Overlooking the Hampton Roads harbor, set against a backdrop of sandy shored beach, complemented by the serene sounds of tidal waters and Bay seagulls, of children’s laughter and fishermen fishing from “The Green Mile” pier, historic King-Lincoln Park, as it is known today, is still the hub of childhood memories for local residents.
It is childhood memories—Ferguson Mariner and Warwick Raider memories to be exact—that bring Margaret Jones, Brenda Fauntleroy, James “Poo” Johnson, and Monica Hines to Pinkett’s beach on a breezy, fall day for an impromptu get-together.
“You have to come for Mother’s Day,” Jones said. “People come non-stop. You don’t even have to know anyone. You come, and nine times out of ten, you’ll see somebody you went to school with. It’s just about that love for Downtown.”
They come here often, along with others, to bask in the glow of nostalgia, taking playful jabs over whose school was the best—“At least my school’s still there”—and at still existent Mariner pride; they reminisce about mischievous beach adventures, midnight hot dog roasts and the House of Prayer Sunday parades that gave way to waterfront baptisms.
“Downtown was a great place to grow up,” Jones said.
“I grew up down here right on 24th Street,” she said. “So did my mother. She’s from this area. The media makes like it’s the worst place in the world, but it’s not. There’s crime here, but not all of us are like that. Most of us are just working people.”
Pinkett’s waterfront home is long gone, though his contributions to downtown are memorialized in plaques throughout King-Lincoln Park, which was dedicated to his memory in 2005.
They are bittersweet: reminders of times passed, and of time passing.
The nostalgia of his memory segues beautifully to the topic at hand: Downtown’s rapidly changing atmosphere.
Not that change is a negative thing.
All agree it is necessary, especially in the area’s recent years, which have seen steady crime rates, employment and graduation declines, and an unnerving stigma, according to Jones, that the whole area is a cesspool.
But these changes—including Brooks Crossing, a 48.2 million dollar retail complex —have come with the tearing down of low-income housing and long-standing community buildings, like the Farmers Market.
In its place came the building up of new condominiums that invite in a more diverse population and income bracket. Though the word has not been spoken, the changes seem to have also come equipped with reminiscent symptoms of the age-old practice: gentrification.
Residents are taking notice.
Downtown Newport News slowly being gentrified. They're starting from the outside and working their way to the heart of the area.
— Sassy Since '83 (@theprissytomboy) December 3, 2015
As the area embarks upon its biggest transformation since the construction of Shipyard Housing Projects that brought much of the African-American community to the area, Jones, Fauntleroy, Johnson, Hines, and Evans each stand in their own corner of opinion, hoping that Pinkett’s Beach does not drown in the tidal wave of revitalization and become only history to future generations.
“One by one, many of the working-class quarters have been invaded by the middle-class, upper and lower … Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”–Ruth Glass, 1964
Merriam Webster defines gentrification as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”
That it happens is neither a secret, nor denied; its roots trace back as early as the root of it name: gentry, a term that describe the wealthy class of businessmen and financiers that sat at the top of Europe’s social class. The argument for or against it lies in its ripple effect onto the people already there.
Is the economic vitality of a community more important than those who cannot sustain the rapid increase in price, but whose culture rests in the area, along with any community voice?
How the process works
To qualify for the process, an area’s median household income and home value must have been in the bottom 40th percentile at the beginning of the decade in which the gentrification occurs.
A 2015 Governing Data report revealed that 20 percent of low income neighborhoods have been gentrified since 2000, more than twice the amount seen during the 90s.
The result is an undeniable decline of the area’s poverty rate, and a simultaneous increase of non-Hispanic, white residents.
Joe Dillard explained the process of gentrification step-by-step:
Ultimately, it is an argument over morality versus practicality. For the less fortunate, it is a matter of pride and the preservation of culture. For the fortunate, it is a matter of money and sound, low cost, high-yield investment.
Joe Dillard, Jr., Norfolk NAACP president, believes that the best alternative to gentrification lies in mixed-income communities. He points at the Broad Creek Development, as an example of success.
“Some of those homes go for 400,000, and some of them are fully subsidized,” he said.
Dillard served on the Mayor’s Council for Poverty in which he discussed this, along with other options, to solving the problem of poverty ion various Norfolk neighborhoods.
“Success to me is: you take a family that has been on fully subsidized housing you put them in a mixed income area, you give them job, enrich their education, now 3 or 4 years later, they don’t need any assistance whatsoever,” he said. “They don’t need the assistance of the government. They can pay for their own rent.”
