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Each afternoon, Granny sits on her porch facing Creighton Road, where she is a community fixture for passersby of all ages. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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On a hot July day, Charles, 9, Charvon, 11, and Arrianna, 6, cool off in an inflatable pool on Nine Mile Road. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Women with children head 3 out of 5 of Creighton’s 500-plus households. (Photo by Jay Paul)
This is a story about a neighborhood in which you’ve probably never set foot, and, if given the choice, likely never would. It’s a place marked by its poverty, crime and family dysfunction, but also by its resilience, ingenuity and desire to be seen as more than the sum of its deficits. Beyond the frame of yellow caution tape exists a community of elderly women and single mothers, all bound to one another in their front-porch how-ya-doins, their searches for a decent job within walking distance of a bus line, in the stretching of a dollar to get through the month, and the worry for their children — and there are a lot of children. Half of the 1,300 residents are kids.
This is a story about Creighton Court, a public housing community in Richmond’s East End with one way in and few ways out. The city plans to take down this Creighton of deprivation and replace it with a Creighton of opportunity. Residents can choose to stay or leave, though not all who may want to live in this new Creighton can, and not all are even sure they want a new Creighton.
This is a story about three women. One moved to Creighton when it first opened, and 64 years later, she hasn’t left and doesn’t want to. One became the first in her family to move into public housing, and has no intention of sticking around to see the promised Creighton. And the third moved in with her mother, and now rents her own unit. In this potential remaking, she sees something long elusive in the neighborhood: Hope for a future now denied its children.
The administration of Mayor Dwight C. Jones and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority have laid out a massive, and some would say long overdue, plan to demolish, bit by bit, the 504-unit Creighton Court public housing complex. In the neighborhood would rise 909 new homes and apartments. Most would be built where Creighton now stands; the others would be constructed across the street, in place of the old Armstrong High School, and the rest along Nine Mile Road. The $203 million project is intended to break apart the dense poverty in the neighborhood and replace it with a community in which public housing residents live side-by-side with white- and blue-collar workers.
Renderings of the new neighborhood depict townhouses, duplexes and apartment buildings facing outward, overlooking well-manicured lawns and gardens. Public housing is interspersed throughout and indistinguishable from the surrounding homes. Sprinkled among the homes would be a new recreation center, and parks and playgrounds for the neighborhood’s children and teenagers. The city plans to reconnect Creighton, with its one road in and two cul-de-sacs, to the street grid so the neighborhood is no longer a dead end, a decision that serves both practical and symbolic purposes.
Creighton is the second-largest public housing project in the city and is located in one of the poorest places in the region, where the average family earns just over $9,000 a year and 88 percent receive some form of monthly government assistance. In Richmond, about 6 in 10 adults 25 and older have attended some college or attained advanced degrees, according to census data. But in the three census tracts that will make up the new Creighton, that number falls to 4 in 10.
No matter how you add it up, the sum of the data is entrenched poverty, the equivalent of cinder block shoes for a city and region on the economic rise. Poverty is no longer just a city issue. The poor are moving to the suburbs, and suburbanites, with their disposable incomes, are flocking back to the city. Companies in need of educated workers are watching, and a metro region with a central core where four in 10 children are growing up poor — and largely segregated — is a region at risk of stagnation.
City leaders say the plan tackles this challenge through a combination of investments in housing, neighborhood, and most critically, in the residents themselves.
Succeed, and the Creighton redevelopment serves as a model for overhauling the city’s other five large public housing communities. Fail, and the city’s grand vision becomes another reminder of bungled projects and broken promises.
This fall, the housing authority will learn the fate of its June 28 application for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. The grant would pump $30 million of federal money into the project, jumpstarting construction and putting the project on a five-year timeline.
The city must show that for every $1 of the $30 million grant, $3 of investment will be made in the neighborhood. Its grant application identifies $132 million worth of ongoing or planned projects, including a new grocery store at the intersection of Nine Mile and 25th Street, a new Bon Secours facility on Nine Mile and a bicycle boulevard along 29th Street.
Richmond is competing against 33 cities nationwide for four Choice implementation grants. But even if Richmond does not win the grant, city leaders say, the project will go on. It will just take longer.
