In Urban Suburbs, A History of Segregation Endures

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May 2009: Kimberly Hurell-Harring (standing) at home with her mother in Rochester, NY.

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On the shores of Lake Ontario you’ll find the city of Rochester, New York. Nestled in Monroe County, Rochester and its surrounding suburbs are home to about 750,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But this upstate New York community is far different from the picturesque towns that line the Hudson Valley.

“It’s definitely a segregated place,” says Shawn Brown, a 40-year-old Rochester native and program coordinator with the community group Teen Empowerment. “[Rochester’s segregated] definitely by race and socioeconomic background. In the urban, inner city part of Rochester you see high levels of concentrated poverty that you don’t see in the suburban part of Rochester. The resources and opportunity that flow abundantly in the suburbs don’t flow as much in the inner city.”

Monroe County is considered an “Urban Suburb” by the American Communities Project (ACP), which has charted every single county in the United States based on different demographics (see map below). As the 2016 election, The Takeaway has been talking with voters in each community type to get a sense of the issues affecting people where they live.

About 66.5 million people across the United States live in counties considered to be “Urban Suburbs.” According to the ACP, these places are densely populated and diverse — something that is true for Monroe County.

“We’re definitely a mid-sized city,” Brown says. “There are about 200,000 people that live in the city limits, which is surrounded by suburbs, country, and then it kind of gets to rural flatlands as you get further out. The inner city of that 200,000 — a good chunk of that is African American and Latino, with some other ethnic groups and white folks mixed in there. And I think that’s kind of where some of the major issues lie.”

Racial divisions have been around in Rochester for decades. Back in 1964, the National Guard was called in to quell race riots in the city, and the community is still largely segregated, which has affected many different aspects of life in the county.

“Even within the city, you have those pockets of concentrated poverty, but then you’ll have a nice neighborhood,” Brown says. “Literally if you go down the street a four minute car ride, a couple blocks, the complexion of that neighborhood could be vastly different. It’s almost like there’s these invisible lines. You’ve kind of got these good neighborhoods that are almost butted right up to neighborhoods that are struggling, and there’s no interaction, for the most part, between the people that live in both those places.”

As a result of such segregation, Brown says that the Rochester City School District, which is 89.9 percent minority, has faced difficulties, while other schools in suburban parts of Monroe County have flourished. It’s something he’s experienced first hand.

“The educational system, when I was a kid, was struggling,” he says. “My mother chose to send me to the Urban-Suburban [interdistrict educational program] in seventh grade and wouldn’t allow me to go to middle school or high school in the Rochester City School District. You fast forward 30 years, and our school system for our inner city youth is still struggling.”

Brown says that persistent poverty is one of the biggest issues that contributes to the poor standing of the city’s educational system, which is primarily funded through city property taxes. About 16.2 percent of people that live in the city of Rochester live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, just a few miles away in the neighboring suburb of Pittsford, New York, the median household income is more than $106,000.

“When you look at test scores in certain urban communities and urban districts, it really starts to boggle your mind, with the disservice that we’re doing young people,” Brown says. “We have to provide a better quality of education for our young people of color in Rochester, New York. Not everyone has the financial means to send their child to private school like I did.”

Brown sent his daughter to private schools and was able to get her into the area’s Urban-Suburban program, which sends inner city students to high-performing schools in the suburbs of Rochester. However, in addition to funding, Brown says that school discipline policies put Rochester City School District students at risk.

“[Teen Empowerment is] working on getting the school resource officers out of schools,” Brown says. “We have actual [Rochester Police Department] officers that work in city high schools. If you and I got into a fight in a suburban district, we might both get suspended for a day or two and our parents would be called, and that’d be it.”

He continues: “If you and I got into a fight in a Rochester City School District school, that’d be an assault charge. That means we’d have to go to court, we’d possibly get probation and long-term suspension. All of these things kind of help kids miss school and play a huge part in the school-to-prison pipeline — that you can literally go to school and get arrested from going to get your education.”

The use of school resource officers (SROs) has been a persistent problem throughout the country. In September, the Obama Administration announced new guidelines for the use of SROs in districts. “We must ensure that school discipline is being handled by trained educators, not by law enforcement officers,” U.S. Education Secretary John King said.

But Brown says that the issue of persistent poverty goes beyond education. The Flower City was once a booming manufacturing hub and home to major international companies like Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb. Vice President Joe Biden visited the area back in July 2015 to announce a $600 million initiative to bring photonics manufacturing and research to Monroe County. But Brown has seen other development initiatives fall flat in the city.

“A program, or that grant, or that funding, it’s here when it’s here,” he says. “But when the money runs up, when that grant’s over or that period’s over or that project’s over, all the other love and support leaves with it, and you’re still left with this hole. It might even be worse sometimes. I feel like if people are already broken and they’re already skeptical of this help coming in and they get their hopes up that things are going to change, but they’re just let down again, I almost feel like that’s more damaging.”

Brown would like to see more investment in adult education — things like GED classes, and courses on financial literacy, homeownership, or even English as a second language — to help lift people in the inner city out of poverty.

“We need to be giving adults training, resources, and education so that even if you made some mistakes or even if you kind of got caught up in societal mistakes that they lay out for us — the things that trap certain folks in this society — that you can still gain skills to improve your condition and the condition of your family,” he says.