This past summer, I taught a course in the Sociology of Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). In this class we discussed issues of urban space, development and consumption from the perspective of cultural sociology. After reading Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and Sharon Zukin’s chapter on North Adams in the Cultures of Cities, I asked my class to consider urban change and consumption in local neighborhoods of Richmond, Virginia.
A number of students felt local to Richmond, having lived in the city and attended VCUs urban-style campus. Many told me they learned more about Richmond and its neighborhoods in the process of their research. They were assigned to choose a neighborhood and design it as a center of arts and culture. They needed to consider existing resources and existing residents in their plans and they also needed to consider where additional resources and sustainable change would come from. Each group ended up choosing a different neighborhood. Below I’ve tried to capture their thoughts and our discussion.
This neighborhood, just across the James River, has begun developing old warehouses into art studios, galleries, condos and office space. One of the presenters has just moved into the neighborhood because rents are affordable for students. He notices there is a lot of space in which this neighborhood could grow. He shows us a satellite view from google maps – there are more empty lots than lots with buildings and viewing it from the ground, one can see that many of the buildings are boarded up and abandoned. The group tells us that there are a number of amenities needed in this area before it can grow and redevelop. For instance, there is no supermarket nearby and there are few places to eat other than fast food chains. They have just read Richard Lloyd’s Neo-Bohemia, Art and Commerce in the Post Industrial City and are taken with the idea of designing a neighborhood like Chicago’s Wicker Park. They envision a neighborhood of galleries and design studios populated by students and young professionals. They note that it is difficult to design such a project from the top down and that doing so often hurts existing residents. However, they stand behind the choice of Manchester, because there are few existing residents relative to other neighborhoods they might have chosen.
In our ensuing discussion, we considered the neighborhood’s history and the communities nearby. The area is quite empty and it is just down Hull St. from an economically depressed area. This area is empty not only because it is full of out-of-use warehouses, but also because it was the site of some of the most run down and dangerous public housing projects in the city. When the projects were demolished in the 1990s, the way was paved for redevelopment around the arts and the creative economy. Further down Hull St., boarded up buildings line the streets. Apart from a BP gas station and a RiteAid, the only businesses that survive here are churches, whose placards announce that God is the only hope and Jesus the savior from the miseries of this earth. When I ask students about this area, they do not have the sense of it being dangerous or off limits because they are not aware of its existence.
This neighborhood is one that until recently, was seen as dangerous and off limits for college students. Now, this group tells us, adventurous college students are moving in to show that they do not fear the people who live there (known to be black and presumed to be impoverished) and that such fears are based on prejudice. They envision a community that is held together through participation in collective events and even in a collective economy. They see student-heavy punk and biker subcultures as setting the stage for communal efforts to use the creative, artistic and manual skills of residents to create a neighborhood economy.
In researching the history of the neighborhood, this groups discovers that Jackson Ward is rich in Black History, as 95% of the city’s African American population lived there during American Apartheid. It was the site of Black Wall Street and was referred to as the Harlem of the South for its rich cultural life. Upon discovering that there were important theaters and music halls in the neighborhood, the student wanted to revive them. They imagined a new cultural component to their plan, which they believed would speak to the history and present situation of the neighborhood. They envisioned, building upon the efforts of Gallery 5, performance spaces that would host genre-crossing events that would engender racial crossing and community. Community and racial harmony can be achieved through participating in cultural consumption together.
We discussed whether North Jackson Ward, separated from Jackson Ward by highway construction and urban renewal in the 1960s, could be a part of this new plan. It is spatially and socially segregated, isolating people in severe poverty and need from the rest of the city. One student had heard that soon these projects were going to be torn down as part of a mixed-income housing trend that attempts to break up the concentrations of poverty and wealth in the city, but in turn also breaks up communities who may only have each other.
This group looked to a neighborhood that is already teeming with nightlife. This is the club district, which is just next door to Shockoe Slip, a cobble-stone drive of upscale restaurants and boutiques. The students choose this area because they feel sure that they will not create gentrification or displacement here. Instead, they argue what this neighborhood needs is less nightlife and more day life. it needs to be altered from a single-use consumption space to a multi-use living, working and leisure space. There are two infrastructure issues that need to be addressed. First is parking, because there is none, a concern business owners have had for a long time. The other is flooding. The Bottom is named for its position vis a vis the powerful James River and businesses and residents are still recovering from a 2004 flood caused by Hurricane Gaston. The city is the entity that they would look to for addressing these problems and for rezoning of the space.