by Lacey Pruitt-Thomas
My hometown, Rochester, New York is a conundrum. It is a small city; strategically placed at the mouth of the north-flowing Genesee River into Lake Ontario, complete with waterfalls. The power of the water created a city that, in the early 19th century, was one of the young nation’s largest flour producers. By the middle of the 20th century it had become a manufacturing stronghold, with companies like Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Gleason Works, Taylor Instruments, and Xerox creating good-paying manufacturing jobs that lasted, in some cases, over one hundred years. Abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Susan B Anthony both lived and worked here. Rochester had always been a city of hard-working, industrious people rooted in the traditional values of family, culture and religion, and education.
Over the past thirty years, as globalization has seduced so many of America’s industries to other countries with cheap labor and materials, the same has happened in Rochester. Multitudes of jobs have flowed away to different states and countries. In their wake, businesses like Wegmans, Paychex, and University of Rochester have streamed in to fill some of the gaps with new jobs in different industries. Rochesterians have learned to adapt, and even if there are no guaranteed jobs through your father or uncle like in the old days, there are still jobs available.
New industries are slowly being drawn here. Photonics—the branch of technology that deals with the transmission of photons, for example in fiber optics—and the growing and processing of medical marijuana as two of the latest businesses that have been touted by the city and state governments in the press, as possible saviors to our lovely city.
The greatest struggle that I see in this place where I have lived for thirty-six years is rooted in education and the disparity between the haves and have nots. Rochester is the home to University of Rochester (ranked #33 in US News and World Reports as a national university) and Rochester Institute of Technology (ranked #7 as a north regional university). In the suburbs, high school graduation rates average upwards of 90%; however in the Rochester City School District, less than 50% of students entering high school will receive their diplomas. Stories of violence and drug abuse fill our local news reports. In the Northeast quarter where I have made my home for the past sixteen years, 40% of residents live below the poverty line even though at least two people in the home work.
This spring, as I went about my business throughout the city and thought about the issues that seem to plague us, I noticed something that gave me hope: life. As the scent of lilacs filled the city, and tulips and daffodils bravely poked their heads above the earth, city residents emerged from winter hibernation to rejoice in the promise of sunshine and warm weather. I saw adults coaching kids in baseball and soccer; their little children, as colorful as rainbows, running and playing everywhere. Families, loaded with strollers and pets, strolling along the busy streets. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, I have seen yards mowed, gardens made ready, and houses being painted and improved.
All the activity that I have seen in this city that has risen and fallen with the fortunes of entrepreneurs—often the movers and shakers of our country—has filled me with hope for the future. Hope that despite all the negativity, the violence, and tragedies, there breathes the determination to pick ourselves up and work to give future generations better lives. And, this makes me think that maybe, just maybe, the tide is swinging again on Rochester.