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Part Two

The Promised Land


For months, years even, residents and business owners in Blackwell have waited for some sign of hope. Many in Blackwell don't share Evans' enthusiasm. So far, the only thing they've seen is their neighborhood disappearing. Bulldozers have wiped out hundreds of rotting and unsafe buildings; many of its poorest families have moved. Empty corners and acres freshly tilled from unearthing remind those who remain that weeds grow fast where no one is there to cut them back. For some, the $27 million dream of a thriving neighborhood is starting to look an awful lot like other dreams and promises that have, over the years, fallen off to a trickle in aging memories. Still, they hold fast to this dream even as they criticize it. Deep down they hope it could be Blackwell's comeback.

So far, the HOPE VI program has been stalled by lengthy development processes and infighting among Blackwell residents who want to control how the money is spent. Groundbreaking on the first 99 multifamily units has been pushed back from December of last year to August, 2000.

On May 17, the RRHA's HOPE VI commission received approval from HUD for its development agreement and finance proposal for funding of 99 multifamily units at a cost of $9.4 million. The construction part of the project likely will begin by the end of the summer. This first project will help set the stage for the 188 home-ownership units that will break ground this fall and the other housing models that follow, says Duane Finger, RRHA deputy director of redevelopment and HOPE VI program coordinator.

Finger explains that, naturally, programs as big as HOPE VI, where $27 million is at stake, take research, time and endless paperwork. It took a year just to get the budget authorization. Finger says RRHA dipped into its own funding reserves in the interim so that the project would not fall too far behind schedule.

In addition, Finger says RRHA's commitment to Blackwell extends beyond the public housing demolitions and building plans. So far, it has acquired 30 private apartments. Sixty houses have been renovated at costs of $800,000.

And with 314 families relocated and 50 more to place, Finger says, HOPE VI is meeting its goal. He assuages skepticism felt by some Blackwell residents that they could be left in limbo or forced into situations less affordable or desirable. Finger says surveys taken from Blackwell residents indicate that only 130 people among the 314 families relocated have said they want to return to Blackwell.

Even with the initial budget approval from HUD, no money yet has been released. The housing authority still must get a final go ahead for its finance plan for the first 99 multifamily units. This, Finger says, will likely come in August.

Those who return to Blackwell must participate in a self-sufficiency program — the second mission of HOPE VI — that provides training and resources for residents who want to improve more than just their housing options, but the overall quality of their lives. "Blackwell was one of the poorest census tracts in the area for the past 20 years," says Finger. "The goal is to create a mixed-income neighborhood. It'll be a much healthier mix of people, and there will be a substantial increase in homeownership. We think it'll take five to eight years to look like Randolph — and that didn't happen overnight. So maybe 10 years overall," he concedes. "The city has spent a lot of money in Blackwell," he says of the combined programs targeting the neighborhood. "But if HOPE VI had not come, the city could never have invested so much."

While parts of Blackwell seemingly disappear overnight from HOPE VI demolition, the 179-year old First Baptist Church of South Richmond is gobbling up property with the power and purse of a Monopoly pro. Its membership of 2,300 — from both Blackwell and areas like Chesterfield — is at an all-time high and continues to grow by nearly 200 a year.

"We're landlocked," says the Rev. Dwight Jones, the church's senior pastor who also serves in his seventh year in the Virginia House of Delegates. It's one of the reasons he cites for the church's purchase of 14 parcels along Hull Street and many of the homes and properties in the blocks surrounding the church.

"The difficult part about Hull Street is it's been left out," says Jones. "About 10 years ago we made a conscious decision to not leave Blackwell. It was the obvious thing to follow the trend and move to the suburbs where much of our congregation was moving. But we decided to stay. And we've had to find creative ways to expand.

