A previous story, "Young Wheeling," focused on some of the young leaders who are working to build a new economy in the city of Wheeling, West Virginia, after decades of economic decline. Some are buying and rehabbing old houses in the neighborhood of East Wheeling, historically home to the city’s African American community. The revitalization movement is largely made up of middle class, white professionals. So how does the movement look to a young person of color from East Wheeling, where nearly 70% of children live below the poverty line? Producer Catherine Moore toured the neighborhood with one of its long-time residents, Ron Scott Jr., who counsels at-risk youth in East Wheeling. He shares his memories of the way things used to be, his perspective on how things have changed, and his opinions about the efforts to re-envision his old stomping ground.
Wheeling is not the only place in America facing these difficult and sensitive issues. This piece from The Gothamist about the revitalization efforts in Buffalo, NY, got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year. In it, a black professor at the University of Buffalo shares his research on how the supposed renaissance is impacting black residents and offers a critique of the largely white movement to revitalize the city.
"I'm not convinced that most folks here are anchored by a larger vision of the type of city they want to build. They equate a revitalized city with a bunch of white people doing their thing in it,” Taylor said.
“I'm not anti-growth, but I think the purpose of growth is to build a city that is just and a good place to live and raise a family for everybody that is there,” he added. “And so I think you judge that city by what it does for the least of the members of that society and the extent to which it's consciously attempting to develop all of these communities.
Scott founded the African American Students Association, an academic club that awards scholarships to black youth in the Wheeling area. Out of this work grew The Movement, a hip hop collective. Members put on showcases and record tracks in a studio Scott has set up at Youth Services Systems. This is a sampling of their work. [Warning: Explicit Lyrics]
We are in wonderful, snow-covered East Wheeling. It’s a little different of a look from when I was younger, but I still love it just the same.
My name is Ronald Scott Jr. I am 40 years old. I’m from Wheeling, West Virginia, preferably East Wheeling. And I’m a counselor.
There’s Jack’s, well, what used to be Jack’s. The building next to where my Uncle Wylie lived was called Jack’s Produce, and it was another hub of the community. It was one of those places everybody went.
It was a sustaining neighborhood that people lived in, had memories of. And there’s not much of it left. And that’s rough. I never really thought about it. And there's new folks coming now.
I call them the New Bohemians. Because they’re young, they seem to love life, they’re all about change, they're open minded. You might see a cat with his headphone in, jogging, with all his dogs walking around. You might see a white cat with dreadlocks telling you about fruit smoothies and stuff like that. This is stuff that weren't necessarily seeing back in the day.
EAST WHEELING BACK IN THE DAY
When you think of Wheeling, East Wheeling would be the area where the black folks were. The area had a very rich and connected community. I think a lot of it got lost, mainly because of the drug epidemic and the crime that came along with it.
You had an entire generation that ended up being in prison. We lost an entire generation to that. Then we had an entire generation that was growing up addicted.
And then we had an entire generation that was raised solely by their grandparents. Then when you throw on top of that the projects that had good intent, like Hope Six, the projects that tore down government housing, like Grandview Manner, that tore it down and displaced those families. And like the project that brought this field here.
That tore down this entire neighborhood and displaced those families. That just fractured and scattered an entire community that was a lot stronger and a lot more connected.
There’s a ton of differences between the folks who are from here and the folks I’m calling the New Bohemians that have made their way here.
You gotta envy some of the New Bohemians because they see Wheeling as a blank slate. And that’s so different than the people who are from here, who remember when this neighborhood was here, and now it’s gone, and they were forced to move over here. And now they moved over there. Because what they have as far as Wheeling is concerned are the memories of the doors that were shut in their face or the programs that were stopped.
But we can learn from their drive, their incentive, and their vision. We can definitely learn from that. Because they’re seeing our home in a different way. And the best part is, it’s their home now too. So if we could sync both our visions together, we could do a whole lot of stuff in this area.
HOPE IS A LUXURY
I think right now in Wheeling there is a sense of hope that's going along with all the changes and improvements that folks are making around here. But unfortunately, I think it's a lot tougher to see all that hope that everybody else is feeling, and momentum, when you're poor in the area. Especially young and poor.
Hope is a luxury that a lot of them aren’t afforded. And so as much hope as there is in the city, when you're a young poor person in this area, it just isn't for you. It's almost like watching a TV show.
I again like to stay as positive as I can and think the folks who are here to make change want to include us in the change. They want to change the environment into a better version of itself, instead of just what I want it to be and what I see and it only includes them. So I’m hoping that that is the thing that separates the movement now from gentrification.
Like there's a woman named, everybody calls her Ms. Gigi, who does amazing things for kids. She does things like she had a princess party right in front of her house. All these little girls came down, dressed up, and did makeup, did nails. One day she had a BBQ. Nobody got charged, everybody ate. She had kickball games, adults versus kids. And what I would need for some of these New Bohemian folks to do is to get involved with that. Don't necessarily try to bring something totally brand new that could steam roll over something that’s already here. Gigi's already doing things. See if you could help her. Because she would love the help. And it would be great to see folks get behind you in your neighborhood get behind you. Just take a back seat to us every now and again.
MORE THAN JUST A BUILDING
I've got a lot of hope and I think this is the first wave and there will be more to come. And I think every wave is going to get more and more intense every time until change is all over this area. And we'd be able to sit down with the new folks, and the folks that have been here, and together talk about the change. Like I would be able to tell them about Jack’s and what it was, and they will be able to tell me about all the things they found out about Jack’s when they were renovating it and turning it into what it is now. And it will be a friendly conversation where I'm glad you came and did it, and they're glad that you could tell me this wasn't just a building. That I didn't put all my blood sweat and tears into renovating just some wood. This was a place with history and one hand will wash the other and it will be a success.