Richmond: a city still in the midst of segregation

Latrease Gregory moved to Creighton Court after her home in the Blackwell community was demolished for revitalization. Now she said her home is once again being threatened by the promise of a healthier community, but she says the redevelopment in the Blackwell community left some people homeless.

Driving along I-64, a newcomer to Richmond may not be fully aware of what is directly in their line of vision as they enter the city. Creighton Court, one of Richmond’s public housing communities, is one of the first public housing projects that can be seen from the interstate. On a short, 10-minute drive through Church Hill in Richmond’s East End a newcomer may unknowingly drive past five of the public housing sites all within a two-mile radius of one another.

John Moeser, professor emeritus of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that this concentration of poverty in the East End wasn’t an accident, but rather a means of maintaining the social construct of poverty. Moeser explained that the high-density poverty that is concentrated in the East End is a result of segregation and ultimately the lingering effects of the Civil War.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ vision for redevelopment and revitalization to deconcentrate poverty within the East End begins with the redevelopment two of Richmond’s public housing communities, Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court.

“When we talk about the density [of poverty], we’re not just talking about the fact that there are huge complexes that sit there alone. There are huge complexes that are closely located in close proximity to other large projects. Those residents, if you go and you visit the neighborhood, you’ll see that there are once stable neighborhoods in close proximity to all of them,” Douglas Dunlap, deputy director of the department of planning and development review, said.

 Jones said that Richmond faces a one in four poverty rate with people living below the poverty level. He said that 10 percent of the people living below the poverty level in Richmond are living in public housing, which is concentrated in the East End.

“Public housing is a model that was developed 50 years ago that is not operable in today’s society. It was meant to be a temporary option for people who had fallen on bad times. For many people, it has become a permanent housing situation. The unfortunate thing is that it’s concentrated,” Jones said.

Moeser explained that the concentration of poverty began in Richmond during the Great Depression and the onset of the New Deal when a federal agency, the Homeowners Loan Corporation, was created to curtail the foreclosure crisis. In the 1930s, this corporation, Moeser said, then decided to evaluate neighborhoods across the country as a way to determine the risk of providing loans to residents in those areas.

Moeser explained that realtors evaluated neighborhoods in Richmond based on criteria the Homeowners Loan Corporation developed. Then neighborhoods were given grades “A” through “D”; “A” being the very best neighborhoods and “D” being the very worst. There was a color associated with each grade and red was associated with the grade “D.”

 Redlining is the term that was associated with the grade “D” because it meant that giving mortgages to people in these areas was very risky. What is interesting about the way Richmond was graded, Moeser explained, is that based on the different criteria, such as income levels of the population and occupations of the residents, many of the African-American communities should have received high grades.

 Moeser said that Jackson Ward, for instance, was considered the Harlem of the South, a hub for African-American culture and a stable neighborhood. It too was redlined along with every other African-American neighborhood in Richmond. He said that it is clear that the realtors never looked at the income or occupation of the residents because Jackson Ward was home to lawyers, doctors and business people.

 The redlined African-American neighborhoods eventually ran out of money because the community was labeled at risk for receiving loans. This meant it was difficult to even get a loan for repairs to a home, Moeser explained. Eventually, all of the housing in these once thriving neighborhoods deteriorated and the communities became known as the “slums.”

 “The black neighborhoods tend to be clustered, and that obviously had to do with segregation. By law, blacks were zoned into certain parts of the city and whites in other parts of the city. That law was overturned in the early part of the 20th century by the Supreme Court, but there were other ways that Richmond kind of got around that Supreme Court ruling and it really led to a sharply divided city by race,” Moeser said. 

As the slum area in downtown Richmond began to grow in response to the lack of funding, slum clearance and urban renewal became the quick fix for wiping away any trace of African-American neighborhoods.

Eventually, Moeser said, many African-Americans were forced into public housing, most of which was built east of Chamberlayne Avenue.

“The powers that be were certainly not going to put public housing in white neighborhoods, were certainly not going to put it in affluent neighborhoods. They put all the public housing in those redlined areas and also in low-income areas,” Moeser said.

Richmond’s first public housing community was Gilpin Court which was completed in the early 1940s. However, the construction of Gilpin Court wiped out a once stable neighborhood known as Apostle Town.

Moeser explained that there wasn’t enough public housing in Gilpin Court for all of the people who were living in Apostle Town as well as the public housing residents. This led to the residents of Apostle Town being displaced and scattering to different parts of the city, destroying yet another once-stable community.

In the 1950s, the Jackson Ward community was also divided by a city project, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, which is now I-95. Moeser said that when African-Americans from the Jackson Ward community were displaced they began to move north, into white neighborhoods such as the Barton Heights community.

Thad Williamson, an associate professor at the Jepson School of leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, said whites were able to avoid racial integration by moving to the suburbs which later became known as “white flight.”

“Lower-income African-Americans who lost their homes were forced into public housing. This took place in the 50s so that’s when you increasingly began to see poor blacks move increasingly into the north Church Hill area,” Moeser said.

