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Residents Come Together to Create a Better Block in Richmond’s Church Hill

After weeks of preparation, Richmond held its first Better Block on the city’s East End earlier this month. Spearheaded by Bon Secours and Sports Backers, the initiative uses temporary improvements to neighborhood streets to help residents and city leaders work toward long-term change. Catherine Komp reports for Virginia Currents.

Want to see more? Scroll down to see an audio slideshow of Richmond’s Better Block event. You can also follow the progress of Better Blocks in other cities and check out our past coverage of Better Block preparations in Richmond and of Norfolk's Granby Street, one year after their Better Block.

Transcript:

Richmond’s Better Block targeted a commercial intersection along 25th Street in North Church Hill. The initiative began in March, with a walking tour and discussion that asked residents what changes they’d like to see on the block. In just three months, the efforts of an estimated 100 volunteers culminated in a two-day event that showcased building improvements, local artists and entrepreneurs, and ways to make the area more safe and welcoming.

Pam Crews: It is so awesome, it’s given us a chance to revitalize the neighborhood and bring a new different look, a new air, just like Carytown.

That’s Pam Crews, who owns the building at 1006 and 1008 North 25th Street. One side’s a barber shop, she opened up the other vacant property for use as a pop-up shop for handmade clothing and gifts. Crews was one of five property owners who received a $1300 grant from Capital One to fix up the outside of her building, which her family has owned for decades.

Crews: By Capital One and the Better Block project coming in, it’s given us a chance to paint the building, redo the storefront and the glass, it made it so much better, it gave it an uplift.

Better Block is a Texas-based organization that has worked in dozens of cities around the country. They use a placemaking method called tactical urbanism, which brings residents together to create rapid, temporary improvements. Through the process, neighbors meet each other, share skills, tools and resources, and the community builds social capital. In the lead-up to Richmond event, dozens participated in hands-on workshops like how to build pallet furniture and make a street more pedestrian friendly. Those skills were applied directly to the block, with newly created seating to encourage socializing, and bike lanes and a mid-street crosswalk to calm traffic.

A vacant lot featuring a giant sculpture spelling out the word “love” became a gathering spot for the diverse crowd. On a grassy area, youth tossed a beach ball and swung inside hula hoops while listening to local musicians No BS! Brass Band. Down the street, another empty storefront became the temporary home for Herstory Repeated Vintage Boutique.

Tamara Tazewell: I learned about the Better Block a couple months ago, I signed up for it. I stalked the email everyday waiting for the guys to hit me back, I didn’t know if I would be lucky enough to be involved.

Tamara Tazewell says she hopes to someday have a permanent store in the area.

Tazewell: The classes have been awesome. The pallet class was awesome, we made benches and chairs and everyone’s been helpful, I just like the area and I think it’s going to turn-around for the better and we’re having a good time out here.

Sharing the space was another pop-up, J-Elay, a plus-sized online boutique launched by Jacole Thomas. Even though she only heard about the event a few days prior, she wanted to get involved.

Jacole Thomas: This is kind of a depressed area if you will and I thought it was something positive and it really, really has been. I’m re-energized because being an entrepreneur can be hard, it can be discouraging. This is good, this puts me back to where I knew I wanted to be, to realign my vision. So I just think it’s a great project.

Richmond’s Better Block also emphasized local talent through an open air art studio in the large brick courtyard of the upcoming coffee shop Miracles. There, painters worked on murals sized to fit in windows previously boarded up with weathered plywood.

David Marion: They wanted to get a collection of artists out to help enlighten, inspire, bring some inspiration to the area. We were brought together as joint community of artists to help out with the effort and the community, which is really important.

David Marion’s piece is a portrait of a man in a knit hat holding a tattered cardboard sign that quotes a passage from the Bible: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

David Marion: I wanted to pick a piece or image that portrayed someone who was going through something, someone who has a story. This guy you can tell he has some pain in his eyes, but at the same time he’s holding on to the hope that he has. And it’s kinda relevant to how it is here also, cause there’s a lot of areas that you can see poverty and people hanging on and clinging on to their hope and that’s the message I wanted to get out there to inspire people to keep on pushing.

Other artists included Sir James Thornhill, Hamilton Glass, Latasha Dunston and Ed Trask, who independently sought permission from a property owner to transform the side of a brick building. Already painted mossy green, it became the canvas for Trask’s large piece depicting a youth playing the violin, a blue bird perched on the top of bow.

As another local band CHKN Grese wound up the Better Block festivities, Michael Wynn, manager of Miracles coffee shop, said there’s still a lot of work to do in this area, but the initiative succeeded in generating excitement and bringing people together.

Michael Wynn: What this event did it brought out the diversity that was already in the neighborhood, it was just everybody was in there own. There’s a lot of a demographics in this neighborhood, rich, black, white and poor so this event brought everybody out.

Along with a 5k run/walk hosted by Sports Backers, local leaders also held the East End Economic Development Summit. The city has been working on revitalization plans for the larger area for years, investing in the new MLK Middle School, library renovations and healthy food access. Bon Secours Community Hospital says it’s also committed to the physical, social and economic health of the East End. The healthcare organization plans to build a “Center for Healthy Communities” and a medical office building which officials say will create dozens of new jobs. And they’ve allocated $300,000 in grants to small businesses and start-ups in the neighborhood. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

Update: Max Hepp-Buchanan from Sports Backers says a sixth business/property owner received and spent a grant for facade improvements. Here are some further details from Hepp-Buchanan’s post-Better Block recap:

In a short amount of time, we rehabilitated four vacant storefronts to house pop-up shops for the weekend, and reprogramed public space to house many more. Some of those vacancies were more work than others to restore and we definitely went above and beyond the call of duty! For example, we painted a historical building the right color scheme, cleared a fire exit where there wasn’t one before, built 15 picnic tables, created a number of canvasses for local artists, pulled a ton of weeds and mowed a lot of lawn, and a whole lot more than that. Over the week of June 8, those two blocks of saw quite the transformation.