Convention Report: Flower City Comic Con, Rochester, NY

For several years, I have traveled around the United States and Canada, mixing with “my people” and weaving through the crowded passages that make up the show floor of a convention. In a crowd of thousands in Anaheim, California, I have met people from my very own city. In Niagara Falls and Toronto, Ontario, I have spoken to people who have traveled from Buffalo or Syracuse, New York. Why are these fans forced to travels hundreds or thousands of miles for these sorts of events?

Enter Flower City Comic Con. This may not be Rochester’s first convention – it isn’t even the only event this weekend – but for many local fans, this is their first step into a larger world.

For decades, comic book fans were a minority. Comic book conventions were limited to comic books. Over time, these events have been taken over by all strains of pop culture, from the classic comics to movies and television. The guest lists expanded from artists and creators to movie stars. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens shot on Kodak film and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 featuring a disguised version of our own East Main Street, it is fitting for Rochester’s sci-fi and superhero fans have one more venue to show their passion.

Flower City Comic Con brought stars ranging from Power Rangers to professional wrestlers, and comic artists responsible for the likes of Batman and The Incredible Hulk. Replicas of Doctor Who‘s TARDIS and Knightrider‘s Kitt were available for photo ops, as well as the 501st Legion’s Garrison Excelsior and Ghostbusters of Rochester.

Rochester is not home to the biggest convention I have attended, but I welcome any event that will bring the people of western New York into my city, and encourage the stars of the convention circuit to give Rochester, New York a chance.

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Passion and Christ: Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz

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Ted Cruz. Photo by Eric Stevens.

A match-up between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz has seen little discussion this primary season. With neither being their party’s frontrunner, the odds of these two facing off in the general election are slim. It is my pleasure, then, to pit these two candidates against each other.

Following last weekend’s onslaught of campaigning from Clinton, Kasich, and Trump, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited the Bill Gray’s Iceplex at Monroe Community College Tuesday morning. Scheduled to begin at 10am, I was met with thousands of people patiently waiting to enter the arena when I arrived around 6:15. When doors opened around 7:00, the arena floor and bleachers quickly filled. After a short two-hour wait, local musician Teagan Ward performed, her assignment being to “warm up” a crowd that was already quite warm. After short speeches from local organizer Tim Ellis (who those in the rave scene will better know as DJ Dynamic) and former Texas Department of Agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, the main event began.

Until last Tuesday, the loudest experience of my life was witnessing the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in a room with 2000 Star Wars fans. Bernie Sanders topped that, easily. Not because the senator has been known to speak loudly, but because of the screams from 6800 Sanders supporters the moment he appeared on stage. His speech was standard. At this point, the campaigns are finely-tuned machines, navigating over speed bumps and potholes, making their points and speeding on to the next stop.

After four high-energy rallies, it was nice to have a little break on Wednesday and Thursday. That break was only slightly interrupted by the Ted Cruz rally on Friday. I stood in line, where people were more interested in mocking the religious conspiracy theory newsletter being passed out than anything else. We filed inside, with no security check, and took our seats. This may have been the only campaign event actually called a “rally,” but almost every one of the 1500 people admitted was sitting.

A few years ago, I attended a panel with Adam West and Burt Ward, stars of the classic Batman TV series. Scheduled to begin at 3:00, our heroes arrived around 3:20. After fighting crime and questions for less than half an hour, the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder quickly departed once again. Ted Cruz, apparently, is Batman. The event was scheduled to begin at 7:30. At 7:49, local media reported on Twitter than Cruz was arriving at MCC (the event was held in the same location as Hillary Clinton’s, one week earlier). A few minute before 8:00, a highlight reel of Cruz’s primary performances was introduced by two students. Finally, Senator Cruz made his grand entrance, embracing the two young presenters in awkward hugs. His speech was surprisingly compelling. He made jokes and was met with laughter. He criticized Trump, he criticized the radical socialist running in the Democratic race, he even criticized Bernie Sanders, in a twist straight out of late-night television.

Cruz’s message was punctuated by religious imagery. His policies seem to be guided by what God wants, and his final statement was a pledge to return this country to “Judeo-Christian values.” His crowd, likely conditioned by regular church attendance, was very willing to frequently stand to applaud, and then sit back down. Though his religious message may alienate those who are not members of his particular faith, it was apparently welcome news to his supporters.

