Sharing the background of many of Rochester’s black residents, Mayor Lovely Warren’s grandparents migrated north seeking better economic opportunities. And like many of our grandparents, hers didn’t find it either, settling instead for labor.
Graduating from the Rochester City School District, she went on to college, law school, then became a lawyer before working in the community and later leading City Council as the youngest to ever do so.
And then that granddaughter of migrators, sharecroppers, laborers, became Rochester’s first black female mayor.
Mayor Lovely Warren took office in January 2014. However, it hasn’t been an easy three years. In fact, the first year of her term saw a number of scathing reports and criticism from the community. She created security positions in her office, claiming she was being threatened, and then gave them to family members. She was constantly criticized for her handling of the press and many were worried that she wasn’t as good of a pick for Rochester as they’d first hoped.
Going into 2017, Warren hasn’t announced yet if she’ll campaign for re-election. Already James Sheppard, County Legislator for the 23rd District, has announced his campaign for her seat and Rachel Barnhart who recently lost a bid for the State Assembly against Rep. Harry Bronson is toying with a mayoral run as well. Both have charged that Warren has made no change, prompting OM to look at Warren’s time in office.
We looked at four pillars as we examined her “legacy:” development, social justice, violence and crime, and putting Rochester on the map.
Rochester’s bright history as the home of Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb is long gone. And Mayor Lovely Warren in an interview with OM in early January said she sees the current state of the city as at the moment before reaching similar prosperity and growth.
“If you look at the history of our city we’ve had periods of challenges,” she said. “And we didn’t look at those and cower down. We changed with the times and we reinvented ourselves and that’s what we’re going through right now. A reinvention. Those periods of decline and struggle only prepares us for the prosperity and success. I believe that’s the path we’re on.”
But that’s not what many in the city see today.
Blame a lack of former administrations’ ability to prepare the city for changing industry, or blame the people, either way Rochester’s presence is a sagging ghost of its former self. And while there have been great beautification efforts by local artists and organizations, it’s often hard to look past the abandoned buildings and crumbling homes.
“Do we need development? Look at the neighborhoods,” said George Moses of Northeast Area Development (NEAD). His office in the Beechwood neighborhood has seen incredible change in the community in the last five years or so, including huge changes to the local schools, funding and simply, attention. More families are moving in.
“But it’s a challenge. You have so many different perspectives,” he said. “So, when you say build, what is that build? Putting in some residential, putting in some type of commercial, so that not only people here…can enjoy it but others outside this community can come in and enjoy those things. The correct balance is how you include people in the neighborhood.”
He compared her approach to development to that of former mayor Bill Johnson, saying they both had a residential focus: “Bill Johnson was neighborhood-based and a little ahead of the curve on development but he was on the right track. Then you have the Duffy and Richards administration that happened in between which actually went away from neighborhoods. So, take that into account. Most folks feel they were more corporate but basically just away from neighborhoods. So, it’s a swing back to neighborhoods again.”
“Ever since she became mayor, I’ve seen a lot of construction,” said Paula Brown, a Rochester resident who said she doesn’t know much about Mayor Warren but that she likes that the construction includes other parts of Rochester, mentioning specifically the building on North and Hudson. As a resident of the Winton neighborhood, she said she often sees changes to Browncroft Boulevard and similar streets.
However, James Little who lives just a street over from the Susan B. Anthony house criticized the Mayor for not including the city’s west side too when developing small pockets of homes, and building commercial structures such as over near the Public Market. A number of homes there in the Avenue D section and near Clifford Avenue have gotten new facelifts or new builds altogether.
“We have crime too and I feel like she’s only investing in areas over there because they have the Public Market,” he said. He added that he lives blocks from Susan B. Anthony’s house and while they’ve gotten a coffee shop, some new storefronts the community is still pretty much the exact same.
