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In two years of The Urban Phoenix, I’ve focused almost exclusively on blogging about small cities across our great state of New York. This post will begin a series on thriving neighborhoods, almost like small cities themselves, within larger upstate urban centers like Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo.
And another departure from the norm, I will not be telling the story of an area I don’t know, rather this is the story of a place I know and love, Rochester’s South Wedge neighborhood. While this post will include my personal injection of familiarity, it will only be to compliment the rich, vibrant words and tales of South Wedge residents, business owners and visitors.
Like so many cities I’ve blogged about in this forum, my home city of Rochester has been on it’s own roller coaster ride over the last 40 years and beyond. The story is well known, not just in Rochester but across the state and the nation: the photographic superpower Kodak’s fall into to a dull whisper of it’s former might, the downsizing of Xerox and Bausch & Lomb… it is the classic story of a city dependent on economic giants that gave way to overseas jobs, automation or just plain irrelevance.
A generation of poverty, high crime rates and and a struggling-at-best education system was the result, as was a mass exodus and an event horizon of a wealthier population moving away from the city center. While the inner city became brutally impoverished, Rochester’s suburban communities boasted some of the wealthiest land values in Upstate New York.
But like so many other cities we’ve visited here at the UP, Rochester’s downtown story of revival is in full swing. While a little slow, disjointed and somewhat “stumbly,” Rochester’s urban resurgence has changed the way people see our city, and as a city-resident myself, it’s been a welcomed change.
Massive neighborhood overhauls near The University of Rochester (now the city’s number one employer), Charlotte by Lake Ontario and even at the city’s center have generated excitement as condos, high-end restaurants and wealthy amenities begin to add flavor to the city once again. But as with every city, many of these additions cater primarily to a relatively small percentage of the population who can afford them. This statement is in no way meant to discourage the wonderful progress Rochester is making… on the contrary, it is necessary and essential in bringing our downtown back to relevance… and so far, it appears to be working.
But what about the Rochestarians who love where they live, but can’t afford the lavish new $1800 Center City lofts? What about the city residents who want to feel pride in their town without having to make $80,000 per year?
If you travel 5 minutes south of downtown Rochester, you’ll find the answer. It is a place where love of neighborhood, community and each other drives everything the residents do. It is a home to a racially and socioeconomically diverse population, a quality the residents embrace without fear. It is a place where the fabric of day-to-day life is sewn by careful hands, both physically and metaphorically. It is an imperfect urban paradise, a place where streetside metal sculptures echo the community’s support for the arts, but the rust they have collected over the years shows the ever-present struggle. It is a place that isn’t inherently pretty, but everyone does their part to help dress it up and make it home… and they wouldn’t have it any other way. This shining example of a by-the-bootstrap, almost blue-collar approach to neighborhood revival in Rochester is of course the always lovable South Wedge.
“The Wedge” is almost perfectly equidistant from Downtown to the North, and The University of Rochester and U of R Medical Center to the South… a true geographic center between two critical areas in the city. While close in proximity, the South Wedge has retained a culture all it’s own, so with this in mind, I took a stroll through this little neighborhood Mecca a short while ago and talked to shop owners, residents and passers by to get a rich sense of this community.
My first stop was a place that has become close to my heart, The Little Button, a place overflowing with locally based creativity. From print to felt, from wood work to knitting supplies, this artists paradise has an intimate gift for everyone.
Shelby, greeted me immediately, as she always does. Her love for art is matched only by her warm, welcoming spirit.
“The Little Button is a community of about 100 artists. This is basically a space for people in Rochester to show off what they’re making, to really celebrate the artistic community.”
“I’ve worked really hard to bring everyone together. A lot of consignment shops work by saying ‘bring in your stuff and you’ll get a check at the end of the month.’ What I do, what this shop is about is, I have the artists meet every quarter. Everyone gets together, we talk, we might have material swaps, and then I really encourage pop-ups. Every Thursday and Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday afternoon, we have pop-up shops. Each of the artists gets to come in and show off what they’re working on. It’s building up the whole [artistic] community and creating a kind of interactive space.”
