Photo courtesy Faedah Totah
In Church Hill, north of Broad Street, where Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Faedah M. Totah lives, it's possible to observe a tug of war brought on by urban renewal.
But Totah found the topic of her newly released book about gentrification much farther afield, in Syria. Preserving The Old City of Damascus (Syracuse University Press) focuses on one of the world's oldest inhabited places. As many as 50,000 people — about the combined population of the Fan and Museum districts — live behind the wall that girds the Old City. The streets are narrow, the buildings crammed together, and history is layered.
Few people where she first lived, in the newer French Colonial-era neighborhood of Damascus, understood Totah's interest in the Old City; it was dirty, crime-ridden, and its residents untrustworthy. "Which is almost exactly what I heard when I moved to Richmond and Church Hill," she says with a laugh.
Social activists and historic preservationists halted the district's slide, and in 1979, the Ancient City of Damascus became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This designation came with rigorous conservation regulations but effectively "Disneyfied" some of the old streets.
Then Syria came apart at the seams. These circumstances have turned Totah's anthropological investigation into both history and mystery. Noting that she doesn't know how the Old City will emerge from the present civil war, Totah says, "The story doesn't have an end."