Now will we act? 

The killings on Genesee Street

Memorials spread out across the parking lot in front of the Boys and Girls Club on Genesee Street, where three people were murdered and four others injured last week.


Memorials spread out across the parking lot in front of the Boys and Girls Club on Genesee Street, where three people were murdered and four others injured last week.

UPDATE (Thursday, August 27, 6:20 p.m.): A suspect in the Genesee Street shootings is in custody.


This community is at a crossroads.

It's not the first time we've reached one. But each time, we choose the easy path, and our problems get worse. And solutions become harder.

In the late-night hours of August 19, on a major street in southwest Rochester, we reached another crossroads. Someone drove by the Boys and Girls Club and the Anthony Jordan Health Clinic and opened fire on a group of young men leaving a basketball game at the youth center.

The result: three people dead, all of them young black males. Four more people injured. And clearly, the death toll could have been higher.

The reaction in that inner-city neighborhood has been shock, outrage, and profound sorrow, at the loss of lives, at the callousness of the act, at the explosion of yet another incidence of violence in an area that has seen way too much of it.

The reaction has been similar from public officials, coupled with pledges that the guilty will be found and punished. That justice will be done.

That pledge is as predictable as it is necessary. But what comes next? Now, at last, will we do what needs to be done?

click to enlarge One of the memorials to the victims of the drive-by shooting on Genesee Street last week. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • One of the memorials to the victims of the drive-by shooting on Genesee Street last week.

A drive-by shooting on a major public thoroughfare in front of a youth center and a health clinic, across the street from a school, is shocking. That three people died and four more were injured is shocking. But to focus on the location or the number of victims obscures the breadth of the problem, and its seriousness. This isn't the first time someone has paid no heed to the possibility of innocent people being hurt. People have been struck by poorly aimed bullets as they stood on their own porch or sat inside their own home with young children. In 2005, a 2-year-old child was shot as he stood on the street with his parents, waiting for a bus. Another 2-year-old was shot that same year playing outside his house.

Two weeks ago, a gunman shot and killed a young black man in the parking lot of the David F. Gantt Community Center in northeast Rochester. If it hadn't been raining, children would likely have been playing in the nearby playground.

But it's not only innocent bystanders who merit our concern. So do the victims of bullets that hit their intended target - the individual young men shot on a horrifyingly frequent basis, over drug sales, a grudge, a previous assault.

They are all victims of a violence that has infested parts of Rochester, as it has parts of numerous other cities throughout the country.

And it is nothing new. Every few years, it breaks out in such a unique way that it jolts us: a 16-year-old shot and killed as he walked home from Bible study; two teenagers pulled from their car, beaten, taunted, and shot dead (the perpetrators ranging in age from 14 to 18). That kind of violence dominates the news for a few days. And there are great calls to action, emotional pledges of commitment.

And then something else grabs our attention, and we move on. And the violence happens so often that it seems routine, not just tolerated but expected.

Sometimes, we seem about ready to act. Back in the early 1990's, Rochester was really concerned about violence. Murder had followed murder. Violence had soared - largely, it's believed, because of the cocaine epidemic - with more than 60 killings a year.

In 1992, the late Mayor Tom Ryan was so concerned that he invited Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a nationally respected expert on youth violence, to Rochester. Prothrow-Stith, then an assistant dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, met with representatives from city government, the Rochester school district, and service agencies. She addressed an overflow audience at the Strong Museum.

Ryan then appointed a committee to develop strategies to reduce the violence that had escalated in Rochester. Among other things, the committee recommended a community effort to provide jobs for young people, reduce the availability of guns, make health and social services more accessible, and address the problems of income disparity and low-income housing.

It recommended that community leaders - political, business, religious - be heavily involved. And it recommended that the mayor and the county executive name a task force and provide "staff, budget, and other necessary resources" to implement its recommendations.

The county executive said no, he'd rather come up with his own plan. And that was that.

Around the same time, the People's Coalition of United Church Ministries came up with recommendations of its own: mandatory courses in non-violence in city schools; stronger efforts by religious leaders and teachers to emphasize the sanctity of life. The UCM recommendations also went nowhere.

And then, as the cocaine epidemic ebbed, the murder rate dropped off. Since the low, though, it has been growing. Eliminate that peak in the early 90's, says RIT criminal justice professor John Klofas, and you see a long-term trend going steadily upward. So far this year, Rochester has had 26 murders.

