The Stabilization Committee
The Colonial Place/Riverview Civic League was born in 1965 of a sense of impending crisis wrought by rapidly changing times. Park Place, to the south, had since 1960 become a "changing neighborhood"--the movement of African-Americans westward from Villa Heights, impelled by the destruction of the densely populated black districts on the fringes of downtown saw the white population in rapid flight from a neighborhood which was already physically declining. The then-vigorous commercial district on 35th Street offered a buffer, but residents of the time asked, "could it hold?" A second perceived threat came from the successful civil rights movement of the early 60s: school desegregation had come to Norfolk following the racially integrated reopening of the schools in February, 1959. But the formerly white schools were districted by neighborhood, and in 1965 the only Norfolk schools which had substantial mixed populations were on the West Side--and for Colonial Place this meant Blair Junior High and Maury High School, and integration, was attended with a certain amount of friction coupled with the fear of the unknown.
Stuart School in 1965 was still all white, but if the 35th Street line was broken, Stuart stood to gain large numbers of black students which, it was feared, would overwhelm the declining number of white students from Colonial Place and Riverview, for the neighborhoods' demographics in 1965 were heavily canted to the middle-aged and elderly, many of the residents having lived here since it was a new neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. Allied to this problem was the relative undesirability of in-town Colonial Place/Riverview: the Princess Anne County suburbs were booming, luring young families to the semi-rural setting that the new City of Virginia Beach was in 1965, with its presumed immunity from racial change and school integration. Finally, neighborhood leaders were dimly aware that some streets, and some houses, were decidedly on the seedy side, that the new houses of the 1920 period were now old, and many needed work. The same problems of increasing traffic and maintenance of physical standards that vex the Civic League in 1999 existed, but there was no way to address them. It was time for action.
The action took the form of a civic league organized on the principle of resistance. The watchword was defense: defense of the civic league boundaries (the southern line was 35th Street, and so included all of 36th and 37th Streets--contiguous with the school zone); defense of property values by exhorting the citizenry to refuse to sell to blacks, and to resist the blandishments of the "block-busting" real estate people who stood to make a fortune in turning over Park Place, and who could be expected to make another by turning over Colonial Place; defense of existing cultural and racial values (many neighborhood title deeds still excluded "persons of African descent" even though such restrictions had been struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948; though illegal, they still reflected the thinking of most white property owners). During 1966 and 1967 things rapidly skidded downhill for the civic league's leadership. Park Place completed its transition to black residence and 36th and 37th Street quickly followed. The commercial district on 35th Street went into steep decline as the food stores and delicatessens closed or moved (the opening of Colley Village in 1966 drew a number of 35th Street merchants out), the Southern Bank (its building is now the William Saleem Masjid) moved to Granby Street (and later sold its premises to the Bank of the Commonwealth). By 1967 Stuart School was 25% black, and people were moving to escape the integration. The civic league's response was to move the southern boundary up to 38th Street, and to amplify the invective against the iniquities of the federal government. But the game was over: during the summer of 1967 the first black families moved to houses north of 38th Street. The civic league asked itself, "Is there a future for Colonial Place?" Their doleful answer was, on the whole, no.
The long-feared arrival of black residents could have been expected to be followed by the departure of the white population, and this process did in fact begin, but much more slowly than it had below 38th Street, partly because the black demand slackened (Park Place was a large neighborhood, and other transitional neighborhoods offered a range of choices: Chesterfield Heights, Campostella Heights, East Ghent and the Colley-Hampton corridor were all in various stages of transition). In addition, a substantial number of Colonial Place residents, who had not been psychologically prepared for flight by a palpable physical decline of the neighborhood, showed a disposition to remain and see how things went. Perhaps most important of all was a phenomenon that clearly set Colonial Place apart from previously changing neighborhoods--the white demand failed to dry up.
At the same time as the first black families entered, new white families continued to choose Colonial Place, attracted by the large houses selling at reasonable prices, the convenience of the area, and its proximity to rapidly-expanding Old Dominion College (as it then was). In the crucial year of 1967-68, when Colonial Place listings began to appear in the black-oriented Section 89 of Norfolk newspapers' realty advertisements [this was a somewhat sanitized version of the pre-1966 "For Sale to Colored" section, but it was clearly understood that if you were black, Section 89 was the section for you; whites searched "For Sale--Norfolk," "For Sale--Virginia Beach," etc. Once a neighborhood turned up in Section 89, it vanished from the other sections], several realty salespeople continued to bring white buyers to look at Colonial Place houses, as did some of the new residents who were connected with Old Dominion College. By the spring of 1968 Colonial Place had the nucleus of a group of residents who saw the alternatives as either a stable, racially-integrated neighborhood or a black ghetto neighborhood, but not the continued all-white neighborhood that most residents (at that time) wanted and that the civic league still proclaimed to be its goal. This stabilization group was composed of new white and black residents who shared a desire to live in Colonial Place as an integrated community and who believed that the character of the neighborhood made stabilization practicable there and then.
