Housing Conditions as a Predictor for Riot: Rochester, New York, 1964

By Vacca, Carolyn S.; Wakefield, Wanda Ellen | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1991 | Go to article overview

Housing Conditions as a Predictor for Riot: Rochester, New York, 1964


Vacca, Carolyn S., Wakefield, Wanda Ellen, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Housing Conditions as a Predictor for Riot: Rochester, New York, 1964

In the decades since the urban upheavals of the 1960s sociologists and historians have attempted to define the nature of rioting as political behavior. Their analyses range, from riot as collective violence impacted by mass media and militant anger to riot as social behavior energized by the discontent of a scattered hostile few. It is doubtful that a single motivation or set of catalysts can ever be isolated from the numerous patterns that inform any mass disturbance. Perhaps all that can be found are patterns in circumstance and environment that were present prior to the disruption, patterns of the desperation that would, for the rioter, validate the risk of personal loss and/or injury undertaken.

This paper examines the impact of one such pattern, housing. Any discussion of housing must go well beyond the availability of residences to their condition, cost, and location. Rochester, by virtue of its smaller size, was perhaps better suited for such a study than some other cities that experienced riots during the 1960s. Furthermore, its late entrance into the urban renewal network (New York City had 10 projects in 1949, a full decade before Rochester began its first)(2) allowed a clear view of the reaction to the program in Rochester.

In the years before 1964, there was a desperate search for decent living situations in both wards where rioting occurred, and yet the City Manager's report on the incidents included no reference to this grievance. We questioned whether there was a link between housing conditions and the riots in Rochester. Therefore, we probed the housing and neighborhoods of the riots and rioters for clues to the possible motivation behind the violence. While we do not suggest that this alone can answer "Why Rochester?", we believe that the link is strong enough to explain why certain neighborhoods spawned more violence than others. This link is forged not only by intolerable housing, but by wrenching dislocation. Finally, we concur with the Human Relations Commission's statement on the segregating force of housing in general and in Rochester.

"Housing" is the most severe and central issue involved in the racial discrimination problem from every vantage point - be it the world aspect, or viewed from national, city or community levels - and experience in the Rochester area again confirms that discrimination in housing constitutes the matrix of all interfacial problems.(3)

Our examination of housing in the City of Rochester was limited to the Seventh and Third Wards as those were the areas where, with few exceptions, the rioting occurred in 1964. The Baden-Ormond area herein referred to is the core of the Seventh Ward and includes the streets most affected by rioting in that Ward. Through the use of plat books and census tract outlines, we reconstructed the neighborhoods to the best of our ability mindful of the redistricting that occurred in 1960. Where streets formed the census boundaries, we assigned sides of the streets to the appropriate tracts. We also conducted windshield surveys(4) to better understand how those neighborhoods have changed in the twenty-five years since the riots.

To enhance our understanding of housing patterns and urban renewal we consulted Monroe County Human Relations Commission reports and files, newspaper clippings, photographs from the City Archives, and Urban Renewal reports. Human Relations files were employed because of the Commission's early and active involvement in housing issues. We also conducted personal interviews with Rochester Housing Authority and Rochester Management Corporation personnel and corresponded with a former government housing official. RHA and RMC have both been involved in low and/or moderate income housing since before the riots making them excellent sources for historical perspectives on these issues.

The 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (commonly known as the Kerner Commission Report) identified housing conditions as a first intensity complaint among those surveyed following the serious riots of 1967. …

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