Marred by a name that has come to mean blight and crime, Blackwell waits for a $27 million miracle that could change more than its reputation. It could restore self-proficiency to a neighborhood that once bloomed on its own. 

The Promised Land

Cearolyn Seward has lost track of time.

She knows she and her five granddaughters have fewer than 120 days before they'll be forced to move out of their public housing unit on Dinwiddie Avenue in South Richmond's Blackwell neighborhood. She hears the bulldozers every day inching closer to the two-bedroom brick-and-cinderblock apartment that, for four years, has been their home. Already many of her neighbors have moved to areas like Gilpin Court, Hillside or Creighton Court. But that's not good enough for Seward. She says she's holding out for the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to offer her the better life it promised. And so far, she hasn't seen it.

For more than two years, Blackwell, a neighborhood that instantly conjures drugs, murder and mayhem, has waited for a $27 million jackpot. Its winning lottery ticket could be a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's a grant that, along with RRHA and the city's $7.5 million Neighborhoods in Bloom project, pledges to return the blighted area to the thriving district it was 40 years ago, before it was Blackwell. But not everyone is convinced these programs can rescue public housing and pump new life into Blackwell.

As blighted parts disappear — including 88 percent of the area's public housing — thanks to government programs, everyone from residents to merchants to church leaders pray for one thing: that Blackwell might be reborn, even stand again on its own. Against all odds, they're hoping $27 million will get them started.

HOPE VI is the sixth project of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, the urban renewal program that has helped rebuild impoverished and crime-plagued areas in Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago. Still, as revitalization plans creep forward, Blackwell suffers, embittered by its very real and often self-perpetuated status as the city's neglected stepchild. Its abuses run as deep as its largely ignored and important history.

"What Blackwell needs is for someone to come in and make it more better," says Seward, a tiny woman who doesn't look 49. She fears losing her $327-a-month apartment and being forced to move to another public housing unit she can't afford. "They're moving us from sugar to s---," she says. "When [RRHA] brought up this HOPE VI thing, I was all for it. We were supposed to be the first ones to go. But we weren't." And now, after hearing about where some of her neighbors have gone — areas she says are even more dilapidated and crime-infested than Blackwell — it's just as well. She'd rather bide her time and pray she gets a better deal. "Hillside is the OK Corral," she says explaining she rarely lets her grandchildren out of eyesight now. But in other public housing areas like Hillside, south of Blackwell, she insists they'd have to stay inside all the time. "They're not caged animals, my kids. They need to get out and let out some stress."

Seward's reaction is one felt by more than a few of the 2,012 Blackwell public-housing residents whose lives have changed since the HOPE VI program began moving 314 families out of 460 public housing units targeted for demolition.

"They're beating a dead horse," says Lula Dickens, 51, a nurse who comes in five days a week to help care for Seward's 13-year old granddaughter, Roderica, who has cerebral palsy and can't speak or eat on her own. Roderica recently had surgery on her spine so that she might be able to sit up without being in pain. That's why Seward lost track of when she's supposed to move. She doesn't have time to worry about housing.

"A lot of people ask me why and how I keep my five grandkids, and why my kids don't do it," says Seward. Her son is in jail for dealing drugs and she says her daughters are just not cut out for it. "At least my grandkids know they got somebody who cares enough to go the whole nine yards." She says she couldn't do it without Dickens' help. "She's my anchor," says Seward. They've become friends in the four years since Dickens started taking the two-bus trip to get from her home in the 3500 block of Decatur Street to Seward's apartment on Dinwiddie.

"I came into the area in 1968," says Dickens, small like Seward, but peering from behind glasses that look you over. Her closely cropped hair and lotioned, manicured hands are soft and clean. She looks like the nurse you'd want if you were in the hospital.

"It won't like it is now. People just started doing crazy stuff. When things started shutting down on Hull Street the neighborhood just changed. Back then, you never had nobody fightin' and arguing. Now all you see is the drugs and killin'."

It's the violence that Seward wants to protect her grandchildren from. It's why she's hopeful RRHA will offer her an alternative to public housing in a neighborhood she doesn't know. She's gotten used to the violence in Blackwell and knows how to keep her grandchildren away from it. Here, she doesn't bother anybody and nobody bothers her.

She only steps outside of her five-room unit to meet her seven grandchildren — she keeps her two grandsons in the afternoon — when they come home from school. Once a month, she has someone with a car drive her to the Pack and Save discount store on Laburnum Avenue for groceries. With six mouths to feed, it's essential to get the most from the $250 in food stamps she receives monthly. Still, food runs out fast and the first week of each month is a strain. "I've got to use cash out of my pocket that I don't have." Seward hopes she won't move far away from the Pack and Save. There, she can get four baskets of groceries. At other stores, she says she's lucky to get one.

