“Uniquely urban,” is Geneva’s chiseled identity, a proclamation to the world about its character and soul. Discover Upstate NY adds “small town” to the descriptor – “Geneva, the ‘uniquely urban’ small town.”
Indeed, having lived in mid-size urban centers for twenty-five years, it was Geneva’s urban nature that made it an attractive place to relocate. From the outside looking in, I saw a college town with neighborhoods, racial and ethnic diversity, and socio-economic complexity. It seemed as advertised, plus it is nestled smack dab in the middle of the Finger Lakes region.
Being uniquely urban means, we also carry the sins that other cities do: neighborhoods segregated by race and class, a shortage of affordable housing, food deserts where affordable fresh produce and meats are unavailable, white economically privileged property owners exerting undue influence, less affluent property owners contending with historic environmental degradation, and absentee landlords to name a few.
What I notice now that I have been here for several years, is the uneven embrace of “uniquely urban.” In small towns, new-comers are always new comers – twenty-five years later those who moved in “from away” still get referred to as from somewhere else. But in larger cities, at least those that have not been in decline, the constant influx and departure of residents mitigates against the outsider-syndrome. From anecdotal evidence we have a steady stream of people moving into Geneva, and yet being a resident, property owner, or tax-payer is still not quite enough to offer “from here” status for those not born here.
Geneva also has something that reminds me of a common split between city and suburban residents I have witnessed elsewhere. For example, when I lived in Buffalo, Columbus, and Indianapolis, I often met suburbanites who had not visited the downtown in decades. Neighborhoods that felt comfortable for me because I lived in the city, were somehow foreign and intimidating to those who lived just a few miles away. Likewise, as small as Geneva is, and as thoroughly livable and safe as its neighborhoods and downtown are, I hear the same discomfort voiced from people who live only blocks away, in “the town,” or “on the lake.”
Not long ago my congregation moved from its historic perch on South Main Street a few hundred yards downhill to Castle Street, across from the post office no less. Still we heard people express concern for our safety and wonder how we will ever find a parking space. It was as if we were moving into the heart of Rochester. Similarly, beyond the unique architecture of the homes in Lake Tunnel Solar Village, what I hear most from people is a concern about living in that no-man’s land near downtown, as if it won’t be safe.
For institutions, organizations, and communities, the hardest part about living into a mission statement is getting everyone to embrace it. Declaring Geneva is “uniquely urban” does not mean we are all celebrating it and feeling the love. Our leaders, those on council and those who work in city hall – and all of us really – have work to do to make our wonderfully clever marketing strategy a shared vision.