Joseph Avenue arts center, other revitalization efforts spotlighted

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The Joseph Avenue Arts and Cultural Alliance hopes to convert the former B’nai Israel synagogue into a performing. arts center. (Photos: Quajay Donnell)

The former B’nai Israel synagogue in Rochester’s northeast side has stood vacant at 692 Joseph Ave. since 1961 when its congregation exited. If the Joseph Avenue Arts and Cultural Alliance has its way, the former house of worship will have a new life as a performing arts center.

Still in the midst of mounting a planned $3.3 million renovation, the alliance, which acquired the former synagogue in 2015, envisions the building reborn to house practice and community-meeting space, an art gallery and an exhibit highlighting neighborhood history as well as a 300-seat performance space. 

The group imagines the arts center, situated in a quarter of the city largely populated by low-income Black and brown residents, as a unifying force that will help cement a sense of community among all area residents.  

The Joseph Avenue arts group has held virtual performances and events this year, but the small local nonprofit says it needs cash now to save the building that will complete its vision. “Time is critical,” an online message from the group reads. “Without your support today, the building will eventually be beyond repair.”

The Joseph Avenue project is one of five recently highlighted by the Landmark Society of Western New York as part of its 2020 Five to Revive project. The 2020 program is the eighth in a Five to Revive series the Landmark Society began in 2013. The series seeks to draw attention to and support for renovation efforts that the society believes will bring economic as well as cultural and aesthetic boons to the region.

The 2020 drive comes at time when support for such efforts no matter how worthy they may be is likely to wane, says Caitlyn Meives, Landmark Society director of preservation. Still running on grants and contributions won before the pandemic struck, historic renovation and neighborhood restoration projects are likely to see less support in the coming year and beyond as COVID-19 continues to be a drag on the economy, making individual support for such projects vital, Meives believes.

Other projects highlighted in the 2020 Five to Revive drive are:

Clarissa Street Corridor

■ The Clarissa Street Corridor: Rochester’s Third Ward, also known as Corn Hill in the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, was a center of Black life and culture that drew figures like Frederick Douglass to the city. Clarissa Street stood at the center of the community.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the Third Ward was home to the Pythodd Club, a legendary jazz club at the corner of Clarissa and Troup streets where local lights like the Mangione brothers, Chuck and Gap, as well as nationally known acts played. Until a few years ago, that tradition continued at Shep’s Paradise, a Clarissa Street dive bar where local blues musicians like Joe Beard and national acts played. 

Much of Clarissa Street including the Pythodd Club was razed as part of a multiyear urban renewal push that followed Rochester’s 1964 civil unrest. The Clarissa Street Reunion Committee, a group made up of elders who recall the corridor’s mid-century heyday, holds an annual street fair on Clarissa Street and is working to revitalize the area. In recent years, the Reunion Committee has joined forces with Youth History Ambassadors from Teen Empowerment to produce a documentary highlighting the Clarissa Street Corridor’s past.

■ 67-89 Canal Street: Originally built as a shoe factory, this large, brick building stands in Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony neighborhood. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is currently vacant and in need of repair. The Landmark Society believes its open floor plans, large windows and location adjacent to Main Street and downtown makes it an ideal candidate for adaptive reuse. East House and MM Development Advisors are currently partnering on a proposed redevelopment project that would adapt the building into a mix of supportive and affordable housing units. Significant financial investment would be needed to complete the project.

Williams Opera House

■ Williams Opera House: Located in a Historic District in downtown Attica, the Williams Opera house is one of the Wyoming County town’s largest and most impressive buildings. The two-story opera house space is covered by an enclosure built by a former owner who converted the building to a racquetball court. A new owner, Sage Keber, began a plan to partially restore the opera house performance area as part of a renovation that would include some commercial space in 2018 but was stymied when a wall collapsed in a windstorm last January. The building is now stabilized but in need of extensive repair. With several successful historic tax credit projects completed in downtown Attica and a motivated owner, there is still potential to revive the opera house restoration, the Landmark Society believes. 

Neighborhood hardware store

■ The Neighborhood Hardware Store: The fifth object of the Landmark Society’s 2020 Five to Revive program is not a project but a retailing institution. In addition to providing jobs and fostering a sense of community in city neighborhoods, locally owned hardware stores are likely to be staffed by knowledgeable and helpful personnel, an amenity not always available at local stores corporately owned and big-box competitors. When at all possible, patronize a local hardware dealer, the Landmark Society urges.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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