About five years ago, I watched a young blonde woman walk her white poodle down the pristine sidewalk, headphones helping her tune out the world, business casual dress. It was the ultimate view of an up-and-coming suburban woman navigating the post-college business world. Why was this scene memorable? Because I watched from Brother Jim’s car as we were a few blocks away from reaching our destination—the Cabrini Green rowhouses. Thanks to gentrification, an area whose streets have soaked in blood and whose air wafted of the drug trade now housed trendy loft apartments for the young and powerful. And the world had become so segregated that mere blocks meant drastically different lived experiences, with no threat of interaction.
I have a confession to make. I have become that woman.
No, I have not gone so far off the deep end that I own a poodle, but nevertheless I have become the white woman stroller in front and socially-conscious-rescue-dog behind, walking through a neighborhood whose history does not belong to me.
Similar to Chicago, urban planners of Richmond, Virginia came up with a way to concentrate the poor and bottleneck their mobility so as to forget about them. Crime rates skyrocketed within these blocks called Church Hill, which were considered anathema to anyone white or socially mobile. It housed project after project, diversified only by dilapidated housing owned by slumlords.
In the past decade, however, Church Hill has become all the rage with hipsters and white Christians alike. First, were the Christian pioneers. They genuinely lived into the awkwardness of becoming racial minorities and sought to learn the Christian meaning of neighbor. Their success has been a blessing and a curse to the neighborhood. On the one hand, they committed to sending their kids to public schools, building non-profits, infrastructures, and a church, and living in homes that did not fit the dreams of their parents.
On the other hand, they started a trend.
And it has exploded.
And the ashes have fallen on the black, poor community.
Young, white people have moved into the area in droves, turning Church Hill into the Hottest Housing Market of 2016. With them has not come the Cum-bah-yah dream of bettering a community. Sure, business has boomed, money is pumping into the community and roadways are being fixed. But the business are coffee shops and elite craft bars, the money is pumping into renovating homes for white people, and the roadways don’t matter for those who cannot purchase a vehicle in the first place. With each new construction and clearing of an abandoned lot also comes a new price tag that the urban black community can no longer afford.
Yes, I have witnessed things that make suburbanites uncomfortable. I know where the drug deals are happening. I can tell you where to get a prostitute. I fall asleep to sirens most nights and I wake up to loud drunken arguments of street-roamers at 3am. But I can also walk to a restaurant and bar that charges 50 bucks for a date night meal and doesn’t have a single item on the menu that a poor or lower-middle class person would recognize. And when I walk into that space, I can casually discuss social justice issues while sipping a $10 cocktail, and be surrounded by people who look like me and who demand nothing of me. Then, I can walk home and sleep at night, feeling the warm fuzzies of my conversations about serious issues without actually sacrificing anything to address them.
The problem with the restoration of these types of neighborhoods is this: The poor black community wasn’t invited to the party. Talking about racial reconciliation comfortably over a vegan, gluten-free muffin and fair trade over-priced coffee in an area that used to be dangerous and used to be black is not exactly living out social change. It is just making us feel better.
While most of us arrived in this community with good intentions, we neglected to change our patterns—of socializing, of shopping, of consuming food, and most importantly living out our values of security and privacy. We may have built our walls next to black underprivileged families but we are living vastly different lives simply because ours are intentional. Yes, we have made a point to meet members of this neighborhood who are not like us, but it is always on our terms and when we choose to interact. If we shut our doors, no one is going to come into our home uninvited, needing a place to stay. If our children struggle at school, we have the leverage to negotiate with teachers or choose a different school completely. If we have a weakness, it will not be broadcast across the neighborhood. We did not stumble into anything. We chose each and every step, and at any point, we can choose to abandon ship. We will never be equal as long as we have this privilege of choice.
No matter where your home dwells, are you living next to your neighbor or living with your neighbor? Until we sacrifice and can answer the latter, we will never know the fullness of community.