This rate of violence is not happening in Brighton.Or Hamlin.Or Henrietta. The residents of Pittsford Village aren't afraid to walk their neighborhood streets. Parents in the Village of Webster don't lie awake nights fearing their children will be shot as they leave a basketball game the next night.

We know why.

We know what the problem is. And we have no excuse for not knowing how it happened. We have plenty of published research. The problem is poverty, and its concentration in the inner-city neighborhoods of American cities.

This is a highly segregated community, city and suburban, poor and non-poor. Our neighborhoods are segregated. Our schools are segregated. That is having a terrible effect, and it is no surprise that the most severely affected people are African-Americans - and, increasingly, Hispanics. Racism is in our DNA, and we can't ignore the role it has played in the growth of urban poverty.

Some of the segregation is the result of deliberate racist policies and actions, by government, by businesses, by individuals. But some of it isn't, at least not directly. Highway construction, low-cost land in the suburbs, school district borders, zoning policies requiring large lots and large, expensive houses: those weren't intentionally designed to force African-Americans into poor city neighborhoods.

It's no longer legal to bar African-Americans from certain neighborhoods or schools because of their race. That would be de jure segregation, segregation by law. Instead, we have de facto segregation: it just is.

("De facto segregation," to use James Baldwin's widely quoted definition, "means that the Negro is segregated but nobody did it.")

And in "More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City," Harvard professor William Julius Wilson adds to the list of government policies that are "nonracial on the surface" but that have "indirectly contributed to crystallization of the inner-city ghetto."

The change in the kinds of work and the skills required, the exodus of business and retail to the suburbs (causing a loss of tax base in the cities and a loss of easy access to those jobs), the failure of the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation, the concentration of public housing in city neighborhoods, scarce housing opportunities for the poor in the suburbs: all work together to snuff out the ability of many inner-city residents to get themselves out of poverty.

Compounding the problem: severe cutbacks in federal funding for cities. "Just when the problems of social dislocation in jobless neighborhoods have escalated," Wilson wrote in his earlier "When Work Disappears," "the city has fewer resources with which to address them."

Among the catastrophic results of all of that is the violence that broke out on Genesee Street last week.

The attitudes and behavior of some inner-city residents, Wilson noted in "When Work Disappears," "ought not to be analyzed as if it were unrelated to the broader structure of opportunities and constraints that have evolved over time."

"This is not to argue that individuals and groups lack the freedom to make their own choices, engage in certain conduct, and develop certain styles and orientations," Wilson wrote, "but it is to say that these decisions and actions occur within a context of constraints and opportunities that are drastically different from those in middle-class society."

"It is important to remember," he wrote in "More Than Just Race," "that one of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural framing, habits, styles of behavior, and particular skills that emerged from patterns of racial exclusion...."

In his book "Race Matters," Cornel West cited the growth of "a pervasive spiritual impoverishment" as the poor were left behind in urban neighborhoods. "The collapse of meaning in life - the eclipse of hope and absence of love of self and others, the breakdown of family and neighborhood bonds - leads to the social deracination and cultural denudement of urban dwellers, especially children," West wrote. "We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks - family, friends, school - that sustain some sense of purpose in life."

"We have witnessed the collapse of the spiritual communities that in the past helped Americans face despair, disease, and death and that transmit through the generations dignity and decency, excellence, and elegance," West wrote.

"To talk about the depressing statistics of unemployment, infant mortality, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and violent crime is one thing," West wrote. "But to face up to the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented disregard for human (especially black) life and property in much of black America is something else."

We have known all of this for a very long time: all of these citations are from books that are more than two decades old. Research since then has simply added to the weight of that evidence.

What do we have to do now? Find the person or persons who fired the shots, obviously; try them, convict them, and send them to prison. Do what we can to make sure there are no revenge killings. Intervene in as many new disputes as possible. And teach non-violent behavior.

But none of that addresses the real root of the violence: poverty and its concentration. Only if we deal with concentrated poverty will we have any lasting impact on the violence that it has bred.

We don't have to re-invent the wheel. We don't have to do our own research into what's causing this violence. That research has already been done, and it's widely available.

What we need to do is act. At long last.In big ways.

