A Common Space 

A new community space seeks to become the center of Oregon Hill.

What is this place? A school? A house? An art studio?

All of the above, says Bill Berry, president and CEO of SynerGeo, a faith-based nonprofit. Berry, a former Baptist campus minister at Virginia Commonwealth University, created SynerGeo two years ago. The name is Greek, he says; it means "to work together with" to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

"My vision for it is a space for the community that can be used for reflection, for expression, for creativity," he says. It may sound like a vague dream, but Berry's goal is a concrete change for one of Richmond's oldest neighborhoods.

Oregon Hill is peopled by a mix of students, artists and working-class families who have been there for generations. This is a crucial time for the area, Berry says, because rents and home costs are rising to the point where longtime residents are being forced out.

SynerGeo, he says, will act to preserve the balance that makes Oregon Hill what it is, while filling in the blanks of what it lacks. Thus its multifaceted mission, which includes after-school programs for children, free or low-cost art and music classes and home renovations.

Recently the William Byrd Community Center surveyed Oregon Hill residents about what they wanted to see in the neighborhood. "Art and music" was the overwhelming reply, Berry says — so he decided that SynerGeo would start there.

He began looking for a building that could house his project. A member of the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council mentioned the Steinmann house at 349 S. Laurel St. When he approached the family who owned it, they were "elated" that the building that had been their family home and shop for more than a century would become a community center. "They said they didn't know why they were hanging onto this place," Berry says, "but when they heard my proposal they knew why."

The family agreed to donate part of the cost of the house, and SynerGeo bought it for $120,000. Last spring, Berry, 48, and about 40 members of the Steinmann family dedicated the building, now called the Steinmann Neighborhood Arts Center.

In September, the hard work began. Staff and volunteers began stripping five layers of carpet, linoleum and unidentifiable tarry stuff from the floor of the former general store. Now the old oak underneath glows. A small carpeted stage has been installed against one of the exposed brick walls. Soon, Berry hopes to host concerts and hang works by local artists.

Upstairs is home to four recent college graduates. SynergGeo's Jonah Project allows each to live here for a year in an "intentional Christian community" and volunteer full time at neighborhood organizations while receiving a small stipend.

It's a bit of an adjustment for some. At night, they'll hear people yelling and "things crashing" outside on the streets, says resident Tim Reddish. But Katye Parker, a 22-year-old VCU graduate, says the experience is "like coming back to my roots." Her great-grandfather grew up in Oregon Hill, and her grandfather, who drove a dry-cleaning truck there, was long a familiar face in the neighborhood.

Parker divides her time between coordinating programs at the Steinmann Neighborhood Arts Center and working at the children's ministry at Pine Street Baptist Church. She leads Bible school and teaches "hobbies and stuff that keep them out of trouble," everything from photography to twisting balloon animals.

"These kids in a lot of ways don't have a chance. … They've got so much running against them already," Parker says. Yet it makes an enormous difference for children to have someone to watch them after school, she says, or to care how well they did their homework.

Local teenagers need the same kind of attention, center staff say, but drawing them in is more difficult. They're "too cool to do anything artsy," says one. An afternoon program that offers homework help has attracted a growing group, and so have one-on-one teen tutoring and mentoring sessions. Students at Open High School take private music lessons here from SynerGeo staff and in return, help out with other programs.

"We're having some success, just being around," says Greg Jarrell, a seminary student who leads the music program. "I had a couple of snowball fights with the residents, which seem to be more successful than anything else."

On the big calendar in SynerGeo's small office, nearly every day is marked with programs for children, teenagers and adults: Between the Covers, a book club. Creation Therapy, stress relief through art. Artsplosion, where children learn drama, drumming and crafts. Almost all are free.

The center also works with local congregations and college students to coordinate visits to the area's homebound. Already they've found 35 people willing to devote an hour and a half each week to helping the elderly shop for groceries or simply socialize.

Another project, called Just Housing, involves buying homes in the area to preserve low-cost rentals for residents. "Oregon Hill has a long history of families renting for generations, and now they're being caught" as prices go up, Berry says. SynerGeo already owns three homes on Laurel Street, which they bought from the Steinmann family. Families continue to live there while volunteers work on renovations. The rent SynerGeo receives is just enough to pay the mortgage, Berry says.

He's currently working to obtain more grants and donations to secure SynerGeo's future. Berry pays living allowances for his 11 part-time and four full-time staff from a $114,000 grant from AmeriCorps. They don't make much, but "the 'what's-in-it-for-me?' — I don't hear that so much," Berry says.

Ultimately, he'd like to see SynerGeo become "a partnership between students and struggling communities — not only in Richmond but around the world." The "around the world" part may take a while. But, Berry says, he's picked the perfect place to start. S

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