Saturday, May 06, 2006


The Virginian countryside and self-portrait

Charlottesville, VA: Screening at Better Than TV

We were late to a screening for the first time. We didn't count on such bad traffic driving from Baltimore to Charlottesville. I guess we kind of forgot about the way that Washington D.C. makes traffic a nightmare for hundreds of miles in every direction. So we got into town at around 7:20 when the screening was supposed to begin at 7pm. Oops. No one really seemed to mind though. There was a good amount of people there (around 15).

The infoshop is called Better Than TV and it is located under the historic Jefferson Theater. It is a nice infoshop. They have a lot of space to work with and it has a very open, airy feel to it. It was interesting because it is located on a really successful pedestrian mall right in the middle of downtown charlottesville. They can afford the space because there is a darkroom that is a separate project that pays part of the rent, and also because there are some vendors on the mall that rent space from them and store their equipment there at night. It's a good location.

While the documentary played, Courtney and I walked around the pedestrian mall for a few minutes before deciding to purchase overpriced meager salads and eating on the patio/mall. We listened to college students talk about their plans for the summer then went back to Better Than TV for a Q & A session. After that we went to a nice teahouse and listened to old time music.

We ended up staying with a really nice woman named Julia who works at Better Than TV. While we were driving to her house we noticed a huge smoke cloud, smelled smoke, and then saw firetrucks racing in the direction of her house. We kept driving and the closer we got, the closer the smoke and fire trucks were. It turned out that there was a church on fire literally a couple of blocks from where she lived. We dropped the car off at her house and then walked down to watch the fire with the rest of the neighborhood (see my post about the Cortland, NY fire a few weeks ago). Everyone was out watching the smoke and talking. It was a real neighborhood gathering. Julia, who just recently moved to the neighborhood, actually ended up being able to met several neighbors who she hadn't known before. Word got passed around that it was the church (it had been uncertain what was burning). No one seemed to suspect foul play. The church had only recently been built in the last few years. Luckily no one had been inside when the fire started.

We went out to breakfast at this place called the Bluegrass Grill in the morning with Julia and two other people who work at Better Than TV. I got really pulpy orange juice. Then we drove Julia to work and headed to Richmond, VA.

Richmond, Virginia
I had a brief sojourn in Richmond about 3 years ago, when I moved in with my friends Davin and Neal for a couple of months. While I was there, we didn't really know anyone and mostly just hung out with each other, but got to see all kinds of amazing things. Richmond is a beautiful city with a lot of nice places to just hang out at. There were a few things that I thought Courtney should see, mostly: Hollywood Cemetary, Belle Isle, the 4th St. Cafe, Harrison St. Cafe, 17.5 coffeeshop, Carytown, the Byrd Theater, and The Farmer's market area.

the 17.5 coffeeshop was one of the best coffeeshops ever. It is on one side of the farmer's market square area (which historically, was the market for slave trading) and is very narrow and had a great upstairs with books. It was just a very calm, peaceful place with a great atmosphere and amazing espresso. We decided that the first thing we wanted to do was go get an espresso and then go from there. We walked up and saw the "for rent" sign and my heart sank. Who knows how long it had been gone, but it seemed like the whole area was more "developed" than it had been last time I was there. There were definitely more people around and more shops in the storefronts that had been mostly empty before. At the end of the block was a really fancy looking wine/coffee gourmet bistro place. They had free wifi so we decided to just go in there and get coffee and use the internet.

The "Revitalization" of Richmond? Live, Work, Play?

I picked up the free alternative weekly newspaper (called "Style") inside the restaurant and was amazed with the first story that I encountered upon opening the paper: It was about the revitalization of downtown Richmond and how "urban living" is becoming hip. They were talking in particular about how the traditionally working-class, mostly white neighborhood Oregon Hill, was now "up and coming" - i.e. in the process of being gentrified. They had a couple of stories about former suburbanites that had decided they wanted the edginess of "city-living" - so they bought a huge historic house in Oregon Hill for quite a bit of money (for that neighborhood) and renovated the whole thing. Prices on homes in the area are starting to shoot up and people who had lived there are probably being pushed out already.

It's the same story all over again, in a different city.

This process of gentrifciation, revitalization, pseudo-new urbanism- whatever you want to call it, is happening everywhere. There was also a story about a suburban couple that bought an "urban condo" with great views of the James River. The title of the story is "goodbye suburbs!"
Here are some key excerpts that I found illuminating:
"While it’s obvious Debra is meticulous, she’s also willing to take risks. And that’s just what the Youngs did when they put a contract on one of the Riverside condos sight unseen. They were the fourth set of buyers to purchase a unit in the building, and they reserved a desirable corner apartment with a view to the west on the ninth floor (there are 10 floors altogether)."

"While the coal trains going by have at times been “a wake-up experience” for Roger, he says he’s getting used to them. “The biggest difference in space for me is the lack of putzing-around areas,” he says. “You’ve got to keep things organized.”

"Where there isn’t a window, there’s a mirror reflecting a window. The sliding glass doors that lead to the balcony are open and a breeze blows in. The occasional coal train rattles by below. It’s city living in a setting unique to Richmond, with old smokestacks in the distance and kayakers maneuvering the rapids below."

It's interesting how the paper chose to interview these urban settlers about their new homes and their new urban experiences instead of interviewing someone who has lived in downtown Richmond for years about their opinion on the changes that are happening all over the city. I was trying to find out more information about the gentrifiction of Richmond and stumbled upon this website that looks very interesting:

It is one man's narrative about his time living in Oregon Hill and personal experiences and it discusses the history of the Oregon Hill neighborhood, racism, the gentrifiction process and the role of VCU (Virginia Commonwelath University) in changing the neighborhood. It is part of larger website for a group of people in support of reparations.

I also stumbled upon this interesting website/tool called Community Mapping. It can be used to figure out what parts of neighborhoods are most likely to face gentrification, and why. (i.e. what parts of the land are most desirable or valuable, who might want to use it and why). When people have this information, they might be able to actually do something about it.

"Community mapping provides equitable development practitioners with accurate and unique information, effective visual tools, and the ability to understand and share their own experience in the context of their changing environment. Community mapping is powerful because of its capacity to democratize information-both what is recorded and who has access to it. When presented well, maps have the power to convey complicated information and relationships in a straightforward, accessible manner, enabling non-experts to participate meaningfully in community planning and advocacy."

Of course, maps can be used to manipulate information in a way that takes power out of the hands of people living in neighborhoods undergoing rapid change... mapping systems are already used by developers to figure these things out.

Here is the link:

Interestingly, the people who we hung out with in charlottesville were also talking about how there is a lot of development going on in their neighborhood and how they might start a development watch group. Julia, who we stayed with was even talking about mapping out areas that have been in the process of being developed so that people could at least know what is going on.

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