After much handwringing over the matter of the University of Rochester’s name, then-President Dennis O’Brien announced in April 1986 that it would stick.
“We are U of R,” I remember hearing him say as I listened on the college radio station.
The name remained, but I left after my freshman year – not to return until August 2015. In advance of my trip, I viewed the campus on Google Earth, if only to test my memory after nearly 30 years away.
Susan B. Anthony Residence Hall; Rush Rhees Library (its dome, topped with a blinking red light at night, earned it the nickname “the nipple of knowledge”); Eastman Quadrangle, were where I remembered them.
The major change was on the southeast edge of campus, where one of the earliest Wegmans grocery stores had stood when I was there.
Too much dorm time
We could walk or ride the university’s shuttle bus to Wegmans and, across from it on Mount Hope Avenue, a great record store called Record Archive. Record stores – also including Record Time and the legendary House of Guitars – were my salvation that year.
I liked my friends at Rochester, too, and we had fun times on campus: seeing comedian Robert Klein and concerts by The Ramones and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes; traveling to Buffalo to see the football Bills and hockey Sabres. My sisters Lisa and Julie visited from Boston, and we went to Niagara Falls and Toronto.
Even Rochester’s notorious lake-effect winters (the city is south of Lake Ontario) largely had been kept at bay. The only snow story I remember is my post-Thanksgiving flight being unable to land in Rochester and having to return to Newark, N.J.
Sick and suffering from laryngitis, I (and several similarly stranded classmates) took a cab to Grand Central Station and a long Amtrak ride to Rochester. We arrived back at campus just as the Chicago Bears, eventual Super Bowl champs, lost their only game of the season on “Monday Night Football.”
In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like a bad life. And it wasn’t, if I’m honest with myself, particularly when I consider some of the student housing my stepdaughter inhabited in North Philadelphia while attending Temple University the past four years.
I spent too much time in my dorm, and so much time with the same group of people that we would get on each other’s nerves. Freshman year was the only extended period in my life since elementary school, when I started delivering newspapers, that I didn’t have a job.
Planning for my return trip reminded me that I had never stepped foot in Mount Hope Cemetery, adjacent to campus and where suffragette and women’s rights leader (and dorm namesake) Susan B. Anthony and civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass are buried. I hadn’t experienced a “Garbage Plate” at Nick Tahou’s restaurant nor a Rochester Red Wings baseball game.
Much of the blame is on 18-year-old me for not trying hard enough. Looking back, 48-year-old me likens it to when your children say they are bored: It’s pretty hard to be bored if you don’t want to be.
The four-and-a-half-hour drive had me in Rochester in mid-morning. My first stop was the College Town district, where my Wegmans used to be.
Rochester didn’t become a college town organically; it created one at the “front door of U of R,” according to the district’s website, flanked by the university’s River Campus and the University of Rochester Medical Center. I’m pretty sure a development of this sort, if not this magnitude, was talked about when I was at Rochester, which tells you how long it can take for dreams to become reality.
College Town is a mixed-used, multi-building district that comprises 125,000-square-feet of street-level retail, a two-level Barnes and Noble university bookstore, 50,000-square-feet of Class A office space, 150 high-end apartments, and a 136-room Hilton Garden Inn.
More important to college students, its food and beverage options include Jimmy John’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Saxby’s Coffee. Insomnia Cookies will deliver fresh-baked cookies and milk to sleepless studiers until 3 a.m.
Building bridges with the city
It wasn’t surprising to me that Wegmans was gone, given that it was outdated 30 years ago and resembled nothing like the megastores the Rochester-based company now builds.
When it closed in 2003, the store was the oldest and smallest in the Wegmans chain, according to this website. The area had been labeled a “food desert” after Wegmans left and until Cleveland-based Constantino’s opened a 20,000-square-foot grocery in College Town.
From College Town, I drove to a mostly vacant campus, save for international students and construction workers laying pavement and renovating the old bookstore.
Driving along Wilson Boulevard, which follows the Genesee River, it occurred to me that I may never have been that close to the river while on campus. I don’t think I had ever gotten to that end of campus, for that matter.
On foot, I peeked into the lobby of my old dorm before making my way down a hill past the football stadium to the baseball field, where participants in the Rochester Collegiate Prospects Baseball League were playing.
As I walked in the opposite direction toward the I.M. Pei-designed Wilson Commons with its imposing glass facade, I was struck by how proximate everything was relative to the areas I frequented as a student.
But obviously I hadn’t been everywhere, including another stretch I discovered along the river where, in 2012, the university was involved in converting an old railroad bridge for pedestrian use.
The Erie Lackawanna Pedestrian Bridge is 1.5 miles south of downtown Rochester and connects campus with west-side neighborhoods. I saw walkers, bicyclists and runners make their ways across the bridge.
“This is, in one very significant sense, yet another step of joining both sides of the river,” said current university president Joel Seligman, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
That sentiment stands in sharp contrast with the university of 1985-86. Instead of building bridges, then-president O’Brien was distancing himself from the city. His consultants concluded:
”A university named after a city fails to invoke the prestige that should be associated with a distinguished private institution,” citing Colgate, Bucknell, Tufts and Johns Hopkins as having more ”distinctive” names. [O’Brien had come to Rochester after serving as president of Bucknell in Lewisburg, Pa.]
”Located some distance from the Boston/New York City/Washington” power axis, ”Rochester is perceived as a cold and distant outpost,” the consultant said. ”The name ‘University of Rochester’ connotes those same feelings.”
Of course, O’Brien relented on changing the school’s name. His presidency was two administrations ago. Seligman just marked a decade at the helm, during which enrollment has increased 39 percent to 11,060 last fall.
For one short-term University of Rochester student, that’s something to celebrate. The contempt I felt nearly 30 years ago as I drove away in a rented car is no more.
The city and the school have aged far better than that brown Chevy Citation must have.