“People in the South Wedge are NOT afraid to share their opinions. This is great, because I usually ask people ‘what are you looking for as far as classes’ or ‘what does craft mean to you?’ I always know I’m gonna get an honest answer. I also see when someone reacts to what we have in here and turn around and say to the artist ‘hey this is what your neighborhood is looking for.’ And then I attach a name to it, I’ll say ‘Kristina Kaiser did this, or Barb Hickey did all those wooden prints.’ Then it puts a face to a name. So now it’s an interaction and not just a store.”
“The neighborhood and this shop is trying to say ‘hey, no matter who we are, this is our opportunity to come together.’ This is our opportunity to meet each other and support each other through everything that’s going on in our world. If we can keep creating, if we can keep being conscious of what’s going on while also having an escape, I think we can always make it through. Here, everyone is welcome. If we agree or disagree, I’m always open to new ideas, and anyone who wants to come in and see what we have!”
I can’t quote Shelby warmly enough. Her creative spirit and her drive to bring people together can only be truly appreciated first hand. I find it ironic that her store features a lot of yarn and thread, because the best thing she does is tie people together and weave art and human kindness throughout her community.
Moving on, I wandered next door to Julianna Salon and Spa and spoke to Lisa at the counter.“I moved here years ago years ago, and I actually always wanted to work here. This area is wonderful, it has always been wonderful. It’s definitely been built up… I love where I work, we have a salon obviously but we also have local artists here too. It’s a little edgy, but it’s all just a really good area. It’s actually very family friendly too.”
“We support each other, especially all the local businesses… we even have a salon right across the street, we support them and they support us… it’s always a good community where we help build each other up.”
This became a theme throughout the day… businesses helping businesses, realizing that the overall fabric of the neighborhood is heightened when people work together for a common good. The more thriving businesses, the more good will that residents and visitors see among business owners, the higher the potential for a city and for a neighborhood.
As I walked out of Julianna and headed next door to pop into Thread, I ran into Susan from Surface Salon across the street and Mike from Thread, sitting out front of the store and enjoying the February “sunshine.” Did I mention it was a beautiful day?
Susan was anything but shy, and kindly shared her thoughts on The Wedge.
“We’re all friends here. We all support one another. There’s love, there’s unity, there is this humanitarianism. We do a lot for other people in our community, for example, there’s a woman who runs [Thread] when Mike isn’t around and she was just diagnosed with cancer. She’s gonna be OK, she’s gonna beat it but they’re doing a benefit for her on Sunday.”
Mike chimed in.
“We sell a lot of consignment vendors, we have about 30, so they have all donated different things to be sold, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to help her with medical bills.”
I asked Susan how you create this sort of closely knit, vibrant community.
“I think it’s people being good people, loving each other, melting minds together, collecting in the same space,” Susan answered. Just then, another young woman walked up…
“This is Sydney, her husband owns the tattoo shop down the way. We’re all family, we’re all friends here, it’s all love.”
Sydney spoke up.
“There’s a lot of diversity in this neighborhood which is great.”
Susan chimed in again.
“Age, race, creed, religion, it doesn’t matter here. People are people in this neighborhood, from the people that have been here for 60 years to the people who just moved in because they wanted to live in a cool place.”
Sydney kept the commentary on diversity going.
“There’s a wide range of things here. We have halfway houses and soup kitchens, but also salons, tattoo shops or get high-end clothing or local food. Everything exists in this neighborhood, whatever place in the [socioeconomic] spectrum you might be on.”
Susan and Sydney touched on one of the most important pieces of the South Wedge. The idea that people from all walks of life, all levels of income can have a place to live, work, play and feel welcome is key to any kind of urban revival. The ever mounting data shows the worst thing we can do in our cities is create pockets of one-dimensional socioeconomic status. A far more effective way to create vibrancy in our neighborhoods and our cities in general is to create places where diversity, on all levels, is championed and revered. The South Wedge does this as well or better than any community in Rochester.
