This post is part of a series on the NOB/Navy Hill downtown development plan.
Today I want to talk about two words: “Navy Hill.”
The development group behind the new Coliseum and downtown development plan is officially called “NH District Corp.” and refer to the development as the “Navy Hill” project. I’ve followed them in using this label to describe the project, but only reluctantly. Navy Hill a problematic term, and reflects some of the deeper issues that underlie the project – and that plague our city in general.
First, some history: as the developers themselves note, Navy Hill was the name of the downtown neighborhood where the Coliseum now sits. Apparently it was named after a planned war memorial that was never built. Originally settled by German immigrants, the area became a thriving African-American community by the early 20th century. It hosted the city’s first school for black children that also employed black teachers; Richmond great Maggie Walker herself apparently graduated from the Navy Hill School. (You can read more here, here, and here.)
So what happened to Navy Hill? The same thing that happened to many thriving black neighborhoods in the postwar years: it was bulldozed to make way for the highways that now cut through the area.
This is not a story unique to Richmond, but instead is part of the long, sordid history of race-infused restructuring that happened in cities across the country. Under the guise of “urban renewal,” local governments used somewhat well-intentioned federal programs to reshape the postwar city. The idea was to clear slums and connect downtown urban cores to the burgeoning international highway system. What mostly resulted was white flight, the diversion of resources into explosive suburban growth, and the wholescale destruction of a growing black middle class. These policies led to decades of structural inequality.
This urban renewal story is well-known to scholars of urban politics. (I recommend reading John Mollenkopf’s 1983 book, The Contested City, if you’re into that sort of thing.) But it’s less well known to the general public, even in cities like Richmond that participated in this kind of destruction. I feel like this widespread ignorance might make it easier for the developers to claim, as they do on their website, that their project will “bring back Navy Hill.” Maybe, but in what shape? And for whom?
We’ve already seen some disturbing signposts on the way to the new Coliseum. For example, thanks only to Mark Robinson’s excellent reporting in the Richmond-Times Dispatch, we’ve learned that the Navy Hill plan requires relocating the city’s social services office. More accurately, the city plans to essentially banish the office far outside the downtown area, to a part of Richmond barely accessible through public transport.
The Mayor’s response tried to downplay the effects of this relocation. We’ll have an office in City Hall! (Will that actually replace services? At what cost? What capacity?) We'll increase the city’s subsidy to GRTC to help provide bus service to the new office! (How much does this cost? How much service?) These sound like the desperate excuses of someone who finds a site essential to serving the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents – many of whom are people of color – much too inconvenient when standing in the way of (wealthy, white) developers’ dreams.
A similar inconvenience might be the neighborhoods that border on the downtown development area. The developers often describe the area around the Coliseum as a “wasteland” with little activity and few residents. But what will happen to Jackson Ward and other nearby neighborhoods if the downtown takes off as planned? Will low-income minorities who live there find themselves priced out as young white professionals flock to the new apartments? (This process has already started.)
This brings up the “g” word. And I get that gentrification is a thorny problem that’s much bigger than this arena, with good intentions often forcing difficult decisions. Everyone wants their neighborhood to have thriving businesses and well-kept homes; city leaders understandably want higher value properties that deliver more tax revenue, so they can provide services and better schools for everyone. But it is difficult to balance these demands with others that are just as important, such as the need for truly affordable housing, accessible city services, and equitable treatment in general.
(And of course, even if you allowed that downtown gentrification is the price we need to pay for having enough money for schools and services, you would need the numbers in this project to add up. They don’t.)
At this point, I should remind all (but shouldn’t have to) that dark skin does not equal poverty. In a still-segregated Southern city like RVA, middle-class black communities and black wealth are often invisible to whites, overwhelmed in public discussion by images of black poverty. Whites, myself included, often talk about blacks, minorities, or POCs like they make up a single institution, with letterhead and an office. (“We need to talk about race - get me the President of Black Richmond!”) So I don’t want to make it seem like that the conversation about race and inequality, and particularly about what the city owes to its black residents, is only about social services and poverty.
Still, poverty and race are intertwined in Richmond. If the developers really want to “bring back Navy Hill,” then they need to do a better job of honoring that name. In a city with Richmond’s history, and particularly in the light of what happened to Navy Hill, it is essential that RVA does a better job of incorporating community leaders, including and especially racial minority leaders, into major decisions like the downtown development. Gathering public input, and not just through developer-sponsored meetings after a plan is already drafted, is one way to do that. A Community Benefits Agreement is another. (Although not the Mayor’s responsibility, a diverse City Council Commission is yet another.)
There seems to be very little real understanding of this history in the developers’ plans, in the way the city has embraced them, and in the use of Navy Hill as a shield for this project. RVA cannot “bring back” Navy Hill by doubling down on the mistakes of the past.
Next: what to expect if the deal is approved. (One word: Redskins.)