Illustration by Victoria Borges
It’s been rainy as the weather starts to cool and fall sets in, but on a Friday in late September, the sun is out. People are briskly walking through Monroe Park on their way to work. Students are all around, some on bikes, others stretched out on the grass. Homeless folks are sitting on benches, conversing and enjoying the weather.
All the activity will soon come to a stop when the park closes Nov. 14 for a 12- to 18-month, $6 million overhaul, about a year later than expected because of fundraising challenges. On Sept. 21, the nonprofit Monroe Park Conservancy announced that the goal of raising $3 million in private funds for the project had been reached. A pledge from Capital One of $300,000 over three years helped complete the effort. The conservancy, which has overseen the Monroe Park renovation project since signing a 30-year lease agreement with the city in 2014, originally drew criticism from some who saw the act as the privatization of a free and public park. Conservancy President Alice Massie, however, emphasizes that the renovated park will remain a free and available resource to all Richmond residents.
The city will handle construction, which will include the installation of new sewer, gas, water and electrical systems, along with a renovated Checkers House featuring new public bathrooms, a café on the first floor and a VCU Police substation on the second floor. During the next year, the conservancy will continue to raise funds for park amenities such as fountains, tables and chairs. Massie describes her vision of the park as an “urban living room.” “We’re going to need $1.5 million more to put the nice stuff in,” she says. “What’s been raised gives us all the essentials for safety, water and lighting.” After renovation is complete, VCU will be in charge of cleaning the park, cutting grass and picking up leaves and trash.
While the park gets an upgrade, the question of the effect on the city’s homeless population continues to be a concern for some community members and VCU students. “People provide food and other services here, so it’s a centrally located place, and that’s very advantageous to poor people who have very little transportation besides bicycles,” says Sababu Sanyika, a longtime volunteer with ASWAN (A Society Without A Name), a group that advocates for the homeless. “It’s going to be a very traumatic impact for a lot of people.”
Massie responds to such concerns by pointing to 2-1-1 Virginia, a hotline run by the Virginia Department of Social Services that helps those in need to find resources.
She suggests that organizations aiding the homeless at Monroe Park partner with other downtown groups. Asked about the future of such activities, she says the conservancy is still determining the park’s governance, and will use the city’s existing parks regulations as a template. “The conservancy’s role is to make sure [groups using the park] protect the green space.”
Since the 1850s, Monroe Park has played a prominent role in the life of the city, from its early days as an agricultural fair site and Confederate camp to its development into a public square where, for generations, Richmonders have played, rested, read, held demonstrations, danced to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and served food to the hungry. For its colorful past and the hope of a future that honors all stakeholders of this cherished green space, we name Monroe Park our Richmonder of the Month.