Map from 1961 illustrating a proposed consolidation of Richmond and Henrico County into multiple boroughs of one city. (Map reproduced from the report of advisory committees for the consolidation of the city of Richmond and Henrico County.)
Richmond is a straitjacketed city-island that can achieve its potential “only as the principal initiator, the region’s most vigorous force.” Its “present and future must be assured by sound policy and under-girded with modern organization and a statesmanlike program decision that should be made now.”
So said planning consultants from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a report to City Council — in December 1966.
The MIT professors stated that they could not foresee success for the city’s “large and proper aims” unless the city Planning Commission and the Regional Planning Commission combined as an integrated agency “to produce a unitary metropolitan regional plan.”
The Richmond News Leader noted that there was no suggestion as to how this integration might be achieved. And Mayor Morrill Martin Crowe criticized the report as “vague,” saying that it made conclusions “not adequately documented.”
The MIT report was but one of many such studies made about Richmond and the environs during the past 117 years. All came to similar conclusions and similarly were met by reactions of annoyance and even anger. It’s a bit like going to church and hearing sermon after sermon about your wretched nature. But if you’re a city — squirming in the pew as you’re pummeled by these sinner-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God admonitions — where do you turn for salvation?
For Richmond, neither full-time hired city managers nor elected part-time public officials — some of whom were ministers — got us any closer to the designation of “Shining City on the Hill.”
Who can forget Leonidas Young, once the senior pastor of the East End’s large Fourth Baptist Church? He served as a councilman from 1992 to 1999, and his peers chose him to serve as mayor from July 1994 to June 1996.
Leonidas Young, mayor of Richmond from July ‘94 to June ‘96.
In 1999, he was charged with 19 counts related to influence peddling in his job as mayor and fraud in his duties as a pastor. He pleaded guilty to four felonies, and was sentenced to two years in a federal prison. Young since has returned to the ministry here. [Editor's note: Young passed away in January 2016, after this story went to press.]
To her credit, Councilwoman L. Shirley Harvey knew something was up — she accused Young of evildoing. She attempted to exorcise the bad vibes in City Hall by holding a speaking-in-tongues sunrise prayer service in its observation deck high atop the building. But her public career crashed in 1996 amid criticism that she’d been using her city car for private business.
Today, we have the outgoing two-term, elected-at-large, full-time Mayor Dwight Jones. Jones is the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond. He’s sought to address Richmond’s intractable poverty issues, but characteristic of the Jones mayoralty have been big policy decisions that aren’t handled well and haven’t been favored by the people they’re supposed to help.
Part of Jones’ strategy to combat poverty was to create more jobs and get more people working — at, say, a football training camp (mostly serviced by out-of-town corporate vendors and underwritten by the city to the tune of $10 million), or a maybe-one-day new baseball stadium. It should be said that his Center for Workforce Innovation has managed to prepare and connect some of the city’s poorest residents to jobs. Jones’ strategy also includes remaking the city’s public housing communities. The problem there is that the agency in charge of public housing, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, possibly has been more dysfunctional than City Hall. The least among us have fared little better with the city’s Department of Social Services Child Welfare Division, which also fell into a leadership imbroglio.
The city’s many challenges are enough to keep new tenants of the executive offices busy for, as the Kinks once opined, “all day and all of the night.” And then maybe some intercessory prayer will be in order.
Perhaps we would have been better off if a proposed consolidation of Richmond and Henrico County had gone through in 1961. That referendum would have turned Henrico’s four districts into boroughs, into which Richmond proper was to have been incorporated. Voters defeated the measure, primarily because white proponents refused to hear of proportional representation by blacks on a unified City Council. A 1966 do-over didn’t get out of the gate.
This failure led to Richmond’s attempt to boost its dwindling white population by annexing 23 square miles of Chesterfield County. The 1970 annexation added 47,000 residents, 97 percent of whom were white. Richmond paid Chesterfield $7.8 million for the land and assumed $19.3 million of county debt. Chesterfield laughed all the way to the bank.
The deal backfired on Richmond’s white powerbrokers like a cartoon blunderbuss. The annexation not only inspired a rush of white flight, it begat a Voting Rights Act battle that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court replaced Richmond’s at-large election system with a ward arrangement that produced the city’s first black majority council, in 1977.
Annexation, once a fairly simple process, became anathema. The subsequent alteration of government proved no cure for the city’s persistent leadership ills.
More on that next time.