by Chris Clemens
To the north of Rochester lies the lakeside neighborhood of Charlotte (pronounced by locals as: “sha-LOT”.) Before the City of Rochester was established, it was believed that the port located at the mouth of the Genesee River would provide the necessary access to landlubbers looking for business and commerce, but the Erie Canal that ran through the center of what is now Rochester usurped the importance of the port and Charlotte became a popular vacationing spot for locals. What is currently a park and beach landlocked by a lake of parking lots used to carry the nickname of the “Coney Island of the West”. Roller coasters, public bathing, restaurants and hotels were once the destination of everyone from the low-wage earners to the local icons of industry.
Lake Avenue runs north and south parallel to the Genesee River and when it meets its end at Charlotte Beach Park it doglegs westward to become Beach Avenue, a roadway of lakeside properties featuring homes that are right out of an episode of something on HGTV. Unknown to many is a ‘Secret Sidewalk’ that used to run along a street that since has been purchased as private properties. During the process of dividing up the land, the sidewalk remained in place and today still is open to the public. I won’t go too far in the history of the sidewalk, because my friend Mike over at RochesterSubway already did a great job of that here. It’s kind of a weird feeling to leave the sidewalk of Beach Avenue and be given public access to walk down the center of a string of beautifully manicured backyards on the bluff above the lake, but one that everyone should try nonetheless. While I’ve always enjoyed the quiet walk through the beauty of the landscape paired with the uneasy feeling that I was somehow intruding, there’s always been one part of the sidewalk in particular that I’ve always been drawn to.
While on a walk through the area I stopped a number of people who were neighbors of the sidewalk to try and determine the story behind one of my favorite finds. On the westernmost end of the secret sidewalk lived a few retired Catholic nuns, as best I’ve been able to determine was that there were 3-4 living in the house. Though they remained close to their religious beliefs, the sisters never decorated or added anything to the home indicating any sacred iconography–but for one statue.
At the corner of their property the nuns placed a solid white statue about four feet tall of the Virgin Mary holding a baby jesus positioned to gaze across Lake Ontario toward their Canadian neighbor in the north. Passersby began to stop and pay homage to the statue with prayers, and many with leaving rosaries. Somewhere in 2012 the nuns moved, most likely because of their age and increased difficulty to maintain a large property with high waterfront taxes and their house was torn down to make way for a new build of an expansive, modern home that currently is under construction. To date, the statue remains and continues to collect rosaries and prayers of pilgrims, and even an obituary of a local resident who had passed just a week before my most recent visit.
Though historic preservation is a cause that is important for me, I understand that people who have the means to do so may want to take down a home and build their own dream–and quite frankly I’m totally cool with that. My hopes though are that the statue that I’ve come to nickname ‘Our Lady of the Secret Sidewalk’ will always remain and provide a place of solace for even the non-believing passersby.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens