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For much of its history, Rochester was one of the fastest growing cities in American society. During the 20th century, it became one of the most innovative urban areas in North America. Many people know that Rochester is home to major technology companies like Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb, but few realize that it has also been a major manufacturing hub that attracted waves of immigrants to the region from the early 1800s right through to the present. From flour milling to fine clothing, Rochester has been a productive powerhouse for nearly two centuries.
Rochester's industrial legacy began with the Erie Canal, a man-made river stretching from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Completed in 1825, the canal revolutionized American trade by making it easier and cheaper to transport raw goods and passengers between Eastern and Western regions. By the 1830s, nearly two dozen flour mills existed in Rochester, alongside a variety of other manufacturing outfits. Rochester was one of America’s great boomtowns.
After the Civil War, a bevy of innovators made Rochester home, building industries that would define American high-tech far into the future. Perhaps the most famous figure in this regard was George Eastman, first worked in Rochester’s banking industry before experimenting with photography. By the 1880s, he established Kodak Corporation. Eastman’s success prompted other innovators to gravitate to Rochester, including the lens making company Bausch & Lomb.
Rochester’s economic growth relied partly on manufacturing trades, particularly in the garment industry. Much of the workforce was comprised of Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian and Jewish immigrants, who streamed to Rochester at the turn of the century. This set the stage for a series of public debates over civic identity and working conditions in Rochester. During the early 20th century, Rochester was one of the nation’s leading producers of men’s and women’s clothing, and the garment trade employed roughly 20% of the city workforce. Today that legacy continues in Hickey Freeman, a renowned men’s clothier based in Rochester.
Located in the Northeast section of Rochester, Marketview Heights offers a remarkable reflection of Rochester’s past and present. Dating back to the 19th century, the area was a center of the region’s development, first with flour mills along the Genesee River and later with industrial development, including a vibrant garment industry. Marketview Heights grew steadily after the Erie Canal opened and waves of new settlers, particularly from New England, moved to Rochester. By the early twentieth century, the area reflected a steady wave of European immigrants, including those from Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and Italy. Italian immigrants comprised a large percentage of neighborhood families and they worked in various trades, including the garment industry. By the 1940s and 1950s, African American and Latino families ascended in both the neighborhood and city.
By the 1990s, economic and industrial fortunes declined in Marketview Heights. By this time, many of the larger industrial employers had either left the city, drastically reduced operations or had ceased all together.
Economically, the once vibrant neighborhood has struggled recently, with roughly 75% of the population making less than $35,000 per year. Today the area remains ethnically and racially diverse: roughly 20 % of the population is white, 50% is Black, and 30% is Latino. (There is also a growing Southeast Asian population.) Though it played a key role in Rochester’s industrial and urban growth – particularly in the garment trades — Marketview Heights is now often at the edge of a revitalizing local economy trying to navigate a range of complex issues, including new immigration patterns, political representation in city and metropolitan political debates, the fate of community redevelopment projects, and the meaning of area history and memory in a new global era emphasizing change.
One of the area’s famous families was the Mangiones. Chuck Mangione is an internationally recognized jazz legend. His uncle Jerre Mangione, was a well-known 20th century author and scholar. Mangione headed the WPA writer’s project in the 1930s and later served as distinguished professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He chronicled life growing up in the Sicilian-American community in northeast Rochester in his beautifully written autobiographical book, Mount Allegro.
This neighborhood has been the focus of a 10-year partnership between RIT’s University/Community Partnerships program and the Marketview Heights Collective Action Project.
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Rochester has always been a city of notable reformers.
Even before famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass settled here in 1847, Rochester had a reputation as a hotbed of reform. Austin Seward, an escaped slave from Virginia, came to Rochester soon after the Erie Canal was completed and joined the city’s antislavery crusade. Famed preacher Charles Grandison Finney made Rochester a key stop on his revival tours of the 1830s. Amy Post, a Quaker reformer, came to Rochester with her husband before the Civil War and spent decades in the Temperance, Abolitionist and spiritualist movements.
One unheralded activist was named Phoebe Rey, who lived in Rochester’s old Fifth Ward and began a crusade to integrate city schools in the 1830s and 1840s. Along with the rest of the city, Rochester’s old Fifth Ward (part of today’s Northeast Quadrant) had segregated schools in Rey’s time. She and other African-American parents pushed back against this injustice and eventually compelled the city to allow black children to attend the same schools as white students. Frederick Douglass himself saluted Phoebe Rey and her activist colleagues as true pioneers of race reform.
During the Civil War era, Rochester played a central role on the Underground Railroad and in the early women’s rights crusade. John Brown visited Frederick Douglass several times in his Rochester home, while escaped slaves – including Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, and William Wells Brown — routinely passed through the city’s gates. On the women’s rights front, the greater Rochester region hosted the nation’s first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. Over the next fifty years, Rochester became a center of women’s voting rights struggles. Led by Rochesterian Susan B. Anthony and her longtime friend and colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who resided in Seneca Falls), women’s rights activists argued that until women had the ballot they would be second-class citizens. Both Anthony and Stanton died before the 19th Amendment prohibited voting discrimination on the basis of sex in 1920, but their activism paved the way for its adoption.
By that time, Rochester was booming in another way, as new technology and manufacturing companies were on the rise. Companies such as Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, and Hickey Freeman made the city a leader in the business sector. Yet even as it grew, Rochester did not lose its reputation for progressive reform. In fact, in the early decades of the 20th century, Rochester reformers focused on a range of new issues: labor reform, environmental activism, and better education. Labor leaders focused on improving the lives of garment workers while urban reformers advocated for the creation of a better park system to improve city life. Rochester was still a hot-bed of reform.
Indeed, Rochester played a key role in the rise of the Social Gospel movement, which challenged religious figures to improve the material conditions of average Americans and not just their spiritual lives. Both Robert Rauschenbusch and Howard Thurman, celebrated members of the clergy who became leading advocates of the Social Gospel before World War Two, settled in Rochester. Their work and writings influenced a more famous activist to embrace the teachings of the Social Gospel later on: Martin Luther King Jr.
The story of Rochester reformers continued from the post-World War Two era to the present day. Each generation of Rochesterians has focused on social problems old and new. Some problems are timeless, such as the struggle for Civil Rights and economic justice. Some issues are only now on the civic radar, like the right to digital access in neighborhoods and schools.
No matter the issue, each new generation of Rochester activists draws on a proud tradition of reform and reformers who came before them, changing their neighborhood, their city, and their nation for the better.