Joseph Avenue's history is as old as Rochester's.
It was one of the first areas where early Rochesterians settled, and right up through the first decades of the 1900's, it remained a destination point for immigrants just arriving in the city. For a long time, it was also the center of the area's Jewish community.
Joseph Avenue anchored a vibrant neighborhood where shops lined the street and many residents went to work at one of the factories flanking the avenue. But after World War II, suburban flight and discriminatory lending practices hurt the neighborhood. And more residents moved out after the 1964 rebellion – or riot – that was brought on by a smoldering tangle of problems, and was sparked by an arrest at a street dance.
The area around Joseph Avenue is now struggling.
"There's been some neglect when it comes to investing – both, I would say, private and public investing – in this corridor," says Darran Crabtree, director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York. "And I think that the glaring example of that is the number of vacant lots."
The Nature Conservancy, like other big environmental organizations, has started to pay more attention to the complex relationship between cities and the environment. Often, the groups have worked on issues that disproportionately affect low-income, predominantly black and Latino communities, such as polluted industrial properties and some effects of climate change.
And right now, the local Conservancy chapter is working with the Joseph Avenue Business Association to develop ways to reuse vacant lots in the neighborhood in ways that benefit residents, businesses, and nature.
Conservancy board member Emanuel Carter, a professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, brought in 18 undergraduate landscape architecture students to work on the project; another SUNY ESF professor, Jocelyn Gavitt, has been working with Carter to provide guidance to the students.
The project has an urban ecology angle, since any increase in urban greenery – trees especially, but also plantings and gardens – boosts potential habitat for animals, particular migratory species such as birds, Carter says.
But urban green spaces have another selling point: They have proved to provide physical and mental health benefits. Carter talks about the benefits of "forest bathing," where simply being in the presence of trees and other greenery lowers people's heart rates, blood pressure, and stress levels.
Green spaces can also make urban neighborhoods safer. A study of a Youngstown, Ohio, effort to turn vacant lots into green spaces showed that the efforts reduced crime in the surrounding neighborhoods. People living near the greened lots changed their routine activities, which put more eyes on the street, and criminals no longer felt they could commit crimes without being seen. The study was written by researchers from the USDA Forest Service, Rutgers University, and University of Pennsylvania, and was published in 2016.
The students approached the Joseph Avenue corridor as three segments, and they developed strategies and concepts for each.
At the south end of the corridor, closer to Clifford, they suggested park space that could also be used for performing arts. The concept would build off the efforts of the Joseph Avenue Arts and Cultural Alliance, which has been organizing dance, theater, and music performances in the neighborhood. The alliance is also working to convert the former Congregation B'Nai Israel synagogue, which is vacant, into a performing arts center.
A separate black box theater, headed up by poet Reenah Golden, is opening this week.
For the middle section of the corridor, which the students treated as a commercial and retail section, they envisioned some public greened spaces where people could gather and socialize, and where they might sit and eat food from nearby restaurants and stores.
And at the northern end, on lots near Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School, the students' concept calls for park and playground space, as well as perhaps a plant nursery. One option would be a greenhouse-type structure with a classroom where community members could learn gardening skills and techniques, Carter says.
Whether the community will accept these ideas is another matter.
The groups and students talked with interested residents, as well as neighborhood and city leaders, to get a sense of what they'd like to see in their community. And they tried to incorporate that feedback into their concepts.
Some long-time residents, however, have reservations about turning empty lots into parks.
Deaconess Maggie Harris is sitting at a table inside Community Lutheran Ministry, right in the heart of the Avenue, and sitting with her is Phillip Johnson, a 50-year resident of the neighborhood and the son of Joseph Avenue icon Mildred Johnson.
"How would this benefit us when dark comes?" Harris says.
The two share a concern: If the lots are converted into public parks or green spaces, what's to prevent drug dealers and drug users from hanging out in them at night? Drugs are already a problem in the neighborhood, they say.
What would really help the neighborhood is jobs and training for jobs, Harris and Johnson say. Right now, access to jobs is a problem, since too many employment opportunities are in the suburbs and are hard for neighborhood residents to reach, they say.
"How much longer do we have to be poor for people to realize our needs?" Johnson says.
Their point is fair; trees and parks won't solve complex socio-economic problems.
But economic development and job creation really aren't the domain of the groups looking at Joseph Avenue's vacant lots. They are trying to take a symptom of the neighborhood's economic depression and transform the vacant lots from a burden to a community asset. Urban green spaces won't solve poverty, but they can help improve day-to-day quality of life for residents in a stressed community.
Harris and Johnson say they do see some value in having places where parents can take their children to play safely. And Johnson says something like community gardens could be good, especially if they're tied to programs for fathers and their children.
Carter says the project ties into a broader philosophy of making neighborhoods across all income levels more desirable to live in. Improving the function and appearance of low-income neighborhoods can even help alleviate some toxic impacts of concentrated poverty.
A lot of evidence shows that making low-income neighborhoods more attractive and livable results in residents who "do better in school, they do better in the workplace, they're more likely to not miss work, they're more likely to do all the good things that you want people to do in life," says Neil Scheier, who serves as president of both the business association and the arts and cultural alliance. Scheier is a retired doctor who practiced in Clifton Springs and who has owned businesses on Joseph.
For the Joseph Avenue Business Association and the Nature Conservancy, the next steps will focus on continued discussions with the community. They want to get resident buy-in and the support of city officials. They'll also have to refine concepts into actual projects and secure funding to carry them out. So there's still work to do.
"The last thing I want to do is just helicopter in and provide something without really a more sustainable and local participatory approach," says the Conservancy's Crabtree.