1 of 5
Photo by Ash Daniel
Kinfolks Community founder Art Burton is working to transform one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods from within.
2 of 5
Photo by Ash Daniel
Located one block from Mosby Court Central on Bryan Street, Our House is Kinfolks Community’s home base.
3 of 5
Photo by Ash Daniel
Burton directs members of the Richmond Urban Conservation Corps, an after-school program he first launched in 2013 after enlisting two dozen teenagers from Mosby Court.
4 of 5
Photo by Ash Daniel
Empty lots and blight checker the blocks adjacent to Mosby Court Central.
5 of 5
Photo by Ash Daniel
Sean Watkins, a 41-year-old former Mosby resident, sought job opportunities at Our House after his release from prison.
Police block off Coalter Street, either to protect or contain the gathering of 200-plus outside of the unit numbered 1406. From afar, its façade does not convey any significance. The public housing unit is one of eight in the two-story brick and vinyl-sided building fronted by a trampled grass yard, sloping toward Coalter as it, too, begins to taper downhill.
Up close, the covered stoop leading into the apartment betrays a tragedy. Bullet holes scar its support beams. On one, a makeshift memorial of handwritten notes and flowers is growing.
The crowd is here to mourn Zyemontae Redd, a 15-year-old boy slain in the early hours of Sunday, Oct. 26, when assailants fired at least 30 shots into a party at Mosby Court Central in Richmond’s East End. He was the 38th homicide victim in the city in 2014. Friends called him Monte. His name is written on the back of a young girl’s jean jacket in permanent marker below three letters: RIP.
By the time Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones appears, security in tow, to address those in attendance, the smell of marijuana and cigarette smoke hangs over the gathering. The conviction in Jones’ voice crescendos as he paraphrases a verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, an admonishment to the wall of adolescents wearing black and red lining the stoop behind him, their expressions a mix of sadness and anger. “You don’t have to take matters into your own hands,” he tells them. “All you have to do is wait for bread that’s cast upon the water; it will return after many days.”
Jones leaves shortly afterward. Prayers, songs and speeches follow. Then the boy’s mother, Nana Redd, speaks.
“My son, he was a good child. I would have never thought he’d be taken by Mosby. I just want my son back, and I know I can’t have him back,” she says. A chorus of sobs rises all around her. The temperature is dropping.
When mourners release red, heart-shaped balloons from their clutches, the collective sorrow is palpable. The figures drift up and away, shrinking in the dusk sky, fading into nothingness. Flickering memorial candles are blown out. Tears stream down teenagers’ faces. They console each other. Children play in the midst of it all.
At the end of the vigil, a CD is passed through the crowd. Recorded on it is a rap song about finding whoever killed Monte and getting revenge. The song blares on repeat long after the politicians, preachers and TV cameras leave. Everyone who remains seems to know the words, even the children. They stop playing to look up at the teens in black and red, and mouth the lyrics along with them.
When you cross over the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge, it is obvious that place matters in this city. One side is home to a burgeoning dining scene, an enviable arts community and a fast-growing university; the other, to underperforming schools, crime-ridden neighborhoods and the unconscionably poor people who live in them. The bridge connects the two, but the gulf between them is much wider than the span itself.
On the other side of that bridge is Mosby Court, a community defined by absence, what it lacks: structure, role models, opportunity, prosperity. Art Burton, a community activist and failed political candidate, has vowed to change that. What if a community didn’t define itself by what it didn’t have, but instead by what it could become? Would those voids be filled?
Standing with his back to Mosby Court Central in 2012, Burton looked down Redd Street to a dirt lot at the corner of Bryan Street and told the president of the local civic association, “That is our land of opportunity.”
“They looked at me and said, ‘You out of your mind,’ ” he recalls.
In that spot now stands Our House, a monument among boarded-up properties plastered with “no trespassing” signs and overgrown lots used as dumping grounds for trash and mattresses. The only new house on the block, its yellow siding is a literal bright spot in a neighborhood devoid of them. The building is perched high above a street where hip-hop music pours from passing cars’ windows like Mickey’s malt liquor into the mouths of the nearby corner boys. The bass pounds in your chest as the cars come closer. Blue lights dart between brick and blight: What happened this time?
Headquartered at the building is Kinfolks Community, a wealth-building effort that Burton devised in 2011 to improve the quality of life for people living in the public housing community. It is part after-school program, part workforce-investment center and part re-housing entity.
During the day, people climb the porch steps and let themselves in through the front door. They are on a pilgrimage for something better — help with a résumé, a chance for a job interview, a new start. They are parents, aunts, uncles, many from the adjacent Mosby Court Central, where the average household income is barely $9,000 a year. They are in between jobs or have never had a job or don’t know how to use a computer or even read. Sometimes, they are felons. Always, they are welcome.
In the afternoon, teenagers come through the back door seeking an application to join Burton’s after-school program, the Richmond Urban Conservation Corps. As many as 60 middle and high school students visit the building six days a week when the program is in full swing. Participation is contingent upon good grades and staying out of trouble at school. Most attend Armstrong High School, where only one of every two students graduates, according to Richmond Public Schools data.
Burton pays the students a stipend for participation in the program. Its purpose is two-fold: pumping money into the community, but also giving the teenagers work experience. In exchange, they have planted gardens and staged neighborhood cleanups. A mural project and an urban farm are in the works.
In them, Burton sees the best chance to reverse the neighborhood’s fortunes. “They are more than they think they are,” he says. “They’ve just got to realize it.”
In Burton, the teenagers have found a male role model, a rarity in a community where three out of four households are run by single mothers, the highest rate of any major public housing community in the city and double the average rate in public housing nationwide.
Art Burton says he has never lost a fight in his years as an activist, though it looks like the fighting life has taken its toll on the man. At 55, his voice sounds strained, almost hoarse. There is a sense of finality when he speaks. His face is creased and worn, and when he laughs, crow’s feet stretch back toward his temple and a receding hairline speckled with gray, sometimes hidden under a baseball cap. Unbuttoned long-sleeve shirts and light-wash jeans, often paint-splattered, hang from his thin, borderline-haggard, frame. He has a knack for storytelling and extended sports metaphors about leadership or taking action.
He’s articulate, if not polished. Likeable, but hardly agreeable. He was born in Youngstown, Ohio, but his family uprooted from Buckeye country and moved to the Richmond region shortly after the Ohio riots of 1969. His father, too, was a community activist, and Burton jokes about being genetically predisposed to do the work he’s doing. Politically, he’s persona non grata, thanks to a decade’s worth of haranguing the Richmond School Board over its decision-making and the poor state of its facilities, but he has developed an unlikely rapport with Mayor Jones. A turning point came in 2009, after Burton enrolled in Landmark Education, a self-improvement program that instilled in him the value of diplomacy in certain situations.
He sums up what he learned in the program with a question: “If you were living an extraordinary life, what would that look like?” His answer is what he’s doing now
Burton’s first outreach attempt in the public housing community occurred on Raven Street, with a group of academics and activists brought together by Kim Allen, a former president of the Richmond chapter of the NAACP. The effort eventually splintered, and Burton broke off to work with a smaller group that gave way to Kinfolks Community. Like the people it serves, Burton’s project has struggled to survive.
After city Councilwoman Ellen Robertson wrote a budget amendment in early 2012 to support his project, Burton persevered through 13-month series of tangles and snags with the city and Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority before the money was dispersed in August 2013. Of the $120,000 promised, he says he saw only $70,000.
With it, he enlisted 25 teenagers from the neighborhood and launched the Urban Conservation Corps that month. The program ended in December 2013 and ran aground early in 2014. Burton re-launched it in June 2014 with twice as many participants, but still no permanent funding stream. “It’s very difficult dealing with the bureaucracy in terms of getting the kind of movement we need,” he says. “All they hear me saying is ‘I want y’all money. I want y’all money.’ It’s not even about that.”
