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John McLoughlin is a veteran Capital Region journalist, now at NewsChannel 13. Reach him by email at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.

McLoughlin Take 2: He’s worried about future of Rochester

Friday, January 13, 2012
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Sure, it means nothing to you, what happens to McLoughlin Boulevard. But me? I’m worried.

You’re probably wondering who in their right mind would ever affix that name to a street. Well, I make no guarantees for his sanity, but he was the supervisor of the town of Greece, a suburb on the western edge of Rochester that’s a fair piece bigger than Colonie. The guy had a warped sense of humor and 40 years ago, after I worked for the Rochester newspapers and returned to Albany, he sent me a note saying this street deserved to be McLoughlin Boulevard because “It is short, it is wide and it goes nowhere!” It’s an access road, maybe a quarter-mile long at best, to a Kodak plant. Therein, my concern.

Just in case your lens has been out of focus, all reports point toward bankruptcy protection for the Eastman Kodak Company. And, as concerned as I am about my vanity-street, its only purpose to serve a Kodak plant, think what that company’s demise would mean for the good burghers of Rochester. To do that, you would have to travel back those 40 or so years and appreciate Rochester’s civic psyche back then.

To say that Rochesterians — that’s what they call themselves — had pride in their community is like saying that Newt Gingrich can be a little grating at times. Look, they thought their landfills did not stink, okay? Back in 1957, one of their own published a book titled “Smugtown USA” and the city had its nickname. And Kodak was at the heart of all that annoying snobbery.

To be a “Kodak Man” meant lifetime financial and job security, father-to-son, the whole deal. And each year, in late February, came “wage dividend day,” a day when a guy making ten grand or so would get a bonus of two, maybe three or four thousand bucks, touching off a flurry of citywide auto and appliance sales timed to this windfall started by Kodak founder George Eastman. Kodak was Microsoft or Google and Rochester was Silicon Valley in the first two-thirds of the century. What other town the size of Rochester could boast of startups like Kodak and Xerox and Western Union?

Rochesterians also thought their kids were above average and all their stuff was the finest: the companies, the cultural institutions, sports teams, even their newspapers. Gotta admit, they did have some pretty good stuff: Eastman School of Music, the University of Rochester, Strong Memorial Hospital, Oak Hill Country Club, even the newspapers were pretty good back then. Famous people came from there: Mitch Miller the maestro and Walter Hagen, the rose-sniffing PGA legend, opera diva Renee Fleming, Cab Calloway, even the Hillside Stranglers.

But the place could be suffocating. Buffalo or Syracuse were blue collar towns with everybody-knows-your-name corner

bars. Rochester was button-down white collar and the Kodak people went to Kodak house parties with other Kodak people, Xerox folks to theirs, except for those special Saturday nights when Chuck Mangione, another Rochesterian, was playing at the Shakespeare Lounge in the old Midtown Plaza.

Another local startup, Gannett, owned the newspapers and they were surprisingly strong, despite being local rah-rah sheets. The editors would never send us to Buffalo to report on how that city was solving some urban problem; Buffalo was too, how shall we say, gritty? They would send us up to Toronto, a sophisticated metropolis even back then and we would tell Rochesterians how Torontonians were coping with mass transit and the like. For some reason, they had it in their heads that Toronto was their sister city; no such illusions on the other side of the lake. The Toronto delusion apparently persisted through the end of the century. Remember that ferry Rochester bought so Toronto folks could get to Rochester more quickly? Quickly, schmickly, the Canadians stayed away in droves, ehh? The boat had to be euthanized.

But ferry follies are one thing, Kodak very much another. George Eastman was the patron saint of Rochester, donating tens of millions to community causes back when tens of millions meant something. Word was when Eastman committed suicide the local newspaper covered it up and the first edition had to be pulled back when the Chicago papers got wind of the true circumstances. For the love of Kodachrome, this had been one of the largest and most respected corporate behemoths in the world! About to disappear? About to disappear because Kodak engineers thought maybe someday all those digital photogs would be struck with nostalgia and decide to go back to rolled film?

By the way, not that it means anything to you, but the first and the only time that I visited McLoughlin Boulevard, the name was misspelled on one of the two street signs.

 
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