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A Case Study of Gentrification in Church Hill

From Duron Chavis on Kathryn S. Parkhurst, VCU Grad Student:

This thesis explores the gentrification process in Church Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia. After World War II, Richmond residents knew Church Hill mostly for its crime rate and dilapidated housing. The white, middle-class flight to the suburbs left the remaining residents, mostly African American, to experience decades of disinvestment. Church Hill was considered a neighborhood to avoid for much of the late twentieth century. Yet, Church Hill is currently one of the most desired neighborhoods in Richmond, particularly for young professionals. This thesis seeks to explain the reasons why there has been such a dramatic change in the perception of Church Hill and whether revitalization can occur without causing gentrification.

Chapter 1 explores the top-down efforts of the Historic Richmond Foundation, a non-profit organization, and the Model Neighborhood Program, a federal program.

Chapter 2 explores revitalization efforts by various non-profits organizations as each tried to work with community members.

Chapter 3 explores the reasons why young professionals are moving into Church Hill and the impact of gentrification on the neighborhood.

You can download the paper directly from the VCU Scholars Compass website


broad neighbor 03/27/2018 at 10:03 AM

Friendly review offered here for future students of the gentrification subject and the area if you are looking to do a more complete analysis:
– Few academic studies acknowledge the true, overwhelming vacancy rates that preceded gentrification in CH, especially north of Broad, Union Hill, Fairmount. These areas had the highest vacancy rates in the city by the 1990s. Plenty of displacement anecdotes to contrary, but is replacing widespread vacancy comparable to displacing individuals?
– Has any academic monograph noted the central role of the local members of a national political party who intentionally located the public housing complexes inside their districts? Who were these players and what were their motivations?
– How were vacant properties widely used in the local and national drug and gun trade, and how did the impacts of that trade displace so many economically stable African American residents in the neighborhood? To the folks who lived in this neighborhood, the gun and drug trade of the 1990s was the largest immediate influencing crisis.
– What was the impact on the built neighborhood of HUD/RRHA enforcement policies in public housing and how did they shape surrounding neighborhood culture? The plastic and metal “no trespassing” signs on porches are one relatively harmless tangible legacy of this pre-cell phone era. What were the others?

twh 03/27/2018 at 2:07 PM

I agree that the very apparent architectural and demographic changes in church hill should be studied, and possibly mitigated, but can we find a word for this process other than “gentrification?” I would argue that revitalization currently is occuring without causing “gentrification.”

I dont know of any part of church hill renovated/revitalized in the last 10- years that resulted in cost of living increases beyond working/middle class means. Using that term to describe what is happening in Church Hill has a reductive effect on conversations about social immobility, concentrated crime and the systematically disenfranchised poor. It insinuates conflict between the poor and the working/middle class in this case, which sabotages the critical examination of power structures maintained by the wealthy (the original, and in my opinion, only class of people who can cause true gentrification).

Negative affects from the housing market and the demographic changes it has brought (and will bring) to Church Hill are derivative of larger problems (see comment #1). Encouraging the working/middle class to confront their complacency in the oppression of the poor is productive, by all means, but we need a new vocabulary to examine what Church Hill is undergoing right now before we start spinning our wheels again.

MJR 03/27/2018 at 2:40 PM

I can’t speak to the area around St Johns Church and Union Market. But I’ve spent a good deal of time looking at the 2007 Google Streetview images below M and between 29th St and Chimborazo Ave. Overwhelmingly most of the development and flipping in this area has occurred on vacant lots and homes that were previously boarded up. Replacing vacant blight with solidly middle class housing is not some evil thing to attach stigma to with loaded words.

On my block there are only two vacant homes. Both are owned by an late 50’s African American who lives across the street from them. He is neither flipping them nor is he fixing them up to rent out. Essentially he is just land banking on them for years waiting for property values to rise further before selling. He is presently doing more to directly impact gentrification than anything I have ever done.

Resident 03/27/2018 at 3:08 PM

Definition of gentrification
: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

Gentrify [ jen-truh-fahy ]
Main Entry: renew
Part of Speech: verb
Definition: start over; refurbish
Synonyms: begin again, brace, breathe new life into, bring up to date, continue, exhilarate, extend, fix up, freshen, gentrify, go over, mend, modernize, overhaul, prolong, reaffirm, reawaken, recommence, recondition, recreate, reestablish, refit, refresh, regenerate, rehabilitate, reinvigorate, rejuvenate, remodel, renovate, reopen, repair, repeat, replace, replenish, restate, restock, restore, resume, resuscitate, retread, revitalize, revive, spruce, stimulate, transform
Antonyms: finish, halt, kill, stop

Nicole Mason 03/27/2018 at 9:00 PM

Interesting, a resident from Harvard is also doing her research and a professor from William and Mary is doing research… hope we get this experiment right. Can we truly be a diverse community while healing from previous wounds?

SA Chaplin 03/27/2018 at 11:18 PM

I have read Kathryn Parkhurst’s thesis on the gentrification of Church Hill. It is, in large part, a racial perspective of the history if Church Hill. There is, of course, a significant racial aspect to many past housing and lending policies. But many of her observations were conclusory and subjective rather than factual, or seem to be agenda driven. Some examples:

“Today, there is no trace that businesses of any sort once stood across from St. John’s Church. Instead, Patrick Henry Park offers a few benches for visitors to sit and admire the beauty of St. John’s Church. Patrick Henry Park is representative of the HRF’s legacy in Church Hill in creating space for white residents and visitors even if it meant thwarting black-owned businesses.”

