It's just a little way for the 19th Ward to say, "Hey, we're not so scary."
Fourteen 19th Ward families invited University of Rochester students to cross the Genesee River Footbridge and have dinner with them in their homes. These springtime Bridge Dinners are meant to "show students that the 19th Ward is a... neighborhood to be celebrated and not feared," says the event press release. At the following week's Bridge Brunch, the university invited 19th Ward residents over to their place.
But just a little over a month before the eighth annual Bridge meals, a parent wrote a letter to the UR's Campus Times, demanding that the bridge be removed before "an amateur gun slinger decides to kill a bright, intelligent, and hard-working student for five dollars." In the April Fools' Day issue of the Campus Times, an article joked about a plan to destroy "Mugger's Bridge."
Is it time for a Bridge Lunch?
The Footbridge links the university campus and the urban neighborhood of the 19th Ward. Although an estimated 1,500 students, faculty, and staff make their home in the 19th Ward, some students still express a general uneasiness about crossing the river.
"You'll hear 'It's the ghetto. Don't go over there. You'll get robbed,'" says Laura Porterfield, a UR freshman. She also says that when first-years arrived on campus, juniors and seniors warned them against venturing into the 19th Ward.
The university says that the fears of some students do not mean the neighborhood has a bad reputation campus-wide. "I've heard the campus lore," says Robert Kraus, associate vice president for public relations. "But there are a number of students who do live off campus, and I've heard some of them respond to their fellow students."
Students mention subtle ways fears about the 19th Ward are reinforced.
Seth Baum, a UR senior and a student organizer of the Bridge Dinners, says that the volume of safety bulletins, posted and e-mailed by University Security Services after a crime involving a UR member happens on or around campus, imply that the surrounding neighborhoods are a threat. The bulletins report "every little crime that happens anywhere near campus," he says. Without any positive information from the university about the 19th Ward neighborhood to balance them, the bulletins help "fuel the notion that the 19th Ward is crime-infested," he says.
Employees at UR Security Services say the bulletins are only distributed to keep the student body informed.
"The security bulletins say 'stay aware of your surroundings,'" says Ed Schiedel, a senior manager at Security Services. "None of them ever say 'stay away from the bridge.'"
The UR has earned praise from community leaders in recent years for its initiatives to get students involved in the neighborhoods around campus, particularly the 19th Ward.
"The Bridge Dinners and Brunch are... thank-yous for all the community involvement," says John Borek, president-elect of the Sector 4 Common Council and former president of the 19th Ward Community Association. He refers to the Community Learning Center, a residence hall for about 30 UR students who devote time to community service projects, and the Urban Fellows Summer Internship, where Rochester-area college students take urban issues classes and work with community organizations in Sector 4, the area that encompasses the 19th Ward and Rochester's other Southwest neighborhoods.
Jody Asbury, dean of students and director of community service programs, says that the university and the 19th Ward have an "extraordinarily productive relationship" that has "been nothing but good for our students."
But community leaders still cite challenges to convincing the entire university community not to fear its neighbors to the west.
Dana Miller, chairperson of the Sector 4 Community Development Corporation and a 19th Ward resident, has positive things to say about the university's relationship with the community. But he mentions one problem: "One hand doesn't necessarily know what the other hand is doing," he says. "Part of the organization is sending out notices saying 'Gee whiz, don't go across the bridge' and residence people are saying 'Don't rent in the 19th Ward.'" (Kraus says this is only a rumor the university has been trying to shake.)
The university and 19th Ward community both say that the real turning point in their relationship will be the Brooks Landing development, a plan by the city, the university, and several neighborhood groups for a retail center at the intersection of Brooks Avenue and Genesee Street. The development would bring office space, a hotel, restaurants, shops --- and, hopefully, students --- to the area at the end of the Genesee River Footbridge. On April 8, City Council voted to authorize funds and approve the rezoning necessary for the project. Miller is hopeful that construction will begin this summer.
The Bridge meals were Norman Rockwellian studies in pleasantry. Students were plied with food. They watched SpongeBob with host families' children. They played card games. At the Brunch there were pastries, juice, and jugglers.
However, only 20 to 25 students participated in the Bridge Dinners, and 30 or so students attended the Bridge Brunch. Those numbers may not be enough for widespread change.
"The Bridge Dinners don't solve any problems or change any perceptions," says Adam McFadden, president of the 19th Ward Community Association. "Most of the people who go... are already convinced."
UR student Seth Baum hopes that students who attended the Bridge Dinners will tell other students on campus that there is nothing to fear. "I've definitely had a number of conversations," he says. "But maybe I go out of my way more than other people."