Kodak’s world headquarters in Rochester, New York (AP Photo/David Duprey)
Lovely Warren likes to keep her ear to the ground. As the mayor of Rochester, New York, an aging, hardscrabble city perched on the chilly shores of Lake Ontario, she’s forever making cameos at community meetings, shaking hands with strangers on the street and chatting with neighbors from her grandfather’s wraparound front porch. At concerts, she sits in the stands, not the VIP seats, so as to accept hugs from other attendees. “I can’t govern from 30 Church Street,” she says, the address of Rochester’s Romanesque City Hall.
Warren’s penchant for retail politics reflects her brand as mayor for the voiceless. When she first ran for mayor in 2013 as a 36-year-old city council president, she stunned the local political class by beating the incumbent in a landslide in the primaries. That November, she glided to a win, becoming the first woman — and second African-American — to hold the seat. “I think I’ve been underestimated a lot in my life,” she says with a laugh.
Warren and I met in October at 1872 Cafe, which stands where Susan B. Anthony and 14 other suffragettes illegally voted for president in November 1872. The historical footnote is a point of pride for a city well versed in both triumph and loss. The birthplace of such iconic brands as Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch + Lomb, Rochester was the very definition of a 20th century boomtown. Together, these three companies employed some 60 percent of the city’s workforce in the 1980s. But by 2012, that figure had dropped to six percent, leaving roughly one-third of residents living below the federal poverty line. A Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester report found that of the 75 largest metropolitan areas in the country, Rochester is the fourth poorest.
Warren has made fighting this poverty her marquee issue. In September, she won the mayoral primary in a blow-out, again defying predictions of a close contest. Her victory was built on a string of first-term initiatives aimed at helping the city’s vulnerable. She led a partnership that created a new loan program for small business owners, and in 2017 received the Small Business Advocate award at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Her administration launched a pre-K enrollment campaign, a bike-share system and a climate-action plan. She created a nonprofit to support worker co-operatives, and an Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives to find data-driven solutions to poverty. Taken together, Warren’s “stairway out of poverty” programs, as she’s branded them, amount to a herculean effort to uplift a city blindsided by an economic fall.
Now, as Warren embarks on her second term, she faces a city that appears to be in the early stages of recovery. Overall crime is down and certain sectors of the economy are starting to rebound, but the road ahead remains formidable. Some observers are beginning to express disillusionment over what they see as sluggish progress. Warren’s defenders insist that the scale of her efforts requires time to produce results. To restore the city’s economic base and improve the quality of life for its working poor, Warren is seeking to re-engage the very residents that made Rochester a 20th century success story.
“I think I’m blessed to have been able to be a source of strength,” she says over pizza at the cafe. “But it is a lot of pressure because you don’t want to let anybody down. You don’t want to fail.”
Rochester’s population was still fairly high in the late 1970s, when Kodak film was in 90 percent of Americans’ cameras and “to Xerox” had become a verb of its own. But the emergence of digital technologies led to corporate restructurings that decimated Rochester’s “big three.” By the turn of the millennium, Kodak, Xerox and Bausch + Lomb had shed tens of thousands of workers.
More recently, Rochester has seen some positive changes. Its storied educational and cultural institutions continue to lend structural support to the city’s civic life. Forbes ranked Rochester 36th on its 2017 list of cities creating the most tech jobs, 13 spots higher than the year before. The National Center for Arts Research declared the Rochester metro area the 19th most vibrant arts community out of all large cities. The city is also home to a robust craft beer scene. Monroe County, of which Rochester is the seat, had three breweries in 2009 — today it has 21.
Moreover, though the city’s overall population is shrinking, its Millennial population is growing. Kent Gardner, chief economist at the locally-based consulting firm CGR, noted that Rochester’s sizable youth demographic is helping to fuel a downtown revival. New residential development, paired with renovation projects like the transformation of Kodak’s historic headquarters into a multi-tenant business complex, is helping to regenerate the city’s core.
Amid these green shoots, the city continues to struggle with poverty. According to a 2015 report by the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), a state-backed multi-sector collaboration, Rochester has the highest rates of extreme poverty and childhood poverty among comparably sized U.S. cities. Roughly 32 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, and 16 percent of those residents live in deep poverty, or at half of the poverty line or lower.
Warren sits on the Initiative’s leadership team, which has set the ambitious goals of cutting poverty by 15 percent in five years, by 30 percent in 10 years and by 50 percent in 15 years. The Initiative acts as an aligning force for public and nonprofit sector efforts, bringing cohesion to an often disjointed process. “My role is to push the envelope,” says Warren. “Let’s do it bigger. Let’s do it better. Let’s do it quicker.”
