Robert Montgomerie: Is Gentrification Really So Great?

September 12, 2013 10 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

On recently Stephen Dare posed a very important question, "Is it really 'historic preservation' if the only thing you want to preserve are the wealthy old districts for wealthy new residents?" I was glad to see that someone asked that question as I've often wondered that myself over the years and especially after seeing all of the changes the Riverside area has gone through since the mid-nineties.

Back in 1989 I moved here from Fernandina, via Norfolk, Virginia, to stay permanently and at one time considered purchasing a duplex in Springfield on a bond issue. At the time the area was much different than it is now. There were parts of it where the whole backs of houses had been removed, curiously, and many of the old houses were still "brothels" but not in the classical sense. I chose instead to move to the Riverside area as, I guess, many of others may chosen another alternative; fearfulness.

From the time I rented half of a duplex until I settled on a place in Avondale in the late nineties - a six-year period - I watched St. Vincent's purchase one old house after another and tear them down for parking and additions to the hospital. At the time I saw the expansions as unfortunate, but, perhaps necessary. I saw the Five-Points area grow from a district of mostly closed stores, into a relatively charming enclave of small businesses and I watched the old Riverside Hospital fall into a moment of dreary neglect before eventually being reborn into what would become a fairly hectic, and often times exasperating, shopping area. But with each new thing that was being built to replace the old, it seemed that something else was happening that brought on mixed feelings that would end up evolving into outright aggravation.

The neighborhood started going corporate. Around Memorial Park many beautiful old homes were bought and replaced with parking lots. Not parking lots that everyone could use, but private parking lots. Condoplexes were being built here and there with some thought put into the visceral appearance (looking old), but ultimately just places where individuals who were fairly well heeled could live and only have to interact with their surroundings when they were walking their dog or jogging with a headset on. The changes were happening often and a lot.

Once Riverside had restaurants like Hargrave's in Five Points that connected with a wide variety of people from around the area. Now there are rather quaint, but ultimately colorless places to go and have a rather pricey plate of food that okay but is never as good as its presentation. Don't get me wrong I would rather see even a bad restaurant prosper than a closed building that is ultimately doing no one any good, but people live in historic districts because of their charm and affordability. Those two things always seemed to attract the artistic people thus always giving Riverside an eclectic charm one could arguably not find anywhere else in the city.

That all appears to be slowly going away. There are those that argue that it is only being replaced by a "new breed" but anyone who has lived in the area for a period of years can see the difference. Riverside is quickly becoming a district of "haves" and "have nots".  Along the main roads there are still a few charming shops but venture a few blocks beyond those main thoroughfares and one sees houses, apartment buildings that tell a totally different story. One won't see a person in expensive workout gear jogging with an iPod strapped to their upper arm, or walking a noisy, well groomed little dog, one sees the poor in aged, poorly kept converted quadroplexes and brownstones. Seeing it one has to ask themselves, "Why aren't these buildings being improved for these folks?" The poor have to live somewhere. Why does it have to be corralled in behind the facade of somewhat prosperous Park and King Streets?

The obvious answer is money although I would mention that another answer is that our city government does virtually nothing to force property owners to keep up their units to some respectability. Riverside-Avondale Preservation does relatively little lobbying for these parts of Riverside that still have a historic value. They just "live and let live".

This is where I believe the Springfield community can be more effective than RAP. By lobbying to strive for a balance between new enterprises coming in and protecting small business they can accomplish what I believe Riverside has failed in doing. By protecting historic homes and making them 'accessible' to more people, instead of slumlords and developers, Springfield can create "a better Riverside", that isn't exclusive in parts and somewhat dangerous in others. That is perhaps the one good thing about the housing bubble bursting a few years ago that slowed down re-gentrification; it offers the neighborhood an opportunity to establish something unique - a neighborhood with its own charm that isn't "off-limits" to the majority of people.