ROCHESTER — Dr. Neil Scheier said his interest in revamping the Joseph Avenue area began as a potential investment.
Several years ago, former Mayor Tom Richards asked him to come look at a city property for a senior housing project. He had not traveled around the city for many years, he said, and he noticed there were no offices for doctors, dentists or any other medical professionals.
He said the deteriorating conditions stirred in him a desire to help create a more vibrant neighborhood.
Scheier joined a group working on a vision plan for the Joseph Avenue area, and its members came across a building at 692 Joseph Ave. that had been a former synagogue. A year later, he met Annette Ramos, cofounder of the Rochester Latino Theatre Co., and they formed the Joseph Avenue Arts and Cultural Alliance in 2014, he said, and began work on developing plans for the Center for Visual and Performing Arts to be housed in the abandoned synagogue built in 1928.
“We looked at the streets. We looked at the neighborhood and the community. And we realized this (arts project) could be transformative,” Ramos said.
The group has raised about $500,000 of its $2.6 million goal for the reconstruction of the 11,000-square-foot building into a usable space for theater, music, dance and community gatherings, Ramos said. Group members are currently in talks with a local developer to complete the project, which she said the alliance hopes will be completed in early 2019.
“The goal is to have it as a community center with performing arts as its focus and bring in people from all around Rochester to enjoy it,” Scheier said.
On June 21, the Joseph Avenue alliance celebrated the designation of its building — the former Congregation B’Nai Israel — to the National Register of Historic Places. During the celebration, Isobel Goldman said that the arts center project continues the renewal of a building she has long cherished. She even wears a necklace with a pendant that came from one of the building’s grand chandeliers, which she spoke of during the celebration.
“The synagogue will once again serve the people of this neighborhood,” said Goldman, director of grants and programs for the Farash Foundation, which has donated funding for the project. “I think that is the greatest blessing that we could ask of a synagogue, or any house of worship, or any building that we cherish.”
The Joseph Avenue alliance also turned to other houses of worship in the area to gauge area residents’ interest in the arts, Scheier and Ramos said. Through a grant program, the alliance arranged for five busloads of people from several area congregations to visit the Memorial Art Gallery, Scheier said. Many were multiple generations of families who had never been to the gallery, Ramos noted.
Last year, the alliance approached the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to perform in an open lot on Joseph and Clifford avenues, a half of a block from the proposed arts center, and people came from all over the city, Scheier said. About 225 city and suburban residents attended this year’s July 18 event that also was part of the city’s “Around the Town” concert series, Ramos said.
“We at the RPO feel fortunate to be a part of revitalizing Joseph Avenue,” Ward Stare, RPO’s music director, said in an e-mail. “These collaborations plant the seeds for what we hope will become a vibrant, neighborhood Center for Performing and Visual Arts on Joseph Avenue.”
Bill Ferguson of Garth Fagan Dance, who also is vice president of the alliance, said the outdoor performances demonstrate the wide range of programming the alliance plans to offer at the arts center. The project will have a significant impact on the city, he noted.
“I became involved to help satisfy a need for cultural education in the underserved communities in Rochester,” Ferguson said in an e-mail. “Garth Fagan Dance’s support has been instrumental in helping change people’s perceptions about Joseph Avenue. … Our (school) is the only place in the world where the Fagan Technique, taught by professional dancers, speaks to the cultural identity of the community’s students and families of color. By virtue of these (outdoor) performances, the Garth Fagan Dance Student Ensemble and Summer Movement institute, populated by one of Rochester’s most multicultural and diverse socioeconomic groups, are cultural ambassadors for contemporary dance performed by children of all faiths and races.”
City officials also are on board for the project.
“I share the enthusiasm that others have expressed related to the Joseph Avenue Arts Center, for as we know arts can transform the human spirit and has a special gift to give to youth and those who may be facing challenges and trauma,” said City Councilwoman Elaine Spaull, who heads up the city’s arts and culture committee and is director of the Center for Youth.
“We will be more vibrant, more engaged and healthier if we provide opportunities for the arts to embrace those around us,” she added. “The Joseph Avenue Arts Center is a welcome and much-needed addition to the northeast (area of Rochester).”
The project is part of the momentum to improve the neighborhood that began several years ago when residents and city officials created a new vision plan for the area, explained Sherman Dickerson, president of the Joseph Avenue Business Association.
“It’s definitely progress,” he said of the arts center proposal.
Other signs of progress are facade improvements, artists’ murals on the sides of buildings, decorative flags on street poles and even the first enclosed bus shelter at Joseph Avenue and Avenue D, Dickerson said. A summer neighborhood festival also continues to grow, and a Christmas party along Avenue D began last year, he said.
“We’re going to move forward any way we can in bringing revitalization to that part of the northeast quadrant of the city,” Dickerson said. “There’s excitement. There’s a buzz in the air. I’m excited to be a part of it.”
By improving the aesthetics of the area, the Joseph Avenue alliance hopes the changes will draw companies and employers to the area that can fulfill the area’s continuing needs for better transit, safer streets and more jobs, Scheier noted.
“I think five years from now, the place is going to be really booming,” he said. “The mind-set (about the area’s potential) will change.”