Author: Madeline Blackburn [i]
Like so many neighborhoods in the United States’ sprawling cities, Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward began as a plot of land with enviable natural resources. In 1788, the state of Massachusetts sold a tract of land in Western New York to a Boston-based real estate company owned by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. Two years later, these men sold a portion of this land to James and William Wadsworth. In 1800, the Wadsworth brothers built a tavern on this land, and in 1804, the two brothers named this located at the intersection of Brooks and Genesee Avenue “Castletown.”[ii]
In its early days, Castletown was an important settlement centered on the transport of lumber, grain, and other goods.[iii] For years, Castletown’s proximity to the Genesee River and its dense forests attracted transient workers and other hoping to capitalize on the rapid economic growth spreading throughout Genesee country. In 1810, James Wadsworth set aside ten acres of land for the Rapids Cemetery currently located on Congress Avenue, where men and women who found a home in Rochester’s nascent Nineteenth Ward were buried. Frederic Pfeiffer, a sergeant of the Spanish-American War who died in 1968, is one of these people.[iv]
In 1817, however, Castletown’s good fortune began to change when the New York State government began its construction of the Erie Canal. This decision diverted river flow into Rochesterville away from Castletown, consequently displacing the village as a major stopping point for passing cargo ships.[v] Despite this setback, Castletown maintained robust trade with neighboring villages of Plymouth, Chili, and Scottsville. In 1818, Mary Ann Sibley became Castletown’s first teacher in the village’s one-room schoolhouse.[vi]
In 1822, Castletown was dealt a decisive blow when the feeder canal was built next to what is now known as the Brooks Avenue Pedestrian Bridge. This feeder canal diverted river traffic away from Castletown, thus eliminating the settlement as a conveniently located port for boats to unload their cargo along the Genesee River. Within a few decades, the settlement that once served as an important location for trade had fallen into infamy, and the community of Castletown eventually became known as a neighborhood called “The Rapids.” The majority of the Rapids’ inhabitants were transient and underemployed workers who, to pass the time, would often drink to excess.[vii]
Historic records have breathed life into these former residents through vivid descriptions of the brawling, heavy-drinking, and at times lawless lifestyle that was rampant throughout the Rapids. One of these residents, Ben Streeter, testified on behalf of a crewmember during a murder trial in 1855, only to be arrested himself nine years later for forgery. In 1861, Streeter was arrested for “pirating 483 bushels of oats frozen into the Genesee Valley Canal.”[viii] In 1904, Streeter was found unconscious at the foot of the stairs leading to a tavern. He died that night, leaving behind two wives and eleven children.[ix]
Streeter’s story is just one of many that scandalized neighbors but attracted missionaries who recognized the Rapids’ spiritual potential. In 1845, having caught wind of the Rapids’ notoriety, Otis Turner came to the Rapids to establish the Genesee Baptist Church in an attempt to bring morality to the Rapids’ residents who were “a people by themselves and of themselves peculiar … and almost peculiarly bad.”[x]
With time, the rapids slowly recovered. Investors such as Hiram Sibley, the founder of the Western Union Telegraph Company, turned increasingly toward the Nineteenth Ward as the city of Rochester’s prosperity attracted workers in need of stable housing.[xi] In 1888, the completion of Elmwood Bridge and Genesee Valley Park made the Nineteenth Ward an attractive and accessible location for those seeking relief from crowded and increasingly substandard housing within the city. In 1902, Rochester’s Castletown became the city of Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward, and in the following year houses were rapidly constructed within the Sibley Family Estate Subdivision — some of which remain intact today.[xii]
Throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Nineteenth Ward grew into a thriving neighborhood sought after for its schools, religious institutions, and its suburban-urban environment. In 1913, the Lewis Henry Morgan School (School No. 37) was erected on Genesee Street, and religious institutions such as Saint Monica’s Roman Catholic Church had become mainstays in the Nineteenth Ward’s burgeoning community. But while Rochester’s Nineteenth ward attracted people from a diverse group occupations and religions, the Nineteenth Ward’s ethnic diversity was more limited. A 1942 survey from the Council of Social Agencies indicated that only 512 of the Nineteenth Ward’s 4,482 residents were foreign-born[xiii], and black residents were greatly outnumbered by white residents until 1980.
During the decades of the twentieth century leading up to the 1964 Race Riot, the Nineteenth Ward was prime real estate for Rochester’s white working middle class. The Nineteenth Ward’s ample supply of single-family housing continued to expand throughout the twentieth century, in turn attracting Rochester’s growing middle class of workers, who hoped to start a family amongst others in their age and socioeconomic brackets.[xiv] An advertisement from 1902 advertises Hillcrest Avenue as “the best spot” with a description of a neighborhood that is “free from smoke, dust, and city odors… no stores or factories can be built, or liquor sold. Houses must stand uniform distance from sidewalk, and cost at least $1,730 to $3,500.”[xv]
Shoddily constructed tenement buildings, unsanitary living conditions, and an apathetic approach to poverty and racial inequality hampered the housing market in Rochester. Housing developers were more interested in building sturdy and reliable housing for those who could afford trolley fair to the outskirts of the city.[xvi] Black Americans, immigrants, and anyone else who could not afford to live outside of Rochester’s Seventh Ward and neighboring areas were trapped in poverty, and forced to endure immense hardship. In 1935, the Northeast Neighborhood Conference conducted an investigation into Rochester’s housing problem, and concluded that “units occupied by Negroes, whatever the rents, were without exception found to be poor houses.”[xvii]
The city of Rochester failed to adequately address growing inequality that intensified during the period of mass migration of black Americans into northern states. From 1950 to 1960, Rochester’s black population increased by over two hundred percent, with an additional 110% increase during the following decade.[xviii] Black Americans were just one of the many groups of people who enriched the city of Rochester’s ethnic and religious diversity, though black Americans endured particularly vicious discrimination from journalists, law enforcement, employers, and others who wielded power.