"We have a saying that we're not just on the corner, we want to change the corner," says Jones, who lives in Westover Hills but has been a pastor at the Blackwell church for 27 years. "This used to be a very proud neighborhood with businesses like Standard's and Thalhimers. It was a proud neighborhood that disintegrated to a very depraved neighborhood. So much so that he recalls drug rings operating from nearby houses and on corners. "There was very flagrant drug activity. People now recognize that failure breeds failure. And it's unwholesome living conditions to put all of your poorest people together." Jones insists the church's aim in Blackwell is to offer opportunity where the city has not or could not step in and provide it. "We see our mission here as holistic. There are spiritual concerns, but there are environmental ones as well," says Jones.

With the persuasiveness of an entrepreneur, Jones talks with seemingly uncontrolled optimism of a future Hull Street corridor that includes everything from a Ben & Jerry's to a Nike manufacturing center.

Taken to court three years ago by several First Baptist members who questioned Jones' appropriation of church funds, he insists that church money goes exactly where it's needed most. In the court case, the members who sued were ordered to shore up more evidence, and Jones' assistant, Tonya Scott, says none was brought forward. First Baptist created the Imani Corporation, a faith-based nonprofit community outreach corporation, as an umbrella organization for purchasing properties. As a nonprofit, it does not have to pay taxes.

The church's role in Blackwell's revitalization is aggressive. Currently, it is working with the city's Industrial Development Authority to purchase the large vacated Philip Morris building on Stockton Street. Jones says — almost whimsically — the building is perfectly suited for an incubator-style manufacturing plant.

"It's really sad we have not capitalized on the south end of the river," says Jones. "It's a paradox because the deterioration is an asset. When you hit bottom, it's easier to make your way up."

He contends Blackwell is a forgotten part of town, overlooked by city planners as a pivotal gateway to Richmond just minutes from downtown.

"I'm a dreamer and I just envision this as a different place than it is today. I'm not talking 25 years from now but in the very near future. I feel the day will come when you walk down Hull Street and it'll be like walking down Cary Street."

Few want to see Hull Street spring back to life more than Linwood Austin and August Moon. Austin, owner of Style Photography in the 1300 block, and August Moon, owner of Urban Beat Productions, grew up together in Blackwell. Moon is best known for his 27-year-old business and recording studios and as the area's leading community activist. Austin is president of the Hull Street Merchants' Association.

Today, even though many of the storefronts on Hull Street's Blackwell corridor are vacant, businesses do make it. Many still are owned by African Americans. But sidewalks here get little foot traffic, and every bus that passes down Hull Street is full of passengers going back and forth across the Mayo Bridge.

Austin and Moon pine for the glory days when they say Hull Street was so well stocked with businesses, shops, restaurants and entertainment, there was hardly a reason to go into Richmond.

"I was practically raised at 16th and Hull. I shined shoes that whole time it was booming," says Austin.

"We got a raw deal," says Moon. "Oh man, it's so messed up," he cries irritably. The two laugh when HOPE VI comes up, as is often does, and they exchange a glance full of innuendo. Consultants, they say, are eating the money up. For years they've heard plans that the city would pump new blood into Hull Street, even building a community center at 15th and Hull.

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Ben Gatling (left) and Kevin Lewis (right) sit outside a house on 16th Street that's being renovated by the city's Neighborhoods in Bloom project. "Neighborhoods in Bloom is about a bunch of bull," says Austin. "I got kicked out [of their meetings] twice," he laughs. "They've been tearing down. But that's it. The whole thing was supposed to take 18 months. But they'd do a little bit and leave, a little bit and leave."

He points across the street to a red brick building he says has stood condemned for longer than he cares to remember.

"People only stop for two things on Hull Street — the stoplight and the funeral home, ain't that right?" asks Moon.

"Don't say it can't come back. Please don't say it can't come back. It can. Look at Cary Street."

In 1997, City Councilwoman Reva Trammel says the crime was so bad in Blackwell, she wouldn't go there. Now she represents part of it. She says she's thrilled with the HOPE VI project, increased presence by the police and the community's efforts to come together to revitalize Blackwell. She even visited a HOPE VI project in Kansas City last year and took pictures to bring back home to Richmond. "It's beautiful," she says.

