Race and Place in the Flower City:

Brennon Thompson
May 4, 2017 · 15 min read

A Case Study of Perpetual Marginalization through Urban Planning

See No Evil

Rochester, a mid-sized city in upstate New York, was once a model company town. Magnet industries like Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb cultivated a cradle-to-grave culture of comfort and complacency. Rochester became known as “smug town” and embraced the romanticized idea that all had access to middle class opportunity. In the summer of 1964, Rochestarians were shaken out of their corporate glaze, if only briefly, in what has come to been known as the Race Riots (Saltzberg 2013). The common explanation for the unrest revolves around tensions between police and partiers on a hot summer night (Saltzberg 2013). However, the story is much more complicated than that. In this paper, I will argue that historical racial and spatial segregation gave rise to the uprising of ’64. Specifically, I will analyze three tools of urban planning: zoning, affordable housing, and urban renewal, as they are particularly powerful instruments of structural racialization. The historic Seventh and Third Wards will serve as the spatial cases whereby the development of perpetual marginalization can be traced.

Source: Rochester Subway

In contemporary environmental justice and urban inequality literature, post-industrial metropolises, like Detroit, Chicago, and New York are disproportionally selected for study from the urban portfolio. It is important to recognize that similar problems afflict small and mid-sized cities across the country. To ignore these spaces would be to ignore the reality of millions of Americans. Highlighting the histories of small and mid-sized cities calls attention to the pervasive nature of structural inequity, and the often-silent suffering of residents before true crisis strikes, e.g. Flint, MI. Acknowledging and understanding the complex histories of our contemporary urban spaces is the only way to adequately address the structural inequities we face today.

To make this argument, I will first present important historical and spatial background necessary to understand the subject. Next, I will discuss three tools of urban planning that perpetuated marginalization, followed by a brief overview of the events during the summer of 1964. Finally, I will evaluate the two case neighborhoods, as they are today, as well as the city’s response to failed urban renewal projects.

The History of Race and Place

Established in 1834 as a gristmill town, Rochester was settled on the eastern bank of the Genesee River, eight miles south of lake Ontario. Rochester’s population grew rapidly from the founding 12,000, to 163,000 by 1900 (Grier and Grier 1958). During the same period, the African-American population grew only slightly from 300 to 600 (Grier and Grier 1958). Historically, the urban geography of Rochester was mapped by political ward boundaries, each with a distinct identity. Today, the old ward system has been reconstructed and redrawn into neighborhoods. However, the history of each space lingers, and still shapes contemporary imaginaries, which manifest into municipal policy and private investment.

Source: Town Square — Rochester, NY 1930

The historic Seventh Ward boundaries begin directly above the central business district and stretch north for about a mile, opening into a V. Rochester’s rail station bisects the ward and was a vital commercial and industrial artery before the city’s automobile revolution. Close to the heart of the city and major transit, the Seventh Ward became an immigrant neighborhood. From the city’s inception, each new wave of migrants made their mark on this space. In the early 20th century, the Seventh Ward was home to predominantly Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews (McKelvey 1965). At the time, these minority groups were often distinguished as a non-white other. The space they occupied was labeled a slum, and a blight on the burgeoning cityscape (McKelvey 1965).

In the decades following the Second World War, a massive south-north migration increased Rochester’s population of African-Americans from 7,845 in 1950, to roughly 40,000 by the mid-sixties (Wadhwani 1997). As with the immigrants before them, many of these new arrivals settled in and around the Seventh Ward. Those that found homes elsewhere were concentrated into Ward Three, where the pre-war African-American population had been highest (Wadhwani 1997).

The Third Ward sits just across the river from Downtown on the western shore, and extends south for about a mile following the contour of the river. Also known as Corn Hill, this area is the city’s oldest residential neighborhood. The founder, Col. Nathaniel Rochester, and other wealthy mill owners constructed beautiful mansions in what became known as the “Silk Stocking District” (City of Rochester n.d.). After the Emancipation Proclamation, freed-slaves settled on the southern edges of the ward, establishing the city’s first African-American neighborhood (City of Rochester n.d.). Home to the city’s one-percent black population before WWII, the influx of post-war migrants completely reshaped the ward’s demographics (Wadhwani 1997).

While these two wards maintain their own unique histories and spatial identities, they also share characteristics that bind them together. The lived experiences of their residents, and the manipulation of their spaces can be traced through policies of urban planning. On the surface, these policies seem facially neutral, however, their implementation has marginalized minorities. Understanding these outcomes counters poverty narratives in which the poor are perceived as products of their own flawed character.

