As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Income inequality, affordable housing, climate change, sustainable development, public health, participatory government—cities are tackling them all, bringing new urgency to some of the most vital questions of the day. Welcome to the age of big city progressivism! Cities Rising is The Nation’s contribution to the conversation.
Lillie Estes has lived all thirty-five years of her adult life in Richmond, Virginia. She has spent the last twelve of them in one of the vast, and geographically isolated, public housing tracts that are home to tens of thousands of the city’s poorest residents. These are bleak neighborhoods, carved out of the Deep Southern bedrock of slavery, segregation and an unforgiving class system overlaid by racism. Joblessness, crime and incarceration are high; education and opportunity are low. In these neighborhoods, the average income, mostly from public assistance, is $7,782, a fraction of the already-low citywide figures.
Estes, 55, has spent much of her life organizing against these injustices, pounding the pavement despite few signs that anyone inside the towering glass-and-metal box of Richmond’s City Hall was listening. For decades, Richmond’s political leaders have ignored and all too often encouraged the city’s entrenched inequality. It was these leaders who fought long and hard in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education to keep schools segregated, and it was their planners who deliberately bulldozed successful mixed-income black neighborhoods to make way for freeways that sped white, and, later, middle-class black, residents to the suburbs. With their help, much of the city’s remaining African-American population wound up ghettoized in the sprawling public housing tracts that replaced old once-vibrant neighborhoods.
But in recent years, something unusual has happened. Richmond’s leaders have begun reaching out to the poor and working-class denizens they have so long ignored, engaging locals like Estes in an ongoing conversation about how to tackle poverty in the onetime capitol of the confederacy. The formal vehicle for these conversations is the Citizens Advisory Board, a participatory innovation intended to bring people from the poorest communities in town to the policy-making table. But the goal is something more ambitious: to make fighting poverty a cornerstone of city policy through an experiment called the Maggie L. Walker Initiative.
“I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think this opportunity could reach down to the least of us,” said Estes, who is an active member of the Citizens Advisory Board, as she sat on a sofa in her book-and-pamphlet filled apartment on a cloyingly hot day last September. “It’s an opportunity to correct policy that was done discriminatorily [both] economically and politically over decades.”
The Maggie L. Walker Initiative is the inspiration of Mayor Dwight Jones, a sixty-seven-year-old pastor who was born in Philadelphia, moved to Virginia as a student during the civil rights era and entered politics in the 1970s, when the state’s political process was slowly opening up to African-Americans. Mid-way through his first term, after the post-2008 fiscal free fall had begun to ease up, Jones began putting together a commission, made up of local political figures, pastors, community organizers, academics, businessmen and city officials, to write up a report on the city’s poverty crisis. For Jones, concentrated poverty, was “an abomination,” and he wanted to make its eradication a core part of the city government’s mission.
“We have 26 percent, 27 percent in poverty,” explains the mayor. “And we really weren’t doing anything to address it. We began looking at ways to change the paradigm.”
Out of the deliberations that Mayor Jones unleashed, a new city office, the Office of Community Wealth Building, was born. The OCWB had an initial annual budget of $3.4 million and was headed by University of Richmond professor of leadership studies and philosophy Thad Williamson. The office came with ambitions: to be, for Richmond, what the Office of Economic Opportunity was federally, during the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. It was envisioned as a coordinating body that could cut through myriad bureaucracies and quickly deliver anti-poverty programs into the areas most in need of change.
In 2010, not long after he arrived in Richmond, Williamson had begun co-writing a book exploring why Richmond’s leadership class had, historically, been so derelict when it came to tackling poverty. The work made Williamson a well-known figure in the city’s progressive community. Shortly afterward, he was selected by the anti-poverty commission to pull all the disparate pieces into a whole, and to write up its final report. “We want to change the big picture, and you don’t do this with small changes,” explains Williamson, a tall, slightly lumbering man with an easy manner about him.
Williamson has spent much of the past several years going from one neighborhood meeting to the next, bringing as many residents on board as possible. Along the way, he has sought out ideas for how to jump-start moribund area economies; how to deliver early childhood education to children who have long been neglected; how to rebuild desolate public housing; and how to improve transit systems long handicapped by surrounding suburbs’ refusals to countenance bus lines from the city out to the nearby towns.
“To try to do all these things at the same time,” Williamson says, “I do think it’s a very big deal. None of these individual pieces are easy. We’re trying to get to a point where there’s a lot higher degree of hope than there is in our neighborhoods right now.”
In many cities, the initiative’s goals would be considered modest. In Richmond, however, a city long adept at ignoring poverty and the underlying social divides that perpetuate it, even being able to stimulate a wide-ranging conversation on the issue is a major coup.
Chanel Bea, a forty-one-year-old mother of three and Citizens Advisory Board member like Estes, acknowledges that the project is still has a long way to go before it delivers on its promises. “On the ground, it looks a lot like people talking to each other,” she said, with a laugh. But, pointing to the civic engagement at the core of the project, she is hopeful about its possibilities. “We’re here in the community trying to empower people to work from within.”
