Several friends have been on my case about focusing on Rochester's problems so often. Can't I, they ask, write about some of the good things that are happening here?
And certainly there are plenty of good things to write about. Last month, at the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation's "Changing Fortunes" program, a panel of business and college leaders discussed new, and very positive, developments in downtown Rochester.
I was impressed not only by the projects they mentioned but also by the context in which they're taking place. Rochester has lost so many manufacturing jobs that it makes you weak to think about it. A couple of days later, the D&C's Pat Burke speculated that Kodak's new CEO may be charged with selling the company (well, selling what's left of it).
Kodak's Rochester employment, Burke reminded us, has shrunk from a high of more than 60,000 to about 2300. We're getting new businesses, but we don't have big industry coming in. Our new-business employment growth is measured in the dozens, not the thousands. Most Rochester businesses employ fewer than 100 people.
So that's the context. The panelists at the RDDC event seemed neither grim and defeated nor foolishly optimistic and boosterish. There was no talk about Big Projects, no news with a wow factor. Just a discussion of new, small businesses starting, new job-training efforts: incremental steps, but definitely incremental steps forward.
And while many of us complain that we're losing young adults to other regions, we certainly haven't lost them all. You can see the evidence in the crowds at downtown and eastside restaurants and bars. And you can see it in the growing number of young adults living in the growing number of downtown apartments.
We're not seeing an explosion of new businesses and downtown population, by any means. But the growth is real. And it seems to be sustainable. So there are indeed good things happening – in our population, in the local economy (assuming that winter doesn't last forever), even in education.
I'm cautiously optimistic about Mayor Lovely Warren's Early Education Commission, which will document the need for stronger pre-kindergarten programs in Rochester and seek money to fund them. The obstacles are big, and it's hard to predict whether Warren will be successful, but the potential is certainly there.
But then there's the context.
Journalists like good news as much as anybody, but news is more than an announcement of a new program that sounds good. We won't know whether that new program really represents good news until we find out whether it works.
Journalists deal in negative developments so often that we risk becoming overly cynical. I have to fight that in myself. But we can't ignore the context. And last week, context reared its head again, in another Community Report Card from ACT Rochester.
Here are excerpts from our article on that report:
"The region's child poverty rate, 19 percent, is below the state and national rates. But the child poverty rate in the City of Rochester is an absurd 47 percent. The city numbers are even higher for African American and Hispanic children."
"Twenty-nine percent of third graders in the region passed the state's new reading test, below the state's 31 percent average. The passing rate in the City of Rochester was an abysmal 6 percent."
"The City of Rochester had the lowest median income in the region, $30,708, with the highest rate of poverty, 32 percent."
So that's what we're up against. I have a lot of hope for the positive developments we keep hearing about. And one of the most positive things about all of this is that despite the odds, literally thousands of people are trying to solve the problems.
We're a small city, with a lot of regional resources. And the challenges shouldn't be impossible to overcome. The question, I guess, is whether we can pull those resources together effectively enough to lick our problems. And then, sadly, both history and my cynicism pop up.