The Red Line

During the New Deal era, real estate appraisers under the auspices of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), mapped the neighborhoods of American cities by their credit worthiness (Nelson, et al. 2016). These color-coded maps influenced who had access to home financing and where developers spent their money. Scholars have coined this practice “redlining,” specifically referring to the red ink that marked the condemned neighborhoods. The impacts of redlining cannot be understated; researchers have correlated a direct generational loss of wealth and perpetuated impoverishment due to these practices (Nelson, et al. 2016). On November 1st, 1939, HOLC appraisers made their way through the city of Rochester. The following accounts are taken directly from their field reports.

Source: Mapping Inequality — Rochester, NY HOLC Residential Security Map

On the HOLC “Residential Security Map,” Ward Seven was broken into two zones, D1 and D2. Both of these areas were graded as level 4, “hazardous,” and colored in red (Nelson, et al. 2016). The residents of D1 and D2 were described as day laborers, and others as “on [government] relief.” Forty-percent of the families were foreign, a mix of “Italians and Hebrews,” and ten-percent were “Negro.” The homes were characterized as small wood framed single-family homes in need of major repair. There were roughly 500 HOLC loans between the two districts, nearly sixty-percent of which were in default (Nelson, et al. 2016). The appraisers recorded that no mortgage funds were available for D1 and D2.

Similarly, Ward Three was fragmented into three zones: D5, D6, and C24. At the southwestern boarder of the ward, C24 was the only section that escaped redlining, although still classified as “Definitely Declining” (Nelson, et al. 2016). Zone D5, the northern tip of the ward, directly adjacent from downtown, was recorded to be ten-percent Italian and seventy-five percent “Negro” (Nelson, et al. 2016). The appraisers description is telling of what specific characteristics qualify this neighborhood for such a failing grade:

Years ago this was a section of beautiful old homes. Some still remain — massive structures and still handsome but with no value except for conversion purposes. Negroes have come into the area and today it is the poorest section of the entire city. The most that can be said for it is that it is convenient… Pride in ownership is lacking… Many properties only have nominal values or values for [minimum] cost of shelter. (Nelson, et al. 2016)

These reports, issued in 1939, became self-fulfilling prophecies. By redlining these zones, residents’ access to investment and home financing was severely limited. Over time, as the real estate appraisers forecasted, these areas declined. When the wave of southern migrants ballooned the population, there was nowhere to go; affordable housing became a major issue, and Rochester was not prepared to provide.

Nowhere to Go

In August 1958, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination published a report titled, Negroes in Five New York Cities (Grier and Grier 1958). The report addressed four areas where discrimination was most prevalent: employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. Rochester was one of the five cities profiled in the report. In discussing the rapid post-war population growth, the authors characterize the “newcomers” as agricultural migrants lacking marketable skills for high-tech production in northern metropolises (Grier and Grier 1958). This perception fueled discriminatory practices that barred non-white residents from employment, education, and adequate housing.

The report describes two Rochester “ghettos,” the Baden-Ormond area (Ward 7) and the Clarissa Street area (Ward 3) that housed eighty-percent of the city’s African-American population. In combination, the two wards held only six-percent of the city’s dwelling units; twenty-eight-percent of these units had no running water, and twenty-percent had no private bathroom (Grier and Grier 1958). At the time this report was authored, only five housing units had been built post-1920 between the two wards (Grier and Grier 1958). Conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary, yet the city was reluctant to act.

Moving out of these two wards was almost impossible, even for those with the economic means to do so. In the Five Cities report, the authorities found that:

Though humiliating and difficult… Except for Rochester, acquisition of adequate sales housing by Negroes is not now considered an insuperable problem within the city limits of any upstate cities studied… Only in Rochester have there been widespread reports of neighborhood resistance to the entry of non-white families. (Grier and Grier 1958)

These rigid barriers were exacerbated by disproportionately high rental costs paid by non-whites, which were roughly one-third higher per month (Wadhwani 1997). Burdened by higher housing costs, and unable to move out of segregated ghettos, these residents were trapped.

Source: Democrat & Chronicle

By the mid-1950s, almost every city in New York had built low-income public housing to accommodate the needs of their growing populations. However, Rochester lagged sorely behind. Powerful and vociferous opposition to public housing delayed the establishment of a housing authority until 1955 (Grier and Grier 1958). In total, between 1950 and 1963, Rochester only provided 417 public housing units (Vacca 1991). In eight other major New York cities, there was an average of 182 public housing units per 1,000 standard units; in Rochester, there were only 37 (Grier and Grier 1958). Embarrassed by the Fives Cities report, Rochester sought to remedy the dismal housing conditions and embarked on a campaign of urban renewal. Over several decades, urban renewal became associated with slum-clearance projects and highway building.

Bulldozers and Broken Promises

The first public housing project, Hanover Houses was a cluster of seven-story apartment buildings that opened in 1953 (McKelvey 1965). This project, located on a six-acre plot in the Seventh Ward, was a dismal failure.

