Harmonizing the Community

Harmonizing the Community

A picturesque street in the Richmond district called Church Hill.

John Murden's feature piece on Church Hill in Richmond's Style Weekly (September 25, 2013 edition) really should be required reading for real estate agents, community organizers of various stripes, business start-up types, church start-up types, folks given to dream, and other parties quite taken with some version of a notion toward saving the world. One neighborhood at a time. 

Murden situates two up-to-the-moment neighborly squabbles in Church Hill—one involving a proposed condo development whose 13-story structure likely would block a historic view of the James River; the other concerning zoning exemptions sought by the owner of Captain Buzzy's Beanery—within Richmond's conflicted, residual past and its ongoing self-understanding. Murden writes:

"With that understanding comes the equal knowledge that if this gentrifying neighborhood loses its connection to its working-and middle-class roots, to its African-American past, a vital part of its identity will be lost. This is a debate about the future, and debates about where we’re going are almost always debates about where we’ve been—especially in this city."

In his estimation: "The area hangs together on how well the community can solve the puzzle of segregation and white flight, the loss of the black middle class, urban renewal and public housing, gentrification and racial reconciliation." Some days, community must seem like one of those 1,000-piece puzzles, with the original image on the box having gone missing some time ago.

 Church Hill Tunnel, one of many historic landmarks in Richmond's oldest neighborhood.

Church Hill Tunnel, one of many historic landmarks in Richmond's oldest neighborhood.

If you appreciate context, you'll love how Murden traces the winding historical currents of a very particular place. The best places are, after all, exceptionally particular. Here the Mississippi-born writer Eudora Welty frames it well: "One place understood helps us understand all places better."

For instance, in the case of Church Hill, as in the case of Richmond, race and its attending intersections are always-ever coursing through its past, one of those slow/swift currents seeking reconciliation. To miss this would be to miss everything. A Richmonder since 2008, new to me—through the article—was the role of black flight in shaping the community. Don Coleman, an African-American who grew up in a foster family in Church Hill and who now serves the city as a member of the School Board and as a pastor at East End Fellowship, urges, "What hurt the East End was the exodus of the black middle class."

Equally, Murden channels the modern experience of a revitalizing community and its tensions. As in the 20-something Church Hill resident who exclaims: "I literally never experienced anything like this. Everyone here is involved a little bit in each other's lives. I feel like people want to support local stuff up here and make a conscious effort to do that." It is understandable, perhaps, if "supporting local stuff" has the overdone ring of cliche. But when disintegration and incoherence dominate the field of vision—among millenials, among any of us—in so many aspects of modern life and living, when stuff actually begins to cohere, begins to feel integrated, well, surely this is cause for a little rejoicing.

 Named "2012 Restaurant of the Year" by  Style Weekly , The Roosevelt in Church Hill sits at the metaphorical corner.

Named "2012 Restaurant of the Year" by Style Weekly, The Roosevelt in Church Hill sits at the metaphorical corner.

For any community to reach its potential for a changed trajectory, economic and social well-being must come together and find a way to relate, right? The story of Sub Rosa, a new bakery in Church Hill that was destroyed by a fire in April, is illustrative. As Murden tells it:

"The community rallied, and an online fundraiser pulled in $16,000 for Evrim and Evin Dogu, the brother-and-sister owners of the bakery, and for the four tenants of the apartments above and beside the bakery. A chef's potluck benefit supper at the Roosevelt a few days later brought out more than 200 neighbors and raised more than $4,000. Sub Rosa hopes to reopen in October."

It indeed takes a village—and its many inhabitants. Which is a beautiful test for any community: restoration will only happen to the extent that the diverse players are committed to what some call "the common good."

As a follower of Jesus, I am drawn to Murden's common-good storytelling that drops us into the middle of several stories that Jesus-followers are helping to write in Church Hill. You can read about Betsy Hart, executive director of the Robinson Theater Community Arts Center, how her vision of community engagement became "bigger than dreams." You can read about Corey Widmer, one of the pastors at East End Fellowship, how gentrification became a personalized issue of justice. Christians living in urban centers probably would be wise to be as adaptive as Hart and Widmer, to move beyond both kinds of hindrances to community harmony—our own dreams and unwitting social barriers—as we pursue a common good that authentically contributes to the flourishing of everyone.

One final note. Toward the end of the article, we hear Mary White Thompson, president of the New Visions Civic League, crediting the Better Housing Coalition in Richmond with instigating some of the change witnessed in Church Hill. She says, "Since 1999, over 100 homes have built or rehabilitated in our area."

At first, naively, I thought: That's not exactly a lot, is it? Later, I rebuked myself. Her number actually highlights how harmonizing the community happens: incrementally, fundamentally, over a good length of time.

Church Hill also reminds anyone who desires to save the world that we must maintain a humble hope. We harmonize a thing or two, here or there, all the while disharmony threatens like an old, stale plot.


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