it, choosing a different delegate to cast their collective vote at each meeting. The same arrangement would apply to the county legislature, school boards, and the various town councils. At the conclusion of their time, CIVIC alumni would be able to say that the community had owned a part of them and that they, in return, had owned a piece of it. CIVIC members would perform useful work and would be affected by it. They would be students of and participants in the life of the community, with their classroom the city itself.

CIVIC will counterbalance the call of the highly mobile and therefore rootless professional life, which has the full weight of cultural power, social prestige, and material wealth on its side. CIVIC will offer youth a taste of the “liberty of the ancients” by placing their hands on the rudder of the civic ship. The career aspirations that drain the young from Rochester impoverish the city, but they also impoverish the young. They too often deny them the opportunity to realize an aspect of our human potential distinct from our professional and private selves: our civic self.


Michael J. Brown is a graduate student in the department of history at the University of Rochester, where he studies the place of intellectuals in American political culture. He is the founder of Flower City Philosophy and the coordinator of Rochester Educators for Obama.