Following the 1964 Race Riots, blockbusting, white flight, and other malicious variations of housing discrimination enshrined in federal law threatened the stability of the Nineteenth Ward. As part of their strategy to capitalize on fear and racial tensions in the wake of the 1964 Race Riots, real estate agents frequently coerced black and white Americans into selling their homes at a fraction of their value, then resold these homes to black Americans at inflated prices. Residents of the Ward’s Warwick Avenue received letters “introducing” black families to the neighborhood and asking recipients for listing information on their homes.[xix] Others reported incidents in which real estate agents came to their door and told them that “the Nineteenth Ward will be a ghetto in four or five years.”[xx]
ArcGIS map of the Nineteenth Ward and adjacent neighborhoods, using historic map layers from 1875 to the 2000s. Points represent historic neighborhoods and religious sites. For more information, visit the Mapping Religious Rochester page.
In response to these scare tactics menacing their community, hundreds of residents gathered together in 1965 to form what is now called the Nineteenth Ward Community Association (WCA). The Association’s objectives are “to create a conscious multi-racial community where individual and cultural differences are not only tolerated but accepted, to insure that the community determines and received the kinds of high quality services it needs, to encourage resident home ownership and oppose any threat to the residential character of the community, and to recognize our relationship and responsibility to the total metropolitan community.”[xxi] Since its founding, members of the WCA have refurbished hundreds of homes, fought against unfair zoning and established home ownership channels independent of corrupt real estate agencies, and worked extensively with city and federal government officials to counteract harmful racism and other forms of prejudice. The WCA’s “Urban by Choice” initiatives include House Tours, Square Fairs, Energy Conservation Workshops, and other community based initiatives that beautify the Nineteenth Ward and work to preserve the area’s economic, religious, and ethnic diversity.
Ultimately, the history of Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward is one defined by resilience, ingenuity, and multiculturalism. Despite numerous setbacks that have blighted many regions, the Nineteenth Ward’s residents have continually persevered. The Nineteenth Ward is now home to people from all walks of life who are bound together by the Ward’s unique character and history rich with struggle, survival, and cooperation.
Hill, Laura Warren. Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY, 1940–1970. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC, 2010.
LaRue Cober, R., Castletown: A Historiette of Southwest Rochester. Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 1935.
Mckelvey, Blake. “Housing and Urban Renewal: The Rochester Experience.” Rochester History 27, No. 3 (October 1965).
Meadows, Doris. Neighborhood As Community: The Nineteenth Ward in Rochester New York. Rochester, N.Y.: Nineteenth Ward Community Association, 1984.
Naparsteck, Ruth Rosenberg. “At the Rapids on the Genesee Settlement at Castletown.” Rochester History 54, No. 3 (Summer 1992).
Archival Material Consulted
Pamphlet published by Nineteenth Ward Community Association, undated. Box 63, Folder 1, 19th Ward Community Association Papers. University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rochester, N.Y.
[i] This research was supported by the 19th Ward Community Association and the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Special thanks go to MaryDan Cooper, whose expertise is much appreciated.
[ii] R. LaRue Cober, Castletown: A Historiette of Southwest Rochester (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 1935), 9–11.
[iii] Doris M. Meadows, Neighborhood As Community: The Nineteenth Ward in Rochester New York (Rochester, N.Y.: Nineteenth Ward Community Association, 1984), 2–3.
[iv] Information generously provided by Dr. Daniel J. Demarle.
[v] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 3.
[vi] Ibid., 11–12.
[vii] Ibid., 4.
[viii] Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck, “At the Rapids on the Genesee Settlement at Castletown”, Rochester History Vol. LIV, No.3, Summer 1992, 7-9.
[ix] Ibid., 8.
[x] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 5.
[xi] Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck, “At the Rapids on the Genesee Settlement at Castletown”, Rochester History Vol. LIV, No.3, Summer 1992, 18.
[xii] Taken from 2017 Nineteenth Ward Community Association House Tour Booklet with consultation of sources from the National Park Services, National Register of Historic Places, and “Two Centuries of Industry and Trade in Rochester” Vol LI Fall 1989 No. 4, by Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck
[xiii] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 17-18.
[xiv] Ibid., 11.
[xv] Ibid., 13.
[xvi] Blake McKelvey, “Housing and Urban Renewal: The Rochester Experience”, Rochester History Vol. XXVII, No.4, October 1965, 8.
[xvii] Ibid., 11.
[xviii] Laura Warren Hill, Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY, 1940-1970. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Proquest LLC, 2010, 36.
[xix] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 15–17.
[xx] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 17.
[xxi] Pamphlet published by Nineteenth Ward Community Association, undated, Box 63, Folder 1, 19th Ward Community Association Papers, University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rochester, N.Y.