And Edgar Harris, a city resident, said parts of Clifford Ave, East Main Avenue and Genesee need work too. Rochester’s high rates of poverty factor into this. 16.2 percent of Rochester lives in extreme poverty and recently the rate of Rochesterians living in poverty rose too, from 31 percent to 33 percent. We are one of the poorest cities in the nation when compared to similarly sized metros.
“For Rochester, for a long time, we never realized or recognized we had a poverty problem. We didn’t recognize the struggles the poor or working poor were going through,” Warren said.
So while this means Warren’s work is especially necessary, considering today’s rates of poverty, it also means there’s a lot to do.
Some of Warren’s other major projects include working to continue filling in the Inner Loop, which began with Richards’ administration, fleshing out the Pier at Charlotte further and rebuilding/repopulating downtown.
The Inner Loop was projected to cost $21 million with the city fronting about $400,000 for the filling in. That section of the Loop was chosen because traffic wasn’t as high and it’ll cover a little under three miles of the Loop.
“I’m really excited about the Inner Loop project, not only as a citizen, but as a planner and business owner,” said Glenn Kellogg, owner of Hart’s. Hart’s is one of the newer builds downtown and though it began construction with the Tom Richards’ administration, Warren’s office has been credited with being more helpful by the store’s owners. “To be able to get rid of an overly complicated highway system that actually did a lot to divide and destroy communities is really exciting. The prospect, as a business owner, to be in the center of new neighborhoods and communities while these areas are being built is really great and partly influenced our choice of location.”
One of the things he says has been an issue is that “Rochester doesn’t have a good history of planning efforts. They announce a new place but it fails to articulate a vision for itself. When it comes to the where and the how, Rochester’s officials tend to skirt around the difficult political questions surrounding new developments and doing what it takes to finish them.”
The project has made national news with New York Times and the Atlantic both lauding the city for repairing transportation policy from the 1950s- when the Loop was first created.
“We’re a long way,” said Moses, reflecting on what growth needs to happen. “Of course, it’s taken decades to get here. The conversations, the courageous conversations are happening. I’ve been a part of them and I’ve seen her speak her truth.”
“She’s doing a good job showing we can build, but what about the people,” said Little. “We voted for her and we don’t got as much money as maybe some of these businesses but a vote is a vote and my vote means the same as theirs… or you’d think. I’d like her to do more over here.”
Mayor Warren is also leading Rochester during one of its most tense times in history.
During her term, RPD experienced one of the first cop fatalities in decades: Officer Daryl Pierson. Ignoring allegations of brutality, she sought to unite the community and police by having a service for him. Already tense relations between the community and police would only get worse. In fact, in July, a Black Lives Matter Protest resulted in East End being shut down to traffic and saw one of the highest arrest rates in the nation for similar protests. She’s also seen the questionable and controversial arrests of Avenue A and at the Puerto Rican Festival. Outside of the police relationship, she’s seen an autistic runner pushed over because of his color, a local suburb circulate fliers to stay white and, past issues of race, two LGBT flags burned down, among many, many other incidents.
She’s been criticized heavily from both sides; many believe she’s too soft and has been too friendly to protestors, others believe she has not done enough to support protestors and isn’t doing enough to support her community.
“I think Mayor Warren wants it both ways,” said Bernard Flack, an 18-year-old who participated in the July protest. “She likes getting the black vote but then when we need her to represent us she pulls the ‘Two Rochester’s’ crap and leaves us hanging.”
Flack is referencing the popular ideology that Rochester is split into two: a progressive and wealthier part that includes much of the city’s south sides and suburbs and the other part in the inner-city that sees higher levels of crime and where our nationally ranking child poverty rate has found a home.
“I don’t doubt that she understands what’s going on but I think she’s so concerned with getting re-elected and being able to work with the ‘other side’ that she doesn’t even work with us. Where was she during the protest? She sent officers to do the work she should’ve been doing,” he added.
It’s important to note Warren hasn’t stated yet whether she’ll run, when asked about this, Flack responded that he still believed she does most of her work “for appearances.”
