Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mike Governale, Illustrator & Activist, interviewed by Geoff Graser

Mike Governale is an illustrator and graphic designer whose map of an imagined Rochester subway system led to his founding of Reconnect Rochester (, a group advocating for a city streetcar line and improved urban transportation network. It also led to my purchase of his 6x6 piece at RoCo (Rochester Contemporary Art Center) and this interview.

What is Reconnect Rochester?

Reconnect Rochester has sort of become my mission as of late. I started this
whole thing with the Rochester subway poster, as just a fun graphic design experiment after stumbling upon the Rochester subway story.

Then I started as a way to sell the poster, and I started blogging—writing about urban redevelopment, transportation, and social issues relative to the city of Rochester and the region. This past winter, I wrote an article about streetcars and how they’re getting popular across the country. I started thinking about downtown Rochester, and I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could bring back our streetcars, even on a small scale, and reconnect the neighborhoods around downtown and all of the great assets: the museum row area, Park Avenue, up Lake Ave., to the University of Rochester?” The possibilities were endless, so I wrote a little blog article about the benefits and feasibility of such a thing and what’s going on in other cities and regions across the country.

The Obama administration is changing the way the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) distributes funding. It’s not so much based on easing congestion and focusing on time of a trip, now it’s focused on mobility, fuel efficiency, and quality of life in urban areas. So, projects like streetcars and transit-oriented development are really surging and resonating with people.

It started resonating with me. I introduced myself to some people at the Rochester Community Design Center a year ago when I started, just as a way to see if I could do some volunteer work and to listen in on things going on in the city. I was looking for opportunities to write about some of these things and get more people interested. I found out there were so many things to write about, and I got so much feedback from people visiting my site and giving me compliments: “Keep up the great work!” and asking, “How can I get involved?” At this point, I said to myself, “I have a platform here that’s pretty valuable.”

So I started a group called Reconnect Rochester with the intent of advocating for a streetcar circulator or even just a heritage streetcar line up and down Main Street. The response was pretty overwhelming. Right now I’ve got a group of 15 to 20 people, at least 12 very active members, that started back in February/March. We’re just getting going and establishing some goals, realizing that it’s really difficult to come out of the woodwork and start advocating for a streetcar line. In fact, it’s pretty impossible because it’s not just a streetcar line. It’s linked to everything else. It’s linked to the transit system that we already have. It’s linked to jobs. It’s linked to the economic state of the city. It’s linked to all of these other social considerations.

We realized that what we’re best suited to do is engage the public and get ordinary people who might not be thinking about transportation or reinvigorating the streetscape in Rochester talking, getting them to come out and participate in events, and spreading the word about some of the things that Rochester can do.

We’ve got some members from the Rochester Rail Transit Committee on board. We’re meeting with Rochester Community Design Center about a greater goal, which is to get the city working on a master vision for transportation. One of the things I’ve discovered is that the city itself doesn’t have a comprehensive transportation plan. So we find ourselves in a position where individual projects are recommended: the bus terminal, a bike plan, even the fast ferry. All of these things are great and worth discussion, but they really are connected. Or they really should be.

I think the city really needs to work with the county, the surrounding suburbs, and all the way up to the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and start figuring out how we want Rochester to look for the next 20 to 40 years and not just for the next year out. The only plans that we have are a year to five years out. Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) puts out a plan every year. Genesee Transportation Council takes a look at the next five years of projects and they allocate funding. But the federal government is really interested in regions that have a greater plan. They want to invest in those types of plans and not just one-off projects.

So this recent uproar at the bus terminal on Mortimer Street was another opportunity for me to get the word out and get people talking about transportation. I spoke at City Hall about the need for a transportation plan, and I made it clear that I’m not for or against the bus terminal, but what I see is that it may be drawing a lot of ire from the public because they see it as another expensive project that tax money is paying for. And the need for it, and its future, is really unclear because we don’t have that long-range plan.

I’m coming from Long Island originally. I came to Rochester to go to school at R.I.T., where I met my wife. When I graduated in 1999, I said to myself, “I could move back to Long Island and get lost in 10 million people”—New York is a great city, and I go back there all the time—“Rochester is more my speed.” It was also a great middle-ground for me and my wife, she’s from Syracuse. There’s so much going on in Rochester and it’s so easy to get from Point A to Point B. The saying goes that “You can get anywhere in 20 minutes,” and it really is true. So, transportation in Rochester is really about quality of life, giving people the option of leaving their cars in the garage, and connecting the assets that downtown and our outer suburbs have to offer.