It’s about the kids, he says. Instead of canceling the program, Burton has funded it out-of-pocket and through IOUs from friends’ businesses. Paying the stipends can cost thousands of dollars each month. Burton and others in the organization have forgone pay to continue the program while applying for grants and searching for a more permanent funding source.
Unable to afford repairs to the water pump on his truck, he walked to and from downtown meetings and Our House during the fall, and slept on couches when he couldn’t find transportation back to his Chesterfield County home.
“I’m broke. I’m walking. I just have to walk a little longer. Eat one meal a day [for a while] longer. But I feel that we’re close to a big change,” he says. “I can feel it.”
Kinfolks Community is the type of social enterprise that is crucial to the city’s
anti-poverty efforts. Thad Williamson, the University of Richmond professor appointed to head the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building, says the bureaucracy alone cannot lift up communities like Mosby Court. It will take patience, more resources and people with resolve like Burton’s, he says.
“No one has ever said the city would have enough resources to do it all,” Williamson says.
The challenge, he adds, is managing people’s expectations for quick results — having something to show in the short term, while positioning the city to address the root problems in the long run.
Does the East End need to be transformed?”
Kay Hamlin, a sustainability studies student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, poses the question to the room of restless teenagers at Our House. They are inattentive because Burton is not present, but Ms. Kay, as they call her, is never easily discouraged. She repeats the question, but louder this time, her voice projecting over the murmurings as if through a megaphone. Still, none of the students seem eager to answer her. “Not to me,” one volunteers.
“What’s a good thing about living in the East End?” This, too, elicits little response.
“What’s bad about living here?” she asks this time. Finally, answers come: shootings, fights, robberies, people smoking, people losing jobs, people losing homes. Ms. Kay writes the responses down, then asks the room, “What could you do to change these?”
They are hesitant again, either afraid to offer a wrong answer or unconvinced that what she is asking is even possible. Some slump low in their chairs as Ms. Kay launches into a scenario in which the Urban Conservation Corps sells lettuce at a farmers market Burton wants to organize in the neighborhood.
“Who would buy it?” she asks. A few agree that people who make $5,000 per month would come to the neighborhood to buy the vegetables. Others are less certain.
“No. They won’t come past the Family Dollar,” one objects, referring matter-of-factly to the bargain store at North 25th Street and Fairmount Avenue.
The profits would benefit the neighborhood, Ms. Kay says, in an attempt to usher them to the conclusion that they can make a positive change in their community. There’s little buy-in.
“Someone would rob us of those vegetables,” says an eighth-grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
It is Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014 — 50 years to the day since the dedication of Mosby Court Central, which all of these teenagers call home. Newspaper clippings from the period show a speaker, flanked by the Armstrong High School band, addressing an audience at a formal unveiling ceremony.
On this day, among children the project has raised, whose potential may never be realized, the fanfare for Mosby’s completion seems wasted.
In its uniformity, Mosby Court Central more closely resembles a refugee camp than a neighborhood.
The barracks-style buildings in the central portion are positioned around courtyards crisscrossed with concrete paths that lead in and out. Each unit has its own front stoop, clothesline and blue or green city-issue trashcan. There is little in the form of recreation in the neighborhood, so wandering children create their own: A boy no older than 8 or 9 years old does backflips off a trashcan; all smiles, a half a dozen little girls play jump-rope on the sidewalk using a discarded cable wire. Their beaded braids bounce as they hop, paying no attention to a curse-laden shouting match between adults in the same block. As an outsider, you double-take. As a resident, there’s nothing to see.
Richmond built most of its public housing projects post-World War II to replace
slums occupied by the city’s poor, mostly black residents. In effect, they became replacement slums in subsequent decades, and exacerbated problems already plaguing the city, writes Christopher Silver in the 1984 book Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race.
