river economy
March 1, 2004 10:43 AM

Ever wondered why the south side of any town seems to be synonymous with lower incomes, higher crime rates, and a plethora of pawn shops?

I'm sure you could probably figure this out on your own (if you didn't know already), but most towns are built along rivers. Many of those rivers flow north to south. So the north side of town became the more coveted real estate because the water was better, since the sewage also flowed north to south.

This is true even in Richmond (Virginia) (link opens map in new window), where the James River flows more northwest to southeast than north to south. Which explains why the southeast area, particularly the area just southeast of the city proper, and downstream of the old tobacco plants along the river, is historically the most depressed section of town (see the area around Williamsburg Rd, map level 4).

There's actually an area to the west of Richmond along the south bank of the river which is very posh and Old Richmond, aka South of the Rivah (on map level 4, move the map to the west - it's around the Chippenham Parkway). But for the most part, you see lower and lower incomes, more and more industrial area and less and less new/restored living area the further east (and further south) you go along the south side of the river.

The same is also true to some extent as you go east on the north side toward Mechanicsville (look at the map at level 5), though I suspect that has a lot less to do with the river and more to do with the gradual overtaking of the surrounding rural area by the city and its airport. I'm pretty sure plopping an airport somewhere makes it great industrial real estate and bad for home owners.

There's a less clear-cut example of this south-north phenomenon in Norfolk (also VA), where the James hits the Chesapeake Bay and flows out to the Atlantic. Norfolk was ultimately on the receiving end of all the schlock from the James River, and the Elizabeth river (which runs north to south primarily) also gathered quite a bit of its own stank from the merchant and military ports that rim Norfolk's bays and rivers. Portsmouth has been much worse off environmentally and real-estate-wise than most of the southern parts of Richmond. Intriguingly, though, Chesapeake, a rural area for centuries, has ended up developing as a reasonably nice (if expressionless) suburban area in the past 20 years - despite being further south along the Elizabeth than Portsmouth. I suspect that has something to do with the historical usage of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth, which is still swimmable and used for recreation - maybe it never became part of the industrial shipping routes?

[This lesson is brought to you courtesy of the revolving restaurant in downtown Dallas and my partner's helpful civil engineer father. I highly recommend tracking this sort of geographical history of the towns you know; big fun. This one could also be expanded on by, say, a reader with an intimate familiarity with southeastern Virginia estuaries.]

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your wicked thoughts

So THAT'S why Cambridge has such a superiority complex.

these are the thoughts of house9 on March 1, 2004 01:16 PM

I know of one city where this is not true - Minneapolis, and it is on a river - the Mississippi. The north side is definitely the "poor" side of town, and the southernmost suburbs are very posh indeed.

these are the thoughts of Deb on March 1, 2004 06:03 PM

The Thames flows east to west, but the same thing happens in both Oxford and London: north of the river's posh, south's a bit dodgy.

I remember reading somewhere that the equivalent distinction between east end and west is down to prevailing winds; fumes from industry tend to be carried eastward, so the poor people live in the east and the rich ones live in the west, getting fresh air from the country. And, when I think about it, most of our weather comes in from the Atlantic (rather than Europe), so that makes sense.

these are the thoughts of the absent student on March 1, 2004 09:27 PM

This also makes me think of SE DC and Baltimore...

these are the thoughts of Kim on March 1, 2004 10:18 PM

wow! i've always wondered that!
thanks! :D

these are the thoughts of gena on March 2, 2004 03:57 PM

And of course the Thames actually flows from west to east. (I gave up geography when I was fourteen, what do you expect?)

these are the thoughts of the absent student on March 2, 2004 09:04 PM

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