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If They Had a Hammer

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With hammer swinging as he barks orders at his crew, construction foreman Tony Woodroffe is the very portrait of both the failures of Richmond's past and the hope provided by Richmond's housing renaissance.

The 28-year-old is black and from a historically low-income, high-crime neighborhood in Richmond's South Side. He used to deal drugs for a living and can't legally drive a car. He doesn't expect to buy a house anytime soon because of credit issues ("I'm a convicted felon, man") and depends on the bus to get himself to work.

But in his work, building houses in Church Hill, Barton Heights and other areas of the city once plagued by crime, poverty and misery, Woodroffe sees nothing but promise. This is the "better way of life," despite the misery it may cause for some residents displaced by revitalization and gentrification.

"This was a tough area," he says from the second story of the partially framed Italianate-reproduction house he's building on Chimborazo Boulevard in Church Hill. "I don't know who's doing it, but whoever doing it made it so you can walk here without being afraid of being asked to buy drugs, being beaten up, being afraid because of what color you was."

Though black, Woodroffe is fair-skinned with freckles and had reason to be nervous, he says. But now? "I ain't scared to get off the bus and come to work" he says. "I can leave my tools outside without them being stolen."

One of Woodroffe's crew nods in agreement. "There was a time there'd be 20, 30 drug dealers standing out here," says Jimmy Vaughan, 57, also black with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. Now, both Woodroffe and Vaughan agree, "the chief of police [is] doing his job."

So are Woodroffe and Vaughan. For four years, Woodroffe has worked construction in Richmond's old neighborhoods. Four years ago, this was a different place. "Used to be cops and reporters like you didn't come back here except when there was a murder," Woodroffe says.

Though sympathetic to the plight of low-income elderly residents forced out along with the drug dealers, Woodroffe and Vaughan shed no tears as they assess how things were compared with how they are now. Gesturing with his cigarette across the alleyway to the rear of a neighboring house spoiled by years of neglect and rot, Woodroffe is blunt: "You wouldn't want to live in nothing like that, would you?" he says. "You wouldn't want your kids living in a neighborhood that looks like that."

Woodroffe speaks casually of his old life before his turn for the better, but says it's the prevailing winds of change that keep him sailing straight.

"It makes it easier for me as a person not to get in trouble," he says, speculating that the city's dramatically lowered crime rate has something to do with increased opportunities from all the construction.

"I make more working every day than the average drug dealer flipping a pack," he says. "It's good money here now. I'm clean now, and I don't plan on going back to it — I changed with everything else." S

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