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Poverty in Rochester: Have We Left Parts of the Community Behind?

Op/Ed By George Payne


Founder and Director Gandhi Earth Keepers International

Founder and Director
Gandhi Earth Keepers International

There are parts of Rochester that are so militantly segregated that the only white people to be seen are mail carriers, police officers, and slumlords.

Fortunately, for me, my 6 ft. and 230 lb. frame, Channing Tatum crew cut, stonewash blue jeans, and brisk gait is a natural disguise for a strangely conspicuous, out of shape cop, i.e., someone not to be messed with.

However, on more than one occasion, a young man on a bicycle has yelled, “Hey detective!” as a way to make me notice him, while signaling his peers at the end of the street.

Recently, during the first 15 minutes of my walk from Orchard St to Ave. A, it was clear every dealer had been put on alert, and, for the rest of my visit I was invisibly watched. The fact that I am not a cop, but an adjunct philosophy professor, and freelance writer, had not been a living option for them. However, if they had known the real reason I was on their turf, they would have likely chased me down, and beaten me to a pulp.

As sick as it sounds in my own head, on some warped level, I’d actually believed I deserved to be beaten, for coming into the neighborhood without establishing any connection of trust or solidarity. Strangers were always potential enemies in “The Cresent.”

Those unnerving distractions aside, I had been there to document what Rochester’s poverty looks like, through the lens of a photographer who merely wanted to see without judgment. In other words, I had not been there to make moral accusations about the miserable state of the houses, the piles of trash everywhere, the abandoned gas stations, boarded up factories, vacant schools, and the omnipresent scent of poverty in the air. Nor was I there to cast judgement on the rest of Rochester, for allowing this neighborhood to fall prey to all of the worst forms of social injustice. I had simply been there to document what I could, without getting hurt in the process.

And, what I saw was shocking.

georgeThis used to be a community where one could make a living, raise a family, and participate in civic life, without worrying about merely surviving from meal to meal. However, today it seemed to be a concrete jungle. Without using any human subjects, my pictures told the story of a neighborhood under siege, held down by unemployment, lack of choice, thievery, gang violence, police intimidation, underfunded schools, neglected public services, and the general feeling that something may be about to go wrong at any minute.

More than once, I found myself internally switching gears while walking, to be ready to take off running in a flash, if necessary.

It was 11:30 a.m., in broad daylight, and I’d found myself walking down the main business corridor of Joseph Ave., with absolutely no confidence whatsoever that I could get back to my car safely. It seemed as though a 34-year-old white man walking around the neighborhood without a uniform would likely not be trusted.

And, it was not paranoia I was feeling. It was my experience.

We have read the stats. We’ve heard the reports on 13 WHAM, and YNN. We’ve heard the mayor talk about what needs to happen. However, what we need do is to go into these neighborhoods by ourselves, to see for ourselves what is happening. My pictures tell the story of what people believe can be disposed of without consequences.

The items have been as small as cigarette packs, caked in urine-mixed puddles of rainwater, and as large as entire schools like Lincoln 22.

I wondered, as I took the photographs, have we left an entire community behind, like the broken Bud Light bottles, and losing lotto tickets, strewn across the streets?

Have we turned our backs on the city’s children, like those closed-up warehouses? Have we abandoned our poorest citizens, in order to make the richest among us become just a little richer?

For every dollar being spent on downtown development, shouldn’t we be spending 10 dollars in JOSANNA?

For the love of God, we do not need another professional survey. What we need is action. Not five years from now, and not tomorrow, but right now.

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