In Creighton itself, an ongoing, often emotional debate is underway among residents. Some are hopeful the city is actually going to help them and their children build better lives, ending the isolation of the community. Some aren’t buying it for a second. The prevailing sentiment is one common among communities that are both dependent upon government and distrusting of it: We’ll believe it when we see it.
“The people who live in these communities have been duped and fooled and told so many things so many times, that it is difficult for them to believe that this is not just another scam to take them for granted,” Mayor Jones says. “So, when I talk to them, I want to say that I recognize them and that we recommit to the fact that while bricks and mortar have got to be built, at the end of the day, it’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about people. That cannot be emphasized enough.”
The Happiest Day
The news that Granny fell, that they found her on the floor in her apartment on Creighton Road, spreads the same way all news deemed pertinent to life travels in Creighton Court: fast. One neighbor to another, friend to friend.
“She going to be OK?”
“We need her here.”
“Everyone knows Granny and she knows everyone.”
Granny is Ms. Frances Jones. She is 94, and has lived in Creighton since November 1952. Hers was the first family to move into the housing project, the second of what would be six large federally subsidized communities in the city. A writer and photographer from the Richmond Afro-American newspaper came to mark the occasion. The article shows Granny at 30, in a knee-length skirt, accepting the keys to her new home from the chairman of the housing authority at the time. Unmarried with a third-grade education, she worked as a housekeeper for wealthy families and as a nurse’s aide in the old hospital at Stuart Circle to support her family. Her new home cost about $25 a month.
Ms. Frances “Granny” Jones, 94, moved to Creighton Court in November 1952 and has lived in the public housing community ever since. (Photo by Jay Paul)
The neighborhood, bounded by Nine Mile Road, 29th and Kane streets in the East End of the city, at the time did not offer much. It still doesn’t, unless you count corner stores or the Eastlawn shopping center, with its Chinese takeout joint, storefront church and Food Circus, the closest thing to a grocery store within walking distance. The establishment offers an array of malt liquors, and this spring began stocking a limited selection of fresh produce, too.
What Granny remembers is that she moved from a two-room shack in Jackson Ward to a sturdy apartment built with concrete blocks, with room for her and her five (later six) children. It was one of the happiest days of her life, she says.
“Creighton Court is the first decent home, decent place that I had,” she says. She didn’t know how long she would stay, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford a house of her own with six children to feed and clothe.
Granny sits on her porch, day in and day out, under the canopy of a towering oak tree, one of several lining the main road in and out of the neighborhood. The oak’s roots stretch far beneath the cracked sidewalk fronting her dirt yard. She can remember when the oak trees were fragile saplings, held in place by stakes driven in the ground, their roots too weak to hold them upright.
Cars tear by, windows rolled down, speakers blaring. You can hear them before you see them. A school bus slows to a halt down the street, near the squat community recreation center, a battered-looking one-story brick building boasting an outdated computer room and undersized pool tables. Behind the center are the most frequented basketball court in the neighborhood and a grass field that becomes something of a bog whenever it rains.
Elementary school children scurry off the bus. Parents meet some; others walk alone out of sight, through trampled grass and dirt-patch courtyards. Around each, two-story brick buildings are arranged facing inward, set back from the street. Behind each apartment is a clothesline, and on a breezy summer day, the wind carries the faintest hint of detergent.
Across the street, teenagers in bucket hats and tank tops loiter in clouds of smoke, monitoring the comings and goings. “I don’t pay them no mind,” Granny says. Instead, she watches toddlers stumbling up sidewalks, away from their young mothers. She sees men whom she watched grow up strolling toward Nine Mile with pants hanging below their waists. Many wave as they pass and say hello.
Granny is a tiny, gaunt-looking woman. When she speaks, she tilts her head and looks out over the top of her glasses. She’s a no-nonsense woman, fond of repeating she’s never been late on her rent or had an argument with her neighbors and that, guided by her faith, she raised her six children, “including two bad boys.” She lifts an arthritic hand as if taking an oath and pronounces, “Right hand to the Lord.”
