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Rochester: The Path Less Traveled

July 19, 2001 by Administrator in July/August 2001

By Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr.

Why did Rochester take the path less traveled when we decided to create a partnership with citizens to chart our future? Lewis Mumford put it as well as anyone when he said that “the best economy of cities is the care and culture of human beings.”

Rochester – like other cities – was created by human interaction, not government. Since its incorporation, Rochester has had four different kinds of government: a trustee system, a weak mayor system, a city manager system, and a strong mayor system. Every 40 years the form of government changed. It never really mattered. What always kept the city going was the positive interaction of its residents.

Most mayors like to think they’re the most important person in the city. Most elected officials are threatened by anything they can’t control. And citizen-based planning can be unpredictable, messy and very difficult to control.

I guess I feel comfortable with an empowered citizenry because I didn’t follow the traditional political route. I didn’t rise through the ranks of the local Democratic Party to be anointed mayor. I was head of the Urban League of Rochester for 21 years. I saw how citizens’ views were rarely respected, and this as much as anything prompted me to run for mayor. In 1993, I entered the Democratic primary as a genuine outsider, a challenger to the political establishment. I won the primary and general elections with a slogan of “We, not me.” That slogan has become a credo for my administration.

When I came to City Hall, the model for Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, or NBN, had been created, but not yet fully implemented. At the Urban League I had dreamed of a process whereby citizens could create neighborhood plans that were fully supported by City Hall. NBN was a dream come true for me. I made it the first priority of my new administration.

When we announced the NBN model to the public in 1994, citizens were skeptical. Many neighborhood activists were burned out from trying to get results from the system. Up to that point, citizens had an advisory role for city policy, if it went that far. NBN really gave power to the people.

In Rochester, residents now help establish the city’s budget priorities for housing, public safety, economic development, human services, land use, capital improvements and Community Development Block Grants. Through the NBN process, we’ve created a body of citizens so steeped in the planning process that they’ve become stewards of their neighborhoods.

What we are doing, essentially, is redefining the terms “citizenship” and “community” – and therefore “democracy.” This is what it really means to say Rochester is taking the path less traveled.

Today, every politician in America champions “community” and “citizenship.” But, as we know, these terms can mean very different things. On the right, they symbolize the pledge of allegiance, respect for authority and religion and the replacement of the welfare state by private agencies that appeal to the spirit of voluntary cooperation. For people on the left, a revival of citizenship and community seems to require economic as well as political decentralization.

Words like “citizenship” and “community” make us feel good, which no doubt explains their popularity. But, if you listen carefully to the speeches of people like George Bush or Hillary Clinton when they talk about community – as they often do – they are really talking less about community and more about their fear of forces that destroy community – social fragmentation, hyper-competitive capitalism and self-seeking individualism. They don’t use these terms, of course. But beneath the rhetoric and bluster, that’s what they are really talking about. Most politicians bemoan the disintegration of the traditional family. A few even bemoan the disintegration of traditional neighborhoods. But it is absolutely beyond the scope of their imaginations to seriously consider the reconstruction of face-to-face communities as a way of restoring a sense of connection.

The reality is that most politicians owe primary allegiance to powerful institutions – big governmental structures and big businesses. Most politicians work to perfect these institutions. This is not necessarily a sign of corruption or superficiality, but an old strain of political thought in America. It’s the idea that humans act in self-interest, even interests that are dishonest and immoral. According to this line of thinking, the institutions of a society must be virtuous, because the individuals composing them may be evil.

In Rochester, we assume that virtue lies in self-respecting and empowered men and women, not in powerful, bureaucratic institutions. Institutions work by leveling people and cities to a common type. This is why reforms such as urban renewal failed. All cities were categorized according to a set of standardized pathologies such as “blight” or “poverty.” Standardized “solutions” were then imposed on them. And then, when urban renewal inevitably failed, people in damaged neighborhoods were expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This is hardly a way to inspire people. In Rochester, we sensed the inadequacy of both the right-wing and left-wing definitions of community. We believe that, in its deepest and richest sense, a community must always remain a matter of face-to-face interaction. That this idea can seem radical in America is, to me, a sign of how much we view people as objects, not the subjects, of community.

