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View From the 6th

A district’s future rides on an open seat.

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Island or not, its future is up for grabs.

The 6th District weaves erratically throughout Richmond and encompasses the new convention center, the Virginia Biotech Park, much of Jackson Ward, the financial district, Shockoe Slip, Shockoe Bottom and every court building in the city, north and south of the James. It also contains the greatest concentration of public housing, two unaccredited public elementary schools and a seam-splitting city jail. And since Sa’ad El-Amin’s resignation earlier this month, the 6th has had no councilman.

El-Amin’s departure is pivotal. It’s why, on a steaming hot afternoon last week, Anderson passed a sheet of paper to newly tapped campaign worker Art Burton, Richmond Sheriff Michelle Mitchell’s father, beneath the canopy of a Farmers’ Market produce stand. Handwritten, it’s a press release announcing Anderson’s candidacy in the special election Nov. 4 for what remains of El-Amin’s truncated term.

Anderson, 33, is community resource coordinator for Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). While he’s never run for political office, he managed last year the winning campaign of 6th District Richmond School Board member Gail Townes. In addition, he’s hoping his eight years in Richmond — as a transplant from Woodbridge — along with his role as president of the Shockoe Bottom Residents’ Association, recent completion of the Leadership Metro Richmond program and his citywide presence will prompt enough 6th District voters to elect him.

It’s expected Anderson will have challengers soon — perhaps one with an edge, if what critics say is true and Council will give a leg up to an interim appointment who is seeking a permanent post. For now, Anderson’s using both of his to be the first one out of the gates.

He appears acutely aware of the yardstick. He describes the 6th: “The heart of the city, the meat and potatoes of it; this is us, this was Sa’ad. He put us on the map, but it’s time we chart a new course.” He adds, “Sa’ad and I agree on the goal, but not necessarily on how to get there.”

Anderson’s goals include enclosing the Farmers’ Market, cleaning up Shockoe Bottom, expanding Neighborhoods in Bloom to include commercial properties and installing curbs and sidewalks in areas that flood without them. He pledges salves for ailing or otherwise long-ignored business corridors such as Broad Street, Second Street, Meadowbridge Road and Hull Street. “We’re not talking about the Gap,” he says. “It’s not coming here.” Yet, he says, “Maybe after incubators come, a Starbucks or a Gap would come to Hull Street.”

But can a district as diverse as the 6th — that’s divided by a river, wrought with construction, lean on leadership and often upended by disparate interests of commerce and community — be legitimized by a Starbucks or a Gap anchoring someplace unlikely like Hull Street? Of course not, Anderson says.

Still, however elusive, mentioning Starbucks seems to be a beacon. Just like an ancient and decomposing trolley bench an elderly Highland Park resident recently pointed out to Anderson. He calls older residents in the 6th District his “professors.” Restoring the bench, the woman told him, would be a sign that the history of a place can survive and also change with the times. It’s up to the city to fix it, she said. Anderson agrees, saying it would be part of a councilman’s job. “You need someone who can focus on Brown’s Island [development] and that bench at the same time.”

But a more profound sign has his attention: violent crime. While it’s on the rise citywide, it’s more prolific in some 6th District pockets like the stretch off Montiera Road that locals call Dodge City, a place where the idle and impervious loiter in the blistering heat. Lately it’s become a hotbed for juvenile crime, Anderson says. And homicide.

Shonda Mohammed can put her finger on the bullet holes claiming the neighborhood. She has seven of them in her newly renovated house on North Avenue. Each one has punctured its siding in the past few months. One tore through her bedroom missing her head by seven or so inches, she says. She’s looking to Anderson or whoever fills the 6th District council seat to help stop it. Mohammed and her husband — both teachers in Richmond public schools — moved to the 6th District’s Barton Heights neighborhood six months ago from Louisa County. They have two children. And they’re fed up with the violence. In April a teenage girl gunned down another teenage girl in front of their house. A wreath of plastic pink flowers in the shape of a cross marks the tragedy. And just weeks ago a teenage boy was struck by a bullet outside their backyard. Mohammed’s husband and a neighbor tried to keep him alive. He died. She says she feels like a hypocrite for wanting to leave. “How many bullet holes is one too many?” she asks.

For now, the Mohammeds are holding out for a strong sign that things will change. Anderson assures her that they will and that he’s committed to making it happen. She asks him if he wants to be on the agenda for the neighborhood association’s meeting this week. They’ve invited members of the police and Council’s public safety committee. Emphatically, Anderson answers: “Yes.” S

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