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.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Many people characterize Washingtonians as living in a bubble. Maybe. But if we do, there is diversity in that bubble. I live in a section of Washington, DC —Capitol Hill, Ward 6— that is 45% African American, 42% white. When I walk through my neighborhood, I see people who look like me. Older African American women are among the early morning walkers, exercising around the park near my home. Some people appear to be Asian American or Latinx. There are people speaking languages I recognize, and many I don’t. There are young people pushing baby strollers and folks, young and old, on scooters and bikes and dining in outdoor restaurants. The diversity of my neighborhood is one of the many things I like about it.

Eastern Market
Capitol Hill neighbors at the Eastern Market flea market

It is true, Capitol Hill has become whiter over the years that I’ve lived here. Gentrification is a term used regularly when discussing my part of DC. Still, lately, I’ve noticed black and brown young couples also choosing to move into this community, not just white families. And while the economics of living in DC don’t make my neighborhood, or any other in DC, an ideal retirement community, about 34% of my neighbors are over age 45.

Regularly in the Capitol Hill Corner, an online neighborhood newsletter, you learn of new shops, restaurants, condo buildings, and grocery stores coming to the Hill. And this week, I learned of a new women’s clothing store moving into my neighborhood. That’s great, I thought and was excited until I clicked on the link to their website.

So glaringly unexpected, it took my breath away.  I had to look twice. There were 22 images on the opening page (yes, I went back and counted). Shocking in its whiteness, there was not one black or brown model. The models all presented as young, slim, and white. Judging by this store’s marketing message—conveyed by their images—I was definitely not their desired customer. Wow. I felt excluded. I was excluded.

I get it. This store is marketing to young women. As I reflected on it, I realized it wasn’t the lack of age range in the models or even the lack of varied body types I found so disturbing. It was the lack of Consumer-Response-Lack-Diversity-in-Ads-Sept2019racial diversity. When clothing stores and advertisers across the country are recognizing diversity in size, shape, age, and, of course, race, this store has stepped back in time. It seems entirely out of step with what I hope to see in my neighborhood.

So, I contacted the store with my concern. The owner responded in less than 24 hours. She noted that she was an immigrant and wrote: “I deeply value inclusivity and take pride in our mission and commitment to diversity — it’s the heart and core of our company.” She then referred me to the company’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Both sites had more diversity — nominally. But I stand by my initial reaction. What the owner says she values is not reflected in the primary image projected by the company, the home page of its website.

No, this store’s marketing is not a big deal in the fight for racial equity, but the look and feel of your neighborhood grows one business, one school, one grocery store, one family at a time. We are all responsible for taking steps, large and small, for building the racially just and welcoming community in which we want to live. Just a reminder: when you see something, say something.

P.S. — I don’t believe that public shaming is the most effective first strategy to affect change. For that reason, I chose not to mention the store’s name in this post. I hope that my note will open the eyes of the boutique owner, leading to new thinking and actions. I’ll let you know.