Occasionally, she’ll have a visitor. And on a sunny afternoon in early June, Lorraine Cavell, a resident of Creighton for 33 years, drops by.
“Oh, boy. They was fighting and shooting all night, wasn’t they?” Lorraine says.
“Yeah. Crazy. Shooting, right out here,” Granny says, gesturing to the courtyard adjacent to her apartment. No one called to report shots fired in the neighborhood, police say, which could mean none were or everyone here is so used to it, no one bothered.
“When I left from over here, I went right on in the house and I didn’t come back out,” Lorraine says. “They do the same thing
“Every day,” Granny says, nodding.
“Same old thing,” Lorraine says. “I be glad if I could move.”
Granny had her own brush with gun violence once. A stray bullet whizzed through her front window and over her head, leaving a quarter-sized pockmark in the cinder block near the family photos she has displayed on a shelf and Scotch-taped to the wall. “Bullet don’t have no eyes,” she says of the incident. “I was lucky it wasn’t for me.”
There is, in Granny and Lorraine’s exchange, both an exhausted frustration and acceptance of what is. Granny is, at once, a monument to the heart of this place — to the sense of community that survives here despite its perils — and what went wrong with it.
For many city leaders and policymakers, Creighton was seen as a stopping-over point for families to get back on their feet. But for about half of the people who live here today, a temporary stay has stretched to five years or longer. Many longtime residents are elderly or living on disability. Others have been unable to overcome obstacles both personal — poor health, broken relationships — and structural. The neighborhood has been systematically decimated by the lack of public and private investment over the course of decades.
“Place matters and ZIP code matters when it comes to access to decent jobs, better education outcomes for kids and affordable housing,” says T.K. Somanath, the housing authority’s chief executive officer.
Back on the porch, Granny turns her attention to the redevelopment plan. The old Armstrong High School on 31st Street should be coming down soon, she says.
Demolition had not begun in mid-July. Once the land is clear, the plan is to build 10 market-rate rentals, 85 workforce apartments with rents from $640 to $1,210, and 80 public housing units, 45 of which will be reserved for seniors. Construction is expected to begin in spring 2017.
In time, another 45 public housing units for seniors and 36 homes for sale will be built where Armstrong now stands. As families and seniors move across the street to the new housing, their vacated apartments in Creighton will be demolished and the ground readied for new housing there.
In the spring, the housing authority sent letters to the first 63 seniors and families being offered the opportunity to move to the Armstrong site. Granny was one of them, but she’s not interested in moving. The plans seem nice, she says, but she has not moved from Creighton since that November day in 1952, and, like the towering oaks, she has grown roots here.
“The life I have lived in Creighton Court…” she trails off. “I’d prefer to close these eyes in Creighton Court.”
The two-bedroom apartment sat empty for five months at the dead end on Bunche Place, a cul-de-sac off Nine Mile Road at the edge of Creighton proper. Chelsea Roane would make the $110 check out to RRHA at the beginning of each month, even carry the house key with her after she signed the lease in the spring of 2014. But she, a single mother of two, could not bring herself to move in.
“No one in my family ever lived in public housing,” the 28-year-old says. “No one on my dad’s side. No one on my mom’s side. It’s just unheard of, literally. I already was like, ‘I’m not moving over there. I don’t want to live over there. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t see me living over there.’ ”
Chelsea Roane, 28, and her two daughters walk together near the family’s two-bedroom apartment on Bunche Place, a cul-de-sac off Nine Mile Road at the edge of Creighton Court, where Roane reluctantly moved in October 2014. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Chelsea had a high school diploma from George Wythe, three years’ worth of credits at J. Sargeant Reynolds, and aspirations of becoming an early childhood education teacher or running her own day care. At 21, she became pregnant with her first child. Five months into her pregnancy, her boyfriend was found guilty of multiple drug-related felonies, and sentenced to 24 years in prison. It was around this time, as she was bracing for life as a single parent, that she recalls adding her name to the RRHA waiting list, along with thousands of others applying for a subsidized apartment. It was a moment of desperation, she says. She worked at a call center through her pregnancy, rented a townhome in South Richmond, and put the application out of mind.
