When a new restaurant opens in an older, underserved urban neighborhood, do you call it gentrification or revitalization? Your answer may depend on your politics, your personal experiences and your connection to the neighborhood in question. And it can be a tricky question for restaurateurs to navigate. Most restaurant owners want to be welcomed in their neighborhoods and to be a part of creating positive change. But when does choosing a trendy neighborhood with relatively inexpensive real estate become an unwelcome intrusion on current residents?
Richmond may not have Spike Lee to complain about hipsters in Jackson Ward, or have anti-gentrification protesters holding vigils outside restaurants as Vancouver, Canada, does. But our neighborhood blogs and Facebook conversations visit this territory regularly. And in a city where race and class tensions still boil over into our official civic conversations (baseball anyone?), we need to find healthy ways of talking with each other about how to balance the interests and needs of longtime and newer residents.
Some critics of gentrification ascribe ill intent to the small-business owners themselves, accusing them of choosing neighborhoods in order to take them over. The reality of starting a small business, however, means juggling endless demands: filing permits, finding staff, locating space and securing funding. That doesn't leave much time to execute a nefarious neighborhood takeover plan. Restaurateur Kendra Feather reflects on the 2011 opening of the Roosevelt, which at the time pushed farther north into Church Hill than many wealthy, white Richmonders had ventured before.
"Honestly, we lucked into that space on 25th Street and we really didn't know what we were getting into up in Church Hill," Feather says. Such is the story for many restaurants — location is often determined when buildings, price and availability align.
After the Roosevelt proved a success, others moved in, such as Sub Rosa bakery across the street and Dutch & Co. around the corner. There are quite a few newcomers to the area that cater to a different clientele than the businesses that were there before. And where once corner stores and pizza and sub shops reigned, suddenly Church Hill plays host to one of the hottest fine-dining restaurant scenes in the city. But the snowball effect started by one business' success easily can be read as opportunistic takeover by those who mourn the loss of affordability and demographic change wrought by gentrification.
On the other side of the argument, some folks celebrate revitalization and downplay or deny the cost paid by longtime residents who can find themselves displaced or unwelcome in their own neighborhoods. Other cities are addressing the problem directly. Local governments from Philadelphia to Richmond, Calif., are enacting legislation to ameliorate the downsides of gentrification by freezing property assessments for longtime residents and increasing investment in affordable housing. Richmond would do well to pay attention to these civic innovations as our population continues to grow. Protecting the residents who chose to stay and invest in the city while others fled makes sense and contributes to neighborhood stability.
The bigger question, and more helpful line of inquiry, concerns the attitude new businesses take toward their host communities. Do they create a welcoming atmosphere for all, or clearly cater to one segment of the community? At one of the recently opened Church Hill restaurants, I witnessed a scruffy looking man physically pushed out of the restaurant by staff when he came onto the premises. One of my fellow diners confronted the staff about their poor treatment. There was, unsurprisingly, a complex back story to the man's relationship with the restaurant, one that nevertheless did not justify violence. This extreme example of inhospitable behavior nevertheless reveals an attitude that some restaurants take toward certain neighbors, even if most do it more subtly.
Feather, on the other hand, has tried to create a benefit to her neighborhood for customers and residents who may never eat the Roosevelt's food. "We always wanted the Roosevelt to be a neighborhood place," she says. "We sought the support of the neighbors, and we actively seek to hire from the neighborhood. One of the neat things about being in the East End has been being able to work with local groups who are doing good things. We have hosted a number of fundraisers for groups like Richmond Cycling Corps, Tricycle Gardens, Neighborhood Resource Center and Peter Paul Development Center."
We've had too much racism, classism and government-mandated segregation. Now that the laws have changed, let's not voluntarily continue those patterns any longer.
As a restaurant patron and city resident, I want to support businesses that create a sense of community that's inclusive. From small acts like as paying homage to your neighborhood's distinctive history, to grander ones such as Feather's fundraising efforts, we ought to move into the 21st century as a city that values all of its residents. S
Matthew Freeman is a Style Weekly restaurant critic and the co-founder of a local diversity and inclusion consulting company.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.