Fortunately, in my case, possessing a 6 foot/ 230 pound frame, Channing Tatum crew cut, stonewash blue jeans, and brisk gait is a natural disguise. Paradoxically and conspicuously, I can pass for an out of shape cop. Someone not to mess with.
Still, on more than one occasion, a young man on a bicycle yells, “hey detective!” hoping to catch my attention while signaling his peers at the end of the street. In the first 15 minutes of my walk it becomes unnervingly clear that every dealer from Orchard to Avenue D has been put on high alert. For the rest of my visit, I assume I am being invisibly watched and likely followed.
The fact that I am not a cop but an adjunct philosophy professor and freelance writer and photographer working on a short article for no publication exactly was not a living option for them. If they knew the real reason why I had ventured onto their turf, they may have chased me down, beat me to a pulp, and taken my Droid Turbo. And as sick as it sounds in my own head, on some warped level, as I nervously searched around for things to photograph, I actually believed that I deserved to be beaten for coming into their world without establishing any connection of trust or mutual understanding. Strangers are potential enemies in “The Crescent.”1
These distractions aside, I was there to document what Rochester poverty looks likes through a camera lens without the contamination of judgment. In other words, I was not 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 violent poverty in the air. Nor was I there to cast judgment on the rest of Rochester for allowing neighborhoods like these to fall prey to the worst forms of social injustice. I was there to simply document what I could without getting hurt or causing someone else to get hurt. In that pursuit I succeeded.
Yet soon this desire to remain morally neutral was overcome by a sense of righteous condemnation. What I saw shocked me. This used to be a community where one could make a living, raise a family, and participate in civic life without worrying about merely surviving meal to meal. Some of the repurposed architecture reminds us that this neighborhood was once a thriving cultural epicenter — not just in Rochester but in all of Western New York.
Today, it is a concrete battlefield on the brink of economic and social collapse. Choosing not to use any human subjects, my pictures tell a story of a neighborhood under siege by lack of choice, unemployment, thievery, gang violence, police intimidation, underfunded schools, and neglected public services. There is a feeling that something could go wrong at any minute. On more than one occasion my defense instincts subconsciously switched gears so as to take off running if approached or cornered. This was at 11:30 a.m. in broad daylight. Walking down the main business corridor of Joseph Ave with absolutely no confidence whatsoever that I could get back to my car safely, the tragic thought occurred to me that this is happening in the year 2016 — in one of the most democratically progressive midsized cities in America.
Ultimately, my pictures tell a story about what people believe can be disposed of without consequences. These items are as small as cigarette packs caked in urine mixed puddles of rainwater and as large as entire schools like Lincoln 22, which today stood hauntingly vacant like a stage prop on some abandoned studio parking lot. As I photographed the ubiquitous pieces of trash and empty yet confiscated buildings, I wondered why we would want to dispose of an entire community like the broken Bud Light bottles in the bushes and the losing lotto tickets in the sewer gates. For what ungodly reason would we want to treat ourselves this way?
We have read the stats a million times. We are sick of the breaking news reports on WHAM and YNN. We do not want another task force and we do not need another professional survey. For every dollar being spent on downtown development, we should be spending 10 dollars in JOSANNA. What we need is action. Not five years from now and not tomorrow. We need action now. There is a slow emergency happening all over our nation which came to a vicious climax in Ferguson and Flint. Rochester could be next. Just take a walk and see for yourself.
1A derogatory term that is likely not used by many people in these neighborhoods. The Crescent of Poverty a.k.a. the “Fatal Crescent” refers to five neighborhoods clustered around the northern border of Rochester’s downtown. They are Upper Falls, Marketview Heights, and parts of Group 14621 to the east, and Edgerton, Brown Square, and JOSANA to the west.
ALSO SEE PEOPLE TRYING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE AND THE JOSEPH AVENUE OF OLD