How I Watched My College Destroy My Hometown
Income inequality was already a problem in Newport News, Va. The growth of my university brought that problem to its height.
Jun 15, 2018
Courtesy of Pilsen
Ten days ago, I packed my bags, ditched my hometown, and signed a lease in my dream city of Richmond, Va. I love Richmond and its local culture. I love the street art, the billions of coffee shops and slam poetry nights; I love the breweries, the hipster guys driving my Uber, and the dirt-cheap rent for my awesome historic home.
However, in Richmond, as I watch what we call “graffiti” get painted over with what we call “street art,” and as I hear stories of historically black clubs getting bought out by VCU and replaced with craft breweries, and as I hear stories of black families getting evicted and replaced by artsy college kids who rent by the room, it gradually dawns on me that I recognize this story. You smell the reek of an ominous, uncomfortable specter that makes middle-class white people hail a place as “trendy” by forcing the city’s longtime residents out. It’s an uncomfortable fact that I benefit from, but its reality is a considerable reason for pause. I think they have a word for it. The word is gentrification. And while I haven’t lived in Richmond long enough to judge it, the story of gentrification is a story I know. This is the story of my hometown.
One thing that attracted me to Richmond was the diversity of its people. One thing I disliked about my hometown of Newport News, Virginia, was the homogeneity of the “bubble” where I lived, versus the staggering inequality you could find a few miles down the street. Income inequality was always a problem in my city, but I watched the economic and racial stratification skyrocket under the work of one man: His name is Paul Trible, and he’s the president of Christopher Newport University, a college I attended. A college that I watched destroy my hometown.
I’m from Newport News, Virginia. In Newport News, there’s a street called “Avenue of the Arts.” But it’s not actually called Avenue of the Arts. Its real name is J. Clyde Morris Boulevard. The intersection where J. Clyde becomes “Avenue of the Arts” is peppered with a Starbucks, a Harris Teeter where you can buy IPAs for $9 a bottle, and, of course, the eternal columns of Paul Trible that populate the expansive, picture-perfect Christopher Newport University.
If you keep driving down “Avenue of the Arts,” you’ll end up past Christopher Newport University and in a wealthy on-the-water back neighborhood called Riverside. Riverside is home to mansions owned by local business owners, transplants, and apparently a large population of people who are never home. It’s also home to a fair amount of regular suburban families, who live right across the street from these mansions in a criss-cross stretch of small streets, streets packed with ordinary-sized homes housing families, grandparents, and the parents of small children.
Or at least it used to be.
Now, Riverside is the epicenter of party houses, with these suburban homes sold to rent-by-the-room property managers that market to college kids. These college kids love late nights. These days, whenever I go home, that timeless, ethereal quiet for which I always loved my neighborhood is instead replaced by the eternal din of thrumming bass at a frat party. Riverside was my neighborhood, and to say it’s just “not the same” would be the understatement of the century.
Do I sound like an old guy saying “get off my lawn” yet? Sorry.
My family moved to Riverside, which was the wealthiest bubble of Newport News even then, in 2002. I was 10. My family wasn’t wealthy, but my parents wanted us to live in a “safe” area, where they didn’t have to worry about letting their seven kids go play tetherball outside.
It is currently 2018. From the locus of my home at Riverside Drive out to Avenue of the Arts, and stretching a few miles down towards Hiden Boulevard, virtually the entire vicinity has been bought out by Christopher Newport University. The small local businesses and family homes that once populated that area are all torn down. There’s even a new shopping center a few miles down. Where my childhood friend used to live with her little brother and two parents who worked at the Shipyard, there’s now a giant college dorm.
Virtually every business and home that I remember from my childhood no longer exists. It’s all been torn down, and replaced by whatever is conducive and attractive to college culture. They called it “revitalization.”
This transformation of my home culture makes me angry, and it makes me sad. But more than that, it makes me think about the fact that this is not a new story, and it’s not even a narrative in which I have been significantly wronged. What I’ve witnessed is but a small, extremely small glimpse of the reality that thousands of minority Americans have long known in my city — to an infinitely more powerful degree.
If I’m a middle-class white girl who grew up in the wealthiest bubble of Newport News, and even I have witnessed this, I have to wonder what it’s done to the thousands of people of color and working-class Americans who make up over half of the city’s population.
Because the fact is this: If you continue down J. Clyde Morris Boulevard, and if you keep driving just a little further past where you’ve been before, you will see a different city. In under 10 minutes, you go from mansions to the heart of the projects, and one of the most systemically disenfranchised regions in the state.
And you know what’s interesting? The population at the far end of J. Clyde and the population at the end of what they call “Avenue of the Arts” look very different. One is, by a staggering amount, mostly white. The other is, by a staggering amount, almost entirely people of color. One has to wonder why this is.
One has to wonder why we cringe at the concept of segregation in history, but we accept de facto segregation in our cities as fact. One has to wonder why we can drive 10 minutes and arrive in a region that looks like a virtually different country, and why we never question the reason this might be. We don’t even raise an eyebrow.
In the Riverside neighborhood of Newport News — as I mentioned, the wealthiest pocket of the city — the population is 81.7 percent white. The median income is $94,444. In the East End near King Lincoln Park, the population is 97.3 percent black. The median income is $13,833. That means the people in Riverside are literally six times wealthier than the people who live 14 minutes away.
For context, the population of Newport News is almost evenly split — Newport News as a city is 43.8 percent white, and 56.2 percent black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and Pacific Islander. So while the city is more heterogeneous than most, I don’t see that diversity represented in its neighborhoods. I see white people in wealthy pockets on the waterfront, and everyone else pushed farther and farther out and away from the regions where food is cheap, trees exist, and your kid will have functional computers at their schools.
I don’t know what the statistics were 20 years ago. I don’t know how much my university played a part — I don’t know how much, as I watched my city transform from Inequality Lite to Inequality Max those effects doubly impacted the populations already most at risk. But I have to imagine it’s no small number.
And I don’t have an answer to gentrification. I didn’t study public planning or sociology, and I’m not an expert by any means.
But I do know that I can look at photos from the pre-desegregation 1950s, and look at photos of my city today, and I don’t see much of a difference.