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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 06/28/2019 at 6:45 AM

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

Melissa Johnson
Melissa Johnson 06/28/2019 at 6:47 AM

Fabulous storytelling!

Dana Bagby
Dana Bagby 06/28/2019 at 7:17 AM

Whomever this Jean is, I LOVE her!!

Sandra Lubbers
Sandra Lubbers 06/28/2019 at 10:53 AM

Great story. You went from pigeons to geese?

Amber Swensen
Amber Swensen 06/28/2019 at 1:43 PM

Wish there was more!

Katie Watson Engel
Katie Watson Engel 06/28/2019 at 9:12 PM

Can we get more stories?!?!?!?

jean mcdaniel 06/29/2019 at 5:07 AM

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 were first experienced on the none house tour. I didn’t; drink until I was 29 years old.

So many people have asked my why I have geese. For me, there is an unbreakable connection with geese. When I was three years old, I ran away from home. I was serious about it and decided that from now on I was on my own. I found an old barn that had a hat loft that I climbed in and fell asleep. I woke up to noises down below which was the black sharecropper putting his mule to bed for the night. For three days (before I was discovered) I ate the mules oats which were really good because they were coated in molasses. Every night three geese came and slept in the loft with me keeping me warm and making me feel safe. These three geese talked to me quietly all night as if to say, “you are going to be O.K.”

Kfo 06/30/2019 at 10:42 AM

Jean you are a treasure and the stories are priceless.

Melinda 07/02/2019 at 1:36 PM

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. Helping others to rehab old houses and bring in both loans and pizza delivery to the area took decades. We were a truly diverse neighborhood, with lots of artists, black, white, brown, gay and straight residents. Neighbors worked together, smoked pot together, got to know and help each other through floods and hurricanes, and we raised children who knew how to navigate the city– equipping them well for a future in the wider world. There are stories galore. We started the Church Hill Association and the Christmas Tour. A group of us worked hard to show the rest of Richmond how wonderful Church Hill was. Gentrification really started when the white people who had been afraid to visit, much less purchase, property started arriving slowly in the late 90s. With the changes, developers and realtors descended like locusts. We bought our house for $35,000. Now the city says it’s worth more than a half a million (it’s NOT). We’ve lost some of the kindness and much of the solid infrastructure we once had. I still love my home and my city, but I have learned to be careful what I wish for. When big business moves in, the soul disappears.

jean mcdaniel 07/02/2019 at 5:22 PM

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 07/06/2019 at 9:07 AM

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, doing 90% of the work ourselves. We have too many stories to share of renovation mishaps, battles with pests that we have labeled the “year of the seven plagues,” tears, blood, and sweat shed to the point of exhaustion, all in pursuit of a vision in our head. And Today we are closer to that Vision than we ever were and quite frankly it is falling short. Why? Because it was never about the end game. It was always about the grit, the determination, and the perseverance . That spirit was all around you in your neighbors, The DIYers down the street, and in the ones who lived here their whole lives. Now it is about turnkey and granite countertops, real estate values, and downsizing from the suburbs. I love that I can now walk to many amazing restaurants, have a proper pie, and walk to work. But amidst all that has been gained, some valuable things have been lost. The soul of the neighborhood needs those who have been here the longest to keep their voice and share the stories. It will be a detriment to us all if they retreat into the memories of a distant time.

Johnathan 07/08/2019 at 8:15 AM

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 over did so. Many middle income families of all races left Church Hill, leaving behind the poor which ran the neighborhood into the ground. It was not the white mans fault Church Hill became what it did. I for one am glad the gentrification has come to Church Hill and hopefully it will continue.

jean mcdaniel 07/09/2019 at 7:42 AM

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 the horn. That put an end to horn blowing in the meddle of the night!

One of my beloved geese came up to me one early morning with a plastic bag in her mouth. Not being a consumer of illegal drugs, I didn’t realize what it was at first. Later, I found out that it was a substantial amount of heroine. I took it from her and did an EXTREMELY CAREFUL inspection of the front yard. I sat on my porch for hours waiting for the former owner to come by looking for his product. Finally this cockey , full of himself young man came by desperately trying to act nonchalantly innocent while looking over my fence. After savouring his distress for a minuet , I stood up and demanded if THIS IS WHAT he was looking for? I told him that if he EVER threw anything over my fence again, I would personally make sire he consumed all of it on the spot and then refuse to call an ambulance. I didn’t have any more problems with unsolicited drug deliveries.

When a man came up behind me one night while walking home from dinner with friends and informed me that he was going to stick his big black dick up my ass, I wheeled around and demanded that he show it to me first. I asked him how did I know he wasn’t just bragging? When I started walking toward him in an aggresive manner, he ran toward the Rondavous.

Ond day I had been banging away at a slab of plaster in the stairwell that just would not come loose. I had used up ALL of my cuss words for the next three months. All of a sudden the whole wall came down knocking me down the stairs and knocking me out. After recovering somewhat and brushing myself off, there in the pile of plaster was some paper. I picked it up and it was a childs prayer book. It popped open to a passage on the evils of destructive tendencies !

Yes, there were bad things about the neighborhood. You had to have courage at times and at times you just had to be a better bluffer than the locals, and st times you had to have bigger balls than whoever you just encountered. Mostly, you had to have a sense of humour and not take yourself too seriously. The post was meant to be a light hearted look about the camaraderie, hard work and at times ridiculessly funny experience that could never be artificially concocted.


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