After the Rochester Riots of 1964: Community Response to the Housing Situation

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After the Rochester Riots of 1964: Community Response to the Housing Situation

Over the course of a hot July weekend in 1964, the City of Rochester, New York, experienced one of the first of the major race riots of the 1960's. Those riots would sear themselves into the public consciousness and help to shape our country's political and social dialogue for the next three decades. The forces which caused some of Rochester's African-American citizens to choose to participate in the violent protest of that weekend despite the threat to their lives and livelihoods have long been debated. Was it mere "mob psychology" that caused so many to take to the streets? Or was it a rational response to intolerable conditions within the ghetto neighborhoods - - a demand for change that expressed itself in the grand American tradition of domestic collective violence?(2)

In a report describing those riots and others across the nation of that summer of 1964, including the riot which occurred in Rochester, the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded that the common characteristic of the nine events studied was a "senseless" attack on all constituted authority without purpose or object. Despite evidence that eight of the nine events were characterized by an initial interference with a police officer's attempt to make an arrest, and despite evidence that racial tensions were a contributing factor, the FBI rejected the notion that the demoralization of the African-American communities trapped in substandard neighborhoods was an impetus to social protest through collective action.(3)

Locally, Rochester City Historian Blake McKelvey, in his own analysis of the riots and the community response that followed, suggested, however, that the three factors of segregation, urban decay, and juvenile delinquency must have had some influence on the events of July 24 - 26. McKelvey argued that the local community's complacency, the common belief that it couldn't happen here, needed to be overcome in order that future riots not occur. And P. W. Homer, Rochester City Manager, offered his own concrete recommendations in April, 1965, to create conditions that would make future rioting unnecessary - - recommendations that included Homer's call for more low-income housing.(4)

Although we can probably never isolate the individual factors that lead some people to participate in collective urban violence and lead others to refrain, the opportunity to isolate even one catalyst from the many should not be rejected. During the summer of 1989, we undertook original research as our contribution to a SUNY at Brockport seminar on the riots of 1964. During that seminar we asked whether housing conditions within the two City wards where the rioting occurred could have, for the rioter, validated the risk of personal loss and/or injury undertaken by participating in the action. We further asked whether changes in the housing stock in the affected neighborhoods caused by urban renewal might have influenced the decision to participate in the rioting.

Our study focused on the individual circumstances of those arrested. We located the rioters who were arrested within the census tracts in which they lived to determine whether some neighborhoods were more likely to spawn unrest than others. We then used federal housing census information to create a profile of housing conditions in each census tract within the Third and Seventh Wards where the rioting happened. What we discovered was that while there was only a weak correlation between housing dilapidation and deterioration and riot participation for most of the census tracts, in the Seventh Ward's Tract 11 there was a strong correlation between apparent housing conditions and the number of people arrested as a percentage of tract population. As a result of urban renewal, residents of this tract had experienced the greatest degree of dislocation of any residents of the City, with housing units being destroyed and none put in their place and with other housing units being allowed to fall apart because they were scheduled to be demolished. …