I was on one of my favorite message boards the other day and someone asked why there were so many Blacks downtown. It was hard not to take offense to that question, because I wasn’t sure if the poster had a genuine interest, was a troll looking to start a fight, or was just ignorant. African-Americans love urban areas. The only reason you do not see a lot of Black people downtown, in whatever city you live in, has more to do with the economics of living downtown than it does their actual preference.
For the purposes of this article, rather than focus on the downtown area of any one particular city you can insert the downtown neighborhood of your choice for discussion because in most cities, there is a stark difference between the downtown area, and the rest of the neighborhoods. A lot of cities have gone through a period of gentrification; some beginning as early as the eighties and some as late as the first decade of this new millennium.
In Hampton Roads you have a unique situation where two of the seven cities in this metropolitan do not have a traditional downtown because both of these cities are essentially suburbs of other cities that do. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake are the cities in question. Both are suburbs of Portsmouth and Norfolk, but they are now their own cities, and sport a higher population than the cities they are suburbs of. The cities face some unique challenges; in Virginia we have Independent Cities, which is nice way of saying that the entire county is a city because of the population density within the county. Counties are unusually large here, and take of several hundred square miles.
In 2003 Armada Hoffler opened up the first building in Town Center what is now considered to be downtown Virginia Beach, while Chesapeake does not have a downtown area at all. Blacks are 19% of the total population of Virginia Beach. I have seen plenty of African-Americans in Town Center but I have no way of knowing how many Blacks actually live there.
The closest thing Chesapeake has to an actual downtown area might be the Greenbrier area of the city. The city has allowed developers to build apartments in condominiums in parking lots and vacant fields, and the area in and around Greenbrier Mall is pretty urban, considering the look and feel of the rest of the city.
If I had the money, I would not mind living in either area of Hampton Roads. I doubt there are many Blacks in either neighborhood, but the amenities could easily make up for the fact that neither area is your traditional Black neighborhood. You can walk to everything you need within a short distance and buy groceries, clothing, furniture, or an automobile. The only thing Chesapeake actually needs in Greenbrier is a performing arts venue and the experience would be complete. Town Center in Virginia Beach already has one.
In the future light rail will provide quick access to the rest of the city, and Norfolk in Town Center. Why wouldn’t a Black person want to live there?
Most Black people I know grew up within the city in nice neighborhoods. A few grew up in housing projects, which are usually somewhere within or directly outside of downtown anyway. The only reason we get in our car and drive out to suburbia is because there aren’t any good stores within the city anymore.
I can’t think of a Black person that actually wants to live in the neighborhood, when you have to leave the neighborhood whenever you want to make a purchase, prostitutes walk the streets, perverts are hiding in plain sight outside of your local elementary school and drug dealers are riding around playing loud music. The schools are lousy, the quality of the food is terrible, and everything costs too much. All of the good shopping is in the suburbs where the costs are lower.
The only reason Blacks live in the suburbs now is because the housing is a lot cheaper than it is in the city and there are good schools. Sure there is cheap housing in the city, but when you find a good deal you have to deal with aging infrastructure; flooded basements, houses that are literally sinking into the ground, old furnaces, poor foundations and other issues. Your heating and cooling costs are through the roof, in one instance I had to deal with feces on the property next door that came out through the plumbing system that sat on the lawn the owner could not afford to fix. She was probably on a fixed income.
If Blacks could afford to live downtown they would. But the closest most Blacks come to the downtown life is some high-rise housing project or a Section 8 mid-rise or a tower that was left to deal that may have been a desirable place to live back in the fifties that has been left for dead. A new tower goes up in this day and age and developers charge a minimum of $1,300 a month to live there. Few Blacks are going that route, but if you know of a downtown area that has not went through revitalization that still has aging infrastructure from the fifties in place it should not be any wonder why they live there. That is about the cheapest urban experience you will find, though clearly, not the safest and wisest option.