I recently spent time in San Antonio TX. While the city’s most well-known tourist draw is the Alamo, once there, it’s the RiverWalk that tends to captivate. In the downtown area, it’s a creative, stunning array of cafes, shops and parks along the San Antonio River. It then stretches about 8 miles north and 10 miles south, connecting to four 18th century missions. Integrated into this is an ingenious flood control system. The people display immense pride in this enormous achievement. How, I wondered, did they ever manage to get buy-in from all the municipalities along the path? What is the key to the unity of purpose that this achievement represents? So I dug in a bit.
The city of San Antonio (around 1.4 million people) accounts for approximately 70% of its metropolitan area population (around 2 million), the highest % for any city in the country! This means that the vast majority of people who live in this region have a very tangible stake in what happens IN the city. And so they can coordinate and fund much more readily a significant project like the RiverWalk. They perceive an interconnectedness, a shared interest and a shared future.
That led me to ask: Where is Rochester in that ranking? Our city population (about 210,000) is just 20% of our metropolitan area population (about 1.1 million). We rank below the national median of 25% (Miami is lowest at 7%). “White flight” and business flight have contributed to the city’s shrinkage and the area’s growth.
So what? I dug in further: This condition has been termed “underbounded”. Cities in this condition face a much more difficult financial challenge, with a shrinking tax base and, maybe more importantly, a disconnected identity.
I’ve heard the contention: “There are really two Rochesters”. Allowing gross generalization, they would be:
- The Crescent: The SW, NW, and NE City neighborhoods, characterized by very high rates of poverty and a concentration of people of color.
- The Suburbs: which could include the eastern neighborhoods of the City (such as Park Ave. and Browncroft); the resurgent residential downtown would fit this Rochester as well.
This disconnected identity has many faces, e.g.:
• We suburbanites don’t vote for city leaders
• We don’t share many governmental services
• We might rarely encounter city residents
• Separate school districts insure that our kids don’t know each other
• We adults don’t know each other
• We have our festivals, they have theirs
• We come into their territory to take advantage of the space – but when we do, people of color are notably few (JazzFest, Clothesline, etc.)
This led me to another measure of this city/suburban and Black/white separateness: By at least a half dozen research measures I’ve studied, the city of Rochester is one of the most segregated communities in the country.
One example: Our city itself is 42% African-American. None of the surrounding 20 townships has an African-American population above 12%. A handful stand at 1% or less.
Again, so what? What is this about? What does it mean? What does it cost – us and “them”? What difference might it make if the City of Rochester actually encompassed the County of Monroe (730,000 or 66% of the metropolitan area)? Would it matter if we fully shared government, taxes, schools? Or is the racial divide so deep that we would still find ways to remain separate and unequal? History gives evidence that we white folks find ways to maintain the separation – some subtle, some ingenious, some diabolical.
In the end, this is not about creating a Rochester RiverWalk. This is about a mentality that keeps us living in isolation from each other, a separation that in the long run is damaging to all.
Report: “Hard Facts: Race and Ethnicity in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area” August 2017 Report from ACTRochester/The Community Foundation
Notice how this separation plays out in your own life, in your work, in your community. Seek specific occasions to bridge the gap. Visit the Baobab Cultural Center 753 University Ave. Talk with your neighbors, your co-workers about this divide. Ask what they see, what they think.