Still, she's skeptical of Rev. Jones' seemingly omnipotent presence and the self-interest of others like Moon and Austin that she says promotes divisiveness. "If [Rev. Jones] was so invested in Blackwell he'd be at some of those meetings. Where was he?" she asks noting Jones' absence from recent Blackwell Civic Association, Blackwell Tenants Council and HOPE VI meetings. "I'm not going to lose Blackwell," she says, referring to the redistricting this fall of the city's nine council districts. "It's come too far to let it go now."

Trammell says that so far this year, there's only been one homicide that she knows of in Blackwell. And that, she says, is remarkable. "It used to be maybe one shooting a day over there." Getting homicide statistics for Blackwell is no easy task. While Lt. David Martin with the 2nd Precinct says there have been no homicides in Blackwell this year, he explains that a comparison to previous years - when Blackwell was at its crime zenith - is nearly impossible because the new incident-based way of reporting does not yet permit this analysis. Moreover, with 88 percent of Blackwell's public housing tenants relocated to other areas, it's no wonder the number of service calls - 911 calls that require police response — to the area, have dropped from 1,594 from January to April of 1999 to 1,064 calls for the same four months in 2000. And this drop in crime is why Council member Trammell contends that what affects Blackwell most today are the boarded-up buildings and overgrown grasses. "And, it's a hangout for prostitutes and drug dealers," she adds.

But a plan is in the works, she says, for kids to help design a park that will be built somewhere in Blackwell. It's efforts like this and others that Trammell says show the city's commitment to revitalize the area. "People used to say Blackwell is sick," says Trammell. "It's well now."

Two thousand rainbow-colored paper doves cover nearly every inch of wall space in the gym of the Sacred Heart Center at 1400 Perry St. Each one represents a prayer from kids in Blackwell.

"For me, this is like coming home," says the center's new executive director, Naomi Chambers-Taylor. "I'm here as a result of my education in Baltimore in a neighborhood just like this. This is the safe place in the community. People talk all the time about making a difference. But this is where the difference can be made."

The center serves 200 people a day as a kindergarten through second-grade school, day-care center, camp, and adult education and resource center. Many of its teachers and nearly all of its kids come from the Blackwell area. People here have been watching the progress of HOPE VI and the city's plans for improving Blackwell. But some teachers and counselors at the center have mixed feelings about how residents are being moved out of Blackwell.

Sixty kids are in its preschool program, but that number has gone down since people started moving out of Blackwell. Adult programs are suffering as well. The evening GED classes once were nearly full with 18 attending. Now, there are often as few as three.

"Change is good sometimes and sometimes it's not," says one of the center's coordinators who asked that her name not be given.

"The whole self-sufficiency thing is not coming through for a lot of people. It's not about throwing money, but if you're going to call it assistance, it should be enough to assist," adds a counselor who also wants to remain unnamed.

"The HOPE VI theory is correct," says Adrienne Davis, the center's fundraising director. But she concedes it seems confusing.

"People were really looking forward to HOPE VI. But they're not educated on services, and in the meantime, they're getting bounced around. They're moving out afraid. What people are most afraid of is that the people who move out of Blackwell are never coming back," says the counselor.

"They felt they were a neighborhood even if no one on the outside thought that. Now they don't even have that."

Cearolyn Seward is only blocks away from the Sacred Heart Center, First Baptist Church and the lazy Hull Street sidewalks — all places where the rich smell of tobacco still hangs in the air. Still, she never takes part in programs, attends services or shops in Hull Street's stores. She's never attended a HOPE VI meeting or been counseled about her upcoming move. Each day, she says, she waits for RRHA to offer her that better life it promised. Parts of the neighborhood, she confesses, feel miles away. Seward is used to Blackwell even though she doesn't feel she's truly part of it. She wants to move but is worried about the effect it could have on her grandchildren. It's a paradox that some of Blackwell's neediest have come to expect. And still, Seward's hope persists. "Ultimately, I'd like a private house with a yard where the children can play and not worry about the shootings and killings," she says. "Do you got that house?"

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