A few months ago, I happened across an article about a photo series eulogizing the ghost town of Rochester, NY. I was rather surprised to hear that the city I was currently living and working in was a ghost town, considering there were an awful lot of of cars during my morning commute that appeared to be driven by corporeal motorists. This photo series, Kodak City, was photographed over several years by Swiss photographer Catherine Leutenegger. For copyright issues, I won’t repost her photos here, but several review sites have published selections from her book, and most of the images can be seen in this YouTube video by the artist. These photos show a dour portrait of a decrepit and dying city, where abandoned business and bland scenery complement grey cloudy skies and empty streets.
After watching the video, I was incensed. I was born and raised in Rochester, and this place is like a younger sibling: family is allowed to poke fun, but when the schoolyard bully tries to join in, it’s not okay. Leutenegger claims that her photo series is attempting to create a historical snapshot of Kodak and Rochester’s decline. Although photography is a mostly honest medium, it’s constrained and manipulable by the view of the lens. By limiting and selecting her gaze, Leutenegger crafts a false narrative of a company town haunted by the ghost of the giant that made it so. (Sorry, I slipped into film major mode for a second there. I’ll try to sound less pretentious for the rest of this.) This summer, I set out to visit the places shown in Leutenegger’s series and see “Kodak City” for myself. What I found was not a dead Rochester, but a Rochester looking to the future, while still honoring and celebrating the legacy of George Eastman and all that he gave us.
My first stop was a personal indulgence: Kodak Hall, at the Eastman Theater on Gibbs Street. The theater was dark, so I wasn’t able to see anything inside, but I really didn’t need to, because I’d been here before.
In 2008, I walked through these doors in my cap and gown, shooting nervous looks and funny faces at my high school classmates as we waited for the opening notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” to cue us into the theater. Our graduation ceremony was the last event held there before they lowered the chandelier for a year long renovation funded by a $10 million gift from the Eastman Kodak company. Four years later, after walking across that new stage, I exited through these doors with my college classmates, holding my diploma out to my mother as she tried not to cry.
Eastman Theater is part of the University of Rochester, my alma mater, and a school that owes much of its success to donations and support from George Eastman. I headed over to UR’s River Campus to meet up with a friend and pay a visit to the Eastman statue on campus. Okay, first I paid a visit the campus Starbucks to fuel up on nostalgia and caffeine, then I went to see George.
This statue was installed my sophomore year, and I went to the unveiling ceremony because I wanted to see the new statue…and because they were handing out free T-shirts that said, “Thanks, George!” It quickly became a running prank to stick something in George’s hand. I saw him holding a Starbucks cup, a tall boy of Bud Light, a Valentine’s balloon, and a vuvuzela, among other things. I think they secretly commissioned the statue like that on purpose, to start another campus tradition. After paying a quick visit to our other favorite haunts on campus, my friend and I headed up to Eastman Business Park (formerly Kodak Park).
As much as I’d love to whitewash things, it’s clear to anyone visiting that Kodak is a shadow of its former self. Parking lots across the street that were probably once filled with employee cars are now more filled with wild grass threatening to reclaim the land. Kodak no longer occupies all the buildings here. Some are leased to other companies, while some are slated to be demolished. We found an open visitors lot near a research building and stopped in to ask for directions.
As my friend walked into the lobby, the security guard exclaimed, “You must be Lou!” As tempting as it was to get a look inside, I didn’t want to be arrested for suspected corporate espionage, so we explained that we were looking for areas open to the public to explore. The guard gave us directions to George Eastman memorial, where his ashes are interred. He followed up with, “Sadly, there’s not much else here to see. Not much here at all anymore.” He also told us about a wheel that used to be one of the ones used for coating acetate film, but is now displayed on the side of the road near a different Eastman building. We thanked him for his time, and headed around the corner to the memorial. I’m a little ashamed to say I had no idea it even existed until researching this project. I guess I just assumed Eastman was buried in Mt. Hope, with all the other famous Rochesterians.
The memorial was simple and beautiful. The pictures don’t really do the scale justice, at least for me. The marble slab in the middle is at least 6 or 7 feet tall, if not more. It’s easy to see how a visit in the winter would make this memorial seem abandoned, but now the trees were lush and nearly hid the smokestacks and machinery. It was also hot as hell with the sun beating down on all that stone, but I’ll spare you all the complaining about sweating I did that day (hint: it was a lot).
After we had explored the memorial, we headed down Ridge Road. We wanted to see the empty intersection shown on the cover of Leutenegger’s Kodak City book. We discovered two things: Ridge Road is actually really freaking busy, and the wheel the security guard had told us about is at the corner of that same intersection. Had Leutenegger stepped back just a foot or two while taking her cover photo, she would have included a piece of Kodak history. I can only assume she was too busy concentrating on getting a shot with no cars in it, which is no small feat on this stretch of road.
On our way back into the center city, we stopped at the Kodak Tower on State Street, an unmistakable part of the Rochester skyline. Unmistakable because it’s the building that, when viewed from afar, is way off to the side of the rest of the downtown and out-of-towners point and ask, “What’s that one way over there?”
People were flocking past the building to the Puerto Rican festival at Frontier Field next door. The parking lot was gated off, but all we had to do was buzz the intercom and say, “Uh…we’re visiting?” and we were waved right through. As we walked up to the building, I noticed one of the abandoned business across the street was one Leutenegger had photographed. I also noticed the rather new looking loft apartment building right next door. My friend mentioned that we know someone who lives there, one of the girls from a local store featuring works from Rochester artists. A block past the apartments, I recognized the telecom firm several of my friends work at. At this point, I was really getting the “ghost town” vibe. Nah, just kidding, I was actually thinking, “I had no idea half this stuff was down here. I am a bad Rochesterian.”
We ducked inside the lobby of the Kodak tower, where we were greeted with the rather old-fashioned reception desk Leutenegger photographed. The rest of the lobby looked rather updated and modern, however. The security guard told us we weren’t allowed to take photos, but I pulled out my camera phone and cheated a little, especially after seeing the display case full of Emmys and Oscars tucked into the corner.
I’m pretty sure this is the closest I’ll ever get to a Hollywood award. There were also a handful of other awards from different photographic and film organizations, all for technical achievements. My friend and I whispered to each other, “Did you know these were here? This is crazy!” as we each snuck a photo. After seeing these, it makes sense that Hollywood is rallying to save Kodak’s film production business.
After leaving the tower, we took a detour to take some totally unrelated photos of an abandoned incinerator plant (I’ll post those later). As we headed back, storm clouds started rolling in, threatening the sky with that distinctive Rochester grey (and later almost soaking us as we went to dinner).
Our last stop for that day was High Falls, which I hadn’t been to since I was a child. I’ll admit, the water was a particularly unappealing shade of yellow brown that day, but that didn’t seem to be bothering anyone enjoying the view from Genesee Brewery, directly across the bridge. As we walked down the bridge, I ran into a friend from college who was working at a marketing firm right next to the Falls. My friend pointed out to me the Entercom building where an acquaintance of ours works. I paused for a moment to lament on the dearth of industry in the wake of Kodak’s bankruptcy, then asked my friend how she liked her new job.
It took us a few weeks until we could make it to the last stop on our list, and one of my favorites: the George Eastman House. Like Kodak Hall, I’ve been here enough times to know what it looks like, but I was due for a visit again. In Kodak City, Leutenegger shows the gardens of the house as dead and the conservatory as drab and creepy.
When we visited, the gardens were in full bloom, and the conservatory was as badass as usual. I mean, when Eastman decided he wanted the conservatory to be bigger, instead of going, “Oh, well, it’s in the middle of the house, so I can’t do that,” he put half the house on railroad tracks and expanded it by nine feet in the middle. BAD. ASS. But I would expect nothing less from a man who had a personal organist as his alarm clock.
There was a surprising amount of people in the museum for a Tuesday afternoon, which was nice to see. We did a whirlwind tour, only staying for about 45 minutes, but I did pause for a second (for real this time) at the exhibit commemorating Eastman’s death.
When I walk through Rochester, I don’t see a dying city (no matter how grey and desolate winter makes the place look). I don’t see the ghost of Kodak looming over us like the grim reaper. I see multiple companies springing up in the imaging facilities Kodak no longer uses. I see our colleges and universities fostering new businesses and innovations. And I see how much of it was made possible by the love that Eastman had for his hometown.
I remember when I was growing up, and no matter where in the US I was, seeing a little yellow box of film would remind me of home. Or the joke that the worst four letter F word you could say in Rochester was “Fuji.” That era is over now, and yes, it’s sad. But it’s also okay.
Besides, I’ll always have Wegmans.