The wonder years: How real estate and gentrification changed Belmont for good

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Photo: John Robinson Photo: John Robinson

“One big problem is change. [The older residents] don’t understand change is happening and why it’s happening, and sometimes I don’t understand it myself.” – Jimmy Dettor, lifelong Belmont resident. From the documentary, Still Life With Donuts.

When she arrived in Charlottesville in the summer of 1976, Joan Schatzman didn’t think of herself as a pioneer. She was 24, fresh out of college, and when her best friend Debbie decided to go to grad school at UVA, she went along for the ride.

Initially they rented an apartment near Grounds, but in the spring of 1978, Joan, Debbie, and another friend decided to buy a house across town in an old, run-down neighborhood called Belmont.

“Belmont?” people said. “You can’t live in Belmont!”

“Why?”

“Nothing but trouble there.”

“What trouble?” Schatzman wondered. She’d grown up on the south side of Chicago; what was so scary about a sleepy Southern town? The only problem she could see was that the residents were kind of racist, but she didn’t think they’d bother her. Besides, the house was so cheap, $14,500 for a three bedroom place on Levy Avenue where the mortgage split three ways was cheaper than rent anywhere else in town.

In 2005, 27 years later, houses in Belmont were routinely selling for over $400,000. The neighborhood was hip, “the SoHo of Charlottesville,” “one of America’s Best Secret Neighborhoods.” Schatzman still lived there. In the intervening years she’d bought out her roommates, sold the house on Levy, and purchased four houses on nearby Douglas Avenue.

Buy the house, fix the house, sell the house. The bourgeois American dream.

Belmont’s change from a neighborhood the tonier set studiously avoided, to one where they got into bidding wars, seemed strange to people watching from the outside; if you were caught up in the madness, it could be kind of terrifying. One of Schatzman’s neighbors paid $450,000 for his house, and as both reality and panic set in, he anxiously asked Schatzman if she thought he’d paid too much.

There was a class Schatzman remembered from college titled “Urban Geography,” which she explained to me like this: “Cities go through cycles. There’s a central business district and there’s rings around it where the rich people live, so they can walk downtown. And then as they get more affluent, they want to move a little further out… The inner ring of fine, nice, beautiful homes now becomes devalued.”

It wasn’t because she was rich that Schatzman had been able to buy so many houses in Belmont. She wasn’t rich, she was in the right place at the right time, able to recognize an area filled with well-built, undervalued properties.

“I kind of identified Belmont as a place at the bottom of its cycle,” she said. “And I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna kill myself to buy. Whatever it takes, I’ll tighten the belt.”

Which is exactly what she did.

Until 2005, when something told her that things were going to change. The market was peaking, it was time to get out of the game. She sold two of her houses and rented out the third.

And then her new neighbor went and bought his house for $450,000 and asked her if he’d paid too much.

What she said was, “No,” but what she was thinking was, “Heck, yeah.”

Hitting bottom

“This is a rough neighborhood. The police are almost scared to get out of their cars.”—anonymous man in front of Belmont Market, The Daily Progress, 1984

“Belmont has had a boo-hiss-hiss, God-you-live-there? Reputation.” —Pat Weis, Belmont resident, The Daily Progress, 1990

In 1980 a handful of Belmont business owners and residents, determined to fight the “growing adolescent youth problem,” hired off-duty cops to patrol the small commercial section along Monticello Road at night. Spearheading the project was Bill Lanier, a self-described eccentric and entrepreneur who, despite having lived in the neighborhood for less than a year, claimed to be the unofficial “Mayor of Belmont.”

The patrols were not cheap, Lanier told the Daily Progress, but they were worth it. Local store owners, he said, were worried about more than their businesses; they were worried about their community.

It was nothing new, this sense of  worry. Around 1960, most Belmont residents began to feel like their neighborhood was changing for the worse. As older homeowners died off, commercial landlords began buying their houses to convert into cheap rental units. By the end of the 1970’s, rentals outnumbered owner-occupied houses and the neighborhood’s reputation had become one of crime and neglect.

The Charlottesville Department of Community Development sent out  a memo in September of 1979 to announce the creation of a Belmont neighborhood association. Around 100 Belmont residents showed up, only to be told that the memo had been sent by mistake; there were no current plans to set up a neighborhood group, the purpose of the meeting was simply to let residents speak their minds. And speak they did, telling Community Development head (now Mayor) Satyendra Huja about the problems they saw destroying their neighborhood: vandalism, drugs, neglected rental properties that were starting to decay, and most of all, “loitering juveniles.”

Where were the cops when you needed them?

According to the police, they were in Belmont, one of the most heavily patrolled areas in the city, even though its crime rate was no higher than anywhere else. The biggest problems cops faced in Belmont were drunken fights and domestic disputes, and unless they actually committed a crime, there wasn’t much they could do about kids hanging out.

John DeK. Bowen, Charlottesville’s chief of police at the time, blamed the tensions in Belmont on the fact that the neighborhood was changing from an all-white, owner-occupied neighborhood, to a racially mixed neighborhood with a lot of renters. It’s hard to see what was mixed about it. Belmont in 1980 was 90 percent white (the rest of the city was more like 75 percent). When it came to race, it was everything around Belmont that was changing.

Between 1979 and 1981, three public housing projects opened up just beyond Belmont’s borders: Garrett Square (now Friendship Court), Sixth Street, and South First Street. Where Belmont was mostly white, the projects were almost entirely black, and as Joan Schatzman remembers it, the two groups rarely crossed over into each other’s territory.

A 1980 report by the city on conditions in Belmont noted that “[m]any residents fear that the changing nature of the Belmont area has had a negative impact upon local youth, leading to increased vandalism, drug use and general delinquency.” But the report also said that things were starting to get better. The number of rentals was leveling off and the number of homeowners rising again. The Department of Community Development said that Belmont was in a “transition phase.”

Bill Lanier didn’t need an official report to tell him things were changing; he was out there making it happen. There were the police patrols, the shirts he was selling that said “Beautiful Downtown Belmont” and the Belmont Community Fair he’d organized that year.

“Free Chicken! Free Ice Cream! Live Bands!” the poster promised.

But Lanier’s interest went beyond community PR. Where most people saw a dilapidated corner of the city, he saw dollar signs. Lanier bought two houses in Belmont and flipped both for a tidy profit, deals that helped him to facilitate the purchase of three commercial buildings for a group of investors from Northern Virginia. The dollar figures involved were nothing compared to what they’d be later, but “The Mayor of Belmont” had seen the future, and the future was good.

“Three years ago to say that any house in Belmont was worth more than $35,000 was a joke,” he told the Daily Progress. “Now you can see a relatively new Jaguar go down the street in Belmont and pull into a driveway.”

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