The best way to get to know a city is to explore the off-limit areas. Riding on the back of subway trains in Boston, leaping across townhouse rooftops in Washington, DC, and poking around boarded-up hospitals and vacant office buildings in Philadelphia in my reckless youth taught me more than any Chamber brochure ever could.
Getting to know Rochester takes guts, patience, and in some cases, connections. But if you're sick of the same old cityscape, crawl inside and give it another look.
The 2-mile-long subway tunnel lies under the city like a dead body in a shallow grave. One leg sticks out behind Dinosaur Bar-B-Que as if thrown off the Court Street Bridge after a fight. The coroner's report reads: The passenger line breathed its last breath in the early morning hours of July 1, 1956, and the flow of freight trains stopped 15 years later.
Follow the steep grassy hill down from South Avenue toward the perfect crime scene. The remnants of a destroyed oil house --- once used to store lubricants for the trains --- are surrounded by mountains of trash.
Appropriately, I've chosen a city cop to accompany me on my adventure down here. He's big and burly and packing. But it's not his gun I'm interested in. It's his flashlights. Never go down here with fewer than three, he says.
We pick our way around the spokeless bicycle wheels and broken bottles toward the mouth of the tunnel that will lead us under the library and along the aqueduct over the river. The path is rough and the tracks are gone, moved to the New York Museum of Transportation in Rush by train buffs in the 1970s.
The subway was built in the canal trench when the Erie Canal was relocated to south of the city in 1919, according to Chuck Lowe, a trustee of the New York Museum of Transportation and author of Trolleys to Glen Haven. "They had to do something with it," he said. "It was an eyesore, unhealthy, and full of standing water."
At the time, Lowe says, no fewer than five train companies were shipping goods and people to and through Rochester from New York City, Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and points west. In 1927 the subway opened with two sets of tracks, one for passenger trolleys and one for freight trains.
We enter the 20-foot-high tunnel slowly, allowing our eyes to adjust. It's windy in here. It turns out none of the three flashlights have much juice in them, so we walk in the dark. The ceiling soars so far above us that there's no echo --- sounds get swallowed up.
Soon we are walking toward the light again at the crotch of the tunnel. We follow the leg that bends over the river. The other leg continues straight under South Avenue to the RG&E plant where, I'm told, homeless people drape themselves precariously over massive heating ducts in the winter.
We're under the library looking over a pool of water that pours out of half-moon-shaped arches into the river below. The arches and their reflection on the calm water mirror each other. I'm waxing about the lost beauty of this place when my companion, Investigator Tom Klein, stiffens and holds his hand up.
"Wait," he says, turning away from the sunlight and toward the darkness where the other subway leg separates. I can't see a thing, even with my flashlight.
"It's a good idea to be aware of the people around us," he says. Black shapes in the black tunnel move away. I'm glad I'm with this guy.
A little house next to the staircase for the South and Court subway entrance appears in the gloom. Coming upon this house is a little like Planet of the Apes, as Lowe put it. This dispatchers' house, he explains, was outside when the subway ran in an open canal trench. When the library was built in the 1930s, the subway was covered, house and all.
We walk along the aqueduct under Broad Street, which is like an elaborately decorated belt of fanciful graffiti.
A couple of hundred pitch-black yards past the aqueduct, we approach a vast wall that has thwarted a generation of subway explorers. Behind it the main downtown station once stood, under the Democrat and Chronicle and government buildings. The D&C sealed off the station in the early 1980s to use it for paper shipments and storage until 1997 when the company moved its printing operations offsite.
To our surprise, a small door in the wall has been kicked in. We step over the twisted metal into a warm, humid cavity. The floor is smooth concrete and a hissing sound, like air escaping from a punctured lung, unnerves me. We take a few precious moments of flashlight energy to orient ourselves. A thin metal pipe on the right drips and hisses. Newish fluorescent fixtures dangle from the walls, remnants from the station's second life as a paper warehouse.
This is the inner sanctum; a place so recently opened that there is no graffiti. A few paintballs are the only evidence of prior tourists. One of the original painted columns from the subway broadcasts an age-old admonishment: NO LOITERING.
We leave the warm, breath-like air of the chest cavity through another small, kicked-in door. Back in the cold tunnel we walk in the dark for what seems like an eternity. I'm hearing things, I'm having visions, I'm sleepwalking.
Dim gray light ahead. If the tunnel is a body, then this must be the head. We approach two ramps on either side of the track bed that open like sky-blue eyes. One eye frames a lone reader. He sits above us on a wall along the ramp dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and knit cap. Klein greets him and asks where we are. The reader puts his paperback aside and tells us we're at Jay Street, beyond Frontier Field.
Klein and I hike up the ramp and let the tunnel rest in peace.
The secrets of Rochester Past are languishing in a turret on the sixth floor of the Sibley Building. Okay, it's not a turret, it's a restaurant.
The Tea Room, as it was once called, was a full-service restaurant for shoppers that opened in 1926. In the years before it closed in the mid-1980s, the restaurant became a crucial part of the middle-class downtown experience.
