The return of the Clarissa Street Reunion

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Next week, for the first time since 2019, the Clarissa Street Legacy will host its annual reunion. 

The celebration, which marks its 25th anniversary, will honor the memories and relationships formed along the historic street in Rochester’s Third Ward, featuring a parade, food, exhibits, Black business vendors, and live music on two stages.

Located in Rochester’s Southwest Quadrant and old Third Ward, Clarissa Street was a thriving neighborhood of people of Black, Italian, Irish and Jewish descent between the 1940s and 1960s. 

Black- and Brown-owned businesses were plentiful among the neighborhood’s cobblestone streets, and trolley cars were a familiar form of transportation. The neighborhood was also home to the Pythodd Room, which is credited as a birthplace of Rochester’s famous jazz reputation. Opening to the public at the corner of Clarissa and Troup Streets in 1949, the club featured the talents of Stevie Wonder, Pee Wee Ellis and more before closing in 1973.

The neighborhood was eventually uprooted by urban renewal and the construction of I-490, which was completed in the 1970s. Homes on Clarissa Street were bought out, torn down, and built over, and street layouts were changed, harming the traffic patterns that brought Rochesterians into the neighborhood. Residents and families began to move out of the neighborhood and surrounding Third Ward into other areas of Rochester.

Roughly 20 years later, the Clarissa Street Legacy was founded with the mission of celebrating, honoring and perpetuating the historical heritage and multicultural diversity of Clarissa Street. Beginning in 1996, the organization has held the Annual Clarissa Street Reunion on the third Saturday of August as a keystone event in fulfilling its mission.

After a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic—there were no reunions during 2020, 2021, and 2022—the Annual Clarissa Street Reunion will take place on Aug. 19. The organization describes the event as a way to celebrate the vibrant history and enduring legacy of the Black and Brown community in Rochester, while also honoring National Black Business Month.

Behind the reunion is the Clarissa Street Legacy Planning Committee, which works to keep the spirit of Clarissa Street alive and inspire future generations. Patricia Mason-Williams, a current member of the committee, is an example of a generational connection to Clarissa Street; her late uncle Alton Owens was an original member of the committee, and her great-aunt lived and owned properties on Clarissa Street. For Mason-Williams, an attendee of the reunion since she was a teenager, getting involved on the committee this year was an easy choice.

Images courtesy of Clarissa Street Legacy

“During my first reunion I remember walking down the street, visiting vendors, and listening to a lot of live music. There were people talking, laughing and reminiscing,” she says. “My great-aunt owned a home, restaurant and corner store on Clarissa Street in the ’50s and ’60s, so my grandma would point out where everything used to be, and what had changed.

“At the time I didn’t grasp the history. As I got older and learned about my uncle, who was an original committee member, the reunion resonated with me more. Eventually, when one of my friends asked for my help in joining the committee and bringing the reunion back after COVID, I didn’t hesitate.”

The planning committee has partnered with a variety of Rochester-area businesses that it felt would understand the importance of Clarissa Street and support the community initiative. The committee finds its community partners are excited about the return of the reunion, going the extra mile to publicize and support the event financially. Organizers hope to reach a $45,000 goal to host the event, support more scholarships and establish Clarissa Street Legacy as a nonprofit.

The planning committee also dedicated time to reaching out to elders in the community and thinking back to how the reunion functioned in the past. With the exception of two members, all members on the planning committee this year are new.

“The feeling on the committee has been pure joy and happiness,” notes Mason-Williams. “We’ve really had to rely on speaking with elders and recalling from our memories to figure out what the reunion should be like. As committee members, we’ve been reminding each other that we are doing a good job and honoring the history in the proper way.”

The reunion in the past has brought people outside Rochester back into the community to celebrate Clarissa Street. The committee’s work with community partners and advertising via social media makes them hopeful that this reunion will do the same.

“I had family come up from Maryland and Georgia just to come to the Clarissa Street Reunion when I was younger,” says Mason-Williams. “On our Facebook page we’ve seen great responses from people who live outside Rochester. People have commented, explaining how grateful they are that we are having the event, and that they are arranging travel plans to attend the reunion.”

A full schedule of the day’s events can be found here

Evan Coleman is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a recent University of Rochester graduate. 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]

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