Friday, November 21, 2014

Love Note #27: I saw dilapidated houses become vacant lots which would become flourishing vegetable gardens

I am: a nursing-intent student at the College at Brockport

Years in Rochester: 12 - 1 (1 year in Buffalo since l began living in upstate) = 11

Current Home: Ogden, New York

Dear Rochester,

My first encounter with you had me mispronouncing your name as a toddler who had trouble pronouncing his R's. You see, I was traveling with my parents and sister from my then home in Westbury, part of Nassau County on Long Island, through a county named Westchester and onto the eastern reaches of Western New York. This travel, over the river (I have come to know as the Genesee) and through the woods, or more often cornfields, to Grandmother's house in Ogden. I’ve found that I can’t even blame my juvenile pronunciation of Rochester on my weak Long Island accent! Though linguistics aside, I arrived in Rochester a decade later with all the skepticism of a just-outside-of New Yorker trying to find the city that so many people told me about.

During my first years in the area, I kept to myself some as I tried to make sense of the cornfields located in what people called suburbs. Sure I had seen them on visits, but this part of New York always resembled rural countryside to my naïve vision. Rochester, you then were elusive and mysterious at first and I was shallow and homesick. It took time to appreciate what made you different than the metropolitan area of the Big Apple.

In time I ventured out of doors and deepened my love for nature and history as I learned about your footpaths. Hiking trails that had been created along historic canals taught me about what shaped your towns and villages in the early 19th century made me more aware of what made this community. They made and created a settling place together instead of on their own. Together for the sake of community instead of fame. This doesn’t stop people from rising to celebrity from your unique neighborhoods and diligent suburbs. When you do cast light the national fame o those who have had their roots here I saw that you celebrated that it took a village to shape these lives. When those same people left the spotlight for a time, you remembered them for their contributions to the creative arts, the competitions of sports, and the world of philanthropy and business. It was always about how the community was made better by these lives and not how one person accomplished something on their own. 

As I saw remnants of your flour city days in the fields of winter wheat and the rumbles of the Star of the West milling company on my errands to Churchville, smelled blossoms of the flower city every spring and summer along tree limbs and dotting your spacious parks, I began to see a city that defined itself as more than its straggling winter –complains aside! Dear Rochester, you were quiet, and I had to shush a place in my mind for noise that I had acquired from the din of Long Island Expressway traffic, and listen to the echoes of the past still being lived out in the present. I waited for lift bridges that fell and rose in Adams Basin and Spencerport and sang about low bridges and mules. These were bridges to the past that carried the future. These were beautiful connections for your community to share, for everyone to enjoy. 

And yet as I came to enjoy the heritage and legacy of canals through the Genesee Valley and reaching the west from the east towards Lake Erie, something began to bother me about your present reality. Something that, in your neighborhoods and towns that stained the fabric that I had come to love. What seemed so bright and hopeful began to appear as bleak as I entered neighborhoods that had become ruined from industrial decay and economic neglect. Inequality was straining the image of community that so endeared me to your people. I began to see the poverty and economic disparity that left the suburbs comfortable and happy and many of your city neighborhoods and schools struggling for a piece of the pie. I saw the paradox when the same conditions of squalor hid in the suburbs and shined in prosperity along famous avenues in your city proper. When Wegman's began to close stores in corners of your city that were economically fragile, I felt my heart sink. Where was the community that cared for and came together for its neighbors? 

It was more than the broken windows in empty factories and the poverty that was maligned by thoughts I'd heard in the suburbs about laziness and welfare. It was the lack of understanding that didn't seem apparent. Rochester, I knew I could be idealistic, but these disparities left me and you hurting. I didn’t want to give up on you, especially when I heard of neighbors empowering each other and working together with the police to prevent and stop criminal activity or when I heard your store owners talk about the need to give the city a chance. 

I cautiously began to express my doubts about moving in with you if these realities afflicted the greater community. I knew of people that cared for these concerns and listened to the people the afflicted. I began to see a flicker of light in neighborhoods that seemed to always be shadowed by better times. People wanted to make a difference for your future. What was that light that beckoned me to come and see? I soon heard you whisper to me, to my heart I heard about a whisper of persistent and urgent need. I began to listen to voices that spoke about something changing in your streets. I heard the growling empty stomachs and empathized with shivering mothers looking for a way to survive your frigid winters. I wanted to join them, and found something deeper in the heart of a community that showed its strength yet again, in outstretched hands of synergy and friendship. 

Your outstretched arms invited me in to see how I could work with others empowering your life. I heard about these gathering places that dreamed and hoped. Cameron Community Ministries, Dimitri House, Mary's Place, the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, Partners In Restorative Initiatives, the Greater Rochester Community of Churches, the Rochester Area Interfaith Hospitality Network, Flower City Habitat for Humanity, Foodlink – I could go on. Organizations people had created to listen to the needs of your hurting neighborhoods in a desire to empower your network of caring people and strengthen the community at large. When I volunteered in your soup kitchens and community gardens, reaching out to people without enough food stamps and those with income insecurity or with refugees trying to learn English and a way to live with a new climate and culture, I saw a vision for the future that was built on a legacy of mutual support. I saw dilapidated houses become vacant lots which would become flourishing vegetable gardens that could feed the surrounding neighborhood with fresh produce that could help make a healthy life more affordable and more attainable. I heard gratitude and trust being rebuilt after years of disappointment and fear.   

Most of all, I heard the voices that I could join in these efforts and find a way to care and nurture a sense of purpose. In learning to listen to your collective voices speaking strong, truthful words. These are words that encourage all to participate and be engaged in responsibility of a relationship with you, Rochester. Your real challenges are met by real hearts that remember and include people from every walk of life. While not always perfect, your people are devoted to learning and educating themselves and each other in ways to be sustained through real challenges.

Your community is your greatest asset, and though it has struggled with the real issues, it has become stronger through the hope that everyone can become a part of its interconnected chain. If I have found a home, it is knowing that you have invited me to help form it, and even if I leave, I will know that the community in Rochester has shown that there is not one person that does not need another. That in loving you, we love each other and are loved ourselves. And so my eyes and ears have been opened to see that there is no community of one person, a community is you, which in the end is all of us, together. 

With love and gratitude,

Frederick Dean

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