To property manager David Lang, the restaurant is something of a damsel in distress. His eyes sparkle when he discusses the potential of the grand, if now shabby, space. "Isn't this great?" Lang says, spreading his hand out toward the bandstand. "There was music. The room was beautiful. Can't you just see it?"
Sibley architect J. Foster Warner, who designed Sibley's no-nonsense street facade, pulled out all the stops for the restaurant. Every wall and window, every mirror and column is lovingly decorated. The marbleized columns still radiate a posh golden splendor in the light filtering through the lacy shutters. Bands of egg-and-dart molding run along the ceiling, plaster wreaths and fruit adorn the walls, and a massive dark wood sideboard with mirrors and columns anchors one end of the room. Diners entered through the once-elegant elevator lobby, which still has an intricate mosaic of green, yellow, and black tiles.
I try to ignore the sound of a day-care worker screaming in the playground six flights below and turn my head away from some water damage on the ceiling. With a little effort, I can hear ice cubes tinkling in glasses over a light jazzy tune. I can smell the "young roast turkey ... with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and creamed asparagus tips," items from a 1940s menu.
Once I'm in the swing of things, I recall how important good service was back then. I imagine a row of attentive waitstaff, who've just committed to memory this line from a 1950's employee brochure: "As important as a smiling countenance, is a well-combed head, a spanking clean shirt or collar and well-kept nails."
Lang hopes to rescue the restaurant by bringing in a culinary school. The kitchen is sunny and spacious. If Lang could find the right organization, or even a solo chef, to open a school here, he thinks the place would spring back to life.
There's something about such a large, lovely room that inspires. I can't really blame the folks who looked at this space in the late 1980s and said "Disco!" It's just too bad they installed a dance floor and transformed the circular buffet --- a Sibley trademark --- into a tacky, mirrored DJ booth.
Lang has his work cut out for him. Patches of white plaster cover areas of water damage. Smudges mar the walls. Graffiti is scattered throughout.
No problem, says Lang. A little spit-and-polish and this beauty will be ready for anything --- celebrity chefs, luncheon conferences, and wine tastings. People will come, he says, not just because the room is elegant. They'll come because they remember.
"You can walk up here and just imagine," Lang says. "The memories are here. People will flock to it."
The phantom of the RPO, if there is one, should ditch those under-stage passageways and make his hideout in the desolate world above the Eastman Theatre's ornate gilt ceiling. He could lurk over the audience and peer through the lacy grating surrounding the chandelier.
From down below it's hard to believe there is anything above those impenetrable gilt rosettes, never mind a warehouse-sized technical area of walkways and pipes, I-beams and suspension chains.
And from up here, it's hard to believe that the lathe-and-plaster mess below the catwalk I'm standing on is the flipside of any ceiling, never mind such an attractive one.
My guide, director of stage operations Ron Stackman, explains that the ceiling is suspended by thousands of small metal strips. They and the other supports that connect the ceiling to the roof create a spider's web of metal bands and I-beams extending far above us into the gloom.
Standing above the 3,094 seats of the theater, which was designed by McKim, Mead and White, I listen to a lone musician tapping out a beat on the bongos. Lest I get carried away, Stackman reminds me to watch my footing on the rickety metal catwalks that are probably as old as the building, which opened in 1922.
No one has ever fallen from here, but in the 1970s, Stackman tells me, a portion of the ceiling did fall down during an orchestra rehearsal. No one was hurt.
The few openings from below don't let in much light, so Stackman flips on single bulbs to provide light for each section we pass through. The path to directly over the stage is an obstacle course of narrow steps, ottoman-sized ducts, and overhead pipes, which Stackman navigates with ease.
We approach a vintage klieg light, a 3-foot long "instrument," as Stackman calls stage lights, that pokes down through a trapdoor formed by one of the ceiling rosettes pulled up by a wire.
"I use these to illuminate the front musicians," he says. "They give the orchestra a good wash of light, and they give the conductor light to see his sheet music."
Ninety feet below me swim the stage and front-row seats. Suddenly I'm nervous, but it's not acrophobia. It's worse. I have an irresistible urge to throw something. Or spit.
"Has anyone ever thrown anything?" I ask Stackman, trying to act casual.
"Not during my watch," he says. There's always a first time, I think.
He has heard rumors, he says, of students dropping things on the audience. In the 1970s during the cannon fire of the 1812 Overture, students dropped feathers on the audience. And he's heard the story about ping-pong balls raining down.
Glad to be moving away from the opening above the stage, I follow Stackman over a duct that blocks the walkway and into a bright little room that was once used for pumping the organ sound out over the audience.
Every surface has graffiti, some of it dating back to the 1920's, when the electrician noted his visits on the plaster wall. It's not as lonesome up here as I thought. If a phantom were to lurk above the Eastman Theatre, he'd probably be trampled by all the visitors.
And reading some of the graffiti, I realize that terrorizing the audience is not a top priority for students who find themselves up here. A vintage example: "I screwed Veronica here 7/6/65."
Of course. A private room, a rousing orchestral accompaniment... who can blame those crazy kids?
Stackman, who has worked with Eastman students for nearly 14 years, is not convinced. "I think that's just wishful thinking," he says.