After her daughter was born, she was stable for a time. She had a savings account, a job tutoring children that paid more than double the minimum wage, plus a gig doing hair on the side. Four years after her daughter was born, she became pregnant with her second child. That pregnancy was difficult, and as a result, her newborn daughter spent five months in the hospital. Chelsea, too, was hospitalized. She lost her job, fell behind on rent and was evicted.
The sequence of events set in motion a backslide that felt like sinking into quicksand, she says. She moved in with her aunt, and after a few months, a letter arrived from the housing authority: She was first in line for a two-bedroom apartment in Creighton Court. The letter offered an out, and no matter how reluctant she was to take it, she moved in October 2014.
Since then, she has worked for the city health district and moonlighted at a salon. A proud woman with an unwavering don’t-mess-with-me expression and her daughters’ names tattooed below her collarbones, she is constantly devising business plans to pave her way out of Creighton. The current projects: edible arrangements and custom-decorated flip-flops. She doesn’t let her children, ages 7 and 2, play outside alone, and doesn’t trust her neighbors to watch them if she has errands to run. She refuses to tell men she dates that she lives in Creighton, afraid it cheapens their view of her. Her mother, with whom she talks on the phone each day, has not once set foot in her apartment or the neighborhood.
The stigma of living in public housing weighs heavily on Chelsea. She is an outsider who is alienated by what, in her view, is a community that has become either resigned to its dysfunction, or has forgotten how to aspire for something more. She fears the longer she lives in Creighton, the further the place will drag her down.
One for One
Chelsea is one of 12 Creighton residents on the Richmond Resident Leadership Transformation Team, a group formed in February 2016 to make connections between the housing authority, its partners and the neighborhood.
In late May, the promise of a spaghetti dinner drew 50 people to the neighborhood recreation center for an informational meeting organized by the team. The old Creighton has 503 apartments in use. The Choice Implementation Grant requires the housing authority, in one way or another, to replace all of these. Under the plan, 374 will be in the new, larger neighborhood, which includes nearby Nine Mile Road. The remaining 129 will be located throughout the metro region.
But, of particular concern to residents is language that says only those residents “in good standing” who are in “lease compliance” will be able to stay in public housing. The Community Builders, a Boston-based private developer partnering with the city and the housing authority on the project, will own and operate the new development. The housing authority will maintain a stake in the ownership structure, says Marcia Davis, RRHA’s chief real estate development officer. Some residents worry that private management will be less willing to work with families who are late paying rent, or that back payments they owe on utilities bills will prevent them from signing a lease with a private landlord.
“The good thing is no one is moving tomorrow,” says Scott Andrews-Weckerly, a newly hired family transition coach working with residents. “There’s time for residents and transition coaches to make a plan.”
“So y’all just going to move us wherever?” a woman calls out from the back of the room.
“No,” Andrews-Weckerly says. “It’s not just going to be like scattering seeds to
“I’m confused,” the woman shoots back. “Because I’ve been coming to the meetings and last I heard, we weren’t going to have to move.”
The comment sets off a chorus of mumbles around the room that drown out Andrews-Weckerly’s explanation. Rumors make the rounds faster than clarifications can keep up.
The phrase “land grab” comes up often. Some members of the resident leadership transformation team, including Marilyn Olds, a lifelong Creighton resident and longtime tenant representative on the RRHA Board, remain suspicious. Olds has suggested the team exists only to help planners check a box on the federal grant application. “We’re being used,” she says.
Others question the entire concept of a neighborhood where people of various incomes will live side-by-side. “Why would you want to live next to me when I’m paying $50 a month in rent, and you’re paying $775, when I got kids and you don’t, when I got drama and you don’t?” says Niema Johnson, a 15-year resident of Creighton.
The redevelopment of public housing into mixed-income neighborhoods has proven a successful way to reduce blight and crime and improve quality of life in cities across the country, says Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based social and economic policy think tank. Housing authorities in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, have employed the strategy to generally positive reviews. However, Popkin says, the projects can sometimes have unintended consequences. As a rule, redevelopment projects similar to the one the city is attempting in Creighton take a long time. The wait often deters the neighborhood’s original residents from returning once construction is complete, Popkin says. Those who do return to the new neighborhood find a new set of challenges.
