COLA Connections Newsletter: Summer 2016

RIT Revisits Rochester’s NBA Past With “When Rochester Was Royal” Exhibition

Rochester is a city full of hidden gems and surprises. Some of these lesser-known attractions become ubiquitous once you spend enough time in the city - the abandoned subway tunnels, for example - but other less tangible aspects of Rochester’s history have remained largely unvisited over the years. Every true Rochestarian knows that the city once contained a subway system from, but how many are aware of Rochester’s once-thriving professional basketball team, the Rochester Royals? According to Rebecca Edwards and Michael Brown, two RIT professors who helped curate and organize “When Rochester Was Royal,” not many. We sat down with the pair to talk about Rochester’s unique cultural history, why some historical details get remembered while others are lost to time, and whether or not they believed the exhibition was a success.


What was the genesis of this project?

Rebecca Edwards: The genesis of the project was that a private collector of Royals memorabilia got in touch with me. He contacted me at the end of last fall, and I knew that the 65th anniversary of their title win was this year, so this seemed like the perfect time to look back at the Royals.


Overall, would you say that the exhibition was a success? If not, is there anything you wish you could have changed about it?

Michael Brown: I think it was a success! I do hope we can find a way to bring it to a wider audience, though. It was clear to us throughout the organization process that we had tapped into something that was really alive in community memory. Students at RIT were interested in it, Rochesterians were interested in it; there was this cool cultural cross-section that happened. Rochestarians love morale-boosting stories, and the fact that we’re an NBA championship town is a good story.

How exactly would you want to broaden the exhibition?

RE: One way is location. RIT isn’t the most user-friendly location, you have to be pretty committed and intrepid to conquer a university campus from the outside. That’s not a knock on RIT, it’s just that college campuses in general are pretty intimidating. It would also be great to tap into some other hidden artifacts from the community that we didn’t have time to get together.


What are some other “Rochester secrets” that you’d be interested in doing exhibitions about?

MB: One thing that I often ask people is, “If I told you that a city in 1951 had both an NBA championship winning team and a subway system, would you be surprised to learn that city is Rochester, NY?” In most cases, that shocks people. In some ways, mid-century Rochester is its own tremendous secret. How do we explain, historically, that snapshot of the city and today’s Rochester? One of the ways we can do this is by unearthing things that aren’t necessarily “secrets,” but aspects of Rochester’s history that seem implausible today.


How did your respective research play into putting the exhibition together?

MB: I wouldn’t really call it my “research methodology,” but a lot of my information gathering comes from eating out around Rochester. For example, I was tucking into a bowl of gnocchi at Antonetta’s Restaurant, and I noticed that there was an autographed photo of a Royals player hanging on the wall. I got to talking with the owners and that photo became an artifact. I was dining at Sticky Lips and there was a collage of Royals newspaper clippings hanging on the wall. That, too, became an artifact. I’d like to say that my dining habits have made me an informal Rochester historian.

RE: Alas, most of my research was more traditional. Lots of reading, processing, interviewing and whittling all the material down to bite-sized chunks.

Ultimately, what’s the main thing that you hope people took away from the exhibition?

RE: A lot of the students I talked to who attended the exhibition, most of which were Rochesterians, had no idea that Rochester had an NBA team. I hope that the exhibition made people consider how sports history tends to linger in our cultural consciousness more than other things, but other times it can just become completely lost between generations. That disjuncture is fascinating to see in action. If you can get people talking about that, then suddenly you’re having an honest conversation about the community you live in.