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Preserving Rochester's African American past


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When local historian David Anderson met with Wayne Goodman, executive director of the Landmark Society of Western New York, he brought along a series of photos. They showed the former Adams Street home of James and Bessie Hamm, early 20th-century advocates of education for African American children, as it went from vital institution to vacant lot.

"It's incumbent upon on our organization to prevent that [kind of thing] from happening," Goodman says.

A small state grant out of the $96 million recently awarded to the Finger Lakes region for economic development will help preserve landmarks important to the region's African American history.

It will be a challenge, Goodman says, because many of the sites are not typical. They could be street corners, he says, or vacant lots.

"When people think of preservation, they often think of the big beautiful homes on East Avenue," he says. "But many of the sites important to the African American community are not going to be beautiful old homes."

Goodman says the African American Landmarks Project is as much about understanding and preserving heritage as it is about preserving structures. Heritage has value, he says, and it can be easy to overlook.

"What we've seen over the last couple of decades is that heritage can become the spark for smart growth and sustainable economic development," Goodman says.

The project will begin with a listening tour in the African American community with residents, clergy, community leaders, and others.

"Everyone knows this is the city of Frederick Douglass, but it is so much more than that," says Cindy Boyer, the Landmark Society's director of public programs.

For example, many people don't know that Clarissa Street was once the business and cultural heart of Rochester's African American community, Boyer says. In the 1950's, it became a jazz and entertainment hub.

Understanding heritage also requires knowing the individuals who helped shape it, she says. And there are so many important names that aren't familiar to the wider Rochester community, Boyer says. One such name: Cynthia Fitzpatrick, an activist and daughter of slaves who helped break up blockbusting in the 19th Ward.

Blockbusting was a practice used to make homeowners sell their property cheaply out of fear that blacks were moving into the neighborhood.

The African American Landmark Project is an example of being proactive and preventing losses like the Hamm house, says Larry Francer, the Landmark Society's associate director of preservation. Once the sites and individuals have been identified, the state grant pay for feasibility studies to determine, for example, how a building can be repurposed.


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