February 07, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


Rethinking Suburbia 

Neighborhoods that once held the suburban dreams of many have become havens for crime and the all-too-familiar problems of the inner city.

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Editors' note: As part of Style Weekly's 25th anniversary, the editorial team is devoting special coverage to significant changes under way in the Richmond region. This occasional series through 2007 on housing, transportation and shifting demo- graphics will explore the community's new directions, opportunities and challenges.

Sgt. Mike Palkovics eases his white police cruiser through an intersection and onto Darbytown Road in the Henrico County's east end. This is where the city gives way begrudgingly to the county, where the GRTC Transit System's purple-and-white bus stop signs become fewer and fewer by the block.

The neighborhoods here are older, the houses — mostly wood-frame structures dating back decades — are decaying and unkempt. Tacky lawn ornaments are common in well-tended yards, along with abandoned cars on cinder blocks.

Yet while some see decay, others see opportunities: These older neighborhoods are filled with lower-income families seizing the chance to move up in life.

They come from city housing projects. Some have parachuted straight from Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico and South and Central American locales. It all mixes to create a new slate of challenges and responsibilities for local government officials, including increased attention from Henrico County's finest — namely, the 21 community policing officers that Palkovics helps supervise.

"I don't know if I'd say they're a burden," Palkovics says of the come-heres. "Our need for service increases — especially as communities age. We hear it when we talk to them — 'I moved here to get away from all that.' They're looking at schools, they're looking at services; they don't want their kids hanging out on the blocks."

For Henrico, the migration of poverty and the working underclass means "we have to change the resources we're using," Palkovics says. "They need more."

It's the same story in Chesterfield County, particularly along the eastern edges that border Richmond, in the communities dissected by Jeff Davis Highway, Hull Street Road and Midlothian Turnpike. The biggest concern here, Chesterfield County Police Capt. Robert W. Skowron says, has been a sharp increase in armed robberies, particularly against the growing Hispanic population infiltrating so many aging apartment complexes.

"You've got to really look on the edges of potential problems," says Skowron, who peruses some of the older housing haunts on a drizzly Friday night in February. "There's a big change in demographics here."

In and around Cloverleaf Mall, which turned Chesterfield into a regional shopping destination in the 1970s, the housing stock fell into decline as middle-class families moved west. Today, the area is filled with immigrants and seniors, and its crime rate has steadily increased over the past decade as reinvestment in residential properties fails to keep pace with the rest of the county.

It's in stark contrast to what was. In what are now decayed duplexes and trailer parks in the crevices of Jeff Davis Highway in Chesterfield and Nine Mile Road in Henrico, the early suburbs housed the dreams of so many Richmond factory workers, bankers, government employees — all manner of the working class who made Richmond's economic engine roar after the Great Depression.

Before Interstate 95 was built in 1958, Jeff Davis — U.S. Route 1 — was the main artery connecting Richmond and Petersburg, splicing the Northeast with the South, straight down to Miami. The industrial suburbs that thrived here were vital to the local economy.

That these communities bordering the city are in decline is no secret. The futility is well known: the high crime, the bulging immigrant population, the deflated property values. But how many have considered the consequences?

The duality of Jeff Davis' aging suburbs, where the median single-family house is more than 50 years old, clearly holds lessons for the future of Brandermill and Woodlake, Wellesley and Twin Hickory, all those spanking new urbanist homes sprouting up around Route 288.

The suburban dream of living in planned communities free of crime and malcontent, away from the economic disparity that plagues the city and now roadside communities along Jeff Davis and Nine Mile Road, is on a timer.

"If you look at some of the developments off of Jeff Davis, they're facing all of the problems the cities have faced in the past," says Gary T. Johnson, longtime professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It's a bigger problem when low-income housing invades the suburbs. Unlike the city, where social services and public transportation are usually within striking distance, poverty-stricken suburbanites are left in the lurch. "Most of the low-income housing isn't anywhere near where the jobs are," Johnson explains. "That's a big problem."

Indeed, it's a problem with an inherent trapdoor: Those with the financial means to move away almost always do. Like the white flight that decimated the city in the 1970s, the western flight that's been taking place within Chesterfield and Henrico is having similar effects on the easternmost portions of the counties.

"It used to be 15 years ago people would move from the city to the county and be happy with any Chesterfield County school. That's not true anymore," says Daniel Gecker, chairman of Chesterfield County's planning commission and a partner with Urban Development, a residential development firm he co-owns with Robin Miller.

Today, the move is typically from east to west, within the county borders. "It still seems to shock people in Chesterfield that people move from the east to put their children in western schools," says Gecker, adding that the result is an economic vacuum. "What fills in behind them is people who can't afford to make the western move."