How does the development of transportation relate to the arts community?

I think great cities are built by artists and visionaries. Art comes in many forms. For me, artists are creative and have the ability to see things before they become reality. And that’s really all I’m doing with the Rochester Subway map. Most of those lines didn’t exist. It was just one line. But I said to myself, “Well, what would the system look like today if it were still around?”

I did a little research, and I found out that there were proposals, so I said this is fodder for me to work and brought them into the modern day. I looked at subway maps from around the world and how they function and how they’re designed. I looked at the Washington, D.C., metro map and the Paris map, and the New York City MTA map, and decided on something that fits the scale of Rochester and something I thought would get people today excited about this dream of the subway in Rochester. It’s never going to become reality. Rochester’s never going to become New York, but Rochester is unique in its own way.
One of the things that makes Rochester unique is our artistic population. You see that by walking up University and Park Ave. The city has embraced that a little bit with projects like the Art Walk, and I think there’s so much more that we can do to tap into that creativity.

As I mentioned before, the Rochester Community Design Center is another great resource for visionaries. Those are architects and designers working on their own time and with their own resources and taking the initiative to basically go street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood and take a pencil to paper and say, “This is what we got, what could this be?” And they engage the public and shape the dialogue using their own creativity and skills to develop plans for all these neighborhoods, which I think is great. We need to get more people who have those skills to use them.

When First Fridays began, they had a bus run between the galleries. How do you think a streetcar might work for an event like First Friday?

The East End is one of the areas where the streetcar would obviously be beneficial. Me and my wife come down to First Fridays every once in a while. I don’t remember the shuttle bus, but that’s a great idea.

Going back before that, the city had experimented with the idea of a shuttle that connects the High Falls area with the East End and some parking facilities in between. It was called the EZ-Rider. It was a bus that was painted yellow and blue and it was free and ran for about a year. I think what happened was that it was operating on a grant that ran out. For whatever reason, they didn’t continue it. It may have become a haven for vagrants and may have been considered noisy and smelly because it was a diesel bus. That’s one of the things I hope the city is looking at while they’re conducting the downtown circulator study because I don’t want the errors of the past to resurface.

I envision a streetcar line that would connect various neighborhoods. Not just the spots like East End and Park Avenue, but really around the entire city, connecting High Falls and West Main Street; the 19th Ward, University of Rochester and back around to Main Street; Upper Monroe and back around to Park Avenue and the art gallery and museum district. And then look at the possibility in the future of connecting it to the airport and to the Amtrak station.

One of the things that I was able to do was put visuals to this idea, designing a map that clearly shows the routes and how they engage with the existing bus routes, but also getting into Photoshop and having a little fun superimposing streetcars from other cities in the Rochester landscape. So that’s where my graphic design experience really helps me because I think the public becomes engaged when you attach a visual to a story. It’s one thing to talk about these things and put them in writing, but when people can see stuff with their own eyes. And, sure, it’s not exactly like riding in a streetcar and experiencing it, but just looking at a photo simulation gets peoples’ imaginations going. And when you get more than one imagination going that’s when the exciting stuff starts to happen.

What sparked your inspiration and interest in public transportation? Does it have to do with growing up around the public transportation in New York City?

Absolutely. Long Island is very suburban. It’s a lot like a giant Henrietta or Greece, so as a kid we pretty much drove everywhere. But, into my teenage years when my parents started giving me a little bit of freedom I would actually get on the Long Island Railroad and take that into Penn Station. Or sometimes I would get off in Queens and transfer to the subway in Jamaica and I’d ride around and it was a magical thing for me as a kid. I was a geeky kid. I was into maps and drawing, and a little bit of an introvert, but when I was riding around on the subway and popping out in different spots it was like the city was mine. It’s freedom, really.

Going back decades, the American Dream has been two cars and a house. The perception is that the car gives you freedom, hitting the open road and driving across the country. But for me now, and I think more so with younger people today, not having a car is freedom. It’s almost flipped from where we were 15, 20 years ago. Being able to live in a place where you don’t have to spend a quarter of your income on a car is freedom. Being able to hop on a bus or a train and get to a different neighborhood or city without having to worry about mapping your way there, or traffic, or driving yourself, that’s freedom.