To this group the refusal of the civic league leadership to acknowledge the peril from real estate firms, and its insistence on featuring irrelevancies at its meetings was maddening. The 1967-68 year was consumed in bitter arguments about the shape of the future, and denunciations of integration as a communist or NAACP plot. The year ended with an amendment to the bylaws fixing the boundary line at 38th Street. The civic league, like the neighborhood, semed doomed; notices of meetings could not be sent out, nor were meetings advertised, for fear that black residents might come (an amazing example of the leadership's self-delusion). When the nominating committee met to consider the 1968-69 slate of officers, none of the old segregationist leadership would agree to serve (in fact some had their houses for sale, without signs!). The man who ultimately accepted this thankless task was a transition figure--a tax attorney of a few year's residence who was attached to neither the old leadership or the new group of change-seekers. Utterly conservative in dress and demeanor (this was the late 60s and universities were associated with hippies in the popular mind), he was a native of Richmond, and had the right credentials for the old guard, yet was flexible enough to be a good leader for the new residents. During his tenure of office, Colonial Place turned the corner.
At the first civic league meeting in the Fall of 1968, after a spirited debate about the future of the neighborhood, one of the newcomers made a motion to create a stabilization committee, its membership composed of all the opponents of stand-pattism. This gave the newcomers official status, and enabled them to draft a plan to give Colonial Place/Riverview a new direction. The committee's recommendations fell into broad categories: to pronounce the civic league inclusive of both races, publicly stating the goal of integration as the alternative to total change or white supremacy; and to attack the real neighborhood problems--physical deterioration, the negative attitude of so many in real estate, the difficulties of a heavily integrated school and a host of ordinary community matters.
When these recommendations were presented in November there was a storm of indignation: a way of life was being challenged by a group of "outsiders" (a charge essentially true; only one member of the group--a black woman--was born in Norfolk). The session finally had to be adjourned to a specially-called meeting held at Knox Church in December, but by then enough residents had been persuaded to face forward rather than back that all the recommendations were accepted but one--returning the civic league boundary to 35th Street. By this time coping with the real estate firms' "blockbusting" had become the challengers' first priority, and during the winter of 1969 this became their major effort, while they endured the sniping, sapping and fragging efforts of their segregationist opponents who could now clearly see and grapple with their opponents.
To overcome the problem of community fragmentation and lack of cohesiveness, the Stabilization Committee sought out one person in every block to be block captain--the eyes and ears of the league. These block captains notified residents of meetings and kept track of the activities of real estate salespeople. From the beginning we recruited both blacks and whites as block captains, and from April 1969 on, they had a newsletter to carry around. This little paper, typed and edited by residents and printed, photocopied or mimeographed at a variety of places, helped to unite the neighborhood and to publicize what the league was doing to stabilize and improve it. The Community News was useful in squelching the rumors that inevitably flew round an integrating neighborhood.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 gave the Stabilization Committee a weapon with which to oppose the real estate companies' attempts to stimulate panic selling. Reports of solicitation (the Paul Revere approach: "They're coming, you must sell now if you hope to get a good price . . . .") and of "steering"--showing to blacks only segregated or transitional neighorhoods and warning whites away--were forwarded to the attorney in charge of the Housing Section of the Department of Justice. There, two dynamic young attorneys left over from the Johnson administration interested themselves in the affairs of Colonial Place/Riverview. Reports of questionable real estate activities from both the neighborhood and Tidewater Fair Housing, Inc., which was very active in opening up the suburbs to minority residence, focused federal attention briefly but effectively on the neighborhood. The announcement on radio and television in July 1969 that the FBI was about to launch an investigation of real estate practices in the neighborhood had an electrifying effect on unscrupulous brokers. They stopped their panic peddling and complained bitterly that the civic league was unfair in giving them such bad publicity.