Seward revels in the short-lived peace and quiet of the early afternoon hours when all the kids, except Roderica, are at school. It's peaceful, too, because nobody is on the street yet.

This morning, she clipped the wings of four yellow and blue parakeets she keeps in a hanging cage outside her screen door. They chirp and flutter about, and Seward's regular wing clippings ensure they'll never fly away. They're her security. The tiny birds are evidence her apartment is lived-in, unlike the adjacent boarded-up door that has an RRHA "No Trespassing" sign on it.

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)In addition to the five granddaughters who live with her, Cearolyn Seward keeps grandsons Greyvon (left) and Jermaine (right) after school at her Blackwell apartment. Soon she will be forced to move to another public housing apartment. "My birds let me know if anybody's at my door," says Seward. "I've heard the bullets rippin' and I've had to run outside in the middle of the day. I've done swept my children up," says Seward.

"But you can't say nothing," Dickens adds. "These people come back and retaliate against your family. They have no problem shooting up your house. There are drugs still around Blackwell," she warns. "Seems every route I take I got to walk through the drug dealers pushing their crack.

"One little boy said he was going to go home and get his gun and smoke me," says Dickens angrily, adding the boy was probably 14 or 15. "You've got to show them you're not scared."

"A stray bullet don't know nobody from anybody else," adds Seward. "It's been a rocky road. If it came down to my children against them, I'd make sure it'd be them whose blood would spill."

Geraldine Evans, 63, remembers when there wasn't the slightest tinge of fear that blood would spill in Blackwell. She's lived here all her life. There've been times when she wished she had moved, back when the trouble started, she says, in 1970 when 464 public housing apartments broke up the mostly working middle-class neighborhood, and it was named Blackwell to connect it with the school.

"Yes, Lord, yes Lord, yes. It's a different place," she says. "I went to Dunbar Elementary, and I'm one of 13 children. Dr. Blackwell delivered babies, I remember him well. He delivered practically everybody from Stockton to Everett." Blackwell's name comes from his father, James H. Blackwell, who served as principal of the old Maury School for 22 years before being demoted in 1910 to a teacher. It was back when the city of Manchester was annexed to become part of Richmond, a city that didn't yet allow black principals in its schools.

Evans' blue two-story frame house on 15th Street looks like dozens of the other houses in Blackwell only livelier. Hers seems to have been plucked from a Rappahannock River town like White Stone. Roses climb her fence like kids on a jungle gym, sweet and wild. A hedge of azaleas grows thick and neat and nestles up to the porch where she likes to sit and talk and gaze at the new Blackwell Elementary School down the street. Many of the houses nearby either have been bought by First Baptist Church of South Richmond or are boarded up and wait to be torn down or refurbished by Neighborhoods in Bloom, the city's project to tear down, rehabilitate and build 260 houses in Blackwell and five other targeted areas of Richmond. The rotting shell of a red frame house next door is scheduled for demolition in a few weeks.

"I lived at 106 across the street," Evans says, pointing to a two-story white frame house that looks like it would have collapsed from the weight of 15 people living there. "Hull Street was bloomin' when I was comin' up. My dad worked at the old Standard [drugstore]. That was when homeowners was South Side." Evans remembers the '40s and '50s when the neighborhood was called Old Manchester and it was a family community where whites and blacks lived together. "Then other classes came in and didn't care about the neighborhood. That's what changed South Side, all the lower-rate people, scattered in public housing. They brought something bad into South Side, and that was drugs and that wasn't here before. Those that could get out, did."

But now, Evans, an active member of First Baptist Church and a regular at the Blackwell Civic Association's meetings, says things are changing. "We're proving we're trying to bring Blackwell back. It's South Side coming back through." Still, she says there's a lot to be done. A lot that can't be achieved only by the efforts of HOPE VI or Neighborhoods in Bloom or the increasing presence of First Baptist Church. "We don't have a nice Ukrop's or Food Lion and Community Pride left us." And, she adds, until Blackwell has a proper grocery store, it will be hard to attract homeowners. "Two weeks ago they sent out the last notice," she says, of demolition work that still needs to be done. Evans is convinced that the day will come when her neighborhood is restored. "They had nice homes all beautiful here, you say, like the West End — nice," she stresses. The rest of the public housing demolition by HOPE VI should be finished next month. "Oh, I'm so happy to see it coming back," she says, slapping her knee, as if it's as easy as that. She smiles a smile as genuine as it is white and wide.

Evans doesn't flinch or even pause when a series of shots tears through the nearby air like the rankled crackling of a summer thunderstorm. "I'm a volunteer all around here. I sweep and keep the streets clean. Through the grace of God this is my pay, you see — to see Hull Street built up with nice surroundings. So children can have a place to play. It's coming up, baby, you better believe it," she urges. "I may be dead and gone — but it's coming."

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