It’s a point she’s been attacked on repeatedly with County Legislator James Sheppard folding it into his campaign for mayor. In his announcement last Saturday, Sheppared repeatedly drew comparisons between him and Warren, stating that above all, he’ll be there for the people in a way he claims she wasn’t.
In a July press conference she told Open Mic Rochester: “I understand why they went to East Ave. I definitely understand that. I understand the philosophy behind it however, the question becomes do you want to create a race riot in the middle of the city…?”
She said she trusted her chief to handle protestors and said she believes ending the protest before it turned tenser between patrons and protestors was a good idea.
“As mayor of this city, I happen to represent all of our citizens,” she said, discussing balancing citizens’ conflicting interests with her own identity and understanding of the black community’s frustration. “And I believe that that is what I’m doing. First of all, I’m a black woman. I’m not removed from this. My family still lives on Jefferson Avenue so I see it every day. I live in this community, I’m a part of this community and I’m not exempt from what people are feeling or how they’re expressing themselves.”
“It’s very contentious,” Warren said, describing the relationship in the January interview. “We can’t work that way. It has to be a partnership and going from zero tolerance policy to really saying, ‘how can we work together and be respectful and let people know we’re being serious?’ That’s so very important.”
Though Representative Ernest Flagler-Mitchell (D-29) is very outspoken about his support of movements like Black Lives Matter, he said he understands why Warren can’t always do the same and, past this, he doesn’t blame her for it. Speaking about the July 2016 rallies, he recognizes that many wanted Warren to be there in support, but said her not being there may have played a part in what she could do to fix the problem objectively.
“Being black while in office is a challenge. Being a black woman is more of a challenge,” he said. “Some folks don’t want to see her as mayor. They will never accept her as mayor because she’s a black woman. You have to ask yourself, if she were a black man or white, would she be facing the same challenges she would as a black woman?”
“I don’t think it’s about color,” said Flack. “It’s like Clinton. I want a female president. I want a black female mayor but I think there are better voices out there than hers.”
Violence and Crime
Rochester’s crime is at a historic low. According to Wayne Harris, Deputy Chief of Community Relations and Engagement for RPD, in fact, it’s at a 25-year low.
Part 1 crime, deemed the most dangerous by the FBI, fell to a 25-year-low in 2015, according to a press release from the Mayor’s office. Reported homicides were 36, one more than the previous year but consistent with the five year average. And the homicide clearance rate was 80 percent.
“Rochester’s streets are safe and getting safer,” Mayor Warren said in the same release. “The men and women of the Rochester Police Department are working in partnership with the citizens of this community to push our crime rates down and build viable neighborhoods where more jobs can be created and educational outcomes improved.”
However, gun crime continues to rise, the statistics reflecting a truth many in the community not already know but have experienced firsthand. A number of high profile shootings occurred during the mayor’s term, from the use of a stolen AK-47 to murder three at the Boys and Girls Club in 2015 to various shootings in the neighborhoods.
The conversation on illegal guns and gun use is happening in every major city, from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles, even prompting Senator Bernie Sanders and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to address the issues in their campaigns for president.
Locally, Flagler-Mitchell has charged forwarding, proposing locking up guns in safe and holding the owners accountable for lost or stolen guns, a policy many said actually blamed gun owners.
However, although the city has mostly struggled to contain gun violence, Harris quickly pointed out officials have had more success in finding lawbreakers and solving crimes.
“Statistically we look great. I don’t think she’s been soft at all on crime,” he said, addressing a common complaint lodged at Warren. Sheppard in his speech directly criticized for her not being present at the Boys & Girls club, and said he’s specifically running for mayor because of how little change he has seen in the city.
Harris pointed out that if you see crime as a symptom you really have to change the whole footprint of a neighborhood. Communities must change to encourage youth to live positive lives and to protect residents from outside crime. Drugs, for instance, has been a particularly sticky point in the city and over the summer it resulted in a controversial arrest near one of the city’s most popular open air drug markets: Avenue A. The intersection is a popular spot for those seeking heroin. However, even more interestingly, more than half of the cars that visit are from out of the city, showing the city is a hot spot for a number of issues but that work across towns and the county itself may be necessary.
