Rochester's River of Trash

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK- While Cleveland has largely put its dirty river problems behind it, Rochester, New York is starting to gain some notoriety as a Rust Belt city with its own river related public relations problem. Over the last few years, the Genesee River that flows under Rochester’s iconic Frederick Douglass–Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge has developed a flotilla of garbage that nobody seems willing to clean up. City officials say it’s not their job.

Image: Clarke Condé

The problem is one of jurisdiction and budgets. City officials say that it is the responsibility of the New York State Canal Corporation to clean the river. The Canal Corporation says that this particular stretch of the river is not a navigation channel and therefore not a clean-up priority. Each says they are spread thin and that budget priorities must take precedent.

However, many in the business community say it is not only embarrassing for the city to have so much rotting trash floating in the river, but bad for business. Many say they shouldn’t have to find ways to steer visitors and potential investors away from the riverfront that borders one of Upstate New York’s fastest growing neighborhood just because no governmental agency will act to clean it up. Locals say they are sick of the finger-pointing and they just want the mess cleaned up.

Fanning the river fire, local media reports showing the Rochester skyline with the trash-filled river have raised the ire of some elected officials that say the images of Rochester reflect poorly on the “Image City” and that people should simply not show the garbage in their photographs of the Rochester skyline. They insist it is not their job to clean up the river and that the images, while accurate, simply make the city look bad.


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the city tries to cast itself as business-friendly, the river full of trash has become an unwelcome and unbudgeted piece of the development puzzle. With millions of public dollars already invested in developing this stretch of the river, and private developers being heavenly courted by City Hall, it remains to be seen what, if any, action will be taken to head off a potentially Clevelandesque PR nightmare. Many in the community remain optimistic that someone will step up and take responsibility for getting the garbage out of the river for everyone’s benefit. As one local business owner put it, “If the river was cleaned up, investors just might be more likely to dip their toes in.”

–Clarke Condé

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