The phenomenon is nothing new. The perpetual spreading out of suburban counties has been taking place since the 1940s, when people first began to leave inner-city apartments for trolley-linked row houses and streetcar suburbs.

But the problems with suburban flight used to be contained within city borders. Only in the last few years have county officials awakened to the realities of their own areas' suburban decline and the challenges that come with it.

"I'm worried about many of our older, kind of modest neighborhoods built in the '60s and '70s. We've got to work to prevent blight and insidious decline in these areas," says Tom Jacobson, Chesterfield County's director of community revitalization.

"I agree that the challenge of these areas in the future may be more than the challenge in city neighborhoods," he says. "The houses are not cute, in many respects. The neighborhood infrastructure is basic: no sidewalks, no curb and gutter, no neighborhood parks, not close to a lot of services that you have in city neighborhoods."

It's difficult for many to fathom that the old suburbs, even in their grimiest state, could somehow foster the kind of crime and dereliction that plagues the inner city, places like Gilpin and Mosby courts. But it's already started.

Combined, Chesterfield and Henrico recorded 14 murders in 2006 and 23 murders in 2005, the biggest indicator that violent crime has moved in, albeit mild compared with the 83 murders in Richmond last year.

The signs of decline, however, are everywhere. In "Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs," University of Virginia urban studies professors William Lucy and David Phillips argue that the older suburbs are actually far worse off than many inner cities for several reasons.

First, post-World War II suburbs are more difficult to police. Unlike the accessible street grids of earlier streetcar suburbs, these communities were often built off the main thoroughfare to be, well, exclusionary. It's the primary thread of most all suburbs: They're built as contained communities, intended to keep those of similar socioeconomic status locked in, and everyone else locked out.

But when those with the means to do so move out — 2000 census figures show homeowners move every eight years — the underclass move in. The topography of the suburbs, hidden by trees and sometimes off the beaten path, makes it harder to provide much-needed services to those who need them most. That means crime can take hold in these neighborhoods much more swiftly.

The second reason older suburbs are worse off is a housing trend that would seem to defy conventional wisdom: The older the housing, the higher the quality. While the city is filled with older housing stock that predates 1940, the counties are dominated by housing built in the 1950s and later. Older homes in the city are sturdier structurally and more significant architecturally than their later counterparts. Through the years, as the cookie-cutter suburbs took hold, new-home construction became geared toward speed and mass production.

In fact, the country's biggest developers modeled their production of houses after automobile manufacturers. One of the biggest, Levitt and Sons, in the 1950s pushed the standardization of home building much like an assembly line, envisioning communities where homeowners traded in their houses for new ones every year, much the same way people trade in their cars. Resembling the mail-order houses manufactured by Sears & Roebuck, Levitt and Sons took the approach and applied it to communities with hundreds and hundreds of houses.

"They built thousands of almost identical 800-square-foot houses, with a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, one bath, and a driveway but no garage. Minimal variations, such as six feet of picket fence versus six feet of rail fence, were all that distinguished one house from another," writes Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture, urbanism and American studies at Yale, in "Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000."

By standardizing every aspect of construction — all the materials would arrive "pre-cut" and "combat loaded" with the first items needed to build placed on top — Levitt and Sons and other developers across the country started the trend that exists today. While the houses were boring and modest, the cookie-cutter neighborhoods spelled major profits for developers who could squeeze savings through assembly-line production techniques.

Today, those older suburbs entice little reinvestment. Richmond has historic neighborhoods with pre-1940s housing in Church Hill; the Fan and Jackson Ward are chock-full of old, architecturally significant homes, which have attracted investors and developers. But that's not the case in many of the post-1945 suburbs defined by mass production in the neighborhoods just beyond city limits, Richmond's outer ring. Not only is the housing "not cute," as Jacobson puts it, but the banking and financial industry makes reinvesting in these neighborhoods next to impossible for the average person.

"The problem typically in those areas is there are too many mutually reinforcing reasons not to reinvest," says Lucy, the urban studies professor from U.Va. Design options are expensive, there are zoning regulations and new building codes that must be navigated, and it's difficult to obtain home equity loans for such redevelopments, particularly if the house was recently purchased.

Not to mention the structural problems. "They all have lead-based paint in them. There are problems with asbestos," VCU's Johnson says. "It can be more expensive to rehab rather than to simply build new in greener pastures."