I often take the bus from my house in Irondequoit, even though we have two cars and are that suburban family. But, on days when I can take the bus it’s really that feeling of freedom where I can spend that 15 minutes working on something or looking out the window and walking around.

Growing up on Long Island forced me to have an outside perspective about Rochester’s transportation situation. So, I do have that experience coming from a different place. I also like to travel. I go to Toronto. Seattle. I have not yet been to Portland, but that’s on my short list now. Looking at how other cities do things is important because Rochester is never going to be New York, a much smaller version of New York maybe, but there are other solutions that I’m willing to tap into for inspiration.

I went to R.I.T. for illustration and graphic design, so this isn’t my area of expertise. It’s what I’m interested in. I live in Irondequoit, but I work downtown. And when my wife and I have a chance to play we come downtown.

And I’m constantly looking at all of the potential that the area has. I’m an artist, a bit of a dreamer, but I think there are realities that could be realized by dreaming up the possibilities. I’m excited by the possibilities of Reconnect Rochester and drawing the public into this conversation because I think there are a lot of great ideas and I’m just scratching the surface. In the long run I want to make sure that the city is looking at all modes of transportation and not just buses.

Why do you think better transportation would help artists and creative people stay here?

I think it’s really pretty simple; at least in my simple mind. In our auto-driven society, we’re all so “siloed” from each other. We drive from home to work. We drive from work to lunch. It’s very anti-social and it doesn’t do anything for our street life, or streetscapes. Once we start giving people options that don’t involve automobiles that’s when you start seeing more people out on the street, walking to go shopping or to work, or just hanging out in public squares or public parks. People start interacting with each other, ideas start spreading, the city starts encouraging public art. All kinds of exciting things happen when you get people out of the car.

That type of environment where you have shops open to the street, and mixed-use development with apartments above those shops, that’s what attracts artists, that’s what attracts young people, that’s what’s going to keep college students who are going to our schools from graduating and high-tailing it out of here for home or for cities like Austin, TX, or Portland, OR, or even cities you wouldn’t think of like Charlotte, NC. All these cities are making investments in public transportation and bringing their streets to life and this is where people are going. So that’s a reality the city has to face whether they know how to face it or not.

We do have pockets of city life but they’re not really connected. How important is the revitalization of Main Street, perhaps with a streetcar, in connecting these areas?

The streetcar may seem like a 'pie in the sky' vision", but I think there’s also validity to using light rail in some form to connect the East Side and the West Side of the city. Right now they’re pretty disjointed because you only have a handful of physical connections: Main Street, Broad Street, and some roadway bridges. But I think once you start moving pedestrians back and forth it becomes a little different ballgame.

There’s a perception that there’s a lack of parking and it’s hard to get around. But really come down and look around at all the open spaces that are paved over and striped for parking. There’s parking garages. I just don’t think the lack of parking is the problem. I think it’s the lack of connectivity and “walkability.”

Another project that’s been talked about is the possibility of filling in the Inner Loop, which I think would be great if we could restore a little bit of the street grid that connected the outlying neighborhoods to downtown and promote “walkability.” I think that’s part of the city’s master plan.

Another project is re-watering the old Broad Street canal bed that at a later time was the subway. That’s an interesting idea, but, again, I think it all needs to be tied together. We need to be looking at how we’re going to be bringing people between these areas and how we encourage businesses and what types of businesses should be there. I think if the arts community is inspired by all of this they’ll start drawing up their own ideas and help inspire the public.

What arguments have you heard against the streetcar idea?

I’ve heard all the arguments: The city isn’t large enough to support it; the streetcar system went away 60-70 years ago for a reason; the operational costs. And all of these things are valid to a certain extent, but I think when you go to cities that are similar make-ups to ours, like Cincinnati, OH, or even smaller towns like Kenosha, WI, who are using streetcars for very specific functions in new residential developments, you start to learn that this is one tool in a toolbox of transportation tools we can use. Streetcars are one thing, but it’s also buses and bikes. Do we maybe take a section of Park Avenue or Main Street and just close it off to traffic all together? Make it a pedestrian plaza? A streetcar is just one idea and it should fit into an even bigger idea.

