The city of Rochester’s focus on economic equity remains a priority.
At an April 30 service at the First Genesis Baptist Church, citing the efforts of civil rights advocates across history, Rochester Mayor Malik Evans spoke against systemic inequality and for transformational change in the city.
The event—titled “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?”—was organized by the United Christian Leadership Ministries to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Right where we sit here, there was a red line around this area,” said Evans, delivering the keynote address at the church in Rochester’s northeast section. “And you wonder now why these areas have the highest crime and the highest vacancy rates? That was by design. We’re still trying to recover from that.”
As a digital map from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab shows, Home Owners’ Loan Corp. documents from 1930s classified much of the inner “crescent” area of the city as “hazardous.” HOLC identified it as one of the poorest sections of the city with dilapidated buildings and high rates of foreign and “negro” families.
According to the most recent U.S. Census data on the area, families living there today are less likely to be foreign born, but are still predominantly Black or Hispanic. The median household income is $19,954 and 48.6 percent of households are under the poverty line.
“We must remember and keep in demand that promise that was made in 1865. It’s not what was owed us, it’s what was promised us,” said Evans, referencing the promise of economic equity behind the phrase to former slaves of “40 acres and a mule.”’
“I don’t care what (Gov. Ron) DeSantis says in Florida or any of these other states that want to erase history. You can’t erase history; history is our greatest teacher,” he continued. “When some folks want to whitewash history, they want to erase those promises that were made. Those promises that were not kept and that we are still fighting for today.”
Key aspects of Evans’ plan to fight for economic equity include increasing opportunities for home ownership, youth engagement, and entrepreneurship. Efforts such as Buy the Block, the Office of Financial Empowerment, small loans for business startups and workforce development programs are already in place.
Another future effort the mayor mentioned was the Guaranteed Basic Income pilot program. The program, which Evans said is likely to start later this month, will provide a monthly stipend of $500 to 350 households in need for 12 months. The program will also help determine the impacts of a guaranteed income for future policy decisions. Evans said he already is fairly certain about the success of poverty-reduction programs like this, however.
“As evidence of that, it happened during COVID,” Evans said, referring to the government actions such as the expanded child tax credit. “Did you know that cut childhood poverty by 40 percent? Now, where is childhood poverty? It’s right up where it was before. So we know that guaranteed basic income works.”
ACT Rochester data shows that in the city of Rochester, from 2017 to 2021, 46 percent of children were living in poverty. In 2000, the rate was 38 percent. In Monroe County, the number is around 20 percent.
While Evans calls himself an “optimistic realist” about these programs, creating a mentality shift is just as important for the mayor when it comes to fighting for economic opportunity.
“We need to ensure that these neighborhoods have more than a check cashier, more than a liquor store, more than a smoke shop—they deserve more than that. We must condition our neighbors to know they deserve that,” Evans said. “We need our people to understand they do not need to be a prison to their certainties. Folks in power, like me and other people in here, we must be creating the condition to ensure better opportunity. We must do that.
“This will not be done by Malik Evans alone. It’s not me, it’s we,” the mayor added, highlighting the importance of religious institutions in this effort. “We must do it together with love, something Dr. King said many times. We must carry on where Dr. King left off together. We must press on together.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].