‘‘I guess I wanted to start out by saying, ‘Thank God we didn’t do Navy Hill,’” Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson said during its remote meeting this past week.
Amid the government budgetary nightmares created by this pandemic, the hubris behind the plan to recreate north downtown seems like a dream from another lifetime.
“The entirety of that project was premised on best-case scenarios,” said community organizer Kristin Reed, “and we’re now operating in arguably the worst-case scenario.”
COVID-19 is a worst-case scenario on steroids — the tragic outcome of disregard dating back months, years and centuries. Trauma has exposed societal fissures. Our status quo has been revealed as woefully inadequate. We need health care, livable wages and secure, affordable housing for all.
We need to redevelop Navy Hill far less than we need Richmond to reimagine itself moving forward, when our focus can move beyond survival.
Meanwhile, as black residents die of COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers, we’re seeing signs of discontent: protests of the incarcerated, adult and juvenile, in what amounts to Petri dishes of the coronavirus; at-risk grocery store workers finding their voice; and GRTC Transit System bus operators — part of an extended essential workforce holding everything together — calling out of work as they seek more hazard pay.
The Navy Hill project perfectly symbolizes our pre-pandemic world, Gibson said Monday.
“It gambled necessities for future glitter with no guarantee. Now here we are with the harsh realization that the entire country, businesses and all, was living paycheck to paycheck. And now we are seeing the cost of deciding that essentials like health care, internet access and a minimal safety net for folks aren’t public goods.”
The Navy Hill discussion fueled important conversations about what Richmond truly needs. COVID-19 demonstrates that we can no longer afford to overlook our city’s gaping wounds. Now is the time to envision a post-pandemic Richmond.
“While we face an uncertain future, I believe we will strengthen our commitment to build a truly just, equitable and sustainable city for all,” said Corey D.B. Walker, a visiting professor of leadership studies and humanities at the University of Richmond who sat on the advisory commission that vetted the Navy Hill project, which included a replacement for the Coliseum.
“It is that commitment that will empower us to face our fundamentally transformed future and develop an economic development agenda that enables all citizens to thrive,” said Walker, who moves on to Wake Forest University in July.
Members of the activist group Richmond For All have vowed not to let this crisis go to waste.
Indeed, the pandemic has at least partially shifted the narrative of Richmond Public Schools from “failing school district” to “essential public service provider,” as it distributes meals throughout the city.
Richmond For All member Brionna Nomi would like to see RPS build on this by adopting a “holistic” community schools model underway in Durham, N.C.
Community schools emphasize parent and community engagement, high-quality teaching rather than high-stakes testing, restorative justice instead of suspensions, and schools as a hub of wraparound support for students, parents and communities.
Nomi, co-chair of Richmond For All’s Public Education Working Group, envisions mental health services, health care, family counseling and food banks filtering through Richmond’s public schools.
Reed, co-founder of Richmond For All, says our city must address the needs of everyday people through a comprehensive policy package that addresses wages, job stability and job training programs dictated by the needs of workers.
Housing remains a crisis, despite efforts on the city and state level to freeze evictions and stem displacement, she said. Landlords continue to give tenants the boot by any means necessary, whether its removing appliances, shutting off utilities and internet, or changing locks. At a time when people are being told to shelter in place, too many don’t have a place to stay and are being pushed from one site to another.
“Richmond has been so eager for revitalization and it has been so eager to be a city on the map that it has really internalized the logic of skyrocketing costs as tied to inherent value,” she said. Instead, we need to figure out what true affordable housing looks like for those who need it.
“Like Depression, pandemic could galvanize Americans to make big social changes,” read a headline in Monday’s newspaper. We need to start work on a 21st century New Deal that will make Richmond a healthier, more equitable place.
Racism continues to cripple Richmond. Our city’s age-old paternalism, whose benefits never quite flowed to the masses, won’t cut it. The trauma we experience today will only have meaning if we learn from it and create a better place tomorrow.