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Jefferson School hosts forum on race, city planning and affordable housing

Presenters discussed the history of Charlottesville’s land use while panelists talked accountability and community action

<p>The forum kicked off with a series of presentations highlighting research on the University and city’s complicated and often hidden history of race and city planning.</p>

The forum kicked off with a series of presentations highlighting research on the University and city’s complicated and often hidden history of race and city planning.

The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center was overflowing Friday evening with Charlottesville residents for a forum on race, city planning and affordable housing in the city. 

Prior to the event, Jefferson School director Dr. Andrea Douglas described the deadly white supremacist rallies in Aug. 2017 as a critical catalyst for the recent rise in conversation surrounding the City’s history of racially charged land use policies, housing injustice and the region’s affordable housing crisis. 

“The relationship between housing injustice and racial disparities is a long-standing problem in Charlottesville,” Douglas said. “Since the white supremacist rallies of the 2017 Summer of Hate, more Charlottesvillians have joined the ongoing struggle to challenge the historic and continuing effects of everyday white supremacy in our city. Affordable housing is an important component of the pursuit of racial equity.”

The forum kicked off with a series of presentations highlighting research on the University and City’s complicated history of race and city planning. Presenters included independent journalist Jordy Yager, third-year College student Caris Adel, fourth-year College student Brian Cameron and Abundant Life Ministries — a local ministry centered around holistic outreach to families in the Prospect neighborhood — board member Matthew Gillikin, who presented on behalf of planning commissioner Lyle Solla-Yates. 

The presentations were organized chronologically, with Yager opening with his research on the history of racial covenants and Cameron closing with a look at the University’s history of urban renewal and the current dynamic between on Grounds and off Grounds housing. Presenters shared findings on everything ranging from the history of the City’s comprehensive plan — the guiding document for future land use and planning —  to eminent domain to the influence of Harland Bartholomew, an urban planner who manipulated racially charged land use codes in Charlottesville in 1956.

The research of all presenters reflected the same consensus about Charlottesville’s history of city planning — the desire to “preserve neighborhood character” and develop a more ideal city translated to only fulfilling the needs of white residents while black neighborhoods were either left out of the conversation or destroyed entirely. 

Cameron’s presentation was the only one that dove into the role the University specifically has played in Charlottesville’s urban renewal process and discussed the responsibility it currently has for working to amend its wrongs. 

Cameron then moved to discuss the University’s razing of the Gospel Hill neighborhood —  a former thriving black residential community located between Jefferson Park Avenue and the railroad tracks — in the early 1960s order to expand its medical center. In 1972, the University named one of its new buildings, Jordan Hall, after Dr. Harvey E. Jordan, who was a prominent eugenicist at the University at the time. The Board of Visitors voted in 2016 to rename the building Pinn Hall after Dr. Vivian Pinn, the first female and African-American to graduate from the School of Medicine. 

“The urban renewal plan for Gospel Hill … had pretty much identified what was pretty much a wonderful, lovely neighborhood as substandard housing, merely on the basis of the race of its occupants,” Cameron said. “And this kind of project, to redevelop black land and black space … very much fits the narrative of ‘urban renewal for progress’ … which raises the question, progress for whom?”

At the end of his presentation, Cameron proposed four potential solutions to increase the University’s involvement in the conversations and actions surrounding affordable housing and racial reconciliation. These include reevaluating university growth, evaluating where density should increase, building affordable University housing, and creating tenants’ union of both students and permanent residents. 

The panel began following Cameron’s presentation. Bill Harris, a local community organizer and former planning commissioner, moderated the panel. Panelists included Annie Stup, a community organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice, a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to organizing and educating white people on racial justice. Elaine Poon is an attorney for the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition, a non-profit coalition advocating for low-income housing and Tamara Wright is the founding member of the Friendship Court Resident Advisory Committee, a team of 9 residents of the Friendship Court affordable housing community who are liaisons for growth and well-being in the community. 

The final two panelists were local activist Tanesha Hudson and Joy Johnson, a community organizer and chair of the Public Housing Association of Residents board, which is a local organization run by public housing residents to advocate for the interests of their communities.  

Harris opened the panel by passionately calling out city governments, city planners and private institutions for being the direct agents of systematic segregation and white supremacy through land use. 

“Now let me be clear — there has to be blame for the process of gentrification,” Harris said. “I want to be very clear tonight — that blame falls entirely to the systemic, calculated white racism as practiced through city planners, local, state and federal officials and private institutional, personal greed of the powerful over the oppressed.”

The comments of Harris set the tone for the panel and established an in-depth conversation about community advocacy and accountability. Hudson said that one major barrier to equipping Charlottesville’s black residents to become accountable advocates in the future was that many of Charlottesville’s black residents have been held in systemic poverty created partially by land use regulations and that their top concern was working to make ends meet.

“I think our issue as a community … is that we can’t do it,” Hudson said. “We’re not able to do it. We’re too busy working and too busy focusing on how we’re going to get that bill paid to attend events like this.”

Panelists also addressed the fact that the overwhelming majority of attendees were white, urging those attendees to do more to bring their black neighbors into the conversation and urging the black attendees to become stronger advocates in the face of racial injustice. Hudson called for black people to engage others about their knowledge so other black residents can understand it and feel included and informed, thus leading to less distant talk and more action. 

“We’re just talking, and we’ve been talking since the demolition of Vinegar Hill,” Hudson said. “We have to start fighting for what we need.”

The panel also talked briefly about zoning and the effects of Charlottesville’s restrictive land use policies. Today, 55 percent of the City’s usable land is zoned R-1 for single-family housing — a decision Gillikin talked about as being directly reflective of white neighborhoods’ desire to “preserve neighborhood character” and keep black families out. 

Johnson said that one major consequence of the City’s zoning policies was the reduction of wealth and prosperity for Charlottesville’s black families. 

“That’s how people lost their wealth,” Johnson said. “That is exactly how people lost their wealth, is that they changed their zoning, and it’s still the same today.”

Harris said that zoning is a government tool for restricting individual freedoms and decisions regarding land use rights.

“What zoning does is to say that local government has the right to tell private property owners what they can do with their land,” Harris said. 

Ultimately, the panelists urged those in attendance to do whatever they could to bring others into the conversation and to keep fighting to rectify the mistakes of the past and create future change.

“You continue to show up and you continue to be a voice,” Johnson said. “Keep coming. Keep saying what you’ve got to say.”

CORRECTION: This article previously incorrectly attributed quotes to Shymora Cooper, who was not a panelist during the event. The article has been corrected to attribute those quotes to Tanesha Hudson.