The RMAPI works in partnership with one of Warren’s most visible efforts: Rochester’s Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives. Taking a data-driven approach, the office uses GIS mapping and historical trend analysis to understand the drivers of poverty in distressed neighborhoods. In Rochester, those drivers aren’t always obvious. For instance, as RMAPI Director Leonard Brock pointed out to the Rochester Business Journal in August, “Roughly 33,000 of the 110,000 individuals at or below the federal poverty line in Monroe County are either employed or seeking employment, and addressing wage disparities is a critical need for this population and for our entire community.”
In other words, poverty and employment aren’t mutually exclusive — many of Rochester’s poor have jobs. Warren calls this “the middle void,” people who fear that job opportunities may threaten their eligibility for healthcare or housing assistance. “We’re working with the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative to do a pilot to say, ‘Can you do a sliding scale? Can we gradually cut back on individuals that are starting to make more?’ It’s not necessarily an incentive, but it gives people the ability to earn a little more money while cutting down on the benefits in a strategic way.”
Brock also noted to the Business Journal that “there are a good number of persons with post-secondary credentials who have a difficult time finding full-time living-wage employment,” a reflection of Rochester’s recent economic history. Many of the city’s low-income residents today are former engineers, technicians and other college-educated victims of the layoffs — professionals who still haven’t regained their footing. Rochester’s post-manufacturing economic slide came later than in many other Rust Belt cities. Kodak’s local workforce peaked at 60,000 in 1982 before falling to 1,600 over the next two decades, with many cuts occurring well into the 2000s.
Mayor Lovely Warren testifies during a budget hearing on January 26, 2016. She's made fighting Rochester's high poverty rate a primary goal of her administration. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
“I think what makes Rochester different is how new this all feels for people,” says Gerald Gamm, a political science professor at the University of Rochester. “Rochester’s economy continues to thrive well into the ’80s, even into the ’90s. And the bottom falls out of Rochester’s economy when the bottom falls out on Kodak … It’s a change that all happened in the span of a single generation.”
In early 2010, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, unemployment in Rochester hit just over eight percent. By October 2017, it was down to 4.6 percent, only slightly higher than the national average of 4.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Rochester’s employment rebound was bittersweet: So far, the types of jobs that promise a middle-class life have, in many cases, been replaced by low-paying gigs that offer little security.
Some of the programs implemented under Warren’s “stairway out of poverty” push are aimed at reversing this trend. One initiative, Operation Transform Rochester, offers a range of youth workforce development, job readiness and mentorship services, in an effort to put young people on a trajectory toward secure, well-paid careers. For instance, the city has partnered with the local school district to implement a job training program that prepares students for public safety careers like emergency medical services, law enforcement and firefighting.
Likewise, the city established a nonprofit to support worker co-ops after Warren visited Cleveland to check out Evergreen Cooperatives. Evergreen’s worker-owned businesses not only employ local workers, but also train them, focusing on low-income areas with the goal of spurring job creation. According to Democracy Collaborative, Evergreen’s reported combined 2015 revenue for its three worker co-ops was $6.3 million with 134 workers employed.
Early signs suggest some of these efforts may be starting pay off, albeit slowly. According to U.S. Census estimates, between 2014 and 2016 poverty in Rochester declined by roughly one percent, and now affects just below one-third of the city’s residents. In her second term, Warren says her first priority is to “stop the drain” that is drying up the very jobs that once supported her own family.
In Warren, the daughter of a Kodak-Xerox family that has endured a number of setbacks, locals see a very Rochester story. Her grandparents, Cecil and Margaret McClary, were sharecroppers before they moved to Upstate New York and got jobs picking apples. Margaret died in 2006. Cecil lived to see Warren win her election in 2013, but died the day after her swearing in. Their house, where her mother lives today, is awash in family photos. It stands in southwest Rochester, in one of the “distressed” neighborhoods Warren is working to turn around.
“When we moved into this house, it was really, really downscale. We have pictures … It looked like one of those houses on Roots, basically, but a two story,” laughed Elrita Warren, Warren’s mother, while sitting in a first-floor bedroom.
Elrita once worked as a lab worker at Kodak, and Warren’s father, Salmon, was an engineer at Xerox. They lived in the 19th ward, a neighborhood with a rich history of racial integration. Warren was born in 1977.
“We had the model middle-class family,” recalled Yantise Jenkins, Warren’s sister. “My parents had factory jobs, and we were going to Catholic school, regular vacations — pretty much no problems at all.” Things changed when their mother announced that they’d be moving to California. Her goal was to get Warren’s father away from the drugs that were taking over his life.
The move didn’t go as intended, and Elrita realized they’d have to return home. “I just remember things being different after that,” says Jenkins. Their mother juggled three jobs to cover the bills, and their father became lost in his addiction. “There would be times when he would be okay, but then there were times when we’d come home and all of the furniture would be out [because] he’d sold the living room set.”
“I was very close to my dad, and it took me for a complete loop to know that he was suffering the way that he was,” she says. Elrita had been living with the lung disease sarcoidosis for years, and as Warren grew older, it worsened. Elrita became unable to work. “I became very, very angry with how things were,” says Warren. “I realize now, looking back, you go through things to prepare you for what’s coming next.”