The result is that the older suburbs typically see little reinvestment and those seeking low-income housing or rental properties move in. In Richmond, where the de facto public policy of not replacing dilapidated public housing units in places such as Blackwell dates to the 1980s, the more than 4,000 public subsidized housing units only satisfy a fraction of the demand. More than 9,000 people are on the waiting list to receive Section 8 vouchers.

With the demand so high for low-income housing, it's only natural that many people seek refuge in the aging suburbs. Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution released a study in December that shows for the first time poor suburbanites outnumbering poor city dwellers. The study examined 100 of the country's largest metropolitan areas, including metro Richmond.

"What's interesting about Richmond is it's the only metro area in the study where the poverty trends in the city and the counties moved in opposite directions," says Elizabeth Kneebone, a research analyst who co-authored the study. She explains that Richmond's poor population decreased between 1999 and 2005, while the surrounding suburban locales included in the study showed population increases among poor residents. Elsewhere, city and county growth or retraction mirrored one another. (A household of four with a combined income of less than $19,350 is considered poor, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)

What the study revealed was that though the poverty rate in Richmond — 18.5 percent — is still much higher than the 8.9 percent of poor suburbanites, the actual number of poor people is greater in the suburbs.

More than two-thirds of the region's poor population was living in surrounding counties in 2005. The actual numbers are even more startling: In 2005, there were 33,478 poor city dwellers, compared with 84,112 in the 12 surrounding suburban localities. Amazingly, the suburban poor population six years ago was 59,129, meaning the increase in poor residents living in Richmond's surrounding counties and small cities between 1999 and 2005 nearly equals the 2005 poor population of the city.

"I think that is one thing that this study shows is that the numbers are there," Kneebone says. "The idea that [poverty] is just something that the central cities have to worry about is really out of date as we see where the trends are."

Nationally, the ranks of suburban poor are increasing. So much so that authors Lucy and Phillips identified 155 suburbs across the country with a higher concentration of poverty than the city of Detroit, notoriously one of the poorest cities in the United States.

And the suburbs will only get poorer. "I think it will get worse, precisely because of the combination of aging structures and obsessively low-income populations," Lucy says. "The question is, who would step in to help?"

Often, help comes indirectly, through local schools, police and social services. "I don't think anybody is going to deny there are significant changes happening in the community," says Dr. Mark Levine, director of the Henrico County Health Department.

Those changes have brought new challenges for his agency, which now deals with not just city dwellers moving to the county, but also foreign-born residents who settle in Henrico because it's cheaper and closer to the jobs.

This means health workers must handle people and families who might speak one of dozens of languages. And with foreign populations come broader health-care issues. Though 2005 numbers are not complete, Levine says, "I believe that during 2000 and 2005 we've continued to see a rise in TB cases." In 2003, Henrico's Douglas S. Freeman High School witnessed an outbreak of tuberculosis in which dozens of students tested positive, all tracing back to a South or Central American-born student.

"That was just an example," Levine says, noting other problems once associated with the city or other countries that are now county concerns. "We're seeing an increase in the infant mortality rate in the region — in Chesterfield, Henrico, the whole region," he says. All these new concerns should act as blinking red indicators to county officials, he says, showing "a change in the needs of the community and the ability of a community to respond to those needs."

And because of translation delays and sometimes insurmountable language barriers, if the sick are in the country illegally, they also may be afraid to report their condition, which puts the rest of the community at risk, Levine says. "It takes longer to provide the same service that you've always been providing, which means that you need more capacity in the community."

Confronting such obstacles costs more. But Levine thinks cost can be mitigated somewhat through awareness and by building bridges to these communities to make them feel a part of the process. "We reach out into the entire community through these efforts," he says, "because health issues don't really know any boundaries."

Increases in costs also come by way of police services. The counties have spent considerably more on their community policing efforts. Capt. Skowron of Chesterfield County Police says the department's community policing sectors spend considerable time working closely with apartment complex managers to identify lighting issues and accessibility problems. They also apply a little pressure when needed.

Sgt. Palkovics of Henrico echoes a similar refrain. It's the department's job, he says, to help people who can't help themselves.

"Poor is really hard — poor is almost a perception when you think about it," Palkovics says. "You go by the way people live more than [income level]. If you said 'define poor,' I don't know you could verbally define it."

In eastern Henrico's Oakwood Manor, an enclave of new two- and three-story homes, lawns are well-manicured and what cars are parked on the road are new. But across the street and down Oakland Road just a few hundred feet, there are 900-square-foot ranchers dating to the 1960s and 1970s. Cars are older — some have antique plates that Palkovics says allows even the most bombed-out-looking derelict cars to circumvent the county's blight ordinance.

