by James A. Bacon
Among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Richmond and Washington have relatively large stocks of pre-1940 housing, while Hampton Roads has relatively little, according to data published by Wendell Cox at the NewGeography.org blog. As a rule, regions with the youngest housing stock are Sun Belt metros like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Orlando, while regions with the oldest housing stock are located in the Northeast: Boston, Providence and Buffalo.
The thrust of Cox’s blog post is to argue that “historically core municipalities” don’t all look the same: “For example, the core cities of Phoenix and Philadelphia have approximately the same population. Yet they could not be more different. Philadelphia has a long history, including a time as the nation’s largest city around the period of the Revolutionary War. Phoenix, in contrast, is a product of the post-World War II boom.”
One of the biggest surprises I found in Cox’s data is the utter lack of older housing in the historically core municipalities of Hampton Roads — only 1.1%. Actually, I can’t help but wonder if that’s in error. The City of Norfolk did bulldoze much of its pre-war housing in 1960s-era slum clearances, but there are still some older neighborhoods there, not to mention in the older, core cities of Portsmouth and Hampton.
Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s my question: Is a surfeit of old housing a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s a good thing. But it’s not the housing, as much as the prevailing form of urban design when the housing was built. Most pre-1940 housing was built in compact, moderate-density communities on grid streets, often with appropriately scaled retail, professional and commercial buildings mixed in.
The Fan neighborhood of Richmond is one of the greatest, most livable neighborhoods in America. Most of it was built between 1900 and 1930. After going through a period of decay, the district has been thoroughly renovated. The streets, laid out in a grid system and dotted with mini-parks, are a pleasure to walk. Thanks to the mixed uses permitted in the neighborhood, the Fan is chockablock with restaurants, corner stores and professional buildings. For good reason, Fan residents are fan-atics about where they live. (I want to move back there sooooo bad!)
Admittedly, some older neighborhoods of Richmond, especially in the east end, are riddled with poverty and all it entails, including abandoned and uninhabitable housing. Clearly, small lots, grid streets and corner stores are no magical formula for prosperity. I would argue, however, that they do at least lend themselves to revitalization. Neighborhoods with good bones have the potential to become places where middle-class families want to live, which means that they will be gentrified eventually. Indeed, large swaths of Church Hill in Richmond’s east end have been salvaged, largely by households of young, educated professionals who place a premium on the near-downtown location and the architecture of the 19th-century houses, and who are willing to put in sweat equity and brave the hazards of living in high-crime neighborhoods.
By contrast, who is moving into Richmond’s aging, close-in “suburbs”? Poor people. There are some neighborhoods where no one else wants to live.Built in the 1950s and 1960s, these neighborhoods have nothing worth investing in, nothing worth salvaging. Thus, as the City of Richmond is progressively gentrified, poverty is leaking into Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Unless there is a sudden resurgence of middle-class demand for 1,500-square-foot ranchers on dead end streets, these forsaken neighborhoods will become the slums of tomorrow.