I continued my journey, accompanying Mike into Thread.“In 2007 my friend and I were having lunch across the street and we talked about how we both wanted to open a business. We both worked at a small clothing store in college and we loved it. That’s where this came about. We had no business plan, no nothing, but we both knew this was a great opportunity and if worse came to worst, we just split the rent for the next year and we’ll have a little space to go and hang out. Because back then, the building across the street didn’t exist, there was really nothing here.”
“We were profitable the first year, which was amazing. I love the South Wedge, I used to hang out here, I used to really admire it. The weekend we opened, a few friends came to the grand opening not even realizing it was my store. That’s how fast everything happened, I remember they actually said they saw that we were opening on MySpace, which tells you how long ago it was.”
Thread’s selection of clothing and other fun items is fantastic. Everywhere you look, there’s something for men and women of all kinds.
A few storefronts south, I stopped in to Hedonist Artisan Chocolates. A sort of Graceland for anyone who enjoys hand made sweets with an array of traditional or curious flavors, Hedonist is known as THE place to stop if you want to impress with the great gift of deliciousness. It is also a hot spot for a variety of different transcendent ice cream flavors… sort of two stores that connect in the middle.
Jessica was working that day and was kind enough to speak with me in between serving customers on the ice cream side.
“I’ve been working here for a little over a year now… I don’t live here but the people are really good. A lot of them have that hipster vibe to them, a lot of college-age kids come into the store from RIT and U of R… they’ll come down and visit our ice cream shop next door. The chocolates are mainly an older demographic… people that buy chocolates will typically come from places a little farther away, like the suburbs. The chocolates tend to bring in an older crowd, and the ice cream tends to bring in a younger crowd.”
“I started working at a lot of corporate places, but I like small business. There’s none of the corporate [hassle] to deal with. Here, everything is hands on. I don’t personally make the chocolate, but that box of caramels right there, I probably packed them all up, put it in there, put a bow on it, and now I sell it. There’s a pride in having a part in what we sell.”
“Sometimes people complain about the price… what they don’t see is those truffles over there are all hand made, it takes time to make them. It takes a good 2-3 days to make those alone, then another 2-3 days to package everything up, so it’s a lot of work. We use a lot of organic ingredients too, which is another reason our prices are a little higher, but it really is because of the quality and the care we put into making everything.”
“We stay connected to the community too… we get all of our fruit for our ice cream from Hurd Orchards in Holley, we get all of our cream from Pittsford Dairy, and we do a lot of collaborations throughout Rochester too… we’ve done beer with Genesee, and right now we have a collaboration with the tea bar down the street.”
Jessica pointed out two interesting points when buying from local artisans. One is obviously that the cost tends to be a bit higher since the quality, time and care put into making the product is much greater. The great taste that Hedonist products have is a reflection of the hard work that goes into making each one… and this hard work is appreciated by the customer, who not only enjoys the chocolate, but also the fact that they are buying from their neighbor, not some big factory across the country.
The second point that Jessica made was her own experience as an employee. Local artisan shops provide meaningful employment to workers who want a more personal, hands on relationship with the product or service they are responsible for. When employees feel pride in the business they represent, they will likey be happier, more productive employees.
I thanked Jessica for her time and departed the store, but not before snapping a pic of a fun-loving customer enjoying her ice cream.On my way down the street toward my next stop, I spotted a young woman on her phone sitting outside the door of one of the apartments.“My name is Taylor, yeah, I live right upstairs here. I love it, you walk outside and everything you need is right here. You’ve got groceries, bars, good people. Everything here is really connected. There are small businesses, and everyone really supports that here.”
Tyler (yes, now it’s Taylor and Tyler) popped over from off the street and chimed in.
