Rochester was a global hub of imaging technology. Now its unemployed technicians hope their trailblazing mayor can turn things around.
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.