Not a quarter-mile down is the entrance to Oakland Village Apartments, where residents rely on a subsidized mix of tax credits and vouchers. Just as with the city and county line, here is where the shore meets the sea: new single-family houses within walking distance of poor or lower-middle-class apartments.

For Palkovics, it's certainly not a matter of trying to discourage mixing between economic classes living in such close proximity. Rather, it's a matter of not wanting the bad elements of either group to mix and create decay and property depreciation among the well-tended homes.

Put simply, it's managing a culture clash — people who value the homes they work to own versus those who simply "sleep there," as Palkovics says, and don't mind dropping an empty soda can in their neighbor's front yard.

For those on the front lines, providing the services and managing blight one neighborhood at a time — clearly the strategy in both Henrico and Chesterfield — will hardly be enough, Lucy says. Over time, without significant government intervention, the decaying suburbs will become too unstable to handle: Think Shantytown, U.S.A., with trailer parks and dilapidated apartment complexes in the W's: Wild Oaks, Westwood, Wisteria, Willow Lawn, Wedgewood, Wayside and Woodgreen.

With so many in need of housing, it's only a matter of time.

"Where lower-income people will go is in general predictable: They are going to go where the housing is small, where the housing is deteriorated. So that's really automatic," Lucy says. "You either build it new, or lower-income people will go where demand is low, and that means small units and deteriorated units."

In Richmond, that means not being able to control the low-income housing dilemma. Chesterfield County officials have all but declared that the county won't get into the business of managing low-income public housing. Richmond leaders are tired of bearing the brunt of the burden. And the federal government isn't expanding federal assistance, including the Section 8 voucher program, which Lucy sees as one of the better solutions to the public housing crisis.

There's been much talk of providing "affordable" housing in the Richmond area — creating incentives for developers to provide housing for schoolteachers, police officers and other middle-class wage earners who can't afford $300,000 homes. But it's not enough, say some people close to the issue.

"We really need to have a regional housing plan, to kind of address these neighborhoods that are deteriorating in these older suburban areas," says T.K. Somanath, executive director of the Better Housing Coalition, which has built one of the most successful mixed-income communities off Jeff Davis at Winchester Greens.

Somanath is pushing the state legislature to create a housing trust fund to create more developments like Winchester Greens, which replaced the once-notorious crime haven known as Park Lee Apartments. But he says the first problem is recognizing there's a problem.

"If we can't somehow connect land use, housing and transportation to jobs, we are going to have Northern Virginia gridlock in the next five to 10 years," Somanath says, pointing to the concentration of homes around Route 288.

Transportation is perhaps the easiest first step, but historically metro Richmond's most populous jurisdiction, Chesterfield, has resisted bus lines in the county. In the city, bus service does the trick for residents unable to afford cars, says John Lewis, chief executive of the GRTC Transit System. The counties are less serviced.

"We work very closely with Henrico [government], and Henrico is always looking at opportunities to expand service," Lewis says. "They are absolutely recognizing a need for it." Less can be said of Chesterfield's leaders, he says: "Chesterfield has not been interested in service, and I do not ask out there."

That's not to say Lewis would not love to expand into Chesterfield. He knows his customers. "Is there a growing population of transit-dependent people moving toward the suburbs? The answer is yeah," Lewis says.

With the population of senior citizens exploding in Chesterfield — the Virginia Employment Commission projects that the number of persons 65 years old and older in Chesterfield will grow from 21,007 in 2000 to 90,254 in 2030 — the need for public transportation is expected to explode.

But the aging baby boomer population also offers an opportunity to turn around those old suburban areas, Lucy says. Seniors are less concerned with schools, and many aren't looking for big houses on 5-acre lots, which means the older suburban areas with smaller homes, paired with the right government assistance program, might become attractive to senior citizens. Public transportation could be one such incentive.

"There will be far fewer households with children," Lucy says, "and that does include the possibility that there will be more demand for smaller housing."

There are other signs of hope, as well. In the Richmond area, housing prices have gone through the roof, which means even some of the smaller, old suburban areas with housing that dates back a century — places like the village of Ettrick, which abuts the Petersburg city line in Chesterfield — are seeing some reinvestment.

On a recent Friday night, Capt. Skowron of Chesterfield County Police offers an upbeat message. Even one of Ettrick's most notorious neighborhoods is pockmarked with new homes. "In six months from now, that place will be all rehabbed and looking new," Skowron says, pointing to an old, rickety house on Totty Street, a few blocks from where Chesterfield County Police Officer Gary J. Buro was shot and killed in May while responding to a domestic dispute. "I think your story is neighborhoods in transition." S

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