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4. The Green Matrix

Letter from the Executive Board of Rochester's Street, Fire, and Water Commissioners to William A. Wadsworth

After an 1852 cholera outbreak, the rapidly growing city of Rochester--"America's First Boomtown"--sought alternatives to local wells and eventually constructed a 25-mile pipeline from Hemlock Lake that began operation in 1876.  Water use contintued to grow, however, and this 1890 letter to William A. Wadsworth shows the city envisioning nearby Canadice Lake as part of the reservoir.

Farm Acreage for the Counties Surrounding Metropolitan Rochester, 2012

Despite a regional population that has remained flat for years, real estate development is moving beyond Rochester and valuable farmland is disappearing.  This map visualizes farm acreage in the counties surrounding Monroe--how can our region feed itself without preserving its agriculture?

On November 29, 1890 William A. Wadsworth received a letter from the Executive Board of Rochester’s Street, Fire, and Water Commissioners.  The growing city, having constructed a 25-mile-long pipeline from Hemlock Lake during the 1870s, now was inquiring “to ascertain the price at which the riparian rights to the water of the Canadice Lake outlet can be purchased, with the view of unrestricted use.”  The letter hinted ominously at their preference for negotiating a purchase rather than “all the complications and annoyances connected with legal condemnation procedings”—that is, seizure via eminent domain—and gave Wadsworth just four days’ notice to attend a meeting in Avon.

It is difficult to envison another example quite this stark as to the problematic relationship between metropolitan areas and the resources of their surrounding countryside: Give Us Your Water!  Architectural critic Lewis Mumford, himself a staunch advocate of cities and their culture, nevertheless argued for a reciprocity that today would recogized as ecological: “The maintenance of the regional setting, the green matrix, is essential for the culture of cities.  Where this setting has been defaced, despoiled, or obliterated, the deterioration of the city must follow, for the relationship is symbiotic.”  In 1961, when Mumford was writing these words, the damaging effects of automobiles and suburbs were becoming visible, but he also implicates “the rapid industrialization of farming itself, which has turned it into a mechanical processing business no different in content or aim or outlook from any other metropolitan occupation” (537).  The sort of arrogance we see in Rochester’s water grab illustrates a more systemic breakdown in the green matrix, whose long-term effects upon city and country are by now severe.

Reconsidered in this light, some of the Genesee Valley’s 19th-century connections to metropolitan Rochester read like notes to a sort of alternate history, the basis for a modern, lower-carbon regional food system.  The Wadsworth family was intensely focused upon markets outside the region and invested in the Genesee Valley Canal and later the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad to reach them.  That vector still points toward Rochester, albeit in the imagination, at a time when Monroe County cannot feed itself and Livingston County imports most of its manufactured goods.  Although the Wadsworths operated mills of their own, archival records show Livingston County grains processed in Rochester (Shawnut, Mosley and Motley, Chase & Co., German Mills), and agricultural products passing through Rochester commission merchants like Charles F. Swan and Robert Rutherford. 

What if all this trade (had) stayed at home?  In 1912, the Avon Chamber of Commerce still could boast that “the bulk of Rochester’s certified milk” came from its dairy farms, three railroad carloads daily.  Today, the entrances to area supermarkets proclaim their connections to local farmers—with photographs and wooden bushel baskets to prove it—but this represents only a small fraction of the food that we eat.  A genuinely green matrix recognizes a region’s mutual dependence through a network of sustainable food miles and reciprocal flows.  By the way, although the 1890 proposal was not immediately successful, a dam and pipeline were built in 1917-19 diverting Canadice waters into Hemlock Lake, and from there to Rochester.

Sources Consulted

—Avon Board of Trade.  Year Book 1912: Avon, N.Y.  Avon, NY: Avon News Print, 1912.

—Mumford, Lewis.  The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects.  New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961.

4. The Green Matrix