There was a stark contrast between these two events. The crowd at the Sanders event was passionate, overwhelmingly in favor of a Bernie Sanders presidency. Three days a a few thousand feet later, the crowd for Ted Cruz was… present. Standing in line, many people were there just for an evening of entertainment. Some were drawn to Cruz for his religious message, others because he “isn’t Trump.” Though I’m sure Sanders has drawn some supporters for the similar reason of not being Hillary Clinton, police turned more people away from his weekday morning event than Cruz drew to his Friday night rally.

After five rallies from five candidates, the voters of the Rochester area should be itching to vote on Tuesday. Unlike most years, we have a real opportunity to shape the direction of the candidate selection. If nothing else, it will mean these candidates can leave us alone and pretend that New York’s northern border is Yonkers, as we like it.

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Bernie Sanders. Photo by Eric Stevens.

State of My City: April 2016

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Mayor Lovely Warren. Photo by Eric Stevens.

I love my city. It took me in and gave me everything it has to offer. It is not perfect, by any means, but it has cultivated a close-knit community of artists, musicians, scientists, activists, public servants, and families. I may not know the name of every person walking down the street, but I know where I have seen them before.

I could have chosen to live in any one of our suburbs. Some of them may cost less. Some of them may be quieter. They may claim to be Rochester, but they are not. Fairport was not where Susan B. Anthony was arrested for illegally voting. Greece was not where Frederick Douglass published The North Star. Henrietta is not where the digital camera was invented, and then ignored.

From within the warehouse of the Genesee Brewery, the oldest in the state of New York, with the sweet smell of hops lingering in the air, Mayor Lovely Warren made her second State of the City address. She spoke of our city’s storied past, its struggle, through examples in Kodak and the brewery where we sat, and its growth and positive future.

While she took credit where she deserved it, she frequently praised other government leaders, prominent members of the community, and the residents of Rochester for their work in ushering in a new era for Rochester while respecting its past. Warren is a city mayor. She grew up in Rochester and talked of its struggles from experience, not from records. While her term as mayor started off with interesting events, only her harshest critics remain.

The only guarantee then is that doing nothing will solve nothing.

Mayor Warren’s proposals will not be popular for everyone. The residents of this city, and those of the neighboring towns, seem to have an attitude of “if it might not work, we shouldn’t try.” Rochester’s violent crime has been reduced, but not eliminated. Rochester remains the worst in the nation for child poverty. But efforts by the government, by the community, should not be stopped in a committee because there is no guarantee that they will work. The only guarantee then is that doing nothing will solve nothing.

A string of others, including former mayor Bob Duffy, Kris Sirchio, CEO of North American Breweries, and Pastor David Valle of River City Church, spoke before Mayor Warren. They each spoke of the progress we have made and of all that is left to do. It was a much smaller statement that spoke to me, however.

“Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to support this great city.”

Deputy Mayor Leonard E. Redon did not intend to make a profound statement when he thanked the audience for attending, but his words should be felt by any resident of the Flower City.  We should not just accept his thanks, but accept it as a call to action to do what each of us can to make Rochester the city it should be.

 

An Exercise in Exhaustion: Three Rallies in Three Days

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For the first time in my lifetime, New York’s primary actually matters, and all eyes are on us. Just over a week before the election, my favorite city (or its suburbs, anyway) is hosting four of the five major candidates. Hillary Clinton visited Monroe Community College on Friday, John Kasich in Greece on Saturday, and Donald Trump in Gates on Sunday. With a Bernie Sanders appearance Tuesday morning at the Bill Gray’s Iceplex and an as-yet-unscheduled appearance from Ted Cruz in the coming days, it is an exciting time to be a Rochesterian with an interest in politics, or a guy who wants to sell t-shirts and scream horribly sexist things into a crowd.

I am no stranger to big events. From the streets of Manhattan to the Anaheim convention center, I’ve spent dozens of hours waiting in line. Usually that line has a Star Wars actor or a famous TV couch at the end of it, but I guess a political candidate in one of various stages of desperation is line-worthy. The weekend’s brisk spring, with delightful winds to keep the crowd from overheating in the harsh 35-degree temperatures, did little to discourage the crowd. Clinton attracted several thousand people to MCC’s gymnasium. Monroe County Republican Party chair Bill Reilich brought John Kasich to the Greece Community and Senior Center, conveniently attached to the town hall, where Reilich serves as town supervisor. Donald Trump appeared at JetSmart Aviation, next to the Greater Rochester International Airport, likely so he could get in and out before the area’s rural residents try to adopt him.

The events themselves aren’t that different. Clinton and Kasich both delivered broad speeches that were hard to disagree with, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you fall on. Kasich’s strength or weakness, depending on whether you are a supporter or not, was in the question and answer session. It is far easier to compare these two “traditional” politicians than it is to compare them to Trump.