Twenty-nine-year Newport News resident Patricia Jackson agrees. She is the last of her original neighbors in her downtown cul-de-sac who hasn’t died or been bought out by the city.
“I don’t believe you should just take people who can’t take care of themselves, who don’t have, or don’t know they have resources, who are fending for themselves the best way they know how, or who aren’t necessarily doing that either, and just put them out and say, “Hey, you need to find somewhere else to go now,” Jackson said. “People need resources.”
Gentrification in Newport News?
It is too early to tell whether or not downtown Newport News is changing to revitalize, or if gentrification will make a lost file our of Pinkett’s Beach. Following the process described by Dillard gives clues.
Step one: Public meetings and public housing demolition
Jackson remembers about ten years back when she attended a meeting held to discuss changing the area.
“They wanted to open up down by Christopher Shores to make public access for everyone to be able to get to the waterfront,” she said.
Jones remembers an easement proposal meeting that proposed taking property from Terminal Ave., to 25th Street for revitalization.
“If they get their hands on that, it’s over,” she said.
Step two: Subsidized housing closure
So far, Downtown has demolished two public housing complexes, Dickerson Court and Harbor Homes, reducing its public housing by 35 percent. But others seem certain to follow. Newsome Park currently has 450 of its 600 units vacant.
Step three: Enter the developers
They have come first to the heart of downtown, in the midst of some of Newport News’ most significant historical war scenery.
In 2013, The Apprentice School, originally started in 1919 by the Newport News Shipbuilding, opened new, steel framed doors. Almost three times as bigger, it features teleconferencing, a 600-seat gymnasium, a variety of new programs and campus housing.
The new building was part of the Newport News Superblock movement of new constructions to the area, including a more than 100 unit retail complex with a parking garage; new Navy housing by HomePort; and two new apartment complexes, Noland Green and Liberty Apartments, which offer rent prices from $937 for a one bedroom, and a little over $1600 for three.
The new year will see more.
The Ironclad Distillery, named for the historically monumental, 1862 Battle of the Ironclads, which immortalized the evolution of naval battle ship engineering during the civil war, will open its doors for patrons to see the production of bourbon at its location in the more than century-old, 30,000 ft., red, brick building that is currently Paul Davis Restoration of Virginia Peninsula.
See the changes in Downtown Newport News:
Mixed Income a possibility
While gentrification displaces poor residents to revitalize neighborhoods, there is evidence that Newport News is trying to avoid that fate. Part of the housing built during this period of change have been the homes on Madison Avenue.
HOMEbuilder, a NRHA initiative which received a Governor’s Housing Achievement award in 1997, offered more than 100 low-income families who showed diligence in paying timely subsidized rent he opportunity to own homes, though the program was mildly criticized for turning away many who were just above the income line.
Every apartment complex built so far also does not cater to only the affluent. Although Liberty Apartments offer high rent, Noland Green begins at $535, with a three bedroom at only $735 per month.
Pinky’s park is but a smidgeon of the history on this end of Newport News. But its significance is limitless.
Pinkett, a Hampton Institute graduate, bought the property for entrepreneurship and ended up remaining, his Tailoring Shop a steadfast in the neighborhood.
He opened up his property to the surrounding community and promoted family and neighborhood celebrations there, eventually building a boarding house, beach and boat house, restaurant, Barber Shop, Entertainment Stage for residents of the area who had few options during the segregation era. After, it became the first interracial beach in the area.
In essence, he gave the African-American community in Newport News its first sense of home, of acceptance and goodwill.
A local legend
James “Poo” Johnson wouldn’t have known Pinkett personally; he was born a year after Pinkett died. But he has always lived in downtown Newport News.
“This area has history here that is priceless,” said Johnson. “I’ve lived in just about every project out here. My father worked for the shipyard.”
Johnson spent his childhood years at the Boys Club, where children came, and still do today, after school to wait for parents, or do homework or simply take advantage of recreation.
He continued to volunteer there even after graduating from the area, going to into the military, and working for the shipyard himself. He was recruited by the manager at the time to be an executive over physical recreations and connect to the community.
“He told me, ‘Poo, you got to go to the playgrounds, the schools, wherever the children are, that’s where I want you to go to reach out to the people.”
Reach out, he did. During his more than 50 year stint at the Boys—and now Girls—Club, he reached out to schools, courts and even banks for the families of the children he mentored, making him a pillar in the downtown communities. In that time, he helped form the futures of many, including Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, who opted to have his signing conference at the Club and Aaron Brooks, who came back to downtown recently to invest in its revitalization.
He still comes back, the staff at the Club keeping his office intact for him.
