Into the Woods 

While low-income housing moves outward, crime takes hold on the suburban edges.

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The message, it seems, couldn't cut through the pine trees and oaks in the thickly wooded apartment community. A day after Richmond Police Chief Bryan Norwood and his lieutenants paid a visit to St. John's Wood for a walk-through, talking up crime prevention and community policing, Terrance Robinson, 31, was gunned down in a parking lot at the south Richmond apartment complex.

As tragic anecdotes go, Robinson's murder highlights a growing problem along the suburban edges of the city and in Chesterfield and Henrico counties. With the city's housing stock continuing to rise in value, and as the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority begins the redevelopment of its public housing complexes, low-income families that seek affordable and subsidized housing are moving outward, into the older suburbs.

As those areas deteriorate they in turn will provide more affordable housing, says John Moeser, longtime urban planning professor and senior fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. “And unfortunately one of that phenomenon's descendant effects is an increase in crime.”

The most recent crime stats seem to bear out that conclusion. In sector 312, sandwiched between Powhite Parkway and the Midlothian Turnpike along Jahnke Road, major crime has increased 8 percent in the last year, according to the Richmond police.

As crime moves outward, it's also more difficult to police. Often gated, set back from the road and landscaped to offer privacy, suburban neighborhoods are designed to offer exclusivity. St. John's 777 units are hidden from view, tucked behind the trees, for example — offering natural cover for criminals.

There are few ways to get in and out of the complex, Richmond police Lt. Stephen McQuail says, and St. John's Wood features unpaved trails, which are difficult to navigate for officers who don't “have the lay of the land.”

Police stepped up their presence at the complex last year in response to more calls for service. Despite those efforts, some residents say the community still doesn't feel safe.

Two weeks after the shooting, Tracy Johnson leans against the front door while her 2-year-old grandson, Larry, roughhouses in the small patch of grass in front of her apartment. A few feet of asphalt is all that separates her front yard and the apartment she shares with her two daughters and two grandchildren from where Robinson was shot.

“I don't know if at this point I'd feel safe anywhere in this area,” Johnson says. Before moving to St. John's Wood, Johnson lived in an apartment complex behind the now-vacant Cloverleaf Mall. Her family decided to relocate after her daughter's boyfriend had a gun put to his head by someone looking for their next-door neighbor.

To Johnson, the complex was at first blush “a little on the ghetto side.” Nonetheless, she and her family moved to the Argyle Terrace section of St. John's Wood last January, hoping to get away from the violence. With parquet floors and loft style apartments, tennis courts and a pool, St. John's Wood once thrived with yuppies and young professionals. There were weekly beer socials in the clubhouse.  

Johnson says she was largely pleased with her new neighborhood — until Oct. 12, when Robinson was shot just across from her home. She was at work when it happened. Her daughter was at home.

Days after Robinson's murder, police arrested two suspects: Correy Lee Davis, a 23-year-old, and Raishaud Jaemon Chavis, a 22-year-old from the city's Randolph neighborhood. Both have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Police would not comment on the circumstances that led to Robinson being killed, but the quick arrests can be traced back to the emphasis on community policing, McQuail says. At St. John's Wood that means an increased police presence in the form of foot and bicycle patrols.

With the pending redevelopment of the city's housing projects, such as Gilpin Court, the question becomes: Where will the former residents go? Moeser says it's likely they'll venture farther out, to where the housing is old and cheap, to apartment communities such as St. John's Woods and into the suburban edges of Chesterfield and Henrico.

The counties already have established community policing programs geared toward area apartment complexes. Billie Tebbens, crime prevention specialist with Henrico police, helps coordinate the Police Apartment Coalition. Formed in 1993, the coalition brought managers from Henrico's 215 apartment communities together with police to share information and discuss crime prevention tactics, Tebbens says.

As the coalition has evolved, police have begun holding workshops with apartment managers on new trends in policing such as crime prevention through environmental design. It's a relatively new tactic, aimed at eliminating places to hide and harbor crime, such as cutting back shrubbery, and improving lighting and access.

But whatever improvements police make at St. John's Wood will probably come too late to help the Johnson family members. They plan to move out. And they're not the only ones.

After six years living in Argyle Terrace, one resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says she'll be leaving the complex too. Last week the local hospital administrator was out walking her pet Shih Tzu on the same block where Robinson was murdered. “I've just had this growing sense of uneasiness about this place,” she says, pulling at the leash.

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we mischaracterized the redevelopment of the city's public housing projects, such as Gilpin Court, as closing.

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