Hanover Houses

Designed to hold less than 140 units, the surge of demand led the developers to subdivide the complex into 392 units, tripling the population density (McKelvey 1965). Five years later in 1958, the Hanover Houses had earned a reputation as overcrowded, unsafe, and dilapidated (Vacca 1991).

The following year, the Baden-Ormond renewal project began. At the heart of the Seventh Ward, sixty-acres of “slum” were cleared, displacing 600 families and 150 businesses (Whitaker 1965). However, the low-income housing development built on that site, Chatham Gardens, only housed 284 families (McKelvey 1965). Furthermore, there was an integration standard set for the Chatham Gardens, requiring that the resident population maintain an equal ratio of white to non-white tenants (Vacca 1991). The final barrier to displaced residents hoping to return was a mandated credit report, which due to previous redlining would prove impossible to pass (Vacca 1991). Instead of additional housing, a warehouse, Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, and UPS depot would be constructed atop the old neighborhood (Vacca 1991).

The Third Ward was also scheduled for an urban renewal project. In 1962, upon receiving federal grant funding, twenty-three structures were selected for spot clearance (Vacca 1991). As opposed to the Seventh Ward, many of the Third Ward’s historical buildings were to be preserved and restored. Eight townhouses and a single high-rise complex would be constructed to house thirty-five low-income families and sixty-four elderly couples (Vacca 1991). The Third Ward’s historical status as the founding residential neighborhood spared it from the block-clearance experienced in Ward Seven.

Source: Town Square — Inner Loop 1970

During the same period, urban planners were drafting designs for the “Inner Loop,” a highway that would encircle downtown Rochester (Vacca 1991). The Inner Loop was designed to reconnect the suburban white-flight population to the heart of the central business district. This highway project cut through both wards, requiring further residential and business displacement. Today, the Inner Loop has been characterized as a noose around the neck of the city. The four-lane high-speed highway has become a formidable barrier to localized traffic between neighborhoods and downtown. The construction project did raise community awareness about living conditions in the inner city, but it also served to further isolate these neighborhoods, laying down a dividing line between social classes.

Source: Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images

The Summer of ‘64

On the night of July 24th, 1964, the police were called to the Baden-Ormond neighborhood. An intoxicated man was disturbing a Friday night block dance put on by the Northeastern Mothers Improvement Committee (Saltzberg 2013). The police detained the man, but amidst the arrest a crowd had gathered around the officers. More police arrived, thirty-five in total, and they attempted to detain more partygoers (Saltzberg 2013). A scuffle ensued, and a sixteen-year-old was bitten by a police dog; tensions between the police and the crowd escalated out of control (Saltzberg 2013). The use of dogs had become a specific point of contention in an ongoing community complaint of police brutality (Whitaker 1965). News of the night’s events spread quickly, and angered residents came out to protest. Although the original quarrel was between the police and residents, as the night drew into early morning, reports of widespread property damage and looting redefined the protest as an all-out riot (Saltzberg 2013).

In response, the next day the city declared a state of emergency, and for the first time in history the National Guard was deployed in a northern city (Saltzberg 2013). Over one thousand Guardsmen, the entire municipal police force and hundreds of state troopers patrolled the streets. An eight o’clock curfew was set, the sale of alcohol was banned and public transportation was suspended (Saltzberg 2013). The second night, the crackdown propelled the uprising into the Third Ward with the same cathartic ferocity that carried into Sunday morning (Whitaker 1965). In the end, roughly 1,000 arrests were made, property damage topped $1 million and five people were dead (Whitaker 1965). One white man had been run-over, and a helicopter carrying Civil Defense officials had crashed into a Third Ward home, killing the two officials, the pilot, and the homeowner (Whitaker 1965). The aftermath sent shockwaves through the city, the state, and indeed the nation.

Source: Rochester Public Library — Clarissa St. Helicopter Crash

In the Grip of the Past

The Third and Seventh Wards no longer exist as contemporary spatial boundaries. Over the last fifty years, the neighborhoods have become more fluid, demographics have shifted and zoning has recoded the area. However, compared to the city as a whole, the prosperity within the old ward boundaries has been stunted. Using data gathered by the City and Census Bureau, the historical disparity can still be measured using these key indicators: unemployment, public assistance, poverty, childhood poverty, and median household income.

The Seventh Ward has been broken down into five census designated block groups. The population within the old ward boundary is roughly 5,000 and remains predominantly African-American, with the exception of residents within the Inner Loop (City of Rochester 2014). The aggregate unemployment rate is 27%, with a maximum rate of 43% and a minimum rate of 9%; the citywide average is only 16% (City of Rochester 2014). The number of residents on public assistance is equal to that of the city at large, 12%, however one neighborhood skewed the data; the average between the other four is 16% (City of Rochester 2014). The poverty rate is 55%, which is 25% higher than Rochester’s average (City of Rochester 2014). Childhood poverty is also significantly higher, at 33%, as compared to 20% citywide (City of Rochester 2014). Finally, the median household income was just over $15,000, $17,000 less than the average household (City of Rochester 2014).

