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The Place Where You Live

"A sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.” —Rebecca Solnit

Of Rochester, New York: A Place of Flour and Flowers

Posted by Joel Helfrich | November 3, 2012

I live in America’s first boom town—Rochester, New York—on Linden Street. Linden
trees, unsurprisingly, line much of my street. Down the street is the Genesee
River, once one of America’s most polluted—and possibly still. My street is a
historic district that was once part of the world’s largest nursery. The
Ellwanger and Barry Company supplied the first fruit trees to California. The
trees were initially grown in Rochester greenhouses and shipped via rail. The
introduction of cherry blossoms from Japan to Washington, D.C., initially came
through Ellwanger and Barry, where they were listed in pre-Civil War
catalogues. In the nineteenth century, a wall six feet high stretched the
length of my street and encircled the nursery grounds. Victorian homes line the
opposite side of my street. The homes on my side are all American Foursquare,
built after the turn of the twentieth century; by that point, Ellwanger and
Barry had shifted its business to real estate development. The company donated
land to create Highland Park, Rochester’s first park. Eventually the first
statue in the U.S. of an African American, Frederick Douglass, was erected in
the park near the site of his home that burned in 1872.

Floral catalogues from Rochester helped the city win the recognition as the Flower
City of America. The city’s current logo, with its abstract water wheel/flower
design, nods to both the flour-milling industries, which moved westward in the
1830s, and seed and flower industries which declined by the 1890s. Rochester
was the world leader in both. Rochester also boasts one of four complete park
systems in the nation designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (the other park systems
are in Buffalo, Louisville, and Boston). Olmsted recommended engineer Calvin
Laney as Rochester’s first Park Superintendent, who in turn hired John Dunbar,
a Scottish immigrant, to supervise the planting and maintenance of the collection.
As the first Assistant Park Superintendent, Dunbar surpassed Olmsted’s plans
and eventually introduced lilacs to Highland Park, for which the city is well
known. In 1903, Dunbar built and lived in the house that I now call home.

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