The Remaking of Mount Morris, NY

Mount Morris is 40 miles south of Rochester, falling prey to the big box stores, college kids that leave and don’t come back and the bypassing of interstates. Since 2007, a 68-year-old, former New York City police detective, has been taking the long view in the revitalization of this small, upstate New York town. Greg O’Connell is a hero in Mount Morris.

The results aren’t hard to spot. In 2011 Mount Morris is, tentatively, blossoming. A roomy coffee shop, the Rainy Days Café and Bakery, with gleaming espresso machines, just opened in one of O’Connell’s buildings. (“It kills me that the old guys in town meet to drink their coffee at McDonald’s,” he says.) So has a barbershop, an antiques store and a gourmet food shop that specializes in products from New York State. A deli is scheduled to open soon. Arts groups, he hopes, are on the way.

O’Connell charges these businesses as little as $100 a month in rent, but he asks for things in return. He’s a longtime admirer of Jane Jacobs — he used to carry her classic book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” around like a talisman — and he learned from her and other urban planners. O’Connell’s leases require businesses to leave their lights on at night, to change their window displays at least four times a year and to stay open one evening a week. “If this place is going to make it,” he says, “it’s going to be a community effort.”

The $100 rents he offers, he insists, are not charity. He makes money, too, as much as $500 a month, from the apartments upstairs. In remaking Mount Morris, O’Connell is revisiting his own playbook, the one he used to rehabilitate Brooklyn’s once-deserted waterfront Red Hook area.

It’s a fascinating look at community revitalization, gentrification and how blighted areas can go from bad to good with just a little bit of effort.

Curiously, the article states that O’Connell retired from the NYPD in 1982 just before he undertook the Red Hook project. Which means he retired at 40?

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