On an 83 degree evening in May 1946, 5,000 people gathered in Washington Square Park to protest. The city was on “holiday,” a humorous term for being completely shutdown.
Five days prior, Rochester delivered a “message by moonlight” to 489 city employees in talks with unions. Effective the following day, their positions were terminated and citizens were forced to react as downtown came to a standstill.
Possibly one of the most effective and radical general strikes Rochester has ever seen, it wasn’t an attempt to be controversial when artist of today “Thievin’ Stephen,” painted a collage of these faces on a blank electric box in the south eastern corner of this downtown micro-park. He was commissioned by the park’s neighborhood association.
A history discussion, a dig through the little-known-of Geva Theater’s basement archives and a short walk to the Rundel Public Library just two blocks away, Stephen was in a search to represent the most influential aspect of Rochester’s first park. After pouring through the history of the 200 years the plot of grass has been there, it was a series of photos of these 5,000 people that struck him.
“It just seemed like the most important thing that happened in that park,” Stephen said. “And definitely the most unsung kind of hidden history I had come across.”
The strike, itself, started from a letter:
This is to advise you that the position held by you in the Department of Public Works has been abolished by the City Manager and your services with the City of Rochester are terminated as of midnight, this date. This action is the result of a change of policy deemed necessary to protect public interest…
A clear attack on the union which was quickly forming under organizer Adrian L. Mitten, the city’s stark reaction would quickly turn against itself. Picketing began following this dismissal. All city vehicles were moved to the Public Works equipment garage at Dewey and Felix Street and, obviously, protesters followed.
By May 23, Rochester’s largest mass arrest occurred booking 208 picketers, a passing school teacher, plumber, and a dog. The arrest was so hard hitting that the following day’s ice delivery was reduced by 50 percent. 200 companies were forced to close to join this new “holiday.”
Around 5pm that night, the photos that would inspire Thievin’ Stephen, were captured.
With the city at a standstill, a mass of people filled Washington Square Park, however the end wasn’t quite in sight. With another “holiday,” in Rochesterarian fashion, a weekend break to celebrate the Lilac Festival, the first since WWII. By Monday May 27, 1946, it’s estimated that 30,000 workers weren’t working. Garbage and street clean ups had ceased completely, and in reaction the layoffs were canceled by the city.
Thievin’ Stephen took five separate photos, added the then Convention Hall, now Geva Theater, and stenciled some history back into the park.
“Every face on that box was a person there that day,” Stephen explained. “Even the ones in the back that you cant really see, those are people that were there that day.”
There were other events he could have chosen, of course.
Fredrick Douglas spoke in the park several times, in addition to Helen Keller and Allen Ginsberg. Samuel L. Jackson has even starred in a play in neighboring Geva Theater. Washington Square Park has been a hotspot for attention since the beginning of Rochester.
Roughly 150 years prior to the general strike, the area of Washington Square was basically unchartered wildness. Riddled with rattle snakes, swamps and malaria, Indian Allen settled this small patch of the Upper Falls with the only 14 inhabitants of the city 1792.
In 1811, there were 15 people and it was re-founded as “Rochesterville.” However, this is still justs a blip in time. By 1823, with the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal, the area of Washington Square Park was owned by Elisha Johnson, Rochester’s 5th mayor. He soon donated the land which then became the first park in Rochester.
Elisha was major supporter of the Erie Canal, which makes sense. By the time the Erie canal opened two years later, 4,000 people had moved into the Genesee River boomtown. To say the least, the area was a meeting place long before the union protests that followed more than 100 years later.
“They [the union supporters] chose that park for having a really long history of being a meeting place .” Stephen said. “As much as I was into the idea of the strike and think that collective bargaining is an effective tool, I think it’s also just important to celebrate the era when people met downtown.”
First known as a graffiti artist, Thievin’ Stephen extends to hip hop, in addition to running the gallery in residence at the Bug Jar, “The Lobby,” and coining ‘Rochester is the Best,’ ‘Saggy Crooks,’ and the ‘Crucified T-Rex,’ he is naturally worried about a public piece being construed as controversial.
“I don’t think this piece in anyway is conversational,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a political piece, I think it’s a historical piece… but I’ve seen a lot of other paintings in town and thought ‘how could anyone have a problem with it’ and it caused really ridiculous controversy.”
Most obviously referring to the sleeping bears of World Wide News, the irony of being commissioned is one that resonates deeply with Theivin’ Stephen.
“For some reason art is given this special category of scrutiny of criticism. Anyone with 900 bucks can get a billboard a for two weeks and write anything they want and nobody says shit. If it’s a painting, all of a sudden the threat of one person seeing it and not liking is enough for the powers [that] be to say that maybe this shouldn’t be here.”
He spoke of the relationship between artist and the public.
“If a car is broken you go to mechanic,” Stephen said. “You don’t ask grandma and the kids to work on the car, you trust people who do that for a living to do a good job. If they don’t do a good job they wont be doing that much longer. There has to be some trust for artists.”
To that theme, this was also the longest Stephen has spent on a piece, as it took one month to complete. He admitted to dilly-dallying, but for good reason.
In collaboration with Sample Soap, a non-secular advocate for the homeless, Stephen collected toiletries while painting the electric box. He experienced the theater goers and their opposite while working. He met much of today’s inhabitants of the park.
“I got to meet homeless guys who saw the sign, [of Sample Soap and say] ‘Yo what’s up? I’m homeless.’’
Opening up the back of his van to soap, combs, shampoo and more, passers-by were given the opportunity to choose what they needed. By finding out through social media, people brought him donations over the course of month-long project.
“That is what it’s about,” Stephen said.
“One of the great things about art is that it’s a pure way to communicate with people. I think language has its flaws, and art fills in that gap.”
“People talking to each other is a good thing…I think that that spurs more conversation. I think that spurs on the exchange of other thoughts and ideas and at some point that’s more important than any of the other things that art can contribute to society.”