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A park built over the interstate could reconnect Richmond, Va., communities

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For decades, American planners have cut neighborhoods in half. And now Richmond, Va., is exploring possible plans for a park to reconnect its most famous Black neighborhood. Jahd Khalil from VPM News reports.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: A park gazebo in the Jackson Ward neighborhood is walking distance to history. America's first Black bank was chartered here, an insurance company, too. Doug Wilder, America's first elected Black governor, went to school here. But Cliff Chambliss and about 30 others weren't going to see those sights.

CLIFF CHAMBLISS: So the goal for today, though, is a prayer vigil.

KHALIL: It's fall, but it's still warm enough for cicadas to buzz. They eventually get drowned out by Interstate 95.

CHAMBLISS: Homes were demolished. Families were displaced. Communities were broken up, businesses destroyed. And this is the cause.

KHALIL: In the 1950s, a highway split the neighborhood in half. Now, with a new grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Richmond is studying how a park built over the interstate could stitch together the neighborhood. Maritza Pechin is Richmond's deputy director for equitable development.

MARITZA PECHIN: So one of the things that I have come to learn when I'm working in Jackson Ward or other communities that have had, like, pretty traumatic history, is constantly talking about the history.

KHALIL: Step by step, residents built. Rosa Bowser developed night classes. Oliver Hill and civil rights lawyers built their practices. It was a wealthy community with everything they needed. Then the interstate destroyed a significant piece of it.

PECHIN: If you don't talk about the history, people assume that you don't know it or that you are kind of skirting it to the side.

KHALIL: Jackson Ward is still a centerpiece for Black entrepreneurship and culture. Successes despite that destruction haven't been evenly distributed though. Today there's twice as much unemployment north of the freeway, and incomes are a third of those south of it. So Pechin says community skepticism of government investments is valid.

PECHIN: Because in the past, those investments have led to them being displaced.

KHALIL: In Richmond, 7,000 people were forced out. Kia Player's family was in 1957.

KIA PLAYER: And then these are the four girls in front of the steps at 904 Turpin Street.

KHALIL: Player has a photo of the little girls on their mother's lap. They're the first of her great grandparents' 13 children.

PLAYER: After church, you know, everyone would come over from church and eat dinner. My grandmother sold fried chicken and buttered rolls.

KHALIL: Player said the family's compensation wasn't even half of the house's value. Today homes in Jackson Ward are rising in value fast.

PLAYER: It's not just about the land that was lost but the communities that were broken up. There's no way to, like, give that back.

KHALIL: Experts say transit funding needs to be backed up with money for affordable housing. Kathryn Howell is a professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

KATHRYN HOWELL: We know from decades of research, frankly, that transit projects really tend to facilitate gentrification. Park projects facilitate gentrification.

KHALIL: At the March last fall, Janis Allen discussed another concern. She's the president of the historic Jackson Ward Neighborhood Association and said reconnecting doesn't equal repair for lost wealth and scattered communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANIS ALLEN: So if we're going to make amends, it has to go a little bit further than just, quote, "reconnecting" Jackson Ward.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

ALLEN: All right. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

KHALIL: Forty-five communities were awarded $185 million. Buffalo got money to start construction on an interstate cap. And Kalamazoo's grant is to build more walkable streets. Richmond's money is for more planning. In Jackson Ward, that means continuing to talk to its residents and those who were displaced. For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOJI SONG, "GLIMPSE OF US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jahd Khalil
Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.