RIT City Art Space highlights history of Clarissa Street 

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RIT City Art Space will explore the history of the Clarissa Street community in June. The upcoming exhibition is a collaborative effort that showcases Rochester’s Black experience through the middle of the 20th century.

Titled “Clarissa Uprooted: Unearthing Stories of Our Village (1940s-early 1970s),” the exhibit was created through a partnership with the Center for Teen Empowerment and the Clarissa Street Reunion Committee. Rochester Institute of Technology faculty and students assisted with the project. The show runs June 3-24.

The Clarissa Uprooted initiative emerged from the community, Teen Empowerment officials say. The exhibit is the culmination of work done by youth and elders from Rochester’s Black community over the last three years.

A number of Black families called Clarissa Street home, as did businesses. Urban renewal plans in the 1960s, however, changed the face of Rochester’s Third Ward. Still, each year, the Clarissa Street Reunion Committee has helped keep the memory of the historic street alive with an annual festival. Once called Rochester’s Broadway, the street had strong ties to music and culture with iconic jazz clubs like the Pythodd that drew many well-known musicians.

A partial reconstruction of the stage of the Pythodd is part of the exhibit at RIT City Art Space.  Oral histories also anchor the show. Drawn from interviews with Clarissa Street elders, these interviews also come from the 2020 documentary “Clarissa Uprooted: Youth and Elders Uncover the Story of Black Rochester.” Teen Empowerment hired teen Youth History Ambassadors to work with the Clarissa Street Reunion Committee to capture these stories, which speak of joy and the pain of losing the community.

“I’ve said several times through this project that those who had ‘skin in the game’ need to be involved and speak out,” says Joan Coles Howard, a Clarissa Street elder. “We need to help the teens gain knowledge by talking with those of us who lived there at that time. That way they will get the truth. The African proverb, ‘Until the lion tells his story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,’ says it best.”

The exhibit also was part of museum studies and history courses over the past year at RIT, officials say. Faculty guided students with research and label writing and others helped with the creation of the show, including a virtual reality experience.

“To me, as I have explored in much of my own work as a curator, exhibitions can be forms of activism and advocacy,” says Juilee Decker, professor in the Department of History. “In this show, we see stories that are worthy of telling, and we also have the opportunity to share and learn together from others who come to the space.”

“Part of our mission at City Art Space with it being off campus and being located right in the center of downtown is to be involved with community collaboration,” says John Aäsp, gallery director for RIT’s College of Art and Design. “RIT’s campus used to be in downtown Rochester near the historic Clarissa Street neighborhood, and so I think it’s important for RIT to be a part of this project because we were part of that history.”

Howard hopes Clarissa Uprooted will spark the will to return to a more peaceful and loving time.

“(Hopefully it) will encourage everyone of all races and nationalities to do so as they discover the truths about what was lost with the destruction of the Clarissa Street neighborhood,” Howard says.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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