“You can get people to live side-by-side, and the public housing residents then benefit from the amenities that the higher-income residents demand,” Popkin says. “But getting them to be a real community, that is much harder.”
Some of the skepticism surrounding the Creighton project can be traced to the 1997 redevelopment of Blackwell on the South Side. The housing authority successfully won a $27 million federal Housing and Urban Development HOPE VI grant, the precursor to the Choice grant. The goal was to dilute concentrated poverty by getting rid of aging, so-called distressed property, and replacing it with affordably priced homes and apartments. Residents were given 120-days notice to move and $700 to $1,000 to cover moving expenses. Demolition preceded construction and residents scattered. Many took vouchers allowing them to rent from a relatively small pool of private landlords who accepted subsidized renters; others moved to public housing projects. Only a fraction of the units were set aside for public housing, and few could afford the “affordable” rents of the new apartments. Those who left often ended up in neighborhoods as bad as or worse than Blackwell had been. RRHA bulldozed 440 units, and only 27 of the original families returned, wrote Alex Gulotta, the former executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center in a 2008 Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial. “For hundreds of displaced families,” he wrote, “Blackwell was an unnatural disaster.” That project, a 20-year grant, is still being completed.
What happened then legally cannot happen now, Somanath says. RRHA is required to build a new public housing unit for each old one it tears down, meaning that, unlike Blackwell, there will be no net loss of public housing. New units will go up before old ones are demolished so that no mass displacement occurs, and most families now in Creighton will be able to remain in the neighborhood in new public housing units, should they choose. Bus lines, school quality, access to services, neighborhood safety, among other things, must be part of the relocation equation so that none of the 129 families who do not get a spot in the new Creighton neighborhood ends up in a worse place, he says. In addition, the grant requires much greater upfront investment in the surrounding neighborhood and in residents, including at least five years of tracking of their progress.
“In HOPE VI, the whole emphasis was on brick-and-mortar as opposed to people,” says Somanath, who was not at the housing authority at the time.
He acknowledges that the many missteps of Blackwell were a blow to the authority’s credibility. But, he argues, the neighborhood was crime-ridden and falling apart, and had redevelopment not taken place, private investment would not have followed, and Manchester today would not be experiencing the renaissance it is.
Chelsea says she thinks the housing authority will partially complete the redevelopment project, run out of money, and wall off what’s left of the old Creighton so whoever moves into the new Creighton doesn’t have to look at it.
“Overall, they make it seem like things are going to be better,” she says. “It’s supposed to be for us, but in the end, is it for us, or are we being pushed to the next low-income area?”
The answer doesn’t matter to her. She has resolved to move long before any bulldozers rumble down the dead end that is Bunche Place. In August, she starts back at J. Sargeant Reynolds, where she hopes to complete the human services program. In the meantime, she’s waiting for a call back about a new subsidized apartment in Randolph.
“There’s no need for me to stay here,” she says. “If I can’t get out of Creighton on my own, [there’s] not going to be a way out.”
A Reason to Hope
Chimere Miles arrives at the Martin Luther King Jr. Preschool Learning Center and lingers in the lobby. It’s early June, and her 5-year-old son, Jibril, is set to graduate from the Head Start program today.
The 35-year-old mother of two boys is a towering woman with a quick smile.Through her work with various nonprofits, she’s become something of a neighborhood advocate for Creighton, and she values her community there. Don’t make the neighbors angry, she tells her sons; we need to look out for each other.
Chimere Miles, 35, and her son Jibril, 5, share a moment after his June graduation from the Martin Luther King Jr. Preschool Learning Center in the East End. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Chimere did not enroll Jibril in preschool when he was 3 because there was no Head Start program operating in the East End, and she did not have a car to drive him elsewhere in the city. When the new MLK facility opened a year later, she signed him up, sensing he was already behind where he should be. An environment with more people would be beneficial for him, she thought. After Jibril’s first day in the program, she realized her hunch was right. “He hasn’t shut up since,” she says.
