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Bob Lonsberry

Riots Of 1964 Are Nothing To Celebrate

 

History, they say, is written by the victors.

More commonly, it’s written by the folks who run the editorial page.

At least it is in Rochester, New York.

And so it is that as the 50th anniversary of a three-day race riot approaches, the deadly rampage, which decimated a neighborhood and ravaged more than 200 businesses, is being heralded as a noble “rebellion” which should inspire activists today.

Astoundingly, the most damaging social event in the history of the city of Rochester is being celebrated. The politically correct perspective on this is reverence and admiration.

Which is dumbfounding.

Because all the editorials in the world can’t change the fact that that riot amounted to a pogrom against Jewish Rochester and sparked a white flight from the city which has sent it on a half-century spiral of social decay. The editorialists may call the riot the birth of black Rochester, but it was more accurately the death of Jewish Joseph Avenue.

And that death, in which dozens of businesses were looted and burned, ended a wonderful community, culture and tradition. It pushed Jewish shopkeepers out of the community or out of business, and left stores and businesses which had provided products, services and employment to black neighbors empty hulks or smoldering ruins.

The physical, economic and social damage lingers to this day. The riot destroyed the neighborhood and it remains in large part destroyed to this day.

And that is nothing to celebrate.

The background was a rapid increase in Rochester’s black population. Over a decade, the number of black people living in the city tripled as families moved north fleeing Jim Crow and looking to improve their situation. Many of these black families settled where generations of earlier impoverished newcomers had settled – in the various neighborhoods of the city’s northeast.

The commercial main street of the northeast was Joseph Avenue, which sat between Clinton and Hudson avenues, other areas of trade. Most of the businesses along Joseph Avenue were owned by Jews. It was the mercantile arm of a Jewish community that had, in earlier years, also had great success in manufacturing, finance and trade. The history of Jewish Rochester is long, rich and wonderful. Through the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, Jewish people were disproportionately involved in business success and social advance in Rochester. Collectively, they made a tremendous impact for good.

By 1960, Joseph Avenue was Rochester’s Jewish commercial hub. In 1964, it was also, sadly, the focus of the race riot.

In the hottest week of the meteorological year, days after similar rioting in New York City, a routine arrest triggered three days of looting and mayhem. Finally, it ended with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sending in the National Guard, to restore order. Some 1,000 people were arrested, all but the tiniest number being from the neighborhoods involved.

Young people and old, the contagion of destruction and havoc spread like wildfire and few escaped its allure or its destruction.

In a pattern that was tragically repeated wherever there were race riots in the 1960s, black people looted and burned the stores which served them, warring against their own neighborhoods, leaving their communities cratered and dead.

Fifty years later, those Rochester neighborhoods have recovered only a fraction of their former vitality. For the most part, the stores and businesses did not come back. The government bought some of the old properties, to turn them into welfare housing, but the largest impact of the riot was to ghettoize the neighborhoods by impoverishing them and isolating them.

Rochester’s Jewish capital shifted to Brighton, and white people began to flee the city in droves. Some simplistically ascribe that to racism. Others see only the natural tendency to avoid conflict by moving away from it. There was a cultural change afoot in the city, and some found it incompatible with their own culture and values, and left.

Which has left Rochester one of the most impoverished and dysfunctional cities in the country. A cultural and racial Iron Curtain has built up at the city limit and nothing good has come of that.

And for the most part, it all springs from those three days in 1964. One group of Rochesterians lost their businesses, but another group lost their futures.

And casting the events that gave rise to that in heroic terms, as if bands of Rosa Parkses were campaigning for justice, is to pervert the truth and advance a lie.

Certainly, the riots were complex. Certainly, the social dynamic of today makes criticizing them almost impossible. Certainly, most want to leave the ugly incident in the distant past. Certainly, after 50 years there are relatively few actual participants still around and so no blame to assign.

But to present this wanton criminality as a “rebellion” focused on “justice” is to rewrite history and invite future riots.

The truth is, this town has spent the last 50 years trying to clean up after the destruction of those three days.

There is nothing in this mayhem to celebrate, no matter the agenda of the newspaper.

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