RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The face of Richmond has gone through a change, becoming significantly whiter over the last 20 years while the number of African Americans has significantly decreased.   

You only have to take a trip to Richmond’s Manchester community to see the growth the city is experiencing, with apartment buildings going up and businesses opening in areas that had been all but abandoned. 

“So, what in fact we are seeing is the precise opposite of what happened in the 20th century,” said Dr. Julian Hayter, Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.

“There was a mass exodus from cities between the 1940s and the 1970s,” Hayter said.  “The movement of Americans, almost exclusively white Americans, into America’s suburbs was the greatest human migration in history.”

It left behind inner-city communities with mostly African American residents to languish with little investment and growing crime.

“There was this fear in the United States in the late 20th century with inner city crime,” Hayter said.

But now, not only are people returning to the city, they’re buying houses there.

“What we’re seeing is that neighborhoods were once undesirable and had been so depreciated over the course of the 20th century,” Hayter said.  “But now we’re seeing economic incentives to move back into cities like Richmond have finally eclipsed the fear.”

Tax incentives paired with a desire for improved commutes have sent people streaming back into Richmond to live, many of them white. Data from the U.S. Census indicates that while the white population in Richmond has grown from nearly 76,000 to 103,000 or about 31% over the last 20 years, the black population has decreased from 113,000 to 106,000 — a decrease of 6.4% — in that same time period.

The overall population swell and corresponding housing demand are driving up housing prices and property taxes making city living unaffordable for some existing and potential residents, many of them African American.

“So, on the one hand we’ve incentivized people through public policy to move back into these areas, but then done very little to safeguard the people who have been there for decades from being displaced by the inward migration,” Hayter said. 

“We’re just getting to the place where every one of my colleagues are talking about affordable housing,” said Richmond City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.  She has lived in the Highland Park neighborhood for years.  While she questions the accuracy of the census overall, she doesn’t question the shift.  

“I can walk down the street from my house and the change of the African American families that used to live here versus the ones that live here now is tremendous,” Robertson.  “So, it’s not just the increase in the white population.”

She emphasizes, it’s not primarily an issue of race, but an economic one that disproportionately affects those earning $50,000 a year or less.

“We have a hard time putting incentives in place to support them staying in the city of Richmond, but we can give tax breaks to the president of Federal Reserve Bank,” Robertson said.  “Up to stage we’ve not had the political money in the budget to create affordable housing which would lead to diversity of people living in the City of Richmond.”

“If we were in Boston we might be talking about poor white communities,” Hayter said.  “If we were in Los Angeles we would be talking about Latino communities.  It just so happens that Richmond’s history, in large part because of its inextricable link to slavery, has to do with African Americans.”

Some people have been displaced by a practice that allowed developers to tear down public housing complexes like the Blackwell subdivision and build new homes that former residents could not afford. 

“Thank God that doesn’t happen anymore,” Robertson said.

But there have been other growing pains over the last two decades with areas like Manchester, Carver, Highland Park and Scott’s Addition all going through transformations.  The changes not only impacted residents but also businesses.

Joy Brewer and her husband AJ own Brewer’s Café in Manchester.  They both grew up on Richmond’s Southside and have a personal connection to the city.  She wonders what type of long-term impact the growth will have. 

“The fear is that the people who are coming in that are not a part of the community because they don’t have roots here,” Brewer said.  “Do they care as much?  You know, do they care that they’re going to push some residents out, potentially or other businesses out?”

While diversity is a plus, the question remains: is there equity in that diversity?  That’s a question the City of Richmond and other communities across the country will have to figure out.

“There are more people living in cities now, we are in closer proximity to one another than at any point in human history,” Hayter said.  “If we don’t come to terms with how we live with one another in these spaces it is going to be a rocky road forward.”

Hayter adds, cities across the country are experiencing one of the most profound demographic shifts in recent history, and that it’s important to understand urban American history and what helped get us to this point.  He also says those who are moving into the inner city should not only seek to enjoy the incentives, but to become part of the community and give back.