When the doors open for the ceremony, she is the first one in and claims an aisle seat in the front row. Cell phone in hand, she is poised to capture the moment as the 18 children file in behind their teacher. Jibril is the first in the line. He is bigger than his 17 classmates, and has his mother’s eyes.
If there is anything that defines much of the life of young Creighton families, it is the ongoing sense of one step forward, two steps back. Chimere is no different. She moved to Richmond as a child. Her family bounced around a lot, crashing with friends, including those living in Creighton. She worked while in high school, and the long hours and steady income led her to drop out before graduation — a decision she still regrets.
At 18, Chimere became a licensed practical nurse. She worked in the medical field until 2005, when she became pregnant with her first child. The pregnancy was rife with complications from the start. As she was confined to bed rest and unable to work, bills stacked up, and her savings dwindled. She was forced to move back in with her mother, who, a few years earlier, had moved into Creighton.
“I feel like I was completely stripped of everything and humbled, and made to look around and say, ‘I’m pregnant and I’m living inside my mother’s public housing unit. How in the hell did this happen? It’s not supposed to be this way.’ ”
Chimere put her name on the RRHA waiting list, and in 2007, moved into her own apartment in Creighton. Rent was $64 — 30 percent of her monthly income. She also received $371 worth of SNAP benefits, more commonly referred to as food stamps. She enrolled in classes at a local technical school and went back to work part time as a wound-care nurse. The roller coaster of setbacks continued, and, after a long battle with depression and anxiety — so bad she refused to leave her apartment — she ended up on disability. Her income went up — and that meant her food stamp allotment went down, her rent increased and she lost her Medicaid coverage. When people talk about being trapped in public housing, this is one of the phenomena to which they are referring. If income goes up, other supports fall away almost immediately.
“I can’t afford to get out,” she says. “Sometimes, I’m like, my next check, I’ll live anywhere, you know? I’ll live on someone’s couch just to claim a good address and put my kid in a good school.”
If the housing authority wins the $30 million Choice grant, $4.5 million of it, plus an additional $11.3 million in new money and in-kind services from entities such as the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building, Richmond Public Schools, Peter Paul Development Center, the Communities in Schools Initiative, Bon Secours and VCU, will ensure children get the opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to learn, are prepared to perform well in core subjects, and ultimately graduate from high school ready for college or the workforce. Improving access to a quality education, a key way out of poverty, will be a huge challenge. Currently, neighborhood children attend three of the lowest performing public schools in the state — Woodville Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle and Armstrong High School.
Transition Coach Andrews-Weckerly started meeting one-on-one with families this past spring to help them set goals and figure out what services they may need to reach stability in preparation for the move. If the housing authority wins the grant, at least six more coaches will be hired so every Creighton family has a personal plan before they must relocate.
“The success of the project is going to be defined by the success of the residents — so how do we get there?” he says.
For Chimere, the first ray of hope in a long time came when she enrolled her oldest, Matthew, in an RPS Head Start program. A case manager assigned to her family helped her set goals and cope with her social anxiety. She began volunteering at the school, and eventually joined its parent council. In 2009, RPS chose her to attend the national Head Start conference in California. Since then, she has worked as a researcher for the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health and the Richmond Promise Neighborhood Initiative. She also serves on the Resident Leadership Transformation Team. The dawning understanding that she has something to offer her community to help it better itself is the reason she has not left Creighton, she says.
“I’m so involved and so connected for a reason bigger than myself,” she says. “I just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Back at Jibril’s pre-school graduation, the children share what they want to be when they grow up. Chimere beams as Jibril stands and says he wants to be a police officer. Afterward, the mother and son collect his framed certificate, and he hugs her goodbye.
Chimere worries she won’t be able to shield her sons from the dangers that lie just beyond her porch. To her, the redevelopment plan promises something more than new housing and green spaces. With it comes the chance for her sons to see how people outside of public housing live, to look out the window and see something that gives them hope.
If nothing changes — if the Creighton of opportunity never materializes — Chimere says, “my 10-year-old will go to a failing school and get a poor education that will result in him living back in the poor community that I raised him up in, just because I know my address is still 2218 Walcott Place.”
Tina Griego contributed to this story.