After 1969, despite some isolated examples of panic solicitation, the real estate firms of Tidewater began reluctantly to relent. The presidents of the Norfolk Board of Realtors during 1969, 1970, and 1971 were receptive to requests not to use mail or telephone solicitations in Colonial Place and Riverview, and members of the league interviewed firms one by one to reeducate real estate salespeople to see the community as one in which both races could live. Personal calls, the maintenance of a well-publicized list of cooperating realtors, and the development of an attractive brochure assembled and circulated by the civic league in 1970 (as well as judicious threats of reports to the Department of Justice where necessary) gradually overcame real estate firms' resistance, and convinced some important firms to alter attitudes and practices. It was found that the best defense against uncooperative realty firms was the glare of publicity, what they had always done in the changing climate of the early 70s now looked sinister and out of step with the times. In the spring of 1969 Norfolk's biracial Citizen's Advisory Committee held a session in Colonial Place to hear complaints against realty firms. Letters of complaint filed with both the Realty Board and the Department of Justice were effective in some cases. However, persuasion was also effective. The cooperation of some key firms (Nancy Chandler and Goodman-Segar-Hogan particularly), and of the Norfolk Board of Realtors, particularly during the presidency of John B. Jonak, Jr., in 1971, was invaluable. During the process of working on the real estate problems the Stabilization Committee also managed to persuade the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star to drop Section 89, "For Sale to Colored" and adopt the "For Sale, Norfolk," "For Sale, Virginia Beach," etc., designations.
By the middle 70s the recalcitrants still said the neighborhood would be all-black in five years, but racial integration in housing was rapidly becoming a reality in the suburbs, the navy had thrown its weight behind the idea of equal access for all, and Colonial Place and Riverview had turned the corner (although just as we began to breathe easier a separatist movement in Riverview, which so far had managed to avoid integration pretty much, created a crisis which eventuated in a majority vote from Riverview citizens to remain part of the civic league). When the civic league began holding its annual open house in May 1972 to show both "restored" houses and those for sale, many real estate salespeople, including some who had previously been hostile, responded with enthusiasm and took clients to the event without regard to race.
The second major challenge for the Stabilization Committee was the public school situation. By 1968 the racial ratio at Stuart School (then a grades 1-6 elementary school; there was, as yet, no public kindergarten in Norfolk) was a matter of concern if Colonial Place/Riverview was to remain desirable for middle class families with young children. Between 1966 and 1968 Stuart had gone from 20% to 50% black, as the area from 35th to 38th had changed entirely; the white decline was also encouraged by Norfolk's insane freedom-of-choice desegregation plan, which grouped four schools--white Stuart and Larchmont, and black Smallwood (where the Mills Godwin Building of ODU now stands) and Madison--permitting transfers between any of them; white parents could (and did) choose Larchmont, and public school supporters at Stuart despaired. Integration at Stuart, first of students, and then in 1966 of faculty, had proceeded smoothly under the wise leadership of the principal, D.C. Beery. But at Christmas, 1968 Mr. Beery suddenly died. The School Board, aware of the critical importance of Stuart, appointed Jack Thomas principal. Mr. Thomas had a gift for inspiring his teachers with esprit de corps and for dealing firmly but kindly with the children. Under his direction, and assisted by neighborhood parents who nagged the School Board mercilessly, Stuart developed into something of a model school, with teachers' aides, special teachers and programs (like reading, which few Norfolk schools had in 1968), additional library books, and sufficient (and new) textbooks. Even as its racial proportion reached 72% black and 28% white at the end of the 1969-70 school year, what might have been a liability became a great asset in selling the community to new residents.
While the civic league was working to convert real estate firms, striving to help Stuart, and publicizing its stabilization effort, it was also working actively with the city to maintain the level of municipal services in a neighborhood no longer solely white. In the days of segregation, when a neighborhood made the transition to non-white, the level of municipal services commonly deteriorated, so the league formed committees to relay complaints about sanitation and housing code enforcement (30 years ago housing codes were virtually not enforced in minority neighborhoods) to city agencies. As the same time it explored the means of updating and improving services such as street lighting (it is hard now to imagine how dark Colonial Place and Riverview were at night in 1969) and maintenance of open spaces and of coping with problems like traffic and incipient blight.
The first foray into neighborhood improvement came at a most opportune time, and from a source unconnected with the civic league. During the spring of 1969, when all these efforts were being launched simultaneously, a Riverview high school teacher began a petition movement requesting the City Council to change the zoning of Colonial Place and Riverview from multi-family to single-family. This movement struck an immediate response in residents new and old, and the act of carrying petitions around brought people together. When the civic league presented the petitions to City Council, the delegation was biracial, projecting an image, highly unusual in 1969, of black and white neighbors pursuing a single goal of community improvement. Ultimately Colonial Place and Riverview were rezoned R-IIa, the single-family zoning applicable to the lot sizes of the area. This action was the subject of an approving editorial in the Virginian-Pilot, which noted that changing times had provided an alternative to flight and racial turnover: ". . . now that the residents [of Colonial Place/Riverview] have chosen accommodation over segregation, and City Council has acceded to their request for stricter zoning, the prospects for stability should be strong indeed." (August 22, 1969).
