Revisiting the past reveals gentrified history of Va

Even as the gentrification of downtown Newport News reveals itself, the gentrification of the St. Paul’s quadrant of Norfolk has begun.

As the comprehensive plans to create a wider range of retail, more public “tot lots” and community squares come to fruition, many are weary; promises of diversity in the past have gone by the wayside.

Though the plan for the St. Paul’s quadrant does not do much to squelch worry, it boasts of lending its ear to residents and community members, and the visions of improvement to the area are too tempting to overlook given the community’s current condition: crime, destitution and hopelessness.

Still, if a review of Virginia’s past gentrification practices are merit-worthy, the concern is not over the necessary improvement, but the loss of culture, diversity and access of it all to the rest of the Hampton Roads area.

Historic Jackson Ward–Richmond

The mural covered buildings in historic Jackson Ward tell its story through vivid artwork (photo and caption by KG Brown)
The mural covered buildings in historic Jackson Ward tell its story through vivid artwork (photo and caption by KG Brown)

In the weekend, night hours of the 1920s, Second Street in Jackson Ward was, as the youth of today might say, “turnt up.”

Known as “The Harlem of the South,” it was the place to be for blacks then, a place abandoned by others, but culturally cultivated by those from whom the rest ran. Live music could be heard melodically saturating its neighbors as African-American workers let off the steam of the day, readying them for the stress of the week.

At the Hippodrome Theater, a packed house came to hear nightly appearances from the likes of Ella

The Bill Bojangles statue on Jackson Street (photo and caption by Kg Brown)
The Bill Bojangles statue on Jackson Street (photo and caption by Kg Brown)

Fitzgerald or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who was sometimes ostracized for his appearance alongside whites in what many considered “Blackface” roles, while local spots hosted impromptu jam sessions from Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington after they performed at whites only venues, only to be hoisted out of backdoors at the end.

Meanwhile, the Eggleston Hotel housed the non-musical greats who were denied access to hotels elsewhere, despite the fact that they could afford the rates.

By all accounts, Jackson Ward began a haven for its people. See it then, and now. Did its culture remain memorialized on buildings and inside historical keepsakes, or has it been wholly lost?

Given its beginnings, one must wonder: Can the St. Paul’s quadrant survive gentrification and remain a mixed community? Or will it become a gentrified statistic in that it steals from the poor to give to the rich.

The promise of a mixed, diverse community is more than tempting. Still, it begs another question.

What can we do to make that vision a reality?

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