A Virginia City's Playbook for Urban Renewal: Move Out the Poor
September 24, 2020 4:32 AM   Subscribe

How Norfolk, Virginia Is Using Tax Breaks to Demolish Black Neighborhoods - "Paul Riddick, the only member of Norfolk's eight-member city council to repeatedly vote against aspects of the redevelopment effort, has a different take. 'Because of institutional and systemic racism, the African-American community is going to be pushed out again', he says. 'This is nothing but gentrification'. Riddick, whose ward includes St. Paul's, figures that if the plan goes through, the share of Norfolk's population that is Black will dwindle from more than 40% now into the mid-30% over the next 10 years."
How Norfolk assumed its present form is a tidy CliffsNotes review of the history of federal economic development programs stretching to the end of World War II, when nearly 700,000 people streamed off returning ships at nearby docks. For White soldiers, there was the GI Bill, with its low-cost mortgages and loans and free college tuition. But the programs, administered by local officials, discriminated against Black soldiers. Redlining forced many to settle in neighborhoods in downtown Norfolk, where the housing stock and infrastructure were poor.
posted by kliuless (12 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This is nothing new for Norfolk; indeed it’s the same old playbook. In the 70s, the city decided to ‘redevelop’ the East Ghent area (just N of the MacArthur Museum and the Hague) in order to build the new Eastern Virginia Medical School. East Ghent was a near downtown mostly black neighborhood which extended west to the area around Leigh Memorial and Norfolk General hospitals, and extended North along Hampton Ave. up toward the Old Dominion Univ. area. Despite the promises, the residents of the housing that was razed were displaced - some to the Tidewater Gardens area referenced in the article linked by @kluless, but many more out of Norfolk to areas in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth. The new medical school was built, Leigh Memorial was razed (another story here), and the East Ghent area now is chiefly white-occupied homes.
posted by sudogeek at 7:23 AM on September 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

Wow, never thought my hometown would make the blue. Not surprised this is what did it. The article left out something that I think is pivotal to how Norfolk operates: the Navy. We're home to the largest naval base in the world. That means we have a very large transient population. And Norfolk is poor. 10% of our households bring in $10,000 a year or less. What that means is that most of the people with money in the city aren't invested in the long-term plans here. They'll be deployed or relocated in 4, 2, 7 years. Despite electing a relatively liberal, black mayor in the last election, none of this has changed.

Norfolk itself is a really diverse area, the population of white and black is within I think 2% of each other, and we have large communities of south American immigrants and Korean immigrants. Norfolk State university is an amazing HBCU. Despite that, this area has a long history of mask-off racism. Its even worse in the richer cities, Virginia Beach or Chesapeake.

The area they're talking about, near St Paul's boulevard, is a critical point for protest right now. Our city's protests against the murder of George Floyd started there, we blocked traffic and flooded the streets, took the protest through the rich downtown neighborhood, and occupied the space outside the city hall/jail/police station.

The article briefly mentions military circle (my favorite movie theater in the city), which is a tragedy in it's own right. The city basically abandoned it. Stores closed, they struggled to hire security, and it became a place that was frequently marked by violent crime. Of course it was a prime place for black shoppers.

It's not just homes that are being torn down, either. Within the development is the Young Terrace community center, one of the locations for the Hampton Roads Community Health Center (which I go to), and an elementary school. There haven't been plans made for where those resources will be relocated, or if they even will be at all.

Anyway, AMA if you're so inclined. I both love and hate Norfolk. The people have so much to offer, but the city is just let down after let down.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:52 AM on September 24, 2020 [14 favorites]

I recently saw -- and cannot find -- an article by a cop who was told he had to actively police a low--income housing building because they wanted to tear it down to make expensive condos (or something similar) and could only get the tenants out if they had felony convictions. He refused and had to leave the state. This seems to be the same kind of story.

Alyssa Cole just published a thriller (which was great until the end, which I thought got a bit muddled) that is on a similar theme.
posted by jeather at 8:01 AM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I got you, jeather!

The Cop Who Quit Instead of Helping to Gentrify Atlanta
It became this very aggressive policing strategy in the Bedford Pines. Which was strange. Because it was extremely rare for them to tell you to do anything. It’s unusual for them to give you very specific directions, and then for them to be very serious about it and follow up—I’d have supervisors show up and say, “Hey I drove by, there were some cars parked out there, did you ticket them?”

It made me very curious. So on my own time—I live in Atlanta, I live in the zone I policed, which is super rare—I drove over there and had a conversation with some people. I was like: “Hey, this is what I’m being asked to do. Why do you think that is? What’s going on?”

A homeowner in the area was very frank with me. He said the guys who own Bedford Pines got their tax bill last year, and their taxes were assessed based on all the gentrification that’s happening in the area. And so they wanted to move everybody out of these apartments and knock ’em down and rebuild these nice expensive apartments and the government said no. And so then they said, “Well, that’s ok, we’ll just increase the rent.” They tried to increase the rent and the Section 8 guys came back out and said, “No, you can’t do that either.”

The only way you can evict or do anything like that is if the person who owns the apartment is convicted of a felony. So the Bedford Pines guys just went to the police department and said: “We want you to police in here, and we’re going to give you a section of Bedford Pines to actually have office space. And I want you to lock up as many people as possible so we can make these apartments vacant and we can knock ’em down.”