“I’m actually a Park Ave girl, but a lot of my hipster friends live here,” she said laughing. “But it’s great here, you can walk into Lux, you don’t have to worry about what you look like, who you are, who you’re with, you’re always welcome.”
Taylor spoke up again.
“I think when this was all up and coming, there was this idea to unite people, to bring people together in one place. You’re not near East Ave. and Park Ave. or any of the main roads, we’re kind off and away from everything a little bit, so it’s kind of this little community on it’s own.”
Tyler again added, “And it’s affordable, compared to the area where I live… which is really great.”
I snapped a quick picture and continued walking. Something you will find in the South Wedge, perhaps more than any other place in Rochester, is the presence of a strong cycling culture. No, I’m not talking about spandex and race gear, I’m talking about fixed gear beauties, 20 year old bikes, fenders and old-school seats and handlebars. These are typically the bikes for the every-day rider, the commuter, the urban cyclist. Even in February, there were lots of bikes tied up along the street. In the summer, there are nights where I believe there are more bikes than cars… and this is all part of the South Wedge culture of living close enough to everything so that human powered transit isn’t just possible, it’s often more practical.Also along the street, you’ll find the aforementioned metal sculptures that have, as stated previously, seen better days. But it almost adds a certain urban approachability to the scene… think “art with street cred.” It lends to the interest factor without overtaking the slightly rugged feel of the neighborhood.Again, nobody would mistake The Wedge for a beautiful, finely sculpted urban neighborhood. This is a place where the appeal is making the rough spots A PART of the fabric of the community instead of replacing them. It is a place where residents and business owners beautify without taking away from the rugged charm. And yes, that’s true metaphorically true as well.One of the quirky spaces in The Wedge is known as Star Alley, a small semi-kept greenspace with plenty of fun wall art to compliment it. Again, being that these photos were taken in February, the full effect can’t quite be realized. But in the summer, it’s quite the little urban escape!Across the street from Star Alley is Mise En Place, the South Wedge’s grocery and prepared food store. Kenneth was kind enough to come out of the back and speak with me about the store.“This is our tenth year in business. We have lots of prepared food options, we have a lot of unique grocery items, we have beer and wine if you’re dining in, we have beer if you want it to go… we try to do a lot of fun, different foods, and we make everything from scratch. We use Boar’s Head deli meats, very high quality, that’s a big thing for us.”
“There’s a lot of people walking the neighborhood, and they need a place where they can go, not necessarily for heavy grocery shopping as much as if they forget things, or they want something different or something quick. You can get things like milk, pasta, fresh produce and some different items. I think since we’ve opened, we showed people that something like this can survive here when you support it. Everyone supports local here, and it’s just a fun place to be.”As someone who often shops at Mise En Place for smaller grocery runs on my bike (I rarely drive my car), I would venture to say that you could do a great deal of grocery shopping there if you needed to. While choices are very limited, there are plenty of everyday items I can take to work or even make meals out of. They have all the essentials, plus some fun and interesting products you might not find elsewhere… and let’s be real, they have a nice craft beer selection! If you needed to do a majority of your grocery shopping at Mise En Place, I believe it would be very doable!
Moving on next door, I made a stop into Coffee Connection, a place I was very curious about for reasons Nicole the Office Manager was eager to tell me.“We are a non-profit business, and we help women in recovery from addiction and trauma get back on their feet and back into employment,” said Nicole. “There are a lot of places that won’t hire people because of their criminal background… but they can start out volunteering here and then when we have openings, we hire them.”
Melanie, the IT manager was also in the office area, skillfully disassembling a laptop and chimed in.
“I don’t have the best background when it comes to getting in trouble, because I don’t always know when to shut my mouth. Because of that, it’s hard for me to get a job. But here, I mean I’m rebuilding a computer… I can be of use here. Most places, you need security clearance to do things like this. This company was willing to hire me without judgement. It was such a relief to know that in my interview, finally, someone’s not judging me.”
