We live in our own version of the Twin Cities — one ascendant, the other mired in violence and decay. We’ll call them RVA and Richmond.
Within vibrant RVA, we raise frequent toasts to a rapidly growing city with an abundance of cultural amenities, a bevy of appealing dining and grocery options and an exploding craft brewery scene.
And then there’s Richmond, a place where seemingly intractable problems breed a pervasive pessimism.
Friday morning, I spent some time in Richmond, as the recipient of a guided tour of George Mason Elementary School by interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz.
The Church Hill school makes a decent first impression with its entrance hall of international flags and smiling photos of precious children. But the classrooms are another matter, particularly those across the hall from the school’s gas-fired boilers. Teachers, on occasion, have donned masks to ward off the fumes. The bathrooms are appalling. The courtyard is a jungle of towering weeds.
Mason has the distinction of being designated as the worst of the worst: the Richmond Public Schools building in the most dire shape. It is the subject of an online petition drive to replace the 95-year-old school or move to a new building, with more than 7,300 signatures toward a goal of 8,000 as of Monday night.
“There’s no question that conditions are horrible there,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who as a Richmond School Board member co-chaired its Facilities Task Force with fellow board member-turned-councilwoman Kristen Larson. “The question is, where do they go on such a short timeline?”
School Board members Liz Doerr and Cindy Menz-Erb pushed last week to remove students from Mason before the school year begins. That’s a tough task in midsummer. And Gray, for one, doesn’t want a repeat of the move of students from shuttered Elkhardt Middle School into what is now an overcrowded Elkhardt-Thompson Middle.
In South Richmond, where many speak English as a second language, the student population is growing quickly. Replacing Elkhardt-Thompson is also high on the school district’s wish list.
“The South Side issue was forecasted several years ago and is here now and being managed with temporary solutions, including trailers,” Larson said.
“I am ready and willing to work with the School Board to address all issues regarding facilities in Richmond,” she said. “We have limited funds, so it’s not an easy task. Through it all, it’s vital we all continue to look at and plan for long-term growth in our city.”
A top-notch facility does not ensure academic achievement. (See “Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.”) But a decrepit building makes learning more difficult.
As do poverty and trauma. The decay at George Mason mirrors the condition of Richmond’s public housing, the bleak backdrop for so many shootings as violent crime experiences a troubling increase over last year’s spike.
Friday night and Saturday morning, two men were shot and killed in separate homicides — a brutal coda to a week in which five other people, including two juveniles, were wounded in a drive-by shooting in Whitcomb Court.
The weekend homicides brought this year’s total count in Richmond to 42, well ahead of last year’s pace. In all, 132 people had been shot, including 14 juveniles.
The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, not unlike Richmond Public Schools, has far more building needs than funds to address them. It plans to ask the federal government to convert the city’s public housing complexes to the Section 8 housing choice voucher program as a means to free up more money for maintenance and redevelopment.
George Mason and much of the RRHA housing stock are remnants of an era we never truly left behind. Even as RVA neighborhoods gentrify and industrial areas such as Scott’s Addition and Manchester morph into eclectic residential communities, Richmond’s public housing and school buildings remain largely frozen in time.
RVA, as a battlefield for the grocery industry, has an abundance of fresh food options such as Aldi, Kroger, Lidl, Publix and Whole Foods. Richmond, on the other hand, is a veritable food desert where few grocery chains care to plant a flag. Jim’s Local Market recently withdrew from plans to open a grocery store at North 25th Street and Nine Mile Road in the East End.
Of course, disparities have always existed here, but they seemed less stark during our murder capital era, when RVA bumper stickers didn’t exist and civic pride was a precious commodity.
But increasingly, it’s difficult to maintain unfettered optimism about our city’s future. The flourishing of RVA brings to mind a lovely but fragile flower sprouting from cracked pavement. You marvel that it has blossomed but can’t help but wonder: Will it survive?
RVA will not be in full bloom until we effectively tend to the Richmond that’s being left further and further behind.