BERNSTEIN: Breaking out of the bubble

The University community can do more to address socio-economic divides

In the 1960s the Vinegar Hill neighborhood in Charlottesville was demolished and redeveloped, causing the relocation of most of its black community. Black residents of Vinegar Hill, who were unable to reside elsewhere because of segregation, weren’t able to vote on the razing of their neighborhood at the time due to the existence of a poll tax. This former neighborhood is now part of the Downtown Mall, a social hub of Charlottesville and an area University students frequent.

It is understandable that students don’t necessarily know this one piece of history, since most of us aren’t from Charlottesville and what we do learn about Charlottesville’s history usually pertains to the creation of the University. But since we now live here, it is important that we pay attention to the needs of the greater Charlottesville community and that the University does so as well.

The razing of Vinegar Hill is just one example of the persistent gentrification of this city, a gentrification that our University likely contributes to. According to a study conducted at the University’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the increase in housing costs between 2000 and 2010 has led to a significant drop in the black population, since much of the black population falls into a lower income category than Charlottesville’s white population.

The rise in housing costs and Charlottesville’s gentrification are, if not increased by the University, certainly not stopped by it. The presence of a prestigious university with a large student body in an already historic city makes Charlottesville an attractive destination for middle and upper-class individuals, and members of the University probably prefer to be surrounded by places like the Downtown Mall rather than places like the former Vinegar Hill neighborhood. The University’s lack of interest in the dwindling and poorer communities of Charlottesville suggests that we only care about how urban planning can benefit us, regardless of its effects on the entire city.

Last semester my fellow columnist John Connolly addressed the growing problem of poverty and homelessness in Charlottesville, something students can see just by walking on the Corner. He argued that the University ought to organize efforts to end homelessness. His argument is applicable here as well; the University can and should use the resources at its disposal to lessen the socioeconomic gap in Charlottesville. The University could easily make some form of community service a graduation requirement for all students; it could offer more courses specific to Charlottesville’s history; it could host more talks about Charlottesville’s current problems; and, perhaps most effectively of all, it could invest in research that helps us understand how and why racial and socioeconomic divides exist in this city and what we can do to combat them.

In 2011, the City Council officially apologized for the razing of Vinegar Hill. But while that apology is necessary and important, it doesn’t solve the continuing disparity occurring right in front of us. Though the University doesn’t have the power to single-handedly prevent gentrification, it has the ability to educate us about our environment and encourage us to engage in it. But in the meantime, if the University refuses to take that on, we independently have the ability to become more active citizens of this city. We benefit directly from the razing of Vinegar Hill whenever we walk through the Downtown Mall; no doubt we benefit from all kinds of other, undocumented forms of gentrification while we’re living here. We can’t continue to reap all the benefits of living in this city without any concern for the costs.

Dani Bernstein is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Tuesdays.

Published January 28, 2014 in Opinion

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