Rezoning had come just in time; demolition of East Ghent (the area from Colonial Avenue to Granby Street, and from Olney Road to 20th Street had completed the transition from white to black by 1967) began late in 1969, and the rehousing for families displaced from there and from the educational center renewal area in Brambleton, put heavy pressure on Colonial Place. Many realty salespeople could not seem to think of any other place for displaced families to go, and during 1970 and 1971 more black than white families entered Colonial Place. These were very active years for the Stabilization Committee as some realty firms found it difficult or impossible to forego the profits of traditional racial turnover. But the rezoning proved a valuable tool: integration would not lead to subdivision of the old houses, with consequent overcrowding, the usual accompaniments of neighborhood change.
By the winter of 1971 Colonial Place/Riverview had weathered the first blasts of change, and there had been no widespread panic and flight. To the civic league's amazement, the city now appeared ready to embrace our effort (after having held us at arm's length, like smelly garbage, for two years; in some quarters the passing of segregation was not seen as a plus). The January 1971 meeting of the civic league featured a panel discussion entitled "Norfolk's Neighborhoods in the 1970s" featuring the mayor, Roy B. Martin, Donald Slater, head of Model Cities, Jack Shiver, director of NRHA, the president of the Board of Realtors (who appeared to have been brought at gun-point), and the president-elect of the state association of savings and loan associations. The mayor and other participants had been asked for two purposes: to find out their thoughts about the future of Colonial Place and what the city would do to assist our novel approach to community stability; and to bring home to them the determination of the community to retain its biracial and middle-income character. Among the expectable platitudes uttered on such occasions was a significant statement from Mayor Martin to the effect that the city government had been watching with interest what had been going on in Colonial Place, and had wondered why the city's assistance had not been requested. He suggested that the civic league might explore the possibility of having Colonial Place/Riverview declared a conservation district, similar to that of Ghent (where the conservation district status had reversed deterioration and spearheaded the revitalization of the area--as well as the destruction of the eastern quarter of the neighborhood).
Astonished at this proffering of the olive branch, the civic league promptly drafted a letter asking City Council to investigate a conservation district for our neighborhoods. City Council deferred this request to the City Planning Commission, which held a hearing at the end of February, 1971 and recommended that NRHA undertake a detailed investigation to determine what would be the best approach to the preservation of Colonial Place. City Council approved this investigation on March 9, 1971, and the neighborhood and its people began a two-and-a-half year sojourn in the bureaucratic wilderness from which we emerged in October 1973 with the Colonial Place/Riverview Conservation District. Given the well-known propensity of NRHA for clearance schemes, the neighborhood required much reassurance that this project was to emphasize conservation by rehabilitation rather than by bulldozer. Community needs and desires were made known to the city by the creation of a Neighborhood Coalition, an organization separate from (but closely allied with) the civic league. At the same time the coalition had the task of interpreting NRHA to the neighborhood and explaining the glacial pace of their activity.
The "General Development Plan for Colonial Place/Riverview," which emerged in July 1972 provided the basis for the conservation district approved by the City Council in the summer of 1973. By autumn the conservation district and its adjuncts, the certificate-for-occupancy program (the idea for which had emerged from the Coalition members), and the housing code inspectors, using a code written by a neighborhood committee and approved by City Council to apply only to the Colonial Place/Riverview Conservation District, were in business. These programs were all funded initially by Model Cities' money, and after 1974 by revenue-sharing funds. A major objective, undreamed of in 1968, had been achieved.
But by the early 70s new ground had been broken on all sides. In 1970 and 1971 Norfolk's school desegregation had become total, with busing and pairings of white and black schools (Stuart, as a black school, was paired with Suburban Park and Granby Elementaries), and busing, and the schools lost their racial character. The civic league continued its activities and added new ones. Community Christmas caroling had been started in 1968, and continued each year. In 1972 the annual open house was inaugurated to bring prospective purchasers together with cooperating realtors to view the houses for sale as well as recently-restored houses. This event, well-reported in the media, was very successful in conveying to realtors and the public at large a positive image of Colonial Place/Riverview as attractive to buyers of both races. The unbuilt-upon lots left over from earlier periods of expansion were mostly built upon by 1975, and the goals of the stabilization effort had been met: the neighborhood had become and remained a community open to all. It had maintained and improved its housing stock, and improved the physical environment of the neighborhood significantly. While it was not the vision of those who had founded the civic league in 1966, it was perhaps a more durable vision for the last third of the 20th Century--and beyond. (Back to Brief History)
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