Notes On A Charlottesville City Council Meeting

A funny thing happened while sitting in a City Council meeting listening to Charlottesville, Virginia residents tell City Council why a neighborhood should not be rezoned to make space for a small piece of systemic racism that’s currently sitting on the land; I found too many things that just wouldn’t quite fit.

If we skip right on by the two racists who believe only unattached, displaced Muslim men are capable of rape, robbery, and assault, but not go as far as the Mayor sharing his belief that once upon a time in the Jim Crow South, Black folks and white folks lived side-by-side happily and neighborly, sharing sugar and beans, we’ll find ourselves at discourse about how Charlottesville’s history of rezoning has proven to be nothing positive for the voiceless (also see: working class) citizens. Rezoning is what happened to Vinegar Hill, after all.

“I Am White Excellence,” his shirt read. Charlottesville’s new slogan?

Richard Spurzem, the owner of the property, prior to his threatening City Council with never spending another dollar in the city if they denied his rezoning efforts, tried hard to convince the people that what he was doing was for the greater good. History shows that Black folks aren’t included in the “greater good,” and since we’re still in July, I should also mention Black folks aren’t included in “all people,” either.

Dear Richard Spurzem:

What is this vague green space you mentioned? What were you hoping to achieve by exposing its existence? Your biggest problem isn’t that you own the property. After all, it was kind of passed down, kind of purchased after the wrongdoing. Your biggest problem is you think you were doing something good for a community you were too afraid to speak to, and perhaps even noticeably enter. Oh, the money you would have saved. Presumably, however, that money means little to you.

In your future developments, if you find yourself attempting to sell an idea to the working class citizens you’re about to heavily disservice, don’t mention the amenities or the massive amount of money you’ll make when it’s over. We are smart people, and we know your benefits have nothing to do with us.

Dear City Council:

Way to go on shutting down the foolishness. However, did you, like me, find it ironic that it was unanimously decided by you that what Spurzem was attempting to do was improper because it wasn’t for the good of the people, but what Spurzem would have achieved with this rezoning, you’ve already done?

Tonight we temporarily saved Booker Street and all of Rose Hill Drive Neighborhood, but walk a few minutes up the road and take a look at Washington Park. Take a look at 7th St., Dice St., Belmont, 10th & Page. Some things just won’t quite fit. Why did you vote against rezoning? I know why you should have, and I’m glad you did, but why did you really do it?

“Who on City Council can be trusted,” I asked one woman in the room. Several chimed in with a chorus of “none of them, but some are better than others.” Then came a “hmph, I’m surprised that one even showed up. Damn shame how we voted him in, and he’s voting for everything that ain’t us.”

I applauded Steve Ivory for mentioning gentrification. Let’s break down in three steps exactly how it works:

1. Demographic Shift: Fewer families and more couples and singles move in, the median income rises, and ethnic minorities decline.

2. Real Estate: Low-income renters are evicted while rent prices soar, and while old homes and apartments are being upgraded to condos.

3. Cultural & Social Change: With the newcomers comes shops, cafes, and other commercial places suitable for the new crowd.

And it usually all begins with something as small as a house and a vote in City Council. This is what we were fighting. We were fighting being hidden from cameras and reporters each time you fought your way to the front of the line to yell out “Charlottesville is one of the greatest places to live.” I grew up on stories about my family living in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, but they were only stories. The Vinegar Hill I was familiar with showed no signs of folks who look like me. No, the folks who look like me were pushed out of Vinegar Hill and into Hardy Drive. What were they told? What was the dream sold to them? Whatever was said was pure genius. Or perhaps, because we all fully understand how systemic racism works, they were strong-armed and forcibly moved. I know the answer to this. And it all began with something as small as a house and a vote in City Council.

It’s the irony. I just find it hard to believe that the folks who drove the children of the town’s working class away from the pools are the same people who sat before me arguing for the good of the people.

Do better.

And please understand that I’m not completely convinced that July 5th’s decision wasn’t a well orchestrated performance directed by Richard Spurzem himself.

Dear Charlottesville Residents (Mostly Black, but some working class white folks too):

Racism and classism have a permanent home in zoning. Booker Street was a battle. Stock up on all things that keep you moving because this war will be tiring. Keep fighting though. Police your own neighborhoods and use City Council only when absolutely necessary. If you are unsatisfied, do not be afraid to loudly hold them accountable. Make them uncomfortable.

Signed,

Darnell Lamont Walker

Ideally, I’d love to live in that magical, unicorn-filled place Mayor Signer described. That place where there was nothing but peace amongst the people of different race, creed, and ideals. The place were sugar borrowing was plentiful and Jim Crow was taught but now felt. But this is America, and this is Charlottesville, and this just isn’t possible.

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