Warren was enrolled in a public magnet school and would get into fights, at one point risking expulsion. Finally, a school administrator gave her a wake-up call that she credits with changing her life. He told her to stop allowing her turbulent upbringing to derail her dreams. “‘If you don’t achieve whatever dream you have for yourself, the only person you have to blame is the one you look in the mirror at,’” Warren recalls him saying. “From that day forward, I really started taking stock of my life.”
She received her bachelor’s from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and began working her way toward a law degree at Albany Law School. As an undergrad, she was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disease that became challenging as she started her first year of law school. She began chemotherapy, continuing her studies throughout the treatment. It was advice from her chaotic past that kept her going during this period — advice from her father.
“My dad used to say to me, when you feel like you’re in a tunnel full of darkness, don’t stop walking, because there’s a light at the end,” says Warren. “Things happen. Life happens. You can either let it consume you or take the power back.”
Taking the power back has been an enduring theme in Warren’s political career. In 2013, the year she was elected, Albany also elected its first female mayor, Kathy Sheehan, and Stephanie Miner, the first female mayor of Syracuse, won her re-election bid. Warren is proud to serve as Rochester’s first female and second black mayor, but the changing of the guard hasn’t come without friction.
“I would say we were the dog that caught the bus,” Warren explained. “I can’t tell you the number of threats that I got. Stacks of them. And we still get ’em. I can’t tell you how many times [a staffer] has come into my office because somebody called them up and cursed them out and called them niggers.”
William Johnson, Jr. was the first black mayor of Rochester. He served for three terms from 1994 to 2005. During the campaign, Johnson was one of several people Warren relied on for advice, and after the election, she hired him to conduct the transition work. Johnson believes that she’s faced “fierce opposition” in office, not only because of her race or gender, but because, like himself and his successor, former Mayor Robert Duffy, she wasn’t the party’s pick.
“You’ve got to understand that history to understand that this old guard has suffered stinging defeats over the last 20 years,” says Johnson. During the Civil Rights Era and after the 1961 election of Constance Mitchell, who held the highest public office of any African-American woman in the U.S., black Rochesterians often turned to black activist groups for empowerment rather than running for political office. White residents pushed back against this activism, and in 1964, a three-day race riot consumed the city, leaving four dead and hundreds injured. The riots shattered the image of Rochester as a tranquil, equitable place. “There are all these reasons that the uprising is kind of surprising to the nation [and the] world,” says historian Laura Warren Hill, adding, “It’s not actually surprising for black folk in Rochester.”
Observers say that Warren’s last mayoral campaign resurfaced some of this racial tension, and many Warren voters say that race plays a role in how the mayor is being received today.
“We done had so many mayors that messed up, of course they’re going say she’s not doing enough,” says Aubrey Williams, a 49-year-old resident from the Northeast side. “It takes time.”
If progress is slow, that may be due in part to the fact that Warren’s banner cause — structural poverty — is such a difficult issue to impact.
“I think the whole poverty initiative has set itself an unattainable goal,” says Gardner. “That’s a statistic that’s really hard to change in the short-term … The high school graduation rate has been very stubbornly around 50 percent. I don’t expect to see the poverty rate [changing] until we’re graduating a larger share of our young people.” For this reason, Gardner commends Warren for being outspoken on education reform. Under her administration, the city named its first “beacon school,” a community school where on-site health and social services are open not only to the students, but to the public.
Gardner points out that the decline in Rochester’s poverty so far is within “the margin of error.” Rochester’s economy has welcomed some bright spots in recent years, he explains, but there’s still a long way to go. Nevertheless, Warren is proud of her work so far. “I think success is the number going down, and not going up,” she says. “It might not be going down at rapid pace, but we didn’t get into this situation overnight.”
Sherita Bullock, who lives in the city’s Southwest neighborhood, believes that Warren has been undermined by other politicians. She praised the mayor for being accessible. “She is somebody in the community at events, where people are gathered, where people can see and touch her,” says Bullock. “And it’s not just one group. She’s with young and old and black and white.”
Warren cited the freedom fighters as her inspiration: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, referring to them as “shoulders that I stand on.” She also invoked Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. congress and the first black person to run for a major party’s presidential nomination. Like Chisholm, says Warren, “I’m unbossed, I’m unbought and unsold.” Indeed, one of her draws is that she’s a non-establishment candidate, a black woman who animates voters and has lived the reality many of her constituents struggle with. It’s not hard to imagine that, sometime down the line, the power brokers of the national Democratic party will encourage Warren to take her talents beyond Upstate New York, as well. Until then, she’s focused on Rochester.
“I can’t say that everything we do will do work,” Warren admits. “It working depends on the individual being able to walk that stairway. That a lot of times takes a mindset change from the people you want to help. I can’t want change more than you. I can’t want our city to succeed more the than the people of our city want it to. Because I can’t do it all by myself.”
Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at CNN.com, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.