The Third Ward faired slightly better on almost all socio-economic indicators. In addition to lower unemployment (12%), and poverty (37% — 13% Childhood), the area had a higher median income, $29,000, although still lower than the city’s average (City of Rochester 2014). There are more residents on public assistance, 21%, however this is concentrated in one neighborhood at 69% (City of Rochester 2014). Overall, the neighborhoods within the Third Ward boundaries are more socio-economically diverse than they are in the Seventh Ward. Corn Hill for example, retains its prestige and has a higher educated, higher paid, and whiter population than the surrounding areas (City of Rochester 2014). There seems to be a clear correlation with whiteness and higher economic indicators. Urban renewal and gentrification are highly probable causes, although further study would be necessary to confirm.

Source: Garwood and Frisch 2013

The city has recognized the failure of the Inner Loop, and has begun the process of filling it in. The transformation project’s slogan is “From Barrier to Beautiful” (Garwood and Frisch 2013). However, the only section currently being rehabilitated is the eastern portion. This stretch of highway happens to cut through a more affluent section of town as compared with the western and northern sections, formerly parts of the Third and Seventh Wards. Efforts to remediate the damage of mid-century urban planners ought to start with the populations most burdened by them. Furthermore, architects and engineers have a responsibility to investigate the social impacts of projects, and acknowledge the fraught history of their craft.

A Way Forward

It is impossible to fix a problem one doesn’t understand. In this essay, I have suggested that specific tools of urban planning have been used to marginalize minority populations in Rochester. This may not have been the intention, but the outcomes have been clear. I will also assert that these are not the only policies and/or practices that contributed to racial disenfranchisement. This issue is systemic across all disciplines.

Understanding the history and outcomes of these practices, provides an opportunity to correct past wrongs and identify inequities where we couldn’t see them before. Rochester is not unique in its experience; HOLC’s credit cartographers surveyed cities across the United States. Access to affordable housing remains a major barrier to socio-economic mobility for millions of low-income families. While the automobile has mobilized America, highways have cleared communities, contributed to urban sprawl, and segregated residents. Acknowledging these realities helps to move us past common narratives of poverty and race.

The 1964 uprising was a flash point in a long history of perpetual marginalization. White residents were honestly shocked and confused, “They’ve got nobody to blame but themselves. Rochester is one of the fairest cities in the country to the Negro” (Saltzberg 2013). Yet, thousands of law-abiding people don’t just take to the streets and become criminals overnight. African-American community leaders have cited discrimination in employment, education, and de facto segregation as contributing factors in the riots (Whitaker 1965). However, the tools of urban planning are so insidious because they are hard to see and are often masked as progressive projects. Identifying these tools and their impacts will help to unlock hidden histories we don’t yet understand.

Works Cited

City of Rochester. Neighborhood Data Map. 2014. http://www.cityofrochester.gov/neighborhooddatamap/ (accessed April 20, 2017).

— . SOUTHWEST NEIGHBORHOODS — CORN HILL. City of Rochester. http://www.cityofrochester.gov/article.aspx?id=8589942751 (accessed 04 20, 2017).

Garwood, Brett, and Erik Frisch. Inner Loop East Transformation Project. Project Proposal, AIA Rochester Annual Meeting, City of Rochester, Rochester: City of Rochester, 2013.

Grier, Eunice, and George Grier. Negroes in Five New York Cities. New York: State Commission Against Discrimination , 1958.

McKelvey, Blake. “Housing and Urban Renewal: The Rochester Experience.” Rochester History (Rochester Public Library) XXVII, no. 4 (Oct 1965): 28.

Nelson, Robert, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, and et al. Mapping Inequality. University of Richmond. 2016. https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=11/43.1804/-77.5789&opacity=0.8&city=rochester-ny&area=D1&adimage=3/63/-120&text=about (accessed April 20, 2017).

Saltzberg, Jessica. “Narratives of a Riot: The July 1964 Rochester, NY “Race Riot”.” Fire!!! (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) 2, no. 2 (2013): 48–77.

Vacca, Carolyn. “Housing Conditions as a Predictor for Riot: Rochester, New York, 1964 .” Housing Conditions as a Predictor for Riot: Rochester, New York, 1964 15, no. 2 (July 1991): 45.

Wadhwani, R. D. G. “Kodak, FIGHT, and the Definition of Civil Rights in Rochester, New York: 1966–1967.” The Historian (Phi Alpha Theta) 60, no. 1 (1997): 59.

Whitaker, Arthur. “Anatomy of a Riot!” The Crisis (The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.) 72, no. 1 (Jan 1965): 20–25.

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