The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trying to make it in a neighborhood with a 70 percent poverty rate

In Richmond, like in many cities, poverty has been fueled by overt policy choices that isolate the poor in certain neighborhoods.

Across the divide of Interstates 64 and 95 in the heart of Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, the St. Luke building can be seen rising above the surrounding structures. Jackson Ward was a healthy African American community when the interstate cut it almost in half. The St. Luke building is the site of a bank begun by a famous African American woman, Maggie Walker. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post.)

This is an installment in our series Richmond: The legacy of poverty, tracking the former capitol of the Confederate’s ambitious, sweeping plan to fight poverty. Follow that storyline here and check out previous installments

RICHMOND – In mid-October, Patricia Brown moved out of the apartment with the too-thin walls, the cockroaches and the landlord who sought to evict her, to whom she still owes approximately $1,500. The issue is, she supposes, unresolved. At the moment it feels fitting in the same way she says her former landlord left the leaking pipes and bug infestation unresolved. The debt goes on the list with other debts accumulated during many months of unemployment. She digs out in installments.

Brown, her boyfriend and her youngest son have moved into something she has long wanted: a house. It’s small, not quite 900-square-feet, but it has a sun porch and big backyard. It also has three bedrooms, and “that means you can have your own bedroom now,” she tells her oldest son, who is 15 and in a state-ordered residential treatment program for depression and a mood disorder. “For real?” he says, happy, which makes her happy.

Something about the house reminds her of the house she grew up in in rural New Kent County, Virginia. Little things, like the white aluminum blinds on the front picture window trigger memories.

When she opens the blinds, the nostalgia is shattered. The house faces the brick facades and the wrought-iron iron fences of Creighton Court, one of the largest of the six traditional public housing projects in the city.

It’s a powerful backdrop for her own journey toward stability and a decent livelihood. Creighton sits as it has for more than 60 years, a goad, a reminder of the city’s immense challenges, a monument to failed public policy. The East End of Richmond, while gentrifying in spots, holds most of the city’s public housing projects. This is concentrated poverty, the poverty born of segregation and disinvestment, that city government not all that long ago helped to create and is now seeking to undo in the name of creating opportunity where little now exists.

Brown lived in Creighton for a year and sees what outsiders generally don’t: a community, with its weakness – and its strengths.

“Even though you live there, you can be, well, I won’t say successful to the standards people generally think of, but they are working, saving money, going to school, taking care of their children. They are drug-free. They are doing everything they need to do to get out of there.”

About 1,300 people live in Creighton’s 503 units. That’s the official headcount. Lot of names not on the lease, Brown says. Most residents are women and children and they live on average annual incomes of roughly $8,500 a year. Ninety eight percent of Creighton’s population is African American.

Brown knows the neighborhood is poor. She does not know she now lives in the poorest census tract in the city, with a poverty rate of 69.6 percent and an unemployment rate of 22 percent

The ramifications of that kind of poverty are obvious, says Thad Williamson, director of the city’s new office of Community Wealth Building, which is coordinating the city’s antipoverty initiative. “It’s difficult to expect your basic systems — public safety, schools, families – to work well. That’s true whether you look at it from a 30,000-foot view or the view of the people living there.”


Brian Koziol took a 30,000-foot view. A few years ago, Koziol, the director of research for Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia Inc., picked up a project his predecessor has been working on: a map showing which neighborhoods in Richmond best positioned their residents for future opportunity.

It was based on the opportunity and equity mapping work done by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. The basic idea is to look at how where one lives – one’s ecosystem — impacts access to transportation, education, health, credit and wealth, all indicators of mainstream economic success and physical well-being. Twenty two variables, all equally weighted.

“Under wealth and transportation, we’d look at median home value, household income, poverty rate, percentage on public assistance, the number of bus stops,” Koziol says.

The opportunity map, which was completed in 2012, did not reveal any hidden truths about the Richmond region. The areas of low opportunity correlated with the areas of high poverty. And vice versa.  The caveat was that in gentrifying neighborhoods there are always wealthier residents who can “purchase opportunity.”

But the map provided more data to reinforce what is obvious to most who live here: Richmond is a city where deprivation and privilege have accumulated side-by-side for generations. Parallel universes.

But even for all he knows of the city’s history, Koziol says he still had a wow moment when he looked at historic maps alongside the opportunity map. Lay the opportunity map over the 1950 federal Home Owners Loan Corporation map of neighborhoods it deemed unsuitable for investment (hint: black neighborhoods) and find the same outlines.

Lay over them the maps of white flight over time or the more recent maps of neighborhoods with the highest numbers of subprime mortgages and foreclosures.

Again and again, the same boundaries emerge. History’s footprints.

“It is shocking because we like to think that we are making progress, and certainly in some fields we are, but in housing choice and neighborhood opportunity, we are not making any inroads,” Koziol says. “Especially when it comes to the inner city.”

Richmond is certainly not unique in this regard. It is just another chapter in the book of federal, state and local policies designed to corral the poor, in general, and blacks, in particular, and then systematically deny them opportunity.

“This is the full magnitude of what it means to say that concentrated poverty was by design,” Williamson says. “And it was also designed to be hard to undo.”

Deny people access to stable and safe neighborhoods, quality education, to employment centers, to adequate public transportation and poverty feeds itself.


For Brown, there is a certain irony that taking a step up – and the house is a definite step up – requires her to return to a neighborhood that represents a life she is trying to leave behind. The danger of hopelessness, the drama, the dependency.

The city is planning to redevelop all this – and soon, she says, waving toward Creighton. That’s true. The city’s anti-poverty initiative has a separate arm focused with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority on the redevelopment of public housing into mixed-income communities with new schools.

But she’s not sure it can be set right.  “It’s just what the government started has done its work and a lot of people that are struggling are three, four, five generations into it now. It’s big now, bigger now than just black and poor.”

Then again, she says, maybe it’s because it finally getting so big that it can no longer be contained to one population’s future, that the city is doing something. That’s true enough, too. The market has made it clear to the administration that its coveted triple-A bond rating lies in its ability to do something about the city’s 26 percent poverty rate.

She’s willing to give the city the benefit of the doubt. After all, the city workforce center at the heart of its antipoverty initiative – and Ms. Sherrilyn Hicks, in particular – helped her find her two part-time custodial jobs and pointed her toward the East End’s dedicated network of community agencies. One of those nonprofits helped Patricia with the pro-rated October rent so she could move.

In the scheme of things, the difference between living in the poorest neighborhood in the city and the second or third or fourth poorest is like occupying distant planets. They are all still light-years from the sun. And at least this part of that universe has a bus stop right across the street. What matters to Patricia now is keeping her jobs and figuring out a way to squeeze in training for better-paying work. What matters is getting her oldest son back and making a home.

She’s one individual moving across a landscape of thousands, but, she says, every morning she gets up and goes to work. She comes home, runs errands, fixes dinner, turns around and goes right back out to work for her evening job cleaning the offices of City Hall. Her sons will remember that.

“And they know this is what I need to do, that I’m out there trying to accomplish something because I don’t want this for my kids.  I want to stop it. It’s ending now,” she says. “With me.”