On July 26, 1964, Flannery O’Connor, the First Lady of American short stories, mentioned Rochester when writing her New York City friend a letter. Race riots had erupted on Joseph Avenue and in New York City over the preceding days. “…those riots couldn’t be located in a better place than Harlem, not to mention Rochester and Brooklyn.” O’Connor was relieved that riots weren’t happening around her house. She was weak. This letter was her third to last, written a week before she died at 39 of Lupus.
A white woman years ahead of her time in fighting for civil rights in the Deep South, O’Connor lived on an isolated, dusty farm in the middle of Georgia where she raised peacocks. I know she’d spent time briefly in New York City and Saratoga, but those places are quite different than Rochester. I figure O’Connor only knew Rochester from the news—like most of the world does.
This February, more than 50 years after Rochester’s race riots, I sat in a presentation detailing Rochester’s history of gentrification—and segregation. During the presentation, a woman of color wearing a hijab raised her hand and explained she’d worked on a book about the Rochester riots. She brought up a fact I’d never heard in spite of living in Rochester most my life. From the news, I’d learned to fear Joseph Avenue. Yet this woman said that 1964’s Joseph Avenue featured boutique shops with fur coats and jewelry a block away from the projects. Wealth was being rubbed in the face of poor people from mere steps away. The rage that popped on a hot July day in 1964 after police used force on an intoxicated black man at a dance made even more sense.
Throughout the presentation, we learned more upsetting details about the intentional design behind Rochester’s segregation. At the end, I raised my hand.
“I’m about to start looking for a house, and I’m wondering as a white male what steps I could take to be mindful of where in the city I should buy?”
“You can buy anywhere you want,” the woman wearing the hijab said. In her emphasis on the word “anywhere,” her years of frustration popped. I wasn’t surprised, but I still didn’t know how to react.
My work in Rochester is documenting these moments. I’m trying to hold a mirror to what surrounds me and write about it as truthfully and fairly as possible. I want people who live in the suburbs to know what it’s like to live in Rochester in 2019. I want people in Georgia to know what it’s like to live in Rochester in 2019. And I want people in 3019 to know what it’s like to live in Rochester in 2019.
I’m not suggesting if you’re a painter or sculptor or novelist, you must create realism. However, living in Rochester and working as an artist means you’re one more person willing to open your eyes as widely as you can to what’s happening around you. Every piece of art tells a story. The fabric chosen. How the painting hangs on the wall. The bowl’s purpose. Your work will reflect your life in Rochester.
Detroit has experienced urban renewal (with a long way to go in many neighborhoods) and, likewise, Rochester is also attracting artists because of its low cost of living. Rochester will never be Detroit or New York City. Nor should we aspire to be. We have more than enough stories to tell here as artists. At last count, we had 210,565 unique stories.
For more information about Geoff Grasers work please visit geoffgraser.com.