MONUMENT AVENUE, RUNNING through the heart of Richmond, is a grandiose, tree-lined street of large houses and elegant apartments. Along the middle divider are a series of imposing statues dedicated to the city’s more famous native sons. At one end is a statue of Arthur Ashe, the first African-American man to make it to the top of the tennis world. The others, however, include less salutary characters: Stonewall Jackson, dressed in Confederate garb and straddling a steed; Robert E. Lee, also on horseback; and a triumphal Romanesque monument dedicated to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Davis, the engraved words explain to viewers, was an “exponent of the Constitutional principles [and] Defender of the rights of States.” And his army fought “an unflinching struggle against overwhelming odds.”
In what the tribute to Davis doesn’t say resides a world of pain and social injustice. There is no mention, on this monument, of slavery, nor of the legacy of highly racialized poverty in the city of Richmond. Nor is there mention of the ways in which slavery embedded itself into the city’s psyche. In the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century, Richmond hosted the country’s second-largest slave market. There were slave jails, as well as a black cemetery that doubled, episodically, as a lynching site. The bodies of the dead would be left swinging in the Southern breeze, there for those living in the hills around the town center to look down upon.
“Slavery and then segregation were a way of determining who would be poor,” notes the Reverend Ben Campbell, a seventh generation Virginian who is the author of the 2012 book Richmond’s Unhealed History. “It’s a strange thing to live in a place that says it’s concerned about history but in fact doesn’t tell it.”
Today, Richmond remains a deeply unequal city, with some neighborhoods in the throes of gentrification and others utterly desolate in their destitution. Almost twenty-six percent of Richmond’s 214,000 residents, and 40 percent of its children, lived below the poverty line in 2013, the vast majority of them African-American. This contrasts with a statewide average of roughly eleven percent living in poverty, and with Richmond’s own figures from the late 1960s, when its poverty rate was eighteen percent.
Richmond public schools were officially desegregated in the 1960s in the face of furious opposition from Virginia’s political leadership, but in practice its education system remains rigidly divided. Its public schools are now overwhelmingly black and poor, despite the city’s demographic makeup still being roughly half white, half black. Close to half of all Richmond adults have, at most, a high-school diploma. Nearly one in five don’t even have that.
In 2013, Richmond was the eleventh most unequal large American city (most of the cities populating the bottom tier of this collection are Southern cities). And it is ringed by suburbs which are largely inaccessible to city residents, thanks to a complete lack of public transport routes from city into suburb and by the toll-roads which were built on land previously lived on by black residents. Nearly 109,000 suburbanites commute into the city to work. Yet the city receives none of those workers’ tax dollars.
Out of sight, out of mind, Richmond’s poverty has festered for decades.
THE MAGGIE L. WALKER INITIATIVE takes its name and real-life inspiration from a woman who made history more than 100 years ago, just a few blocks from Gilpin Court, Richmond’s largest housing project. The neighborhood at the time was a bustling African-American enclave, heralded as the Harlem of the South, and Walker was one of its pillars. The daughter of a former slave and a white abolitionist, she became famous as the first woman in the United States to open a bank, which she did in 1903 as a means of providing a safe place for African-Americans to save and invest their money. More than a century later, the bank’s first headquarters still stands, though the brick structure has long been empty, its windows boarded up. It hovers at the edge of Gilpin Court, a symbol of the possibility that once rippled through the neighborhood and that, city leaders and residents both hope, can flourish once again.
Last summer, the initial city funds for the Maggie L. Walker Initiative began flowing. Some of the money went toward local “community navigators” to help public housing residents navigate the complexities of housing authority regulations, and some went to transport planners, who are looking for ways to better link the city with the surrounding metropolitan suburbs. This spring, additional funds will go to trained facilitators to collect information from residents about the principles that should guide the city’s plans to redevelop some of the most dilapidated complexes and convert them into mixed-income communities.
The initiative has also channeled an initial one million dollars into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which is intended to generate a number of housing units for workers whose wages make them too affluent for public housing but who still cannot afford market-rent properties. The Fund, officially created in 2008, sat around for years without a dime in its coffers.
At the core of the anti-poverty effort—its “leading wedge” according to its crafters –is the Center for Workforce Innovation. Under the Maggie L. Walker Initiative, its funds have been boosted from a paltry $125,000 to nearly half a million dollars. The center now is able to recruit more businesses to low-income neighborhoods, and train 300 workers a year, with a job placement rate of 65 percent for those who stay the course. By 2020, its head, Jamison Manion, anticipates, 1,000 people will go through his agency annually.
Already, Richmonders come to the center study computer skills, to learn first aid, to take OSHA tests, all intended to show their readiness for the workplace. They come to beat the cycle of dead-end minimum wage jobs and unemployment that defines daily life for too many Richmond residents.“ You can’t make it off of $7.50 at a job,” says 25-year-old Angela Smith, as she pecks at a laptop keyboard, her head, with its purple-dyed hair, bobbing in concentration as she attempts to master touch-typing. “All your money going to bills, and you’re still living paycheck to paycheck. Having to depend on welfare … to provide for your family. It makes me sad and mad at the same time.”