What powerful words we can all understand. Melanie went on to say that she felt support not just from her employer, but from the community as well. Nicole and Melanie didn’t care to have their picture taken, but their vibrant personality spoke loudly enough! Truly, by helping women get back on their feet, Coffee Connection is a huge asset to the Rochester and the local neighborhood. Aaaand their coffee is pretty good too!
Continuing down the street, I smiled as I stepped into one of the best little retail shops in Rochester. If you’re ever looking for a snarky gift, vintage items or virtually anything fun for someone on your gift list, there are few places like Zaks Avenue.
Deb greeted me, as always.“My store is Zaks Avenue, right here in the heart of our vibrant South Wedge Village. It’s a very eclectic and unusual gift shop here you can find something for everybody.”
“We have over 40 local artists, a lot of vintage stuff too. If anything is sourced from outside the country it’s all fair trade.”
“We tend to be a little snarky and edgy in here, some items with obscenities, but it’s all OK!”
“The wedge is great because it feels like the United Nations of Rochester. It’s a combination of all different kinds of people. Everyone here tries to help each other, businesses work together, and a lot of the business owners live in the neighborhood… some of the empty spaces on South Avenue are starting to fill in and lengthen the street a little bit… I moved here six years ago and I just love it. It’s a little edgy, but very cool. Everyone fits in.”
“People come in my store because they feel very welcome, and I think you’ll find that in all the shops here. People greet you, it’s not pushy, they bring their dogs in… there’s relationships being built here, not just business being done.”
I liked what Deb had to say about The Wedge being like the United Nations of Rochester. In a city that, to this day, tends to be very segregated racially and socioeconomically, the South Wedge is one of those places where these differences disappear.
It was time for one more stop before I took a break and came back in the evening, and that was Surface Salon.
In between clients, Lee and Aimee chatted with me about The Wedge.
“We have a deep connection with the community here because we’ve been here for so long. Whether people that live here walk by and come in, or whether people visit us from outside the area, we build relationships with them over years of time. It’s powerful to see that happen.”
I asked if there was one thing they could say to sum up the South Wedge.
“The Wedge Is Love.”
Before sliding over to Equal Grounds Coffee, I traipsed up and down South Ave. capturing some wide shots featuring the heart of The Wedge. If you’re not from Rochester, or have never visited this particular neighborhood, you can get a sense of the charm that makes this a wonderful place to live and a fun place to visit, even in the depths of winter. Note that some of these photos were captured on a different, slightly snowier day!
Further South on South Ave., I stopped into Equal Grounds coffee shop, a place that, in true Wedge from, makes it abundantly clear that everyone is welcome and accepted.
Kathy was kind enough to take the time to speak with me.
“I’ve worked here since it opened. May will be 11 years for the coffee shop. We’re an LGBT-friendly coffee shop… well actually it’s everyone, hence the name Equal Grounds. The idea came out of the owner’s desire to create a place that would be inclusive for everyone.”
“We’ve been told by a number of different groups that this is their safe space. We’ve been the gathering place for a number of major events… when President Obama first ran and won, there was not a space in here, no room. People were actually outside, waiting to come in it was so crowded. Marriage equality was another time where people gathered here to celebrate. We have been a place for everyone, no matter who you are, to feel safe, to feel inclusive, and that’s been the strong point about what we were hoping this coffee shop would be.”
Kathy beautifully highlighted the another truth of South Wedge businesses. As you have read so far, none of the establishments exist for the sake of simply making money… each one has the desire to connect with people and contribute to a vibrant community where everyone can feel welcome. I get the sense that everyone in The Wedge realizes they are a part of something bigger than them, and everyone seems to have the desire to feed into that construct.
Fast forward a few hours, when night falls over The Wedge. My first stop of the evening was Solera Wine Bar (downstairs in the photo below) and Cheshire cocktail bar (second floor in the photo below). Solera was the first “high-end” establishments to appear in the South Wedge over ten years ago.