Now, my intention when I started this article was to present the facts and not let my own beliefs color the narrative. The description of Clinton’s and Kasich’s rallies, and anything not dealing with Donald Trump, was mostly written at the counter of a diner while I ate a humungous cheeseburger (listed on the menu as a “slider”). Trump’s event looked like it was held in a hangar, but it felt like an alternate reality. While his supporters ate up every word of what he said, the rest, and there were many, exercised every ounce of self-control they possessed to stop themselves from shouting out. Some were not successful. By the third sentence, Trump had already removed one person from the audience.

I lost most of my phone’s battery to Twitter, dominated by local media providing almost line-by-line coverage. Trump’s constant attacks on the media were far from the events I saw unfold online. His claims that the media wouldn’t admit to the size of the crowd were punctuated by local media showing the size of the crowd and the people who couldn’t make it to the event. Trump’s campaign has been accused of playing on the fear of his supporters, but it appeared to me that he was afraid they would figure his game out. His hype man, Pastor Mark Burns, told the crowd that Trump would be landing his plane (a plane the audience seemed to be obsessed with) “any minute.” That minute, according to the Twitter feeds of every local news outlet, actually occurred fifteen minutes earlier, because Trump was sitting in a media room holding an interview at the time. Regardless of how anyone feels about Trump’s policies, his campaign events had more in common with a magic show than the events held earlier this weekend.

But let’s start at the beginning again. Bill Reilich was notably absent from this event, after introducing John Kasich the day before. Our first speaker was Carl Paladino, the Buffalo businessman and, to borrow a phrase from Trump, a loser. That is, after all, what happened when he ran against Andrew Cuomo to become governor of New York. He spewed attacks at the press. He went after Governor Cuomo. He accused “the government” of trying to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination, overlooking the fact that it is the Republican party, if any group, that is working against Trump. Pastor Burns continued on a similar path, blaming the media and the establishment for any perceived roadblocks the Trump campaign is facing. That was a recurring theme in the speech given by Donald himself. The rules are unfair. The media is unfair. The fact that there are still other candidates running against him is unfair. Trump did compare his apparent struggle to Bernie Sanders, who he said is being treated by the Democrats and the media much the same way. The Trump campaign apparently only bought $15 worth of music for their pre-rally playlist, as it repeated many times. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (an example of good American jobs being outsourced to foreigners) was a staple, though if Trump has ever heard it, the message bounced off the top of his majestic hair.

Even the crowd at Trump’s event was very different than at the others. Supporters of Kasich and Clinton were friendly and polite. Trump’s crowd, complaining about how the current generaton “has no respect,” had no problem pushing people out of their way for a better view or turning to present a rude gesture to the news cameras. Evidently, “entitlement” is not limited only to social programs when talking about politics. I will give them a small amount of credit, however. When a man in an electric wheelchair tried to navigate through the crowd and one brave soul dressed as Marty McFly decided to make a stand to stop that injustice from happening, he was quickly turned against by Trump supporters and opponents alike.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (an example of good American jobs being outsourced to foreigners) was a staple, though if Trump has ever heard it, the message bounced off the top of his majestic hair.

Looking back on happier times, the Kasich and Clinton events were very positive. While their specific plans were different, each presented a vision for a better future in a great country. Kasich played big on his past in Congress and as Governor of Ohio, and spent a great deal of time talking about his family. Clinton herself skipped over much of her political past to talk about issues, and mentioned only once, at the end of her speech, her young granddaughter. Perhaps it is because the Clinton family has been in the national public eye for nearly 25 years, but it appeared as a stark contrast between the Republican and Democratic identities. Hillary Clinton appeared genuinely pleased to see Blake Moore, president of MCC’s student government, leading a group of students so interested in the system. John Kasich was sincerely grateful for the support he received, drawing attention to the call from his opponent to drop out.

In the end, did these events sway anyone to a new candidate? Likely not. They are designed to reinforce support among the people who are already in their camp. It provided the people of our community with an uncommon opportunity to feel as if these candidates are aware of a part of the state north of Westchester County, and a small army of officers from local, county, and state police agencies to earn a little overtime pay. It will be seen if these events repeat four years from now, or if Rochester crumbles into a post-apocalyptic hell-scape. Really, it wouldn’t be much different than how some candidates described it this weekend.

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Hillary Clinton. Photo by Eric Stevens.

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John Kasich. Photo by Eric Stevens.

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Donald Trump, master of (shadow) puppets). Photo by Eric Stevens.