“There Goes the Neighborhood”
For close to a decade Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has been aggressively expanding its academic campus on Broad Street between Belvidere and Lombardy Streets. The buildings which include the Siegel Center, the Fine Arts Building, VCU’s bookstore, two student dormitories and two parking decks dwarf the century-plus old storefronts they are interspersed with and cast a long shadow over the two century-old African-American Carver community north of Broad Street.
VCU’s encroachment into the neighborhood has been both embraced or scorned depending on whom you speak to. Long-term residents have seen a slow but consistent increase in the number of young, transient students into the neighborhood, which has fought mightily for its existence for the past 75 years. Beginning in the 1930’s with the early stages of white flight, Carver’s working-class black population has persevered through disinvestments, the loss of 400 homes to Interstate 95, slum clearance schemes and beginning in the mid-90’s, VCU’s presence in the community.
With all of the new construction in Carver, the university began playing a larger and larger role in shaping the future of the neighborhood. The VCU – Carver partnership was created in 1996 with its stated goal of “working together for the benefit of our community.” The inclusion of the word “our” seems oddly out of place. How can an entity who has existed in an area for a scant few years elevate itself to the position of co-ownership one of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods? VCU did this because in their grand vision for the future of the area, it would indeed become an extension of the body of the campus to the south of the Carver neighborhood.
VCU undoubtedly has forged some lasting and productive relations with some Carver residents through programs with the elderly and economic development projects. However a few token gestures, don’t override the very threatening reality of the displacement of countless lifelong residents. Facing often contentious challenges from neighborhood residents over the university’s long-term role in Carver, VCU President Eugene Trani promised that VCU wouldn’t expand south of Marshall Street into the neighborhood. The university itself hasn’t, but its satellites have taken root throughout the neighborhood with a presence on every street.
By the late 90’s small pockets of students begin renting out the old brick row houses along Clay, Marshall and Leigh Streets as VCU Police Officers expanded their patrol area to include the entirety of Carver bounded by Belvidere, Broad, Lombardy and the Interstate. In August of ’98 VCU’s ongoing role in the community, along with their general anti-poor practices, was protested in the form of a tent city in Monroe Park, which saw the homeless, students and residents of Oregon Hill and Carver align to draw attention to these issues.
In the nearly six years since that time, the satellites of VCU have grown several times over. Carver’s old, abandoned industrial mill buildings are being gobbled up one by one and converted into loft and apartment buildings. This in and of itself is a good thing. Retrofitting former warehouses into residential is a key component in urban renewal projects in countless cities across the country. What is almost always overlooked or ignored is why are no poor people finding opportunities to live in these revitalized buildings?
In the case of Carver it’s a no brainer. VCU’s enrollment seems to add another thousand students every year. The university has had a real difficult time keeping up with the housing demand. Once private developers put two and two together they realized that there was a potentially lucrative market for student housing. In come the developers with their general agreements with VCU that X number of students will be sent their way and all of sudden every available building in Carver is being turned into an extended, unofficial stretch of dormitories. Mix in the new Starbucks and Kroger complex on the western edge of the neighborhood, and the three-year-old town homes on Marshall on the east and you have the makings of a student village.
In 2003, Pittsburgh development agency, RAMZ LLC got in on the action by buying up the land of a failed fast food joint on the 900 block of Broad Street and clearing it for a proposed five-story, 88 student apartment building with commercial activity on the ground floor. Before the first brick was laid, VCU signed a five-year exclusive lease for the entirety of the 88 units to the tune of $658,000 a year or $3,290,000 for the duration of the lease. On the morning of March 26, 2004 the building was 60% complete, by mid-afternoon it would be no more.
At 12:30 in the afternoon a fire that originated in a dumpster behind the development roared up a connecting trash chute to the roof and engulfed the building minutes later. Thick, black smoke and blazing orange flames danced into the sky as exploding embers shot out and across Broad and within a half hour had twenty buildings along Broad and residencies in Carver being scorched. I arrived in Carver around 1:30 to pandemonium. Cops and firefighters were on every corner as a row of five homes on Clay along with more on Goshen and Marshall were going up in smoke.
Although there were fire trucks and rescue workers in Carver by the time I arrived, the overwhelming majority were scattered along the two blocks of Broad Street where the private, unoccupied development stood a few hours earlier. This was a truly disturbing image. Residents stood by hopelessly with fire hoses in tears as the future dormitory was being fought as if it were a sacred shrine.
The coverage in the Richmond Times Dispatch the next day was troubling at best. Business owners in the VCU commercial strip along Grace Street, one block south of the blaze were self-absorbed and downright disgusting. David Lambert, owner of the Hyperlink Café, a new coffee shop and internet café who was hawking water because he couldn’t do any business with the electricity out was quoted as saying; “By the grace of God, the winds were blowing north.” In other words who gives a shit about a neighborhood burning down, I’ve got myself to worry about. The owner of Vito’s Pizzeria who complained of the revenue he had lost echoed similar sentiments.
Story after story detailed how VCU students ran around with their camcorders and filmed the happenings. How VCU students were horrified that their future home was burning down right in front of them. How VCU students were going on with their classes and regular activities and planned parties on the “highly unusual school day.” Even the article that focused on the tragedy in Carver had large segments documenting the students living on Clay Street, one of whom lost his guitar and computer. Rob Evans, the owner of a one of the surest signs of gentrification in Carver, the student dominated Sheep Hill Café actually said of the fire: “Maybe it’ll help the Carver area that they’ll have to tear down some of these [dilapidated] houses and build new ones.” Fortunately the following day’s paper saw one of the few saving graces of the Times Dispatch, columnist Michael Paul Williams dig a little deeper.
“There was too much emphasis on trying to save VCU’s property and not enough emphasis placed on Carver proper… A lot of the destruction could have been prevented,” said Carolyn Patron, a 60 year-old resident. She wasn’t pleased with the 911-response time, which she said took “35 to 40 minutes” for her call to be answered. Meanwhile 34-year resident Henry “Hank” Timmons was dragging his water hose across yards in a futile attempt at saving his neighbors’ homes. Emmit Thomas also ran from house to house with his hose while waiting on the fire trucks.
Cassandra Calender-Ray, speaking on VCU’s rate of expansion and its toll on the community, “I have been concerned about the amount of construction going on in a very dense neighborhood.” Indeed it is concerning, especially when the density is of the highly transitional student population. Now, that all of the totals have been added up, nine families have been displaced from homes that they may never set foot in again. Hortense Smith, a community figurehead who ran a corner store on her block of Marshall Street for twenty years lost everything in last Friday’s fire. Having lost her husband, and now her house, the 42-year resident said she wouldn’t be returning to Carver now that her residency is in ashes.
It may be for the best anyhow. Although the homes of the residents that are too far gone will likely be replaced, the likelihood that they’ll be touchable by anyone who has ever lived in the neighborhood before are doubtful. The building, which ignited the torching of Carver, is already being speculated to be rebuilt. It wasn’t the first and sadly we know it won’t be the last. VCU has been burning the neighborhood metaphorically speaking for years, who would’ve ever guessed they’d literally try and blow it up?
Notes: A new anarchist bookstore called Paper Street, will be opening here in Richmond on May Day 2004. Paper Street will be located at 2506 W. Cary Street near the Carytown and Fan neighborhoods in Richmond. For more information go to: www.pscollective.org.
For questions, comments, critiques, etc. write me at POB 5021 R'VA. 23220 For more writings visit richmondindymedia.org Thanks, Greg