Others, like 56-year-old Bernard, come to classes in between attending drug rehabilitation programs, hoping those classes will give them an edge in a job market to all intents long closed to them. “I just hope to get a job,” he says, “so I can pay child support.”
Over the coming months, Richmond’s programs will ramp up and the experts and community residents who have been brainstorming interventions will start realizing their ideas. The will also continue to generate new ones. The Office, explains Williamson, will work with local university researchers to evaluate new programs, and will, over time, serve “as a hub and a catalyst, and have the ability to pull people together from the public and private sectors.”
Indeed, with its modest $3.4 million budget, the initiative’s proponents are depending on their ability to obtain funding for key projects from federal agencies and private benefactors. In September, the city secured a $24.9 million grant from the US Department of Transportation to develop a bus rapid transit line. The OCWB also hopes to entice private businesses and foundations to fund the development of “social enterprises”—businesses run, and ultimately owned, by local workers in poor parts of the city. Successful examples of such programs exist in Cleveland and several other cities; now Richmond has decided to try its hand in this arena. Ventures could include manufacturers of brooms or other low-tech equipment for the nearby Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital, as well as community gardens that sell produce to city restaurants.
“The idea,” said John Moeser, a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond, “is to capture that money within the neighborhood itself and for it to begin to multiply.”
RICHMOND’S SHIFT, FIRST in how it talks about poverty, and then in the creation of programs to start tackling that poverty, mirrors a broader national change. After decades in which it was considered politically taboo to talk of poverty as the consequence of structural problems in the economy and body politic, the rhetoric in many cities has shifted over the last few years. Similar policy conversations to the one taking place in Richmond have taken root recently in Atlanta, Savannah, New York, San Francisco, and in a number of other major cities. And the creation of a series of Promise Zone cities by the Obama Administration—five were selected, in a competitive process, in January 2014, with a second round to be chosen in the coming months—has opened the door to more locally-based efforts aimed at communities mired in deep hardship. All of this offers some hope that, after years in which no one in power seemed to be addressing poverty, perhaps at long last a corner has been turned.
But Richmond’s story also offers a cautionary tale about the limits of good intentions absent massive infusions of federal cash: without more than a few Promise Zone grants, without large-scale public- and private-sector investments, and without regional efforts bringing cities and their surrounding suburbs into partnerships, the best intentions in the world will likely still not be enough to meet the magnitude of the country’s poverty epidemic. This is a problem big enough in scope that it merits a permanent anti-poverty campaign bringing all levels of government into the mix.
Mayor Jones has proposed increasing the city’s budget for anti-poverty initiatives from this year’s $3.4 million to $4 million in FY 2016 and introducing new programs to help students plan for life after high school. Yet even this expanded budget is not nearly enough to raise many Richmond residents’ economic standing.
In its final report to Mayor Jones, issued in January 2013, the anti-poverty commission stated that poverty was the great civil rights challenge of the twenty-first century. It was, they wrote “a citywide problem of daunting proportions.” Nobody in Richmond expects that the Maggie L. Walker Initiative will generate instant transformations, but, from the mayor on down, anti-poverty advocates do think that it has unleashed a spirit of civic possibility and citizen engagement around these issues not previously seen in Virginia’s capitol.
“There’s a lot of energy here,” said Greta Harris, of the Better Housing Coalition, as she ate her breakfast at the Stir Crazy café, a fancy coffee spot on the upscale MacArthur Avenue—one of the economic hotspots in a city that has been partially and unevenly gentrified over the past decade. Originally from Danville, Virginia—where her father became the town’s first African-American mayor—Harris is an architect by training. She moved to Richmond several years ago to work in the non-profit world and became a key player in the discussions that led to the creation of the Maggie L. Walker Initiative.
“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Harris continued. “[But] the challenge for us is that one in four Richmonders is impoverished, without a boat. And a rising tide looks pretty damn scary without a boat.” How, Harris, wonders, can a city “un-concentrate the poverty” that was concentrated over the better part of a century of inequitable urban development?
The Maggie L. Walker Initiative alone won’t break down Richmond’s extraordinary concentrations of poverty. It can’t. The city simply doesn’t have enough resources to go it alone here. But, over the long term, if it becomes embedded in the political culture of the Virginia state capital and if it becomes as much a part of the next mayor’s political calculus as it is of Jones’, its participants will create a climate, in a Southern city long inured to stunningly high levels of poverty, in which innovative ideas are given more room to play out, and in which more elements of an anti-poverty infrastructure can be locked into place.
Will it change the city? Sitting in her apartment in one of the city’s housing projects, Lillie Estes ponders her answer. “I come from door knocking,” she says after a while. “I have been knocking on doors for forty years. How you get to know people and they get to know you, and they believe what you’re saying, that’s where the rubber meets the road. Will it change the city? Of course. How quick or how long, that’s the task at hand.”