“This generation–I’ve seen them all, and they were always good kids, just needing someone to lean on sometimes, to listen and understand–but this generation, they’re going to change some things,” said Johnson. “Something has to change.”
Recent decades have seen an extreme demise. Gang activity is rampant, graduation rates are low and crime and poverty are higher there than anywhere else in the city. The projects that once held workers are now dilapidated culverts for negativity.
The demise of downtown
“I’ve been to more funerals in the last 15 years,” said Johnson, “than I had ever been to in the first 35 years of being here.”
The projects in downtown were originally built during WWII to house workers for the, then thriving, shipyard.
“They built the ones for the black workers downtown,” he said. “The ones for the white workers were uptown, called Copeland Park.”
His father, like many shipyard workers, stayed in the projects built for them only a short time, opting instead to buy homes of their own.
“When those projects went vacant,” Johnson said. “That’s when they started others and bringing in the low-income housing,” said Johnson. “You bring in drugs, and you put all the city money into the uptown area, where the whites are, and it just went downhill around here. People just stayed in the housing longer than they should have, they got frustrated at the lack of resources, how they was treated at times, and that’s how we got where we are today.”
Brenda Fauntleroy doesn’t quite know where it all came from. She left the area after graduation. She knows it isn’t the same.
“I used to be able to leave my door unlocked,” she said. “Now I’m scared to go to my daddy’s house. They shooting on some of these back streets, you feel like you’re going to be robbed. It’s bad.”
Patricia Jackson is more specific.
“It’s non-parenting,” she said. “A lot of them have very young parents concerned with themselves and the children are pretty much raising themselves
“We dropped the ball,” she added. “We tried to make things easier for our kids so they wouldn’t have to go through what we went through, and we ended up making them irresponsible and entitled.”
She believes school failure a major culprit as well.
“I also think a lot of students who are in larger classes, who cannot learn at the same pace as the rest, they get lost, and they are failing, so they resort to other things they think they are successful with.”
“They set us up for failure,” said Jones, who agrees that schooling is part of the problem, but blames integration.
“I remember being in the third grade when the busing started,” she vividly remembered. “I got there and got off the bus and the people outside screamed, “Niggers, go home.”
Gradually, according to Jones, downtown students became angry and frustrated with school, with feeling unwelcomed and being away from most of their peers and friends, who may have been bused to other schools.
“When the busing started, you had kids who had to get up an hour earlier to ride the bus an hour to school. Kids were tired, in new schools, hostile, they were at a disadvantage.”
In a more than 80 year study, the city of Seattle found similar symptoms in its students as a result of displacement due to gentrification. Having led to busing, the study showed “furthering displacement pressures on the less affluent, uncompetitive black community.”
“When I was little, we dressed for school, shirts, ties, dresses, shoes. We had pride in our education back then,” she said. “Now the kids dress with they’re pants hanging down their butts, in jeans, pajama pants. We never dressed like that—but that’s what the white kids were wearing when we started in school with them. So we followed. Now we don’t have pride in in how we look, in education.”
As a red-orange sun takes its daily descent, dusk fades into translucent darkness, leaving only the outlines of people, now shuffling to get packed up. The park closes at dark.
The party is over; nostalgia is setting in. Looking around at the refurbished entertainment stage, head shaking slightly, Jones remembers the old and refuses to even sit in front of it. “This is nothing,” she said, almost to
herself. “Everything is gone now.”
Hines points to the Aqua Vista apartment complex on the park’s waterfront. “When my friend came down and saw those, she said, ‘Ya’ll got the projects on waterfront property?’ They’re going to get them next.”
“I don’t care what they offer,” she said. “This is my home. I was born here, my mama is still here. I’m not going nowhere.”
Jackson agrees. “No, I don’t think they could offer me enough.”
“First of all, it’s a family home now. My aunt owned it before I did,” said Jackson. “I want to keep it in my family, maybe pass it to my grandkids when they get older.”
Evans, who cooked the bulk of the food at the event and has been as busy as he always is at these get-togethers, has a different view.
“Change is inevitable,” he said. “When you take pride in something, you take care of it, you cherish it. If some people didn’t do that, then they got to go.”
Johnson hopes for the best.
“I don’t want to just brush aside the people here,” he said. “Maybe they’ll be able to get together and buy some of what they got going up.”
None of them knows for sure.
What they do know is that they will get together again before Christmas, maybe again for a new year celebration. They will do it there, in King-Lincoln Park, at Pinkett’s beach.
And no matter what changes occur, how many condos, or new age stores go up, they will always come there, where, no matter what anyone says it is, the shores remain Pinkett’s beach.
See the view from Pinkett’s beach: