December 17, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Year in Review 

Events that helped define and shape our city in 2019.

click to enlarge New York artist Kehinde Wiley waves to an adoring public at the unveiling of his monument, “Rumors of War,” in front of VMFA.

Scott Elmquist

New York artist Kehinde Wiley waves to an adoring public at the unveiling of his monument, “Rumors of War,” in front of VMFA.

This has been the year of Richmond remaking itself. 

The year began with two central but related questions about Richmond’s future: Will we tear down and redevelop our public housing and our Coliseum?

The Navy Hill plan has been front-page news for nearly two years. 

Also, there are two new schools under construction, paid for by the meals tax and the whole realignment of attendance for integration purposes.

The biggest political event in 2019 — in fact in several years — was the narrow Democratic victory in seizing control of the General Assembly.

There were also more immediately visible changes: We renamed our Boulevard after a man once denied the right to play tennis there who went on to be celebrated by the world. And as the question of Monument Avenue emerged and cooled from the furnace of Charlottesville, a renowned artist unveiled a bold sculpture, a response to our Confederate monuments, in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the same year of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in the Virginia colony.

All of us live under the shadow of global warming and what it means for the future, whether we choose to admit it or not, and this year it felt at times like the entire world was changing in some fundamental way.

Richmond was no different.

click to enlarge The Red for Ed demonstration in Monroe Park to demand increased school funding and teacher pay increases. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/FIle
  • The Red for Ed demonstration in Monroe Park to demand increased school funding and teacher pay increases.

Jan. 22

From 2009 to 2018, overall funding for the Richmond Public Schools decreased by nearly 30%. And although Virginia is ranked 11th in per capita income, it’s 34th for teacher salaries. Burnout is high, and yearly turnover rates are as high as 20%.

Inspired by similar protests in Kansas and Arizona, Virginia educators held Red for Ed demonstrations to demand increased funding and teacher pay increases. Wearing red, more than a thousand teachers, students and parents marched on the Capitol. In response, Gov. Ralph Northam announced he’d increase the annual raise for teachers from 3% to 5%.

Although several measures were proposed, none made it out of the General Assembly, disappointing marchers. Activists are hopeful that the new Democratic majority, composed of many candidates who ran on increasing educational funding, will make big changes in 2020.

click to enlarge Lillie A. Estes - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Lillie A. Estes

Jan. 31

Community strategist Lillie A. Estes’ work as a public housing advocate brought issues faced on St. Paul Street to the microphone at the imperious Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority headquarters just around the corner. The distance between public housing residents and the officials meant to serve them seemed as if it might close as 2018 turned into 2019. 

A co-founder of Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Evictions and a 2016 mayoral candidate, Estes was finding new ways to bring disparate community voices together. Her efforts to launch the Community Justice Network would coalesce in 2019 to elevate resident voices in spaces where they were being planned for, not with. Among a few ideas for the new year was a participatory budgeting process to find alternatives to the coliseum proposal.

Estes had been emailing with Style about writing a back page on the idea a few days before she was found dead. That evening, Mayor Levar Stoney added a moment of silence to his State of the City speech for Estes, before delivering remarks about his plans for the coliseum that Estes opposed.

The next day, one of the most bizarre stories in Virginia political history broke. 

click to enlarge Gov. Ralph Northam - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Gov. Ralph Northam

Feb. 1-2

Things seemed to be going swimmingly for three of Virginia’s top Democrats earlier this year. Gov. Ralph Northam had won the expansion of Medicaid — a move that had been blocked for years by Republicans. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was seen as a bright, young African American with a potentially stellar career. Mark Herring was cementing his reputation as an activist attorney general.

Suddenly, it all came crashing down.

Northam was accused of posing in blackface next to a phony Ku Klux Klansman from a yearbook photo taken at a medical school party in 1984. At first, he admitted being in the picture, then denied it as calls for his resignation swirled. At a bizarre press conference on Feb. 2, he admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson look-a-like contest, touting his moonwalking skills.

A few days later, Fairfax was accused by two women of sexually assaulting them in the 1980s in Boston and Durham North Carolina. He said the acts were consensual.

Then, Herring admitted also dressing in blackface at a college party in the 1980s, claiming he was posing as his favorite rap artist, Kurtis Blow.

Virginia reaped a whirlwind of the wrong kind of national attention.

So how did it all play out? McGuire Woods probed the yearbook matter but could not draw any conclusions. Northam pressed on as Democrats scored big victories in November legislative elections. Herring resigned as co-chairman of the Democratic Attorney General’s Association — but that’s about it.

Of the lot, the allegations against Fairfax are the most serious. He asked prosecutors in Massachusetts and North Carolina to launch probes and there have been calls for the General Assembly to hold hearings, but nothing has taken place so far.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

Feb. 12

Lillie Estes’ funeral saw hundreds of activists, politicians and other community leaders fill Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, where her evictions group had held basement meetings. It was a moment of unity in that it brought Richmond together around the idea that Estes was a central figure in Richmond. It was a moment for her son, Tobias, to point out that for all the praise she had received for her work, she spent her final days sleeping on a mattress on the floor. 