Evvy, the owner of both establishments was sitting at the Cheshire bar, and shared her thoughts on her business in The Wedge.
“Solera opened ten years ago when the neighborhood looked very different. And Cheshire is coming up on 5 years.”
“The thing that surprises me about both places is the variety of clientele. There was this one night at Solera, we have that long table down there [at the ground floor wine bar] and there was an ancient old lady with blue hair and right next to her was this giant, smoothly shaved bald guy with tattoos all over his body… I will never forget that image, it was kind of a feeling of pride and success for me because I could say this is right, this works with whoever wants to come in. We get every kind of person in here and that’s been wonderful.”
“I feel like this place is one of the gentrifying elements of the South Wedge… I mean, we have a crystal chandelier downstairs… as soon as that happened, I think people started looking at me a little cross-eyed. Now we all get along great, because I think everyone realizes now that we just add another dimension to the neighborhood.”
After talking with Evvy over an amazing cocktail, I headed across the street to a place that could not be more different.In to Lux stepped, welcomed by the dark, eclectic plethora of “what the hell?” Lux doesn’t look like other bars, nor would it ever try. Not surprising for a bar made popular by PP&J night where, you guessed it, they serve free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And of course, there is the always famous Pabst Smear… 3 dollars gets you a PBR and a well shot. Can’t beat it.The bartender Kevin, who’s positive spirit radiated with every word he spoke, took the time to talk with me.
“I moved here eight years ago, and there was nothing but a corner store and Lux. I was working at other bars, retired from those bars because I had friends that worked here and were like ‘come on, come work at Lux!’ Then they finally got me because I needed money one day, and I just did it. Now this is my only job, I walk four houses away to work and everything I need is right here now.”
“Living near everything here, it changed my life really. No waking up to an alarm clock, having to commute with a bunch of crazy people trying to run me off the road… I get to wake up and walk my dog… I don’t have to waste that time doing something I hate, loving your job is just something better.”
Kevin moved down the bar and attended to other customers, so I began talking with the woman sitting next to me at the bar, Jeannie. “I’ve lived here my whole life, 58 years, so this is my neighborhood.”
“I’ve worked in the neighborhood, I’ve met so many people in the area that are musicians, professors, lawyers, Kodak employees, people of all ages and walks of life here. Age is nothing, not here. There is no separation of people here. Every realm of life, you’ll find it.”
“I feel that we are a small community in a big city. It’s always been very welcoming. I’ve seen and lived through a lot of these people. A lot of the same families have been here for a long time, and a lot of those families have the diversity built into them… different ethnicities, sexual orientations… we are all a warm community, it’s always been that way.”
Throughout my day in the South Wedge, the feeling of warmth and the welcoming spirit that Jeannie and just about everyone spoke of was supremely palpable. It’s simply one of those places you can step into and feel the difference in the air, in the way people treat each other, in the spirit of a down-to-earth neighborhood with so many layers and backgrounds living in harmony.
In a time when local governments, cities and communities are doing everything they can to lift their surroundings, the South Wedge has been leading the way at the small business and citizen level for over ten years.
So what is the message that radiates from this small slice of imperfect paradise? It is that healthy, happy communities don’t come from ten million dollar grants, knocking down buildings, or retail chains. It is the belief that beautiful neighborhoods have less to do with gorgeous architectural marvels, and more to do with everyday people that work to help each other, to take something run down and make it stunning again, if only in it’s own way. It’s creating a place, a spirit, an attitude that welcomes everyone, whether they are down the street or across the world, whether they live in a lavish penthouse, or don’t have a dime. There may be no better example of this sort of neighborhood in Rochester, and perhaps anywhere in New York State than the cozy confines of the South Wedge.
Arian Horbovetz, author of The Urban Phoenix, is a professional photographer and owner of ArianDavidPhotography in Rochester New York. Arian also occasionally writes in his blog RochesterGuy.com, featuring stories from The Flower City.