I guess it’s supposed to be an honor.
Instead, it will be a punchline.
As early as tomorrow, the city of Rochester will name a building after former Mayor Bill Johnson – a building that is a hulking reminder of his greatest political failure.
“The William A. Johnson Jr. Terminal Building at the Port of Rochester”
The fast ferry building.
The empty albatross that stands in silent remembrance of a horrific governmental miscue will now be named for the man whose legacy wants more than anything to forget the whole matter.
That’s according to the reporting of Rachel Barnhart at RochesterForAll.com, where she has posted a copy of the dedicatory plaque and proclamation. Barnhart believes the dedication ceremony could take place Friday, and may eventually include a statue of Bill Johnson.
Which might make sense.
Anywhere but there.
Bill Johnson was the city’s first black mayor – a fact of legitimate historical significance. He should be remembered. Something should be named after him.
But that something should be a building, bridge, rec center or park which will bring honor to his name, not stir up the unavoidable mockery associated with Johnson’s Folly – the fast ferry.
That was a big boat running multiple trips a day between Toronto and the mouth of the Genesee River at Charlotte. It was from its first conception an idiotic idea. The day it was announced, I did the math on how many cars it would need to carry a day to cover its expenses. That math showed the impracticality of the project. It hemorrhaged money from the jump, sailed for an abortive season, and was shut down by the next mayor.
Rochester was left with a stinging state audit, a secret sweetheart deal to the ferry company that cost $400,000 to get out of, and $40 million in debt.
In a city with one of the highest rates of child poverty in the nation.
It was malfeasant, and has left the words “fast ferry” as Rochester shorthand for the preposterous ideas of political fools.
And now Lovely Warren wants to hang Bill Johnson’s name on the fast ferry terminal.
I thought she liked him.
I have a history with Bill Johnson. The low point was when I said something thoughtless and hurtful about him and dead-ended my career. The high point was being able to listen to and watch a man over many years who was, though philosophically far removed from me, one of the most intelligent and impressive people I’ve ever known. Through his years at the Urban League, and at City Hall, Bill Johnson was a giant.
I often disagreed with him, and criticized him forcefully. But I always respected him, and wanted to know what he had to say, knowing that the regular morsels of wisdom were worth what I considered to be the background of progressive bull crap.
And he deserves to have something named after him.
As I have said publicly for almost a decade.
When they built the new 490 bridge over the Genesee, I suggested two names – Mayor Bill Johnson and Medal of Honor recipient Gary Beikirch. When they created a new street where Midtown Plaza used to stand, I recommended Mayor Bill Johnson.
He deserves a place in history.
But that place should not perpetuate his worst day.
Bill Johnson was so much more than the fast ferry, and the passage of time is bolstering that view. To have that all swept away so that his name is forever tacked to the fast ferry building is unfair and disrespectful to him, and dishonest to history.
A black man rose to be mayor of Frederick Douglass’s city, and he did it from outside the established power order, and he fought the Democratic Party bosses to do it. And for most of his administration, he served in a manner pleasing to his constituents – as evidenced by his re-elections. Further, he was often a powerful and wise voice for his beliefs and what was, from his perspective, best for the people of Rochester.
He wasn’t always right. And he had good days and bad. And he has to own the fast ferry.
But he doesn’t have to be defined by it.
Lovely Warren doesn’t deserve to be remembered for Uncle Reggie and trips to Albany, and Bill Johnson doesn’t deserve to be remembered for the fast ferry.
He deserves better.