Written by Carol McAlister
Clarissa Street is one of Corn Hill’s most historic and oft-changed streets. Originally named Caledonia Avenue by Corn Hill’s early Scottish settlers, in 1844 the southern portion of this street was renamed “Clarissa,” after Clarissa Greig, the daughter of early investor John Greig. Eventually the street was altered to include all of High Street, now the northern section of Clarissa, and by 1930 all of Caledonia Avenue had been renamed Clarissa Street.
As early as 1810, freed black slaves were living in western New York State and Rochester’s first African American neighborhood was located here on High Street (later Clarissa) in the Third Ward of the city.
In 1830 Rev. Thomas James, an escaped slave, founded the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, then located on Favor Street. This church became a center for the Underground Railroad, for Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and for the women’s suffrage movement. In 1975 the A.M.E. Zion Church was relocated to its present home on Clarissa Street, and it remains Rochester’s oldest ongoing African American institution.
In 1922 the African American YWCA was founded at 192 Clarissa Street. It later merged with the downtown YWCA and the Clarissa Street structure became the Montgomery Neighborhood Center, which eventually relocated as well.
By the mid-20th century, Clarissa Street had become a main commercial district of the Third Ward. Businesses included the Gibson Hotel, Latimer’s Funeral Home, Ray’s Barbershop, Scotty’s Pool Hall, Smitty’s Birdland, LaRue’s Restaurant, and Vallot’s Tavern. Following the riots of 1964 and the subsequent Urban Renewal program, many of these buildings were either destroyed or torn down.
Once referred to as “Rochester’s Broadway,” Clarissa Street became famous for jazz and for clubs such as the Pythodd Club, the Elk’s Club and Dan’s Restaurant and Grill (later Shep’s Paradise Lounge – now The Clarissa Room).
Since 1996, current and former Clarissa Street residents have presented an annual Clarissa Street Reunion, held the 3rd Saturday of August to celebrate the importance and the traditions of this historic Corn Hill street.