By the nature of the economic system that governs us, nothing is sacrosanct. Nothing lies beyond a coveting hand, whether it’s a slave burial ground or a mom-and-pop shop. Whatever threatens a larger entity’s potential for profits or expansion is consequently threatened.
What’s going on in Richmond is textbook gentrification: Neighborhoods and businesses formerly owned by lower-income people are being bought and re-developed for another group. If you need an example, consider that less than five blocks from the construction of high-rise luxury apartments is a park populated by homeless people, who might be displaced by the park’s coming renovations.
The issue with VCU’s expansion isn’t solely that it’s displacing Richmond residents and local businesses, but that it’s doing so faster than the parties can adjust. To add to that problem, the city government seems equally intent on their own affairs and doesn’t provide enough resources for the presently displaced or the future housing needs of Richmonders.
The presence of the student population further agitates this issue. Students, even when being helped by their parents, are not particularly affluent. They are a permanent population that is constantly shifting: Just as one generation of students leaves, another moves in to fill the vacuum.
In a way, they’re also a more economically resilient population than the local residents. If they need to weather an economic downturn that would have left a non-student resident out of a job and means to pay rent, some students have both parents and student loans acting as safety nets.
Additionally, the number of graduated students decide to stay in Richmond and become permanent residents of the city, displaces the potential population of working class family residents and the existing population of residents. Displaced populations are pushed further away, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. These departures affect property values, city tax income, traffic congestion and a myriad of other statistical and social issues relevant to the city government and city populace.
In a perverse way, the success of VCU, in both acquiring properties and graduating successful students that, is alienating the rest of the city. In cleaning up, re-development projects have the danger of cleaning out the original population. By integrating itself into Richmond, the ebb and flow of VCU’s successes and failures, whether they be directed by the administration or are consequences attributable to the student population, become a larger concern for the city.
There’s a caveat to the ongoing gentrification. Although it doesn’t negate the act, note that a number of the purchased properties will be eventually converted into on-campus housing for students. Though it helps to curb residential gentrification, the fact remains that a city community is a mixture of populations from businesses and students to organizations and families; under the current conditions and operations, the latter group is in danger of, if not already, being neglected.
“Whose city is this?” is the question more people are asking, and the answer is simultaneously simple and complex: everyone’s. VCU can lay claim to block after block, but they will only own part of the whole. I long for the day when I can walk throughout the city without seeing abandoned buildings or weeded lots, but the price of expansion should not come at the sacrifice of the community, particularly Richmond’s lower income residents.
There are few local forces as innovative and engaged as VCU, but being a driving force does not require us to drive the essence of Richmond out of the city in order to satiate our needs. Similarly, the city needs to demonstrate a stronger commitment to its current residents, evaluating the needs of the present against the aspirations of expansionism.