The Neighbors Building Neighborhoods process has produced interesting results. Because NBN is based on the participation of individuals, not just neighborhood groups, people who don’t usually get involved are becoming active. Involvement translates to visibility. State government in New York is devolving to counties, leaving urban neighborhoods at the bottom of the pecking order. Through NBN, we’ve seen better leveraging of Monroe County for investments in city neighborhoods. Legislators will listen to citizen-voters rather than administrators. Non-profits, such as the local United Way, have also gotten the message that they should listen to the residents of the neighborhoods they serve, rather than doing their own thing. The budgets of many non-profits now reflect the priorities of neighborhood plans.

As we empower people, we also embolden them. I have to keep reminding residents that I was elected, and they were not. I have a compact with the voters. I can’t give up all my power. In Rochester, we’re still testing the boundaries of our partnership. We’re testing the limits of self-government.

What we are doing inside the city also energizes people outside the city. The NBN process does not extend beyond the city’s political boundaries. The City of Rochester occupies only 36 square miles of a 700 square mile urbanized area, and we can’t extend our municipal boundaries through annexation. Yet the influence of NBN outside the city is noticeable and growing. Other local governments in the region do not have a tradition of involving citizens in the planning process. Major projects are announced by local leaders, almost as done deals. At public hearings, people are rarely asked whether or not they want a project. Usually, they are given a narrow range of options, none of which materially alters the proposal. Maybe they can decide what color paint they want on a $60 million development in a popular park, or maybe they can decide how big a sign they want on the new highway exit in their back yards, or maybe they can decide what kind of fence they want between their homes and the new Walmart. People are often force-fed new initiatives, and they are beginning to resent this. They see what is happening in the city, and realize it doesn’t have to be this way. They want a voice at the beginning of the planning process.

Over the past couple of years, suburban residents have been using a rationale developed in the city to force significant changes in projects in their towns. Many county political leaders won’t admit that citizen pressure led to the changes. They see it as a sign of weakness, not power. In the city, we hold the opposite view. We realize that, ultimately, we end up with a lot more power when citizens lead the way.

I’m not sure where Rochester’s experiment in citizen-based planning will lead. Certainly, it will continue to transform city government as it transforms our neighborhoods. Perhaps within a few years Rochester’s government structure will again have changed, as it has every 40 years or so since we became a city. Certainly, NBN will influence other local governments in this region. At minimum, they will have to open up their planning processes.

I seriously question whether self-government can work beyond the local level. On the one hand, people in this country are getting more interested in the things that make their neighborhood, their city or their region different from anyone else’s. On the other hand, the economy more and more drives people away from any serious sense of community and towards individual survival strategies, which plays into the hands of further centralization rather than self-government. With due respect to the protesters in Seattle and Quebec City, there’s no way to restrain or turn back globalization and its consequences. The best we can do is try to manage global imperatives.

I personally would like to see cities demand a seat at free trade negotiations like the Summit of the Americas. Every business that opens in Rochester and every other American city comes with its hand out looking for subsidies. Corporations use cities as pools to siphon billions of dollars in financial subsidies into their pockets. In other words, cities are ground zero for free trade and globalization. If cities are forced to play this costly game, they should have a voice in global trade policy. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities should be at the table with the WTO and IMF.

In closing, I would like to extend a special welcome to our international guests. In the area of planning, experience in one country may inform other countries. When London moved to a mayoral system of government, for example, it looked to U.S. precedents. Unfortunately, the same readiness to look beyond our borders is not a hallmark of the U.S. way of doing things. We can learn a lot from other nations. I’m not just talking about planning techniques like setbacks or traffic calming. I’m more interested in exploring policies that could significantly impact American cities – things like gun control in Canada and Australia, education in Germany and Japan, public transportation in Brazil, drug control in the Netherlands and energy pricing in Argentina. These are fundamental planning issues.

In Rochester, we have a proud tradition of vigorous debate, followed by meaningful action. We have a tradition of taking the path less traveled. Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if they kept their mouths shut or stayed put in their living rooms. NBN would not be possible if citizens didn’t feel it was worthwhile to dedicate their precious time to their neighborhoods.


William A. Johnson, Jr. is Mayor of Rochester, New York.

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