Douglas Dunlap, deputy director of the department of planning and development review, said that his family has lived in the East End since about 1955, and his mother still lives in the area. Dunlap said he could remember a time when as he was growing up when the neighborhood was more stable and most of the houses that surrounded his mother’s home were filled with families.

“What you find now is a lot more blight, a lot more vacant properties, a lot of gaps in the streetscape because residences have been demolished. They’ve basically been abandoned by new investors who have come in and leased them out until they have declined to a point where they cannot be leased, or families have moved on to other neighborhoods,” Dunlap said.

Moeser explained that Richmond’s history is one of the primary reasons for the concentration of poverty in the East End. Over time this concentration of poverty has led to other problems in those areas.

“High-density poverty didn’t happen by accident. It was really by design that the white power structure was behind all of these projects, and they knew full and well what they were doing in terms of these projects really impacting black neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods were not as powerful politically as white neighborhoods, and so we look at the politics of the city, African Americans had a very small voice politically so their voice was essentially washed over and the consequence was the wholesale destruction of black neighborhoods,” Moeser said.

City Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represents Richmond’s East End 7th District, said that the concentration of public housing is a much bigger issue than simply housing. This concentration of poverty is connected to the number of jobs that offer a living wage, access to public transportation and lack of funding for public schools.

Williamson explained that this concentration of poverty “has generated all kinds of problems including your residents being shut off transportation wise, socially, from employment opportunities, high rates of crime in those communities [and] the incredible violence problem that persists to this day.”

Moeser explained that when talking about creating mixed-use neighborhoods, the city must also think about the types of employers the redevelopment will attract to the area. He said it is not enough to simply have a job. Many of the single mothers living in public housing, he explained, have jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, but it’s just not enough to support a family.

“For a family of four, for instance; that family is in poverty if its total annual cash income is between $22,000 and $23,000. What about the family whose income is $23,100? They’re not considered poor, but that’s ridiculous,” Moeser said.

He continued to explain that there are an increasing number of families who don’t quite meet the official statistics for being below the poverty line, but they are still struggling because their jobs don’t provide enough money for them to survive.

The problem with redevelopment, Moeser pointed out, is finding the funds to successfully complete the project because there isn’t enough tax-base to fund the project.

In 1974, Susan Giller wrote Richmond’s housing: The good the bad and the ugly, an article for Richmond Magazine, and in it she raised a similar question: how does the city intended to pay for urban renewal? At that point, she noted that federal funds for housing programs had essentially dried up.

Jones explained that for this project the city has set aside some pre-development money to begin redeveloping Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court.

As for the rest of the funding, Jones said, “The model we are going to use is the model where we bring in private developers to share in the expense so it will be a partnership between the government, the private sector and the philanthropy.”

Newbille said that the opportunity to redevelop public housing in Richmond comes with a great responsibility to learn from history and from other redevelopment projects.

“Richmond has been described as a city of great social rest as opposed to social unrest. It’s conservative. It generally is kind of satisfied with the way things are because the way things are kind of reflect the way things have always been. So we’re not Chicago, we’re not Atlanta, so it just takes us longer. I don’t know whether we’re slow learners or if we just don’t care to learn, but I think it does have a lot to do with the nature of this place,” Moeser said.

 Moeser explained that although Chicago, for example, completed its redevelopment ahead of many major metropolitan areas, that does not mean that there were not costs associated with the redevelopment.

Moeser explained that in Chicago, the Cabrini-Green housing project and the Robert-Taylor Homes were two high-rise apartment complexes that made up some of the public housing. There was a lot of crime connected to these areas as well. When Chicago decided to redevelop, these two high-rise apartment complexes were destroyed and those residents were forced to find new housing.

For this same reason, Newbille said, she will not support anything other than one-for-one replacement, which would guarantee that any of the residents currently living in Creighton Court or Whitcomb Court would be provided with affordable housing if they were displaced.

Displacement is almost certain for some of the residents, Williamson explained.

If you think about standard development strategies, they usually call for doubling the density of the development and making it a mixed-income [community], which means basically only about one-third would be low income. That means that if you’re doubling the density of overall people, and making it one-third poverty, that means that two-thirds can stay and one-third have to go. You’re talking about having to find places to go for hundreds if not thousands of people potentially, if you redevelop everything,” Williamson said.

Jones explained that the redevelopment project, however, is in good hands, because Adrienne Goolsby was recently hired as the new chief executive officer of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Goolsby, he said, comes to Richmond from Chicago, where she worked on the Cabrini-Green housing project and the Robert-Taylor Homes.

“I say that, to say that she comes with that kind of experience,” Jones said.

Although redevelopment in Richmond has taken much longer to arrive at, compared to other cities, public officials and many residents living in public housing have high hopes for the future of Richmond’s East End.

Gregory said that her dream for the community would be a community where her children are safe, have access to a good education and are able to see beyond poverty. She, however, questioned whether it is realistic to envision a community where doctors are living next to public housing residents.

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