I go to my supervisors: Is this what the case is? And they looked at me like, what are you, stupid? Of course, why else would we be doing this?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:08 AM on September 24, 2020 [15 favorites]

Thanks! This all ties in together: there are no good cops because the good ones quit or are forced out and get major retaliation.
posted by jeather at 8:30 AM on September 24, 2020 [7 favorites]

I wish I could find an article from ~10 years ago I read about families being evicted from gentrifying neighborhoods around Hollywood. Los Angeles has ok tenant protections, pre-1978 buildings (lots of those in an older neighborhood like Hollywood) especially, so landlords need a qualifying reason to evict. A number of units house multigeneraltional families together, so one easy way to evict the whole family if anyone living in the unit is in the gang member database. Oh hey, guess the accuracy of the information in the gang database? There was even a quota of sorts--cops were expected to always be adding more individuals to the database.

Is there any example of redeveloping housing that doesn't result in massive displacement? Giving people without a lot of options housing vouchers basically dismantles the community, scattering people geographically.

The documentary East Lake Meadows is about a public housing community in Atlanta that was first poorly built and then years later redeveloped.

There is a pattern of first neglect, then displacement (including via policing) that happens repeatedly in low income communities of color. It feels very 1950s (racist) planner brain that these things continue to happen.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:22 AM on September 24, 2020

^That database: CalGang. This past July: After finding Los Angeles police officers submitted false reports to a statewide gang database, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Tuesday revoked police agencies’ access to records generated by the LAPD and has asked state lawmakers to reform the program. CalGang is estimated to contain profiles of at least 80,000 California residents — the majority of them people of color — suspected of having gang affiliations.
In August: 5 Los Angeles residents who say they were falsely labeled gangs members sue LAPD
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:44 AM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

I went to college in Norfolk and made my home there for several years afterward, so that's 1991-1998. That earlier wave of "redevelopment" that this article references was happening just as I had truly settled in to know the city as a resident. My strong impression was that no-one really cared what the black residents of the city thought, or considered the black community to be stakeholders in the future of downtown. It was just mind-numbing. The vibe was intensely paternalistic.

FirstMateKate, I remember that we college students were warned to stay away from Military Circle when Malcolm X came out! For the record, I opposed MacArthur Center as bullshit, but supported the TCC Norfolk Campus on Granby. I'm still so angry about Church Street, which I always saw as an opportunity to strengthen the connection of all that amazing black history to the core identity of downtown Norfolk.
posted by desuetude at 10:23 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Bloomberg article has enough dreadful stuff in it, but it barely mentions another disaster that interlocks with the social ones: Norfolk is flooding faster than most of the US. It’s bad enough that they’re already talking about not being able to protect some UMC neighborhoods, which is really rare.
posted by clew at 10:53 AM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh, don't get me started about the flooding. They're genuinely in talks right now to build a casino (!!!) on the Elizabeth river near the stadium. Its infuriating. The gentrification of church street is under way. Not near park place yet, but further up near Attuck's theater (another wonderful black historical and cultural marker). This area, from little creek to down town, is full of black history. St john's AME church has been here is the mid 1800s. We were part of the underground railroad.
But Norfolk doesn't highlight any of that. We could be a great city, if we only embraced what really matters here. We have all the makings of being a historic, industrial, working class, black city. The shipyard, the ports, the trains. But! none of that is shiny white money. We're going to sink into the ocean, half of what we could have been.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:11 AM on September 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

And just piling on one more related matter... I was a reporter at the region's newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, from 2000 to 2005. This is the sort of story we would have absolutely hammered in those days. We had five-to-seven reporter teams in each of the region's cities, plus the i-team (my group) and more... but the paper is now a shell of what it was. Tribune Publishing bought it in 2018 and accelerated the cuts that began a decade earlier.

And then Tribune managed to somehow make it even worse-- the paper isn't even in Norfolk anymore. Tribune shut down and sold the classic old building on Brambleton Avenue (now being developed into luxury condos, of course) and moved the operation to the (equally gutted) former rival paper in Newport News. It's maybe 15 miles as the crow flies, but across the James River may as well be another planet, as far as local sensibilities go.

There are still some good people there trying to fight the good fight. But for the most part, the politicians and developers can get away with this garbage until it's too late to stop them, because there just aren't enough watchdogs anymore.
posted by martin q blank at 4:51 PM on September 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

> And then Tribune managed to somehow make it even worse-- the paper isn't even in Norfolk anymore. Tribune shut down and sold the classic old building on Brambleton Avenue (now being developed into luxury condos, of course) and moved the operation to the (equally gutted) former rival paper in Newport News.

Oh noooo! I have such fond memories of the Pilot; I was a typist for the real estate section for a couple of years in the late 90s. (All of those real estate listings in the tiny type, grouped by certain characteristics, with standardized abbreviations, yep yep yep.) I was a temp, they couldn't hire me directly but the department gave me as much work as I wanted and were really good to me.
posted by desuetude at 8:01 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

« Older Remembering Cat Bordhi   |   Everybody's Coming to Your House Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments