Rochester seems to be at a strange point right now, as if we were standing on a huge ball, trying to keep our balance, and the least little thing could throw us off.
A lot of things are going right. There's actual construction downtown: new housing, new commercial buildings. Some established businesses are expanding. And every few weeks, there's news of another business moving into the city - nothing huge, no major industry employing tens of thousands of people, but still, every few hundred new jobs are worth celebrating. And the photonics institute is headed our way.
In her recent State of the City address, Mayor Lovely Warren noted developments like those and others - CityGate, Rhinos stadium and Charlotte Harbor improvements, the successful conversion of the Culver Road Armory. A higher credit rating. More children in kindergarten. More funding for job training.
Those developments are real. And they're getting attention outside of Rochester. The Rose Center, which is operated by the National League of Cities and the Urban Land Institute, chose Rochester as one of four cities for a downtown revitalization study.
An organization called CityAge chose us as the site of its 2016 summit on "The New American City," where leaders of cities and businesses from around the country will gather June 6 and 7 to discuss such topics as job creation, infrastructure, and technology.
The governor is bragging about the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, and the Buffalo News recently ran a story titled "Buffalo Looks for Lessons from Rochester's Fight Against Poverty."
But Warren was blunt in her State of the City address when she talked about Rochester's problems: our poverty - particularly our childhood poverty - our children's low academic achievement, the availability of guns, a culture of violence. Whether we want to admit it or not, the low academic achievement and the violence are directly due to the decades of concentrated poverty we have let build up in inner-city neighborhoods.
And so far, we have made no headway whatsoever in that area. The governor's plaudits are a wee bit early: RMAPI, the Anti-Poverty Initiative, is still in the planning stages. It has certainly gotten buy-in from a lot of community leaders, and it has made sure that the voices of the poor are included in its efforts. But the obstacles are simply massive.
Generations of unemployment and under-employment, low wages for the working poor, individual and structural racism: how do we change all of that? What can we do about schools? How many of Rochester's unemployed poor will be qualified for the photonics jobs?
How do we change the hearts and minds of business and government officials who believe that poverty is the result of laziness and taxpayer-funded benefits?
How do we change the hearts and minds of people - and this publication hears from them every week - who believe that racism has no relationship at all to our poverty rate?
Is it possible to reduce poverty without breaking up its concentration? Without somehow integrating communities and schools?
We do have things to celebrate. The new housing being developed is real (though I'd breathe easier if it were due to surging regional population growth rather than an influx of people from the suburbs). There are reasons, as the mayor says, to believe that our future is bright.
But keeping my optimism reined in is the latest Community Report Card from ACT Rochester. There, among news of important improvements, are more troubling signs. Chief among them: the city's poverty rate continues to worsen, and African Americans and Latinos continue to be the most severely affected.
This has to stop.
This community has known about poverty and its impact for decades. And we have not lacked action or good intentions. My office shelves are lined with reports from consultants and task forces and blue ribbon committees. RMAPI is not our first attempt to deal with this persistent problem. Sadly, I am very afraid it will not be our last.