In Richmond, Virginia, gentrification is colonization
This essay is part of a series that accompanies NCRC’s 2019 study on gentrification and cultural displacement. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of NCRC.
As the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond’s history is steeped in racial oppression, inequality and injustice. From slavery and Jim Crow to highway construction and mass incarceration, there is no shortage of tools in the social infrastructure that contribute to advancing oppression, stifling mobility and exacerbating inequity. These realities linger in the DNA of this city and our country. For my community, Richmond’s East End neighborhood, the latest manifestation of this lingering legacy is gentrification.
In 2013, the Executive Director of Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority was quoted as saying, “We need urban pioneers.” Pioneers are explorers – people discovering new places for the first time. However, Richmond’s East End neighborhood isn’t a “new place.” Instead, in Richmond, gentrification is colonization, where colonizers “discover” inhabited spaces and supplant their power, culture and economies with their own.
Shifting neighborhoods: Gentrification and cultural displacement in American cities
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Like many urban areas, my neighborhood was designed to fail.
Home to nearly 2,000 of Richmond’s 3,255 public housing units, the city intentionally created a concentrated pocket of poverty in the East End. In fact, according to the former CEO of Richmond’s housing authority, the neighborhood has the highest concentration of public housing per square mile south of Baltimore. And while Richmond is divided into nine districts, 60 percent of the public housing units fall within just one: the East End. This means that there is only one city council member and one school board representative for an area with a disproportionate percentage of the city’s poor, greatly limiting their power and influence within the city’s political landscape.
However, while poverty does deeply impact financial status, it does not determine social and cultural wealth or the capacity of a person for greatness.
My family’s story directly reflects this reality.
Both my mother and father grew up in public housing communities in the East End, and by serving as the former chair of the Richmond School Board and as a preschool teacher, they both played roles in the flourishing of this community.
Their stories are not unique.
Despite the insidious design to stifle opportunity and influence through concentrated poverty, there are countless stories of exceptional people born and raised in the East End that have made this community a socially and culturally wealthy one.
This is why I am proud to call this neighborhood my home.
My family has lived here for generations, and from my 5th grade graduation to meeting my spouse, many of the most important moments in my 31 years of life have taken place in this community.
For me, this land is sacred. I live here now, and I want to stay here, but gentrification threatens my ability to do so.
Due to rent increases and landlords deciding to sell their property, my husband and I have lived at four different addresses in five years. Each time we moved, we paid more in rent for fewer square footage. It is only because of Urban Hope, a small affordable housing organization focused on the East End, that we have been able to find stable housing that we can afford. We are fortunate to live in one of their 15 units, and while Urban Hope is growing, rising property values have caused other affordable housing organizations to leave the neighborhood and focus on other parts of the city.
While the struggle for housing affordability is at the forefront of displacement in the East End, there is also a strong current just beneath the surface that cannot be ignored.
Subtly, and with great care, gentrification is re-defining who has a right to belong in Richmond.
When looking at changes in the entire East End neighborhood, it would appear that gentrification is improving stubborn community conditions like educational attainment, household income, property values and health. However, when you zoom in, a troubling and yet familiar tune gets louder.
In spite of what the aggregate numbers might say, gentrification has not meant improvements and upward mobility for existing residents. Instead, it has removed and replaced low- to moderate-income black people with wealthier white people.
According to Richmond’s Master Plan Insight’s Report, “Richmond’s racial composition is shifting. In 2016, Richmond had similar numbers of black and white residents. From 2000 to 2016, the black population decreased by seven percent while the white population increased by 35 percent. In 2000, blacks were 57 percent of the population and whites were 38 percent. In 2016, blacks were 47 percent and whites were 46 percent of the population.”
This shift has come to the East End like a racialized wave crashing onto the shores of the neighborhood in currents of physical, cultural and economic displacement. The black community is drowning as we watch our land and culture swallowed up, block by block with no reprieve in sight.
This racialized wave of gentrification is moving from south to north. According to census data comparing 2010 and 2016, East End South saw the number of white people increase by 44 percent which is 2.5 times the rate of growth in the black population. In addition, while blacks comprised the largest racial/ethnic group in East End South in 2010, by 2016, whites were in the majority. While East End South saw a significant shift in racial demographics, East End North saw changes in racial demographics no greater than 2 percent.
Gentrification in the East End of Richmond is manifesting as a process of re-segregation.
Based on 2015 U.S. census data, the average rent doubles from East End South to East End North and the median home value triples. Unemployment and child poverty in East End North is double that of East End South, and when considering the median household income, East End North households earn only $.35 for every dollar in East End South. WPA Bakery, Proper Pie and Sub Rosa create a bakery district while restaurants like Dutch & Company and The Roosevelt anchor street corners in East End South. East End North, however, has long been considered a food desert, and after 10 years of advocacy, this portion of the neighborhood finally has a grocery store scheduled to open in March 2019.
Although there is only one East End, there are two very distinct worlds bordering one another, and the border of affluence is shifting further and further north, displacing low- to moderate-income black families with each transitioning block.
Shekinah Mitchell, Neighborhood Partnerships Manager, Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Richmond, VA