La Marketa: Rochester Seeks Input in Creating La Avenida Market

Rochester has some of the highest poverty rates among comparably sized metro areas, exacerbating issues with segregation in housing, education and employment.

Rochester has some of the highest poverty rates among comparably sized metro areas, exacerbating issues with segregation in housing, education and employment.

The City of Rochester is seeking proposals from the community for the purchasing and development of vacated lots in the La Marketa Urban Renewal District (URD). The goal is to “creatively improve land” along the North Clinton Avenue. This avenue, often referred to as “La Avenida” is part of Rochester’s El Camino neighborhoods and holds cultural and historical significance to Rochester’s Puerto Ricans- one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the nation. 

The move to create La Marketa is not only a nod to this cultural significance but is an active attempt by the city to include more of the community in the local LatinX community.

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Hispanics are the fastest growing constituency in Rochester. The purpose of developing La Marketa on La Avenida is to bring Latin American culture, business and education to the forefront of Rochester’s economy, according to a statement from the Mayor’s office. The proposal offers business and commercial opportunities to reinstate La Avenida’s status as a cultural hub. 

“La Marketa will create a vibrant, cultural center in the heart of our city,” Mayor Warren said.

St. Michael's Church of Rochester, NY looms over La Avenida and for decades has been the spiritual backbone of the largely LatinX population. Credit: Michele Ashlee. Staff photographer.

St. Michael’s Church of Rochester, NY looms over La Avenida and for decades has been the spiritual backbone of the largely LatinX population. Credit: Michele Ashlee. Staff photographer.

The unique impact Puerto Rican immigrants had on the Rochester community is undeniable.  Between 1945 and 1960, one-fifth of Puerto Rican residents left their island for the US. Like most migrants, they sought better economic opportunity but unlike most they came with American citizenship, which made them desirable work candidates for American industries wanting cheap labor but also hoping to avoid the hurdles of legal documentation. By 1970 over 8,000 Puerto Ricans had made Rochester their home.

Many of these new Rochesterians flocked to neighborhoods like Brown Square, St. Paul St., North Goodman St., around the Inner Loop area, Norton Street and, of course, the Clifford and Clinton area. However, despite their geographic locations the community’s loyalties to one another were stretched much farther and stronger through a “network of families, traditions, and institutions” called barrios. In the ROCHESTER HISTORY series, Building the Barrio: A Story of Rochester’s Puerto Rican Pioneers, Puerto Rican migrants’ contributions to the Civil Rights movement is explored. 

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Many newly immigrated Puerto Ricans faced the same harassment, discrimination and police brutality that black Americans have suffered for generations. In the 1960s, they struggled to fit into racial categories because of their combined Taino indigenous, European Spanish and African slave ancestries. The average Puerto Rican could be black, white or every shade in between. Just like the Civil Rights movement, their activism centered around the church, or in this case, the Catholic Diocese, as an resource outpost and community ally before branching out into more centralized organizations like the Ibero-American Action League (IAAL) founded in 1968.

Activists Juan Padilla, Relton Roland, and Susan Costa once commented in Building the Barrio that “Puerto Ricans were natural community organizers because the barrio served as a model of the type of close-knit, mutually supportive, and self-reliant community that was a prerequisite for the organization many activists in the 1960s sought to build.”

However, like other marginalized and low-income communities, they were hit hard by President Harry Truman’s 1949 Housing Act. Marketed as the “War on Poverty”, these urban renewal plans, sometimes referred to as the “Negro removal,”  was the process of redeveloping areas in large cities by demolishing slum areas, which disproportionately displaced poor minorities and the elderly. The Tragedy of Urban Renewal outlines the 60 year abuse of eminent domain that broke apart impoverished ethnic neighborhoods, such as La Avenida, that to this day have yet to recover.

Many parts of La Avenida are older and facing decline but residents hope efforts on the part of the neighborhood and the city will revitalize the community.

Many parts of La Avenida are older and facing decline but residents hope efforts on the part of the neighborhood and the city will revitalize the community. Credit: Michele Ashlee, Staff Photographer.

Despite economic setbacks the Puerto Rican community in Rochester are still fighting to maintain their cultural identities and rebuild their barrios. Innovative organizations like “Discover El Camino” host events in the El Camino neighborhoods as well as provide maps and tourist destinations for must-see landmarks, trails and community clubs that exemplify the best of Puerto Rican Rochesterian culture. And old organizations like the IAAL still provide human resources to help struggling families onto paths of prosperity and self-sufficiency.

“Ibero was established in 1968 and initially focused on the development and growth of Latinos in Rochester. Today, Ibero has evolved into an agency that serves people of all ethnic backgrounds with a staff of approximately 250 people,” states their site. 

The La Marketa is one of many steps to rebuild the Latin American community in Rochester. Mayor Warren’s initiative to develop La Avenida is much needed after the many decades North Clinton Avenue served as a home for a new ethnic group that contributed heavily to the economic and cultural diversity of Rochester. The damage to the barrios due to government mishandlings can never be taken back but hopefully this new Latin American village plaza will be a step in the right direction in uplifting an important Rochester community.

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