It is time for systemic change. Not tweaks. Not better coordination among services. Major, systemic change, in several key areas.

In "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community," the last book he wrote before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. singled out three of those key areas. Writing about civil-rights progress the country had made - passage of the Voting Rights Act, for instance - King had this warning: "The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites."

"The real cost lies ahead," King wrote, in quality education, job creation, adequate housing.

As King said, true reforms in those three areas won't be easy, cheap, or politically palatable. It won't be enough to provide adequate housing, for instance, if we locate all of it in high-poverty, stressed-out neighborhoods. Nor will it be enough if we address housing alone.

To help the poor get out of poverty, and to break the cycle of poverty that has affected generations of Rochesterians, we will have to provide jobs. And job training. There will have to be jobs that pay decent wages - and those jobs can't require college degrees or high technical skill.

And to make sure that future generations can get better jobs and join the middle class, we will have to, at last, reform education.

School administrators have to have a "missionary zeal" aimed at "the rapid improvement of the school performance of Negroes and other poor children."

"If this does not happen," said King, "America will suffer for decades to come."

And he also said this: "Quality education for all is most likely to come through educational parks which bring together in one place all the students of a large area." His proposal: parks where superior teachers, specialists, and facilities would attract students from throughout a region. That, he said, "will guarantee school integration even before housing is desegregated."

Rochester has actually considered such a park system. In the late 1960's, the late Herman Goldberg, then superintendent of Rochester schools, proposed a parks configuration for Rochester, I assume with an interest spurred by King.

The idea went nowhere, but an iteration of it - a single metropolitan school drawing both city and suburban students - has been in the planning stages for several years. It still hasn't moved into physical reality.

That doesn't mean that nothing's happening. The year-old intensive local effort Great Schools For All is preparing what it says will be a comprehensive proposal for a voluntary system of integrated schools serving city and suburban students, poor and non-poor. That report is due out in October.

If the members of Great Schools For All come up with a workable plan, and I think they will, it will still be just a plan. Having the community embrace it and put it into effect will be the tough part, as I'm sure Great Schools leaders know. And in that area, Rochester has an abysmal record.

To eradicate the violence that is plaguing Rochester's inner-city neighborhoods and ending the lives of young African-American males, we have to end the cycle of poverty. We cannot do that on the cheap. We cannot do it without facing and overcoming strong, widespread resistance, misunderstanding, fear, and suspicion. We cannot do it without the broad participation and commitment of community representatives.

We cannot do it without a commitment to stick with the effort over a long time. Rochester's poverty, and its concentration, didn't happen overnight, and it can't be eradicated overnight.

And we cannot do it without the leadership of elected officials, business leaders, institutional and educational leaders, neighborhood leaders, religious leaders: city and suburban, Republican and Democrat, black, Hispanic, white.

Leadership, commitment, and good intentions exist in Rochester in abundance. The question now is whether the late-night shooting on Genesee Street will, at last, result in what has been lacking for decades: the will to act.

Since the Genesee Street shootings, there have been eloquent calls by AfricanAmericans for the black community to acknowledge the cancer in its midst and do something about it. Where, asked an emotional 51-year-old black neighborhood resident who interrupted a Lovely Warren press conference, is the black community's outrage over black-on-black violence? If it had been a white police officer who fired the gun outside the Boys and Girls Club, he said, there would have been protests in the street.

He's right, of course. And the outrage and community action he called for are needed. But that will not address the poverty that has bred this violence. And his plea cannot be used by the larger community as an excuse to turn away and go back to business as usual.

It will not be easy to eradicate the violence that is wracking Rochester's inner-city neighborhoods. But it will be impossible to eradicate it if we don't act together as one regional community.

The mayor can help lead on this effort. But she can't do it by herself. Rochester police can't do it by themselves. It is not a city problem. It is a community problem. We created it. And we must solve it.

Getting all of us to accept our responsibility may be one of the biggest hurdles. But this community faces no bigger challenge: no bigger threat to young lives, no bigger threat to the region's economic growth. And at heart, facing that challenge and meeting it is a moral responsibility.

"I'm not interested in anybody's guilt," James Baldwin wrote in "Words of a Native Son." "Guilt is a luxury we can no longer afford. I know you didn't do it, and I didn't do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country, and you are responsible for it, for the very same reason."

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