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Chris Clemens

Exploring Upstate

Interview No. 42

Chris Clemens - Profile PhotoChris Clemens - Profile Photo

Rochester has an incredibly rich and vast history, and we are continuing to reinvent the city.

What part of Rochester are you from?

I grew up in Webster. Currently, I live in the North Winton Village.

What is your favorite part of living in Rochester?

There’s never a shortage of things to discover, both historical and modern. Rochester has an incredibly rich and vast history, and we are continuing to reinvent the city. Both our history and our story of self-reinvention are endless.

Do you have any favorite Rochester spots?

The spot that comes to mind isn’t in Rochester, exactly, and I’ve never disclosed its location to anyone. All I’m gonna say is it’s a cemetery in Pultneyville.

I love to drive aimlessly and ignore my GPS whenever it tells me to take a road I’ve already taken before. That’s how I stumbled upon my favorite spot out in Pultneyville.

Describe your dream Rochester day.

I’d grab brunch at James Brown’s with a friend, and then coffee afterwards. From there, tons of daytripping to find new things to write about. I usually grab a friend from Rochester and we just get in the car and go.

Do you have a favorite neighborhood?

It depends on what I’m seeking. If it’s food and a nice walk, it’s Park Ave. If it’s history, culture, architecture, and churches, then the East End. But if it’s for living, then the North Winton Village.

Favorite coffee shop?

Joe Bean. I’ve been drinking their coffee since they were in Webster. I maintain a list of all the coffee roasters in the state over on Exploring Upstate, and Joe Bean continues to be one of the top contenders for one of the tastiest and most consistent beans.

Favorite restaurant?

Probably Yummy Garden Hot Pot. It’s so diverse! Everything cooks right at your table, and they have tons of unique stuff on the menu. Like pig’s blood! Yes, I have actually tried that.

It’s given us a certain fortitude—we have this ability, as a city, to reinvent ourselves as everything changes.

What's your personal coping method for cold/gray weather?

Hot coffee and a warm sweater. And staying in touch with people. It’s easy to keep up with people online and think you’re really connected, but you’ve gotta get out there in real life too. We’re always out and about in summer and need to make an effort to do the same and stay engaged in the winter, too.

What is your favorite Rochester memory?

When I was growing up, my aunt lived in an apartment at Park and Alexander. She used to babysit me and we’d walk all over the city together. Discovering Parkleigh, MLK park, and other landmarks felt like finding a whole new world to a kid from the suburbs.

What makes Rochester unique?

History has shaped what we are now. Not a lot of cities have histories like ours. Grain mills churned by water created a city that is focused on production—it’s part of who we are here in Rochester. We are constantly reinventing ourselves. The Erie Canal caused more reinvention. It’s given us a certain fortitude—we have this ability, as a city, to reinvent ourselves as everything changes. Cars, Kodak, Xerox. We’re trying to find ourselves as a city, and it’s resulted in some serious ingenuity!

What do you think could be improved?

This question makes me think of Buffalo—they have so many creative powerhouses who all work together. We’re starting to do that in Rochester now, but we need to collaborate more and support each other. There are creative people in our community right now who are doing their thing because they’re invested in it and they want to, not because they’re getting paid. Those are the passionate, talented people we want to support!

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What made you decide to start Exploring Upstate?

Well, it originally started as Exploring the Burned Over District back in 2011. We realized that we didn’t explore our own backyard. For example, people from all over the world come here to see the Hill Cumorah pageant, and I had never been! That’s kind of where it started. There are intriguing spiritual places all around New York, so I started exploring them and writing about it. After awhile, though, I felt like it needed context. Religion is deeply interwoven with the history of this year, and I wanted to talk about anything I encountered (like a really good hotdog). So in 2014 I launched Exploring Upstate, and it’s just continued to grow from there.

How do you find new things to write about for Exploring Upstate?

I do a lot of reading online—I’ll read the history of small towns on Wikipedia and start finding connections. I also read a lot of regional history books and get a lot of suggestions from other people.

What is the coolest experience you’ve had as a result of your blogging adventures with Exploring Upstate?

There are a lot of cool experiences I’ve had over the years. I’ve been in the ceiling of the building that’s now the Lyric Theatre. The Two Saints Church on Fitzhugh Street has a fallout shelter in the basement—I’ve been in there and I’ve been in the belltower too!

But that’s not the coolest part for me. I think the coolest part is that so many people have trusted me to share their personal story. People are beginning to reach out to me, inviting me to come see their church or building and hear their story—those are the kinds of experiences that you just can’t buy.

What’s the most underrated place to visit in Upstate New York?

Two areas come to mind. Utica has an incredible history and awesome menu of food available. In the past, the city has fallen on difficult times financially. There’s also been an influx of immigrants from all different regions. Italian, Ethiopian, one of the oldest pizza shops in New York—all kinds of unique foods are available right in the same little geographic area. Awesome history and awesome food.

The Catskills are great too. They were THE destination in the 1900s for New York City people, but then planes became more accessible, and the Catskills fell out of favor. It looks rundown on the surface, but there are still a lot of cool gems in the rough. You have to look for them—they’re not gonna come find you. You could say that for Rochester and all of Upstate New York, too.

And I’ve gotta ask—I see you have a lot of tattoos—which one is your favorite?

This skeleton key represents my permanent induction to the family at White Tiger Tattoo. Both shops have some of the most talented artists in the area working there, and even though I'm not an artist, I'm proud to be part of the extended family.

In fact, I think that's why so many people are getting the Rochester flower logo tattooed on them the last few years. You didn't see that a decade ago, now it's fairly common. Our city is sort of like everyone's slightly dysfunctional family; no matter how many Thanksgiving dinners get ruined with an argument or fast ferries get docked, we are all in this together for the long haul. That dedication is something to be proud of.

Chris Clemens is a Rochester native with an itch to explore the unknown. He writes about his adventures discovering new places on his website, Exploring Upstate. Read more of Chris's perspective on our Instagram.

Interview by Emily Hessney