For some filling the pews, including Mayor Levar Stoney, the opportunity to pay lip service meant a clearer path ahead on issues including the coliseum and plans to radically change public housing. For others, including those profiled in a Style feature, her departure meant a chair needed to be filled. 

click to enlarge Cheryl Burke - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Cheryl Burke

Feb. 19

The School Board tries to approve a budget that hasn’t been released to the public, but the effort fails because one member, Cheryl Burke of the 7th District, who was phoning in her vote from Dubai, mistakenly votes with a minority of board members seeking to delay the vote. 

click to enlarge Damon Duncan - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Damon Duncan

Feb. 20

Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority announces the hiring of Damon Duncan as its new chief executive. At his last job in Elgin, Illinois, Duncan demolished public housing, replacing the system with vouchers for use on the private real estate market. This makes him deeply unpopular with local public housing advocates.

Feb. 25

School Board members take another whack at passing a budget that has not been released to the public. This time, only three members — Kenya Gibson of the 3rd District, Patrick Sapini of the 5th District, and Felicia Cosby of the 6th District — vote against approving a budget not released to the public. It asks for a whopping $417,456,251, based on a 31-page summary. 

Two days later, after 48 hours of sustained public outcry and private outrage, Richmond School Superintendent Jason Kamras and a majority of board members finally release the entire 228-page document. The stated reason for all the secrecy? The budget cuts 49 positions, at a savings of about $13 million, from central administration staff. Kamras and some board members say they wanted to protect the dignity of those slated to lose their jobs.

April 24

Richmond’s Rodney Robinson, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Richmond Public Schools, is named national teacher of the year. He teaches at Virgie Binford Education Center inside the Richmond Justice Center. Robinson tells media that he will look to give voice to students who are unseen or unheard and find ways for the nation to address and disrupt the schools-to-prison pipeline.

click to enlarge The American Civil War Museum - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • The American Civil War Museum

May 4

The American Civil War Museum opens a new 25,000 square-foot space at 500 Tredegar St. in time for the summer tourist season. In his review, Style’s architecture critic called it “pitch perfect” from a design and historic preservation standpoint. The local firm of 3North Architects created a highly respectful glass-fronted pavilion that emerges seamlessly into its sloping Gambles Hill site that embraces powerful, 19th-century brick arches, fragments really, from  the historic Tredegar Ironworks, and provides 6,000 square feet of display space. Other amenities include archival research and storage areas and a museum sales shop. As a successful place-maker, the contemporary structure injects a sense of orientation for those visiting the Tredegar grounds, an intriguing collection of old and newer buildings.

click to enlarge A couple hundred people came out for a vigil for Markiya Simone Dickson at Carter Jones Park on June 7. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • A couple hundred people came out for a vigil for Markiya Simone Dickson at Carter Jones Park on June 7.

May 26

Two events defined Richmond’s debate about gun violence in 2019.

First, was the death of 9-year-old Markiya Simone Dickson on May 26 in Carter Jones Park. Markiya was at Memorial Day cookout with her family when shooting erupted in the city park in broad daylight. A stray bullet killed the young third-grader. If Richmond had any shred of innocence left, it died that day.

The second event was the special session to address gun laws called by Gov. Ralph Northam in early July. In November voters spoke and the Republicans lost in a blue wave. The Democrats now have unified control and will move to pass new gun laws. Pro gun groups are promising to make their voices heard in January when the General Assembly reconvenes and rural communities are forming Second Amendment sanctuaries, taking a page from liberals’ playbook.

The city’s homicide count is at 56 as we go to press, slightly more than the 51 in 2018. City Council did vote to ban guns in city parks and buildings, but the ordinance isn’t enforceable without changes to Virginia’s laws.

Two men were arrested months later for the Dickson shooting and there was a warrant out for a third.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

June 22

After several attempts over 30 years, one of Richmond’s most famous streets, the Boulevard, is renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard after our native son, tennis great and global humanitarian. The street runs right by courts where the future Wimbledon champ once was barred from playing as a child.

Ashe’s nephew had approached Councilwoman Kimberly Gray several years ago. She tells Style that the timing was right this year, thanks partly to the blackface controversy, though the process was daunting and she faced a lot of criticism.

Even though she did a lot of the heavy lifting, Gray did not end up speaking at the grand renaming event, but says she was OK with it. Some observers felt it was a political move, noting that Gray could be in contention to become Richmond’s next mayor.

She tells Style she won’t decide on this until 2020.

click to enlarge A Stop the Gun Violence Rally on July 7 at 31st Street Baptist Church. Two days later, the governor implored lawmakers to consider passing new gun legislation at a special session. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • A Stop the Gun Violence Rally on July 7 at 31st Street Baptist Church. Two days later, the governor implored lawmakers to consider passing new gun legislation at a special session.

July 9

After the mass shooting in Virginia Beach earlier this year, Democrats called for stricter gun regulations, citing state and national polls showing broad bipartisan support. In early July, Gov. Ralph Northam called lawmakers back to the Capitol to take swift action on several bills following a series of statewide discussions.

Despite popular support, it was unlikely that anything would change. Several of the measures were already introduced during the regular General Assembly session but died in committee or subcommittee meetings. In June, Northam held town halls and roundtable discussions, which ended with Republicans like Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County vowing to “oