Within the span of a couple of days, I came across two very different portrayals of New Rochelle in the media. The first is a column by Phil Reisman of the Journal-News, occasioned by the fire at Union Baptist Church. The second is an article from Westchester Magazine that profiles 19 new restaurants, including two in New Rochelle, Alvin & Friends and Cienega.
My purpose in sharing these pieces is not really to address their specific topics, but rather to highlight the contrasting perceptions of New Rochelle that they reflect. Reisman’s column offers an unflattering, almost funereal, portrayal of our downtown, while Westchester Magazine lauds the “new New Rochelle” as a vibrant place with expanding prospects.
In miniature, these two articles encapsulate a running debate about our city’s history and future that is replayed over and over again in everything from casual conversations among friends, to neighborhood gatherings, to political campaigns. Are we doing well or poorly? Going up or going down? Who’s right?
Well, perhaps the reason this debate is never really resolved is that there is enough truth in both views to give them each validity.
One’s perception of downtown’s current economic health can depend — quite literally — on where you are standing. Portions of the downtown have clearly benefited from an infusion of investment and population. Go to Division Street or Lawton Street, take in a concert at Library Green, check out the artist spaces at 81 Centre — and you will see an attractive commercial center, brimming with activity, imagination and promise. Visit other blocks and you will find plain evidence of continuing economic distress, from underutilized or vacant storefronts to buildings in partial disrepair.
Similarly, one’s perceptions of trends really depends on when you start the clock. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, downtown New Rochelle was at the pinnacle of its economic success — with a humming Main Street, anchored by multiple department stores. Fast forward to the early 1990s, and downtown was nearly dead — its dominant features being an abandoned and crumbling mall, a rubble-strewn lot adjacent to the train station, and a general air of defeat. Have things gotten better? Measured on a twenty-year time scale, I think the answer is a pretty compelling yes, but measured on a fifty-year time scale, most would answer no. Given this difference in perspective, I often find that newcomers to New Rochelle hold a much more upbeat view of the city’s present condition than residents who have lived here the longest, though there are plenty of exceptions to that generalization.
My personal clock starts right between the city’s zenith and nadir, in the 1970s when I was a child in New Rochelle, so I have an appreciation for both points of view. I know we have a long way to go before our downtown achieves its potential, that many difficult challenges remain, and that some projects have not had the impact envisioned (at least not yet). But in in the end, it will not shock you to learn, I stand with New Rochelle’s optimists. I think that our various planning and development initiatives have improved the physical and economic fabric of the downtown area and that further application of a smart growth strategy is likely to bear additional fruit.
This isn’t the work of a year or even a decade. It is the work of a generation. And we will need the right combination of patience, persistence, and flexibility to see it through.