Take a walk through the neighborhood in Gilpin Court, the oldest and largest public housing project in Richmond, and you’ll see a lot of concrete. Concrete and asphalt. And you will feel the heat.
You might get the feeling you’re on a concrete and asphalt island. In a sense, you are.
Over between St. Peter Street and St. Paul Street, right off Charity Street, there’s a block-long concrete slab laid down between rows of the residential buildings. At the curb on St. Peter Street, a caution sign shows children on a seesaw. It turns out that the huge concrete slab actually is a neighborhood playground for the kids.
Or take a walk back along Charity Street, for several blocks starting from the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority headquarters. On your right are the newer — but still old — public housing units, partly of concrete construction, that were designed with a modernistic touch for their time. The landscaping for these buildings looks more like the surface of the moon.
Mounds were sculpted around and between the buildings — and then they were covered over with exposed aggregate concrete. In front of a number of the housing units facing the street, big rocks stick out of the concrete mounds, as if to add to the curb appeal.
Areas intended for grass, meanwhile, are small. And by the end of summer, which officially starts in less than two weeks, some of those areas will have been scrubbed down to the bare ground and baked.
This island lies several blocks north of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, just across interstates 95 and 64 and east of Chamberlayne. Moving off of Charity Street, it’s just a short walk around the corner to Baker Street, which runs behind the housing authority offices. There you will come upon the most staggering vista of all.
Look through the chain-link fence that stretches out alongside Baker Street, and listen to the steady hum. The massive concrete and asphalt canyon channeling nonstop I-95 traffic through Gilpin Court’s backyard lies right below.
By this point, it may be tempting to label Gilpin Court as a concrete jungle. That’s certainly a phrase that comes to mind.
But Gilpin Court is a neighborhood with 807 households. It is home to 2,198 people, of whom 1,215 are children younger than 18, of whom 489 are 5 years old or younger.
The people of Gilpin Court live in poverty, and they live under conditions that would be called intolerable and inhumane — if more of us had to live there ourselves. It only gets worse for them during the summer, when the temperatures rise and the heat is on.
In the summer, Gilpin Court becomes part of an oppressive urban-heat island, and for many residents there’s no getting off.
The explanation for the phenomenon is relatively simple. It boils down to the concrete and the asphalt and the buildings that replace open areas and vegetation in urban environments such as Gilpin Court.
Particularly in the summer months, surface heat islands occur during the day when the sun superheats dry, exposed, urban surfaces to temperatures perhaps as much as 50 to 90 degrees hotter than the air temperature.
The evening brings little immediate relief to the urban environment, as the atmospheric effects take over. After sunset there’s a slow release of the heat that’s built up during the day in the urban infrastructure. The nighttime temperature in the urban environment may remain much hotter than in its more rural surroundings.
As NBC-12 meteorologist Andrew Freiden told me last week, “While there is an urban heat island effect all across the city, the effect is significantly intensified in an area like Gilpin Court, where there’s lots of pavement and very few trees for shade.”
Beyond the talk of thermodynamics and climatology, we must focus on very real human concerns. In the summer, during periods of extreme heat, the people of Gilpin Court are at greater risk of heat-related illness than many other segments of the population. A number of factors play into that, including socio-economic ones.
The elderly, the very young, and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at high risk for serious health consequences. And economically disadvantaged and socially isolated people are even more prone to experience significant heat stress.
Ask the housing authority about all this, and you’ll hear that the people of Gilpin Court are able to beat the heat in many cases with their own air-conditioning units or fans. What you’ll see on your walk through the neighborhood, though, are a lot of older-model, small, window-unit air conditioners, which look as if they’re hardly up to the job of adequately cooling multiroom housing units.
As for fans, it’s a common misunderstanding that they help in the more extreme heat at all. Fans actually do more harm than good once the temperatures go above the mid-90s. At that point, portable electric fans simply blow extremely hot air around, which increases thermal stress and accelerates the risk of heat exhaustion for the user.
To be sure, the housing authority and the city respond with citywide emergency measures as best they can on days when temperatures reach their peaks. But when it comes down to it, throughout the summer season, there may be no easy way to cope with life on the urban heat island, for so many of the people of Gilpin Court.
How will the people of Gilpin Court fare in the summer of 2015? Only time will tell — when the heat is on. S
Mike Sarahan is a local writer and former attorney for the city of Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.