Photo: Library of Congress Catalog: http://lccn.loc.gov/2004663694 Original url: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004663694/

        I once spent an afternoon with William Warfield.


               He was an old singer and I was a young writer, and after an interview at the Eastman School his staff escort was unavailable and so I stayed there with him and we talked until someone came to get him for dinner.


               We talked about the Rochesters we knew, he growing up there in the 20s and 30s and me starting my newspaper stint there in the 80s. We had both been in the Army and we talked about that, and I did my best to remember and understand and discuss his long and historic music career. We spoke of the loves of his life – Leontyne Price and the power of his voice – and he recounted the joys of his boyhood.


               A boyhood in a Rochester where a black lad could live and learn and play and rise on his talents to become a favorite son and an international star.


               I thought of that as the people on the news told about the vigil at dinner time on Monday, on William Warfield Way. It’s the twisting driveway of a housing project called Harriet Tubman Estates, between Joseph and North Clinton, just north of Upper Falls.


               It’s a tough place. Lots of calls for the cops to come by and disperse crowds, sometimes fighting crowds, with gunfire often heard in the night sky.


               That’s where Jeremiah Baker was murdered in June.


               A 17-year-old on a bicycle, gunned down where children play and parents live and the cops are never far away but never quite close enough.


               The vigil was for him.


               And a group of people were gathered. They had spoken and sung and they were praying when the shots rang out. Go-get-em shots, a bunch of them, loud and close, and the 20-year-old man recording it on his phone was hit from behind and dropped in a heap without making a sound. The 12-year-old girl in the red winter coat in front of him was hit three times and called out in pain.


               Her name’s Nehemiah, and Jeremiah Baker was her cousin. Two Old Testament prophets and one family heartbreak. She’s a student out in Greece, on the High Honor roll, and Monday night she plead with her mother, “Mom, please don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die.”


               The third person hit was the 16-year-old girl who carries Jeremiah Baker’s baby.


               It was a 20-year-old guy, who works for the city, and a very pregnant 16-year-old, and a praying 12-year-old girl. All shot down.


               On William Warfield Way at the Harriet Tubman Estates.


               No arrests, no leads. Just more bullets and more blood, barely a block north of the police station.


               This is the Rochester William Warfield couldn’t have imagined and didn’t live to see, a place of lawlessness and savagery, where all that remains of his decency is a name on a street sign and some words carved on a stone where he rests in Mount Hope.


               Rochester is not a place of life, it is a place of death, where decay outpaces growth and the downward slide from civilization is ever faster and more devastating. Things are not getting better. No one is making a difference for good. The rate of decline is not decreasing, it is accelerating. It is the carcass of a young lion, its bones picked over by various vultures and hyenas concerned only about themselves.


               And so the pregnant 16-year-old was shot, beside her unborn baby’s 12-year-old cousin, where the child’s father had himself bled out and died. A Rochester tradition, played out in neighborhood after neighborhood, street after street, the sound of gunfire and wailing mothers reminding everyone of where they are and what kind of place it has become.


               A hundred years ago on the sidewalks of Rochester, William Warfield toddled beside his mother as she ran her errands. This year, a similar 3-year-old African-American boy was shot in the head in the back seat of his mother’s car while she ran her errands.


               That’s what Rochester has become.


               That’s what Rochester is losing. Fifty-one children 18 or younger shot thus far this year in the city of Rochester, eight of them fatally, none of them apt to grow up to be who they were born to be, chasing their talents and building their dreams, free of the fear and scars inflicted by the hellhole that is their hometown.

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