As far as the funding goes, what’ I’ve learned from reading about other cities and how they’ve implemented similar systems is that the government is willing to pitch in a certain percentage toward the capital costs, basically the building of the streetcar line, but the municipality has to have a plan for how the rest of it is going to be funded.

The common argument against civic projects like this is: “Don’t raise my taxes.” Especially in New York state. I’m a homeowner and pay a lot of taxes, but when you start to weigh the expenditure with the possible economic benefits in the long run, streetcars are a pretty permanent fixture and they attract a lot of different people to them and the businesses that start popping up along those lines.

I would say to a skeptic: Do a little reading. Maybe take a trip to Toronto and ride their streetcar line. If you’re on the West Coast take a look at Portland or Seattle. Ride the thing. It’s a completely different experience than riding the bus. Maybe talk to some business owners along the route and get their viewpoint, too. From what I’ve read and experienced, once these systems start being implemented they are loved, and heavily utilized, and spur the kind of development that Rochester’s in desperate need of right now. Like I said, this is one idea that shouldn’t be considered by itself, but the positives are just too strong to ignore.

Could you talk a little more about the Mortimer Street bus terminal plan and how you feel about it?

The bus terminal, I learned, was sort of in the minds of our regional planners and RGRTA for several decades. And, recently it was part of the Renaissance Square project.

So you’ve got Main Street. Then Clinton intersects it North and South. And then one block North of Main you’ve got Mortimer Street [at Clinton]. So there’s this one city block between Mortimer St. and Main St. where it looks pretty run down. There are some small shops, but for the most part it’s very underutilized and tired looking. So the city was looking at razing that block or at least half of that block and developing it. Actually, the county was looking at this in partnership with the city, and MCC, and RGRTA. I think it was a year or two ago that Renaissance Square was killed because not all the funding was in place for the different parts. The theater ended up being Phase Two or Three and public support died. For one reason or another, the project just sort of fizzled out.

RGRTA announced that the bus terminal part of the plan would move forward. They were going to pursue a bus terminal on Mortimer Street and they said they’ve looked at various locations for a downtown terminal, one of them being Midtown Plaza, one of them being on Franklin Street, adjacent to the Sibley building, and another one being the Amtrak station, but they decided to go with the Mortimer Street location because of its proximity to Main and Clinton and the size of the lot gave them the area to fit, I think, 24 or 26 bus bays all in that one spot.

So, I didn’t really come out publicly against the bus terminal, but in my mind I’m thinking it’s probably not the best solution for the city at this time because of the sheer scale of it. The price tag is said to be $52 million and that’s going to be federally funded. But I think the city needs to be looking at transportation on a wider scale, not just a central bus-only terminal, which is really what it is right now. I’m interested in how the bike master-plan would work into that area, how the inner-city rail terminal works into the plan. When the high-speed rail does come to Rochester, and it will—even if that may be 50 years out—I think it’s important that the Amtrak station, No. 1, gets redesigned and built, and No. 2, gets reconnected to all the regions around Rochester. Right now it’s pretty isolated.

So I’m worried that in 20 years this Mortimer Street terminal is going to be a dinosaur, another antique building. And I’m worried how it affects the city’s master plan, which is a good piece of work. Again, it doesn’t focus on transportation but it looks at how all the different neighborhoods in the city could realize their potential and what areas of the city should be residential, mixed use, and commercial.

Originally, I think Clinton Avenue and St. Paul were designated to be residential and mixed-use corridors all the way from Main St. up to the train station. And now with this 24-bay bus terminal plopped right in the center, I’m wondering how that affects the master plan.

What’s your first answer when someone reading this interview or your blog says, “What can I do to help?”

I would say just start asking questions of your neighbors to get a feel of whether “I’m the only one that sees this problem.” Next, I would start asking questions of your officials, of city council and representatives in the county and state, and reach out to people like me and if you don’t know where to go I’ll try to help you find an outlet for what ends up being activism in some form. I mean, at this point, I don’t even really know what I’m doing. But what I did was I found an outlet to reach out to people through my Web site, and I found out there were a lot of people who were thinking of the same exact things. I feel like I have a lot of support and a team that can actually start affecting change, which is a powerful feeling that I’ve never felt before.

Geoff Graser was a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist in a not-too-distant past life. He lives in Rochester, has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College, and likes his popcorn burnt.