Will we ever really live as neighbors?

Last weekend, I drove through my childhood neighborhood, Northside, in Richmond, Virginia. It was a pretty, spring-like afternoon. Battery Park, the neighborhood park two blocks from my house, was full of activity. All the tennis courts were being used and kids were playing on the basketball courts.*  I saw adults, old and young, out walking or sitting on their porches enjoying the day.

It is as lovely a neighborhood today as I remember from growing up there over 50 years ago or visiting my dad twenty years ago. There was just one thing that was different. Everyone I saw was white. Everyone. My neighborhood had been Black.

Gentrification? Not exactly.

This wasn’t a neighborhood that declined, and then wealthier people moved in. Surprisingly, this little enclave stayed pretty much middle-class for decades. People kept up their property, the lawns were tended to, and there was never trash on the sidewalks or in the streets. This neighborhood simply moved from a stable, white neighborhood in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s to a Black, middle-class neighborhood in the ’50s and well into the early 2000s when white families started to trickle back in. Now, it’s a white neighborhood. Why?

Why aren’t young Black families moving into this community?

The homes seem desirable to me. The neighborhood is walkable.  The park is an asset.  What is missing?

I asked a Richmonder for an opinion. Here’s the gist of that response.

When buying a home, Black families may be making more permanent housing decisions than their white counterparts.  They can’t move into a neighborhood in which the schools aren’t good because they may not be able to afford private schools. They need to know that the amenities in the neighborhood will grow, not falter, and close. Unlike their white counterparts, Black young people may not have family resources to fall back on should their housing decision in the city not work out. Black families are more likely purchasing a forever home. White families may see it as a starter house. And while Northside has generally withstood that test of time as far as maintenance of the housing stock, it still doesn’t have those cultural markers of a stable, middle class, white neighborhood – a Starbucks or a Whole Foods.  The neighborhood is seen by some as risky. Seemingly, white families can take the risk.  Black families can’t.

Hmmm…. this theory makes sense to me.  Once again, the racial wealth gap is a critical factor.

As I was reflecting on that, I had another shock when I went out to dinner in Churchill, a historically Black section of Richmond. Churchill was the area in which my mother had been born and raised. For most of my young life, Churchill had been an all-Black community.  In the ‘60s, my grandmother was forced to move when a transit improvement – the building of a bridge – wiped out her immediate neighborhood. Even with that, Black folks stayed in the community. In the late 1970s, white families started to drift back into this neighborhood. At that time, it was just a few people here and there. Last weekend as I drove through historic Churchill  and dined in a Churchill restaurant, just like in Northside, I only saw white people.

I was reminded of a phrase that James Baldwin made popular, “Urban renewal means Negro removal.” The transit decision that affected my maternal grandmother’s home was mirrored in my paternal grandparents’ reality. The building of a new highway in the ’50s decimated their all-Black neighborhood of Jackson Ward. The financial and social status of the residents of Churchill and Jackson Ward made them of little concern to the powerbrokers in Richmond. Just as the wealth gap is a factor today in housing decisions, it also was decades ago when my grandparents were being impacted by racism.

I reminded myself that I am fortunate. Unlike my parents’ experience, my childhood house is still there and the neighborhood is very much the same even though the residents have changed. I was sad not to see young Black families enjoying the neighborhood as I had.  I began to wonder if we will ever see really integrated communities. Not ones with a few of that kind of person, or this kind, but neighborhoods that don’t tip to one race or ethnicity, one religion, or one sexual orientation which seems to be the pattern. I’m talking about a residential equilibrium where all are welcome like those signs say and have the resources. Is that even possible?


*The Battery Park amenities were left from when the community was all white.

4 Replies to “Will we ever really live as neighbors?”

  1. My son lives in a “re-done” row house (and before that, rented an apartment) in Churchill. His reason for living in that neighborhood was the proximity to work – VHC Health. Although it is a diverse neighborhood still, there is an economic divide. Economics seems the biggest factor in what people can afford and where they choose to locate. It also affects the sense of a community. The explanation about starter vs permanent homes seems spot on. Do you see this in your community?

  2. As always, I learn from your writings. I appreciate the time you take to share your uniquely personal experiences and reflections on race, especially since (except for DC), I experienced Richmond and W&M as a White woman in the same time frame. Your thoughtful observations enrich my understanding.

  3. When I got married in the early 1970s, my husband and I went house hunting. We found a nearby neighborhood with large houses, small houses, brick houses, wood frame houses, old houses (mostly from the 1920s and 1930s) and newer homes. We found one we liked, at a price we could afford, and bought it. We never thought of it as a “starter house”. This is the place that we would raise our children and live in for most of our lives. After buying the house, we noticed that there was an elderly Black couple next door and another Black family with three elementary-age children. Were we the only White people in our new neighborhood? We soon discovered that White families and couples also lived on our street – a university professor, his wife and family on our other side, a carpenter boat-builder and wife and child down the street, and a mixture of others in a four-apartment building across the street. Other Black families with children that ended up going to school with our own moved on our street and the street behind us. That relieved our anxiety, because we wanted to live in a place where many different types of people lived together. We lived there for 18 years before circumstances caused to move. Many of the people who were there from the 1970s and 1980s still live there, both Black and White, and more importantly, many of their children also have bought homes there. This neighborhood is located between both some predominantly Black and other predominantly White ones. Before our community became mixed, it had been a White middle class neighborhood. People living there formed a community league to encourage White people to stay and Black people to move in when others had left. It was a unique experiment in Norfolk, but it worked. The neighborhood stabilized and has remained so for the past fifty-plus years.

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