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Editors Pick History

Stories From The Hill: What was “gentrification” really like?

Jean McDaniel has lived in Church Hill since the 70s. Back then, the East End of Richmond was a much different place than the neighborhood we’re all lucky to live in today. This next installment of “Stories From The Hill” is a trip. Hope you enjoy!


By Jean McDaniel

The above photograph is of my house taken in 1978 which was the year I bought it. I looked at it with a flashlight because it was boarded up and very dark inside. Still I could see that it was structurally sound, came with a double lot and was on the small side. Note that all three of these houses were unoccupied. Two of them still had an outhouse attached to the back wall.

I bought this house and began my life as a weekend renovator.

My job at the time required traveling all week so I basically lived and worked in the house on Saturday and Sunday. I had no experience in this but I relied on common sense. The first order of business was cleaning out the debris of years of being occupied by pigeons. I ran out all the birds and closed any points of entrance, or so I thought.

A few days later when I returned there was a broken window upstairs. My new neighbor, Ms. Hattie, told me that pigeons had repeatedly flown into the window (until it broke) to get back in. I called in a pest controller and a Mr. Eggsbaum (I am not making up this name) came and said he could take care of the problem in 24 hrs. He told me that once pigeons establish a roost, they will not give it up! I paid him and said GREAT! I should have asked more questions, I was hauling out dead birds for the next two weeks…in July! More about pigeons later.

My new neighbors liked to watch me work. I would later learn that Miss Hattie ran a nip joint and her next door neighbor ran a house of many night time visitors. These two liked me and I liked them and we looked out for each other.

I managed to get a bathroom (of sorts) and one room to live in while I worked on the rest of the house. Building inspectors became my best friend. They would tell me how to do things and meet code and I valued their advice. The neighborhood at this time had a lot of renovators and they helped each other out with advice, loaning tools and when necessary muscle power.

One day that will live in my mind forever

I am going to share one day that will live in my mind forever and is indicative of a day in the life of a Church Hill renovator/gentrifier. I lived in this house for three years with no heat and no air condition. Many romances started in September/October between those that had heat and those that did not. By this time, I was traveling less and came home one day to hear noises upstairs. I ran upstairs ready for combat and there they were, in the middle of my bed (and they had been there a long time): two pigeons. This was August so I had left the upstairs windows open.

I ran them out and went downstairs grumbling about having to go to the laundromat (I only had one set of sheets) when there right in front of my eyes was the biggest bee I had ever seen. I grabbed a potholder and the lid to the blender, caught it, threw it in the microwave and turned it on high. The lid to the blender caught on fire, the microwave caught on fire, so I called the fire department. Three huge trucks came flying around the corner, at least 12 men went in the house and came out seconds later. They all had a good laugh at my expense. However, I did learn that old black rubber blender lids are highly toxic when burning!

Since I had no kitchen yet and the microwave was my only means of cooking, I set about cleaning up the melted mess. I went out to throw away the black, stinky blob when I saw a bone on the sidewalk. It looked like a human bone to me, so I called the police.

A police officer came and put the bone in an evidence bag, put the evidence bag in his trunk and came in the house to take his report. Unfortunately, before I could warn him, he backed into a stack of doors which fell over and knocked him out, so I called the police back. Within seconds there were police everywhere with guns drawn, crouching down, running into the house. Being a relatively law-abiding person, I found this extremely frightening. The “officer down” came to and they all had a good laugh at my expense.

This was the day I took up drinking.

It turned out that the bone was human. I bought expando window screens the next day. This was not the worst day of my life as a renovator/gentrifier and I have been here since 1978.

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Mike1
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Mike1

Jean, nice stories! Thanks! Yes, a lot has changed even in my time here since 2005.

Melissa Johnson
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Fabulous storytelling!

Dana Bagby
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Whomever this Jean is, I LOVE her!!

Sandra Lubbers
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Great story. You went from pigeons to geese?

Amber Swensen
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Wish there was more!

Katie Watson Engel
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Can we get more stories?!?!?!?

jean mcdaniel
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jean mcdaniel

High on the hog started as a backyard potluck with a loud tape player. The none house tour was started as a protest against the snooty Garden tour, Christmas tour and as an excuse to walk around the neighborhood drinking all day. We had disignated walkers which were teenagers with wheelbarrows. You could not go in the house that was on the tour. You had to stay outside and the homeowner supplied drinks. I put a bathtub in the front yard and served bathtub gin. My first julip, margarita, martini, gin and tonic, adult snow cones and many other drinks… Read more »

Kfo
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Kfo

Jean you are a treasure and the stories are priceless.

Melinda
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Melinda

We moved into our house in Church Hill ten years earlier (1968). What I’ve seen has been amazing, gratifying, beautiful, and tragic. It didn’t start as gentrification… but a way for younger people who fell in love with the historic structures find an opportunity to buy and renovate homes that had been neglected and/or abandoned and rented to low-income African-Americans (after the white flight of the 50s) by wealthy slumlords who didn’t bother with building codes. Many of us wanted to live in a neighborhood that was not segregated (and boring) and was close to where we worked in Richmond.… Read more »

jean mcdaniel
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jean mcdaniel

Melinda, I paid $11,000.00 ( it was a very small house ) and my latest tax bill is something I can’t get my head around. The Church Hill Association used to be a good thing until recently. I am concerned about how secretive and closed this organization has become. The Christmas Tour used to be a fun event used to showcase our beautiful neighborhood and have some neighborhood fun with the ball. It is now used to promote real estate sales. Sadly, I agree with your last two sentences whole heartedly.

Derek Metzler
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Derek Metzler

My wife and I bought our house on 23rd st in 2005. We were not among the true pioneers of this neighborhood (that title is graciously reserved for those of you who came long before we arrived). We bought the house and moved to this neighborhood because we saw all around us the potential of what it could be. Our block alone had 3 abandoned houses and many in disrepair. The “line not to cross”at that time was likely Jefferson Ave which was just 1 block North of us. We have spent the last 14 years fixing up our house,… Read more »

Johnathan
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Johnathan

I am surely befuddled as to the nostalgic stories of how great things use to be before the gentrification came along. Listening to you folks one would think that the record murder rate, the plight of abandoned houses, and vagrants shooting up on the street of the 1990s in church hill never happened. You folks can keep your revisionist history and I will remember how many of us would not walk the streets during the day let alone at night. As far as the white flight nonsense. Just stop. Anyone who had the means to get out once segregation was… Read more »

jean mcdaniel
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jean mcdaniel

Jonathan, No one is practicing revisionist history. I choose to share amusing incidents with CHPN because those times had some light hearted moments. I worked ( along with one other neighbor ) for over a year to get rid of a flagrant drug house directly across the street that was owned by a black dentist. I could watch the activity from my front window. One of the most annoying business practices of this pharmaciticule distribution practice was customers coming up and blowing their horn for service. One night, I had it and went out , popped the hood and disconnected… Read more »