[As a Church Hill resident, I don’t see that the park has become a “space for white residents.”]

“Thus, the city of Richmond stood to gain from gentrification and did not hurry to enact any policies to protect displaced residents.”

[In my mind, why would the City act to “protect” people who move?]

One study “emphasize[d] that municipal governments need to enact policies that lessen displacement and encourage more low-income housing.”

[This sounds like the author’s agenda rather than a study of gentrification.]

“South Church Hill is not commonly used in the vernacular of Richmond residents; rather, the gentrified portion of the neighborhood claims to be “the” Church Hill while Church Hill North is a common term to distinguish the portion of
the neighborhood with fewer amenities and more African American residents. In other words, the less gentrified portion of Church Hill received a different name to represent its different status.”

[Or, perhaps, due to its geographic location, or its historic name.]

Lastly, the author seems to have spoken to a handful of new residents who will be facing the dilemma of sending their children to the poor performing public schools. I personally wish she had delved into this a lot more as this is one of the keys to the future of Church Hill.

Eric S. Huffstutler 03/28/2018 at 8:53 AM

@6 SA Chaplin… back in April 2014, I wrote an article for the CHA Newsletter entitled “The Vanishing Block”, which talks about the business block that once stood where the park is now. You can download or read it online on the CHA archives through this link (article starts on page 20).

There was a 1980 article in the local newspaper about Church Hill North and opposition towards gentrification as well as struggles between those who live NOB (North of Broad) versus those SOB (South of Broad). How at one time, those in the St. John’s historic district objected to having anything to do with incorporating the other part of Church Hill, mainly due to snobbery and the racial divide and housing conditions. Then, when they were ready to open their arms, those North of Broad were rejecting the idea due to the fear of “gentrification” and how it would raise property values, which leads to property taxes, going up that they could not afford.

When we purchased our house in the 400 block of N 27th in 1999, the neighborhood was still pretty rough. Drugs, prostitution, gun running, tax evasion, and trafficking were all happening around us – even next door to us. Several houses were either boarded up or badly in need of restoration. Our house had already been restored in 1986, and the only major thing we have done to the house since was replacing the roof. But, as blocks are transformed one by one, property values have also gone up… ours have over 4x what was paid for our house and city tax assessments associated with it. That means everyone in those areas taxes also go up as well, restored or not, as surrounding houses are restored. And there are still old-timers surviving who are long retired and on fixed incomes (gentrification). We had a lovely lady of color named Magnolia Pleasants, who lived in the house across the street from us for over 50-years before her passing, and she spoke of the many changes she had seen over the years.

Yes, Church Hill North had and still has a stigma associated with it as being the “black” side of town and why little had been done prior to or after the “white flight” era until the past two decades with restoration and revitalization. At one point, even the “Times-Dispatch” newspaper refused to deliver to certain areas as did pizza places. It was the High Crime Slums of Richmond. Of course, that is far from the truth and the community has changed by leaps and bounds but the stigma still lingers. It is also why writing any kind of in-depth history of Church Hill North has been long coming. Newspapers, other than the black-owned “Richmond Planet” (and they were cautious in their writings) overlooked much of what happened NOB or, the lack of historical documentation and pictures recorded or saved. Mostly due to racism and the socioeconomic divide.

SA Chaplin 03/28/2018 at 1:15 PM

@ Eric – I have read your article (excellent, by the way). I have owned property in North Church Hill (Shedtown, actually) since the mid 1990s and I live two blocks north of M St. Having moved to Richmond in 1980 I well remember the racial animosity and divide of the 1980s (which Kathryn Parkhurst recounts very well). Likewise, the conspicuous black/white divide that was Broad Street underscored the sorry state of affairs. But I guess what troubled me about Ms. Parkhurst’s thesis was how she made race the overarching basis for almost everything —from the emergence of suburbs to current gentrification. (Parkhurst reviews the flight to the suburbs without even mentioning the advent of the automobile, which probably accounts for most of the migration.) Gentrification of Church Hill has racial implications, for sure, but the driving forces seem to be millennial’s desire to live in the city, as well as affordability (which is helped by tax policies —Pankhurst says little about historic tax credits and nothing at all about the city’s tax abatement program; again she’d rather dwell on the racial aspects.)

So even though race is a significant part of gentrification, it plucks a nerve in me when folks dwell on race to the exclusion of other factors. I feel like they are justifying the “victim” card again. Playing that card is like raising your bet on life with a bust hand.

Eric S. Huffstutler 03/30/2018 at 7:32 AM

@8 SA Chaplin… Thank You about my article. 🙂

I wonder if Parkhurst even interviewed residents of Church Hill to get a real sense of what was and is going on?

With the “white flight”, there were other racial issues attached to it based on school desegregation. They did not enforce the law as closely in the suburbs as within the city.

Millenials unfortunately(?) are taking over and not always in a good way. Their views about anything “old” are negative and affects the future of how historic neighborhoods will be maintained. Some feel they have a “right” to come in and immediately change things long established by pioneers of preservation, citing antiquated viewpoints and people stuck in time. But as you mentioned, Parkhurst overlooked the tax credits which again, indicates to me that the theses was probably based solely on an outsider’s views through printed materials with a central focus and had little regard to actual personal experiences. But it is still not totally without merit.


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