the project

volume four of the fertile ground zine (noire iv) is hot off the presses!

what kind of a place is rochester, new york?

a mid-size postindustrial city on the southern shore of lake ontario, rochester occupies the lands of the seneca (onöndowa’ga:’) nation of the haudenosaunee confederacy.*

according to 2018 u.s. census estimates, the city is 40.7% black, 36.8% white (non-hispanic/latinx), 17.8% hispanic/latinx, 3.3% asian, and 1% american indian or alaska native. 4.5% of the population identifies as mixed race. (this, of course, is a very simple depiction of a very complicated reality).

this dramatic change in ethnoracial makeup is a result of hundreds of years of colonization, dispossession, im/migration, and urban transformation.

racial dot map of rochester using census data to show segregation
a ‘racial dot map’ of rochester, based on 2010 census data. image copyright, 2013, weldon cooper center for public service, rector and visitors of the university of virginia (dustin a. cable, creator)

categorized as “hyper-segregated” by sociologists, rochester is tied with birmingham, alabama as the eighth most racially segregated city in the united states.

a stop sign at east avenue and barrington street with a sticker on it that says "where are all the black people at"

this segregation has produced egregious disparities in socioeconomic status, education, health, and life chances.

how do people cultivate lives in a place so divided? what other rochesters exist within and beyond this frame of inequality?

tiny plants grow out of a hole in a series of red painted concrete steps

fertile ground is an anthropology of placemaking in rochester, new york that examines everyday urban life to explore how historically marginalized folks build physical spaces of community, intimacy, and healing within the context of enduring racial hypersegregation, as a way of learning, being, and practicing together to envision and enact a more just future.

a row of wheelbarrows in front of a wall covered in vines

as a cultural anthropologist, i examine rochester’s entangled raced, classed, and gendered geographies through several related questions:

how do histories of formal and informal segregation reverberate today?

what specific kinds of spaces arise in the midst of this segregation and its effects?

how are these practices of placemaking reshaping the city?

how is “community’ being articulated and imagined in relation to these spaces and the city as a whole?

fertile ground sprouts from three existing intellectual traditions: (1) theories of space and place, (2) urban ethnography and history, and (3) feminist and black geographies. the project utilizes observant participation, interviews, mapping, and photography to capture the many ways people are creating and sustaining lifeworlds in a city sometimes described as “dying,” and where certain racialized spaces in particular have been problematically termed “fatal.” (for a more detailed discussion of the research approach, see “learn more” in the menu above).

a planter on a city sidewalk with a white heart rhythm strip painted on one side

there is fertile ground in the flower city. please stay tuned as the project blooms.

* i begin with this acknowledgement as a way of resisting the historic and contemporary erasures wrought by settler colonialism, but with the awareness that land acknowledgements often function simply as “settler moves to innocence” (tuck and yang 2012). any ethnographer working within a context of settler colonialism must grapple with these politics of an anthropology that is always already “noninnocent” (haraway 2016).

fertile ground has been supported by a university research award from the university of rochester provost’s office (2018), an internal faculty fellowship from the university of rochester humanities center (2018), a career enhancement fellowship from the institute for citizens & scholars [formerly the woodrow wilson foundation] (2019), and an early career award from the national science foundation (2021-2026).

all photographs produced by kathryn a. mariner, unless otherwise marked. special thanks to emily sherwood, blair tinker, and miguel a. cardona.


hi. i’m kathryn a. mariner.

please, call me kate.

i am a cultural anthropologist, additionally trained in clinical social work (NYS license #105112), and i study the relationship between intimacy and social inequality in the contemporary united states.

i grew up in rural oregon and moved to rochester in 2015, after extended pitstops in the bay area and chicago. i have a bachelor of arts in anthropological sciences from stanford university, and graduate degrees in anthropology and social service administration from the university of chicago. i sometimes make art at flower city arts center, and am partial to letterpress and bookbinding. i am totally a cat person. additionally, i am currently an associate professor of anthropology at the university of rochester, where i teach courses on race and kinship. (more professional and faculty-type stuff here).

another photo of me, by miguel a. cardona
photo by miguel a. cardona

my first research project was about transracial adoption in chicago. this social practice entailed moving children from predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city to predominantly white middle- and upper-class families often residing in the suburbs. i found that this form of adoption—through a process i termed “intimate speculation”—constituted a social practice in which high investment, observation and surveillance, and anxious anticipation converged in the construction of the black adoptable child as a potent and highly contingent imagined future. my next book, fertile ground, examines processes of transplantation, belonging, putting down roots, and building community against a backdrop of twenty-first century racial segregation.

i think of myself as both a placemaker and a “space invader,” drawing on social theorist nirmal puwar’s investigation of “what happens when those bodies not expected to occupy certain places do so” (2004: 1). i strive to remain cognizant of this position as i navigate varied and complex structures of power, particularly within a discipline whose roots are unequivocally colonial.

eventually, to behold is to become beholden to.

jenny odell (2019: 145)