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A call for gentrification with justice by Corey Widmer

January 27, 2014 9:46 pm by

Pastor Corey Widmer from East End Fellowship offers his take on the recent resurgence in the area:

North Church Hill is on the map. Recently Richmond Magazine called it Richmond’s “hottest neighborhood.” It’s also been dubbed Richmond’s “bakery district,” boasting of WPA Bakery, Proper Pie, and the just re-opened Sub Rosa. Throw in a couple of high-end award winning restaurants and some new boutiques, and you’ve got a bona fide urban resurrection.

This is the neighborhood that my family, along with several others, moved into 10 years ago to live out the principles of Christian Community Development. We were inspired by the vision of Dr. John Perkins, who called Christians to relocate to blighted urban communities and join with others in working for reconciliation and redistribution. But now, sometimes as I am eating my vegan butter crust kumara pie and sipping my flat white, things aint lookin so blighted any more.

This is all a matter of perspective of course. The East End still has the highest concentration of poverty in the city, is home to four of the city’s six housing projects, and contains some of worst performing public schools in the state.

But there is also a new dynamic of gentrification taking place, in which many new, mostly white educated residents are moving into Church Hill and calling it home. Most of the time these two populations, the poor and the middle class, the mostly black and the mostly white, the hipster beards and the homeless beards, operate in separate universes even while sharing the same streets and sidewalks.

The standard line on gentrification is that it tends to displace long-term residents of neighborhoods like North Church Hill. As real estate values rise, rent and property taxes follow suit, making it increasingly more difficult for lower income residents to stay. I experienced this first hand when a neighbor told me in 2006 that her rent had risen significantly since my family had moved in. There is a real danger that when gentrification occurs, the accompanying amoral market forces act without reference to the interests of existing populations and institutions, and the historic core of a neighborhood can be eviscerated.

However, a recent study examining the effects of rapid gentrification in urban neighborhoods all over the country found some different results than expected. Sometimes, it seems, the good of gentrification can outweigh the bad. Dr. Lance Freeman, the conductor of the study, set out to quantify how much displacement was occurring in gentrifying neighborhoods like Harlem, and to his surprise he found that low income residents in neighborhoods classified as gentrifying were moving less frequently.

The study found that low-income residents were no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood gentrified than when it doesn’t. Gentrification certainly can push out longer term residents, but it can also create fresh environments in neighborhoods that help encourage people to stay. But this occurs especially if – and this is really the key finding in my mind – the neighborhood is generating and improving community assets that benefit everyone, especially parks, safer streets, better schools and critically, job opportunities for middle and low income residents.

So here is my appeal to my fellow North Church Hillians. I am not hating on the recent new developments in our community. After all, I have helped to precipitate them. I love my Proper Pie, WPA in the morning warms my soul, and the D&C perfect egg is indeed perfect.

But let’s together work to ensure that the recent surge of interest and investment in North Church Hill does not just benefit new residents, but generates life and opportunities for all residents of Church Hill, especially the most vulnerable ones. There’s a couple things we might do.

First, let’s listen deeply to people who have been here a long time before us and learn from them. There are so many rich and beautiful assets in this neighborhood that have been here way before any new restaurant ever came on the scene. Second, let’s get involved with organizations that work for the benefit of all the residents of the East End. Ones like Urban Hope, which gets folks into homes as renters or owners at affordable rates. Volunteer with CHAT, which among other activities generates jobs and skills for youth in our community. Join the effort to implement the first IB Primary Years program in Richmond city at our very own Chimborazo Elementary School. Or help brainstorm about new businesses that can create jobs for the exceedingly high number of unemployed people in our community, few of whom have accessibility to fair waged jobs.

In Jeremiah 29:7 God calls his people to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which He has called you.” For those of us called to North Church Hill, that means seeking the flourishing of our neighborhood for everyone, not just those of us who like a good cappuccino. Maybe, just maybe, North Church Hill can become a place of peace and prosperity for everyone within its borders.


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