The prevalence of illegal guns, lingering poverty rates, rampant drug activity and gangs means that while Warren may have put a dent in local rates (whether you argue these are due to her work or simply the result of structural forces already in swing), there’s still a lot more work to do.
Putting Rochester on the map
Mayor Warren has spent much of her past three years putting Rochester (or herself, if you ask her critics) on the map. She’s consistently angled herself to be part of national discussions, has visited the White House a few times, and campaigned in other states with Clinton in this past election. She said she’s working to remind the nation of Rochester’s history.
It’s a history that’s already there, she argued, she’s just reminding people we exist.
“It started when I became mayor and I’m all about ‘Rochester’s not dead. Rochester’s a vibrant city,'” Warren said. “We have great people that live here, great businesses and just so many assets but if I don’t tell our story who will? If I don’t go and say to the president, or vice president, that I have a city that I love a city that’s struggling right now, but we believe if you focus on it our challenges are so concentrated we can overcome?”
And it’s not just about getting more people talking about Rochester. Warren aims to strategically advocate for the city, arguing how its future in photonics for Rep. Louise Slaughter made it perfect as the future home of the industry. She’s also advocated for more funding for the city. Though it’s not especially noteworthy that a mayor advocates for her city, many complain it’s how she does it.
“She’s ambitious,” said Flack. He said that she does so much work getting money into the city and yet “we see no change.”
“I think this mayor seat is just a step for her and that’s why she’s flying all over. Rochester is just a step for her,” he continued.
However, even before she began to network and angle her way into conversations, her mere presence was actually noteworthy in itself, bringing Rochester attention just like Svante Myrick, a young black mayor, brought to Ithaca. By being the first black female mayor, who’s also incredibly young, she created a conversation by simply winning the election.
“As we prepare to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in New York State, it is important to recognize that with her election, Mayor Lovely Warren broke a local glass ceiling as our first female Mayor to the City of Rochester,” said Jamie Romeo, chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. “Her example has continued to empower the next generation of leaders, in particular the young girls and women in our community.”
“I really think in her last year, we’re getting to a place where the community can finally see the effects of the efforts she’s putting out there,” said Flagler-Mitchell. “Of course, there’s a lot we will never see, because a lot of it is policy and unless we look deeper at the policy, we don’t get to see stuff that’s hard to see.”
Flagler-Mitchell believes that one of the best qualities about Warren that allows her to lead Rochester is that she understands more of the community. Moses added that she is genuine and interested in action.
During the last four years, Kellogg said he has seen a lot of progress for new businesses and how they’re able to succeed in the Rochester area. Kellogg views Rochester as being in a historical turning point, like the Mayor mentioned, where it may be able to revitalize and promote its community for the future, though he doesn’t necessarily attribute the turning point specifically to Warren.
However, when it comes to social justice and community her work is still murkier. Balancing competitive needs from two Rochesters isn’t easy and both have come harshly down upon her; one as too soft and the other as too rigid and unwilling to listen and work together.
“This last year can really make or break Warren,” said Flack. “As bad as it sounds, we don’t really know what she’s done in the past years so if she can make this a good year she can get a lot of great attention. And you see with the rd light program, she knows this. But I want it to be real, not ‘oh, she works with us for the next 10 months, gets in office and then dips again.'”
Undoubtedly, her three years will be cast in shadow. National and local discussions on criminal justice and community tension, high rates of poverty and Rochester’s transition into a new work industry clouds much of the conversation. However, if you ask Warren herself, she says she is confident she was successful and has made Rochester better. And not in the sense that most politicians do, typically trumping up their accomplishments.
No, she said, she’s made the city better because she knows she’s improved life for at least one Rochesterian and given them reason to continue on.