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.


Changes to Come in Richmond’s Projects

Plans to redevelop public housing in Richmond could force residents to relocate while the city rebuilds the housing. The redevelopment could lead to healthier communities that have both housing and businesses. The process is meant to transform public housing communities into areas where people of all incomes would like to live.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones and his administration plan to address the issue of public housing in Richmond’s East End by working to deconcentrate poverty in that area. The two projects that the city plans to redevelop first are Creighton Court in Richmond’s East End and Whitcomb Court located in the Eastview area, bordering Jackson Ward.


With the large number of children in these housing projects, the city assures residents the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority will take the well being of the students into account when the relocation process takes place.

Chub Eberhardt, a Creighton Court resident, said he didn’t like the idea because it would mean separating members of the community.

“We are going to protest if they come over here trying to get this. People over here need this. We is a family group, we take care of each other,” Eberhardt said.

Maxine Cholmondeley, the interim CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, explained that city officials cannot talk about neighborhood revitalization without working to revitalize public housing.

The goal according to Peter Chapman, the deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and planning, is to create neighborhoods that resemble the mixed-income communities that existed generations ago. Chapman explained that these mixed-income communities provide children with the opportunity to have role models from all walks of life within their immediate neighborhood.

“What urban policy experts came to the realization of, about 20 or so years ago, maybe a little bit longer, is that you cannot create healthy, economically and socially viable and vibrant communities if you concentrate and in effect, warehouse low-income people,” Chapman said.

Cholmondeley explained that the housing authority would be undertaking mixed-income housing, which would mean having people of different income levels living in the same neighborhood. Along with this idea of mixed-income housing, she said there is also the idea of mixed-use neighborhoods. Mixed-use neighborhoods would bring services to the community.

“In order to have a neighborhood that is desirable and a neighborhood where anybody would want to live, we want to have mixed-use. That again would be not only housing but it would be doctor services, libraries, schools, banks, coffee shops, office space and commercial space all in the same area so that persons who live there have access to jobs and services,” Cholmondeley said.

Chapman explained that right now Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court are located in what is known as a food desert. A food desert, he said, is described as an area where people have to travel long distances to buy basic consumer goods. By redeveloping the area and creating mixed-use neighborhoods, Chapman said the city would like to attract a supermarket and other businesses to that area.

When you look at taking on economic revitalization of hugely underinvested areas, you have to start somewhere and typically you start with a component that will help to spark redevelopment, catalyze redevelopment, send a message to local stake holders and non-local stake holders that this community is moving in the right direction,” Chapman said.

Chapman explained that the revitalization plan focuses on Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court rather than other housing projects in the city in hopes that redeveloping these communities will help gain support for eventually redeveloping all of the housing projects.

Creighton Court, he said, was chosen strategically because of its close proximity to Armstrong High School, which is another asset to the city. Chapman said Armstrong High School consists of an area between 22 and 24 acres that the city would like to redevelop as a residential area with some retail.

Whitcomb Court, on the other hand, was chosen because a private developer- who Chapman could not name at this point- was interested in doing work on a site close to the housing project. Chapman said the city considered Whitcomb Court because it could create some synergy between the redevelopment projects. 

Cholmondeley said that she and a group including the mayor, the chief administrative officer for the city, the deputy chief administrator for economic and community development, the superintendent of schools, two of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority commissioners, and the president of the chamber of commerce took a trip to Atlanta to tour the property and hear how the Atlanta Housing Authority utilized the process. She said it made sense to visit Atlanta because it was close by and the city had been working on revitalization there since the ‘90s.

Cholmondeley also explained the concept of mixed-income housing and mixed-use neighborhoods is not unique to Atlanta. She said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been encouraging housing authorities to begin redevelopment for several years. Now that the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has looked at the way Atlanta implemented the two concepts, Cholmondeley said the Richmond can adapt the idea to the situation here.

Chapman and Cholmondeley emphasized that this will be a long process, which will take place over the course of several years. Cholmondeley said the city will need different parts of the community’s support, including schools and businesses in the area.

Chapman said the city began the charrette process, which is a process that includes structured meetings with people who live in the communities affected by this redevelopment. The charrette process began in 2010 and brought residents together with the public and private sector to cast a vision for what they want the East End to look like. Chapman added that this does not mean all of the residents in Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court are aware of the proposed changes.

Although the redevelopment process would force families living in Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court to leave their homes, Cholmondeley explained that the housing authority has to secure housing for the residents. The housing authority would do this by either relocating them to another public housing unit or by providing a housing voucher that would pay for a portion of their rent.

Further, Cholmondeley said the housing authority will also be taking the schools into consideration because there are so many children that live in these housing projects. She said relocating families could mean the children have to attend a different school.

“A school is a school. You go to school for one thing and that’s to learn. You can make friends everywhere. I ain’t got no problem making friends. Most the time it is difficult going to different schools because then you go to school with enemies and people that are trying to make bad things happen for you,” Ilt Jackson, a student at Armstrong High School, said.

Chapman said there will be plenty of community meetings that will be posted through the community associations to further the community engagement and outreach during this process.

Jodeci Coleman, a student at Richmond Community High School, has been a resident of Creighton Court for about 15 years. He said the change could be positive for the community because it could change the dynamics of the neighborhood.

“We’re really very excited that the mayor has this as a focus- deconcentrating poverty- because we think it can only benefit our residents. We look forward to working with the city and moving this forward,” Cholmondeley said.

The Richmond Housing and Redevelopment Authority is expected to issue a request for qualifications to attract a master planner for the redevelopment of Creighton Court and Whitcomb Court sometime this week. Chapman added that within the next year, the housing authority and the office of economic and community development will be working closely with the chosen developer to create a revitalization plan that will also include a relocation plan for the residents of the two housing projects.