1-on-1 with Maureen Callahan, writer who called Rochester ‘grim and depressing’

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Editor’s note: The video above is an audio interview which is transcribed below in the following article.

ROCHESTER. N.Y. (WROC) — Maureen Callahan, a writer for the New York Post since 2002, took aim at our beloved Wegmans in a recent article about the new store in Brooklyn.

Among many other one-liners in the article, she wrote:

“No, this is Wegmans, an exotic (!) import originating in upstate New York — not fashionable or hipster upstate New York, not Rhinebeck or Kingston, but grim and depressing Rochester.”

The backlash on social media, as well as in her own personal email, was instant and intense — causing Rochester natives and officials to take aim at Callahan. She did not back down, saying in the follow-up column:

“Rochesterians, who let me know in emails that keep on coming — amazingly, not from AOL addresses — how wrong I was to describe Rochester as such.”

That column came because, the Rochester Red Wings in response offered Callahan tickets on the newly minted “Maureen Callahan” night.

She accepted.

Get to know Maureen Callahan

Maureen Callahan

What inspired you to start working at the New York Post?

I’ve always been a fan of the Post, I’ve read it since I was a child. It’s kind of a dream job, I love it there.

All of us thought this article was funny. Do you have any background in comedy?

(Laughs profusely) I don’t! But the Post in known for a very specific sense of humor, and its one of the thing I love about it.

It was so interesting because the first column generated a ton of outraged emails from Rochesterians, which I never saw coming.

Then the second column, now it’s breaking down by like 50/50. Some people are still really outraged, but more people are like: “Oh I get the joke,” like we’re all in on it together, and we’re all going to participate in this great upstate-downstate rivalry.

Have you received backlash from your other articles, to this extent?

Oh sure, yeah, it happens. It’s kind of the reason I don’t really participate in social media, I feel like if people want to get a hold of me, they know how.

It happens, but you can’t do what I do for a living and not have a thick skin.

So you do get to basically cover what you want, so was this original Wegmans story something that was assigned to you, or did you seek it out?

I didn’t seek it out, I just had this thought … Down here in New York City, the opening of Wegmans at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was wall-to-wall media coverage. I mean every media outlet from the Times, to local news, to CNN, to international outlets were covering the excitement over Wegmans opening in Brooklyn.

And I thought to myself, when did New York City become a place where we get excited over a grocery store opening. This is the stuff that suburbanites flee to New York City to escape, myself included. I just thought, I want to write about it: “What’s happened to New York?”

I don’t know the answer, but I wanted to ask the question, and I was really taken to task by (people) down state, who all thought it was funny. The ones who reached out to me thought it was really funny. They weren’t affronted, at all. It was the Upstaters that made themselves heard loud and clear.

I have a fellow colleague who is from Rochester, and we did a deep dive about this, and he sort of explained to me what Wegmans is, and represents to people in Rochester.

That said, this was not an isolated incident. I think it was back in 2017, when a Fairway opened in Brooklyn, and people similarly lost their minds.

I really don’t know quite what is happening to this once great city, that is known of the capitol of culture, and art, and theater, and having everything you could possibly want … And yet people are losing their minds over supermarkets.

So have you been to the Brooklyn Wegmans?

No! No! Because I live steps from a Whole Foods, and sometimes I don’t even want to go there! I’l get it through Amazon Prime and it delivered right to my door.

Fair enough! But is Wegmans still a mystery to you?

It is not a mystery to me so much it had been before. Now as my colleague explained to me, and he spoke to a lot of the people who waiting in the line at 4 a.m. on a very cold, drizzly, dark morning, that most of the people he talked to were Upstaters themselves.

They weren’t people who were dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, who have been here for ten years or more, they were people who definitively fled the suburbs because it’s not for them, the city is more their speed … And they have one foot in and one foot out.

That made more sense to me — that it’s the ex-exports who still might be hungering for their hometown, than the people who were went one way and never looked back.

So some of these lines, like the “AOL” line

(Laughs) Listen, I was encouraged by my editor to push back hard after the onslaught of negative emails.

But what really tipped the balance was the Red Wings invitation, and the announcement that they’re throwing a night named after me, which we just loved, and we thought it was so brilliant.

As you can see in the second column, I was taken to the woodshed by you guys, and it’s part of the The Post DNA, we push back.

And, by the way, I got a number of emails from proud AOL subscribers up there.

It must have been a no-brainer to go the Red Wings game then.

Oh, yeah, there was no question. We are very excited at The New York Post. I wasn’t kidding when I said when I said there will be contingent with me.

It’s one of the funniest things that’s ever happened to me in my career.

Rochester “grim and depressing”? So NY Post writer Maureen Callahan is planning a visit to Rochester next summer after…

Posted by John Kucko Digital on Thursday, November 21, 2019

I really love it, and I’m really looking forward to, you know, I’ve had no shortage of emails since I’ve taken up the invite, offering to show me around. (laughs)

The thaw may be coming.

I like to end interviews with creative people on a Lightning Round: Three big picture questions. Since you haven’t visited the ROC, the first one can be about New York City. What makes it such a great environment for art and culture to grow and thrive?

There are a couple things off the top of my head. It really attracts a specific kind of person. When you come here to try to do anything, no matter what your industry or field, you’re really going to come up against the best of the best That’s part of the challenge, and it’s part of the fun and excitement.

Another thing that is really specific to New York is you can use public transportation to get to any part of the city, any time day or night, and you are bumping up against people of every race, religion, socio-economic background.

It’s a kind of mix you really don’t encounter anywhere else, at least I haven’t. And those are the things that I think really make New York special.

If you could accomplish one thing in your career and be happy, what would it be?

That’s a big question. I’m going to keep my focus right on winning the hearts and minds of Rochester.

One more, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

YES! Write what you think, and what you believe, and don’t worry so much about what other people are going to think.

I lied, I have one more for you. When you’re in Rochester, are you going to come to the Pittsford Wegmans?

It’s become clear that I must make a pilgrimage to The Mecca.

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