“The addition of Mosby Court proved consistent with established public policy to segregate public housing according not only to race but also location,” Silver writes. “The extensive concentration of public housing in the city’s core and East End exerted substantial pressures on adjacent neighborhoods and accelerated an already significant degree of white, and black, flight.”
The city’s six remaining large public housing communities are among the poorest in the country. About 90 percent of households in those communities have extremely low income (30 percent below the national median), versus 67 percent for public housing households nationwide, according to data made available by the U.S. Department of Housing and
With little income, families struggle to move out of subsidized housing. Nearly 43 percent of Mosby’s 1,400 residents have lived in the project longer than five years, RRHA data from June
“[Mosby] has been good to me, man, but it can be better,” says James Lewis, a Mosby resident of seven years who serves as Kinfolks’ community liaison, the organization’s eyes and ears in the neighborhood. “It’s already getting better with us.”
At his initial venture on Raven Street, Burton promised residents that Kinfolks would place 84 people in jobs — one for each family living on the street. The organization’s workforce development operation is headed by Grace Washington-Young. Her business, J&G Consulting, specializes in real estate development, but she also has a background in workforce re-entry
programs for felons.
When the center opened in July 2014, more than 200 people showed up looking for a job. After three months, more than 500 people had sought help. Word of the center traveled by mouth through the community, or job fliers hand-delivered to residents. Washington-Young leverages a network of employers who are willing to provide on-job training to inexperienced applicants. It may not pay at first, but it’s a line on a résumé, and that’s a start.
“What I’ve learned now is that I may have 200 applicants for a construction job and only one qualified construction worker, but that’s our reality with this population,” she says.
One of the first people through the door was Sean Watkins, a 41-year-old former Mosby resident who served six years in prison for dealing drugs in the housing project. In a baggy red sweatshirt and camo- pattern cargo pants tucked into work boots, he stands in a dirt patch by the back porch littered with shards of broken glass, smoking a cigarette.
“It took me a long time to realize it was a trap,” he says, pausing to take a drag as he looks up Redd Street toward Mosby Central. “A lot of scars, a lot of death, a lot of bad stuff happens before you see what life is really about.”
Watkins, who has an 8-year-old son, is working odd jobs around Our House and learning carpentry and plumbing with Andre Massenburg, whose company, Massenburg Construction Co., built Our House. The company is planning a $1 million renovation of the long-vacant 36-unit apartment building across from the resource center on Redd Street. It’s the first step to keeping a promise Burton made to move 84 families out of Mosby and into better housing.
For Watkins, the project is an opportunity to develop his skills. Eventually, he wants to learn how to install HVAC systems. “I don’t want my son to come up the way I came up, so the only way I can do that is if I change my outlook. And that’s real.”
Art Burton is balancing on Our House’s front porch railing. The kids did not come to work today, and he’s talking about hopelessness; how he sees it in them; how it’s destroying Mosby; how they’ll celebrate when the neighborhood prevails over it, one day. Storm clouds are rolling in over City Hall. From the street, a young woman calls out to him, “Hey, Mr. Art.”
He turns and his tired eyes light up. It’s one of the teenagers in the program who hasn’t showed up in a few weeks, a freshman at Armstrong who the others say got in a fight in the neighborhood. “How you been?” he asks.
“All right,” she says, climbing the stairs to the porch.
“Why haven’t I seen you?”
“Because I don’t live around here anymore.”
“Well, where’d you move to?”
“Who you stayin’ with?”
“My aunt on my dad’s side.”
“How’s your Mom doin’?”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes cast down. She shifts her weight away from him, toward the steps. There’s a long pause.
“You need anything?” he asks.
“Nah,” she says. “I’m good.”
“ ’Cause you know where we are, if you do,” he says.
She takes a step toward the stairs.
“I’m not going to lose you,” he tells her. Their eyes lock for a moment, but she doesn’t respond. They exchange goodbyes, and she leaves down the steps. Rain is starting to fall, dotting the concrete walkway that connects Our House to Bryan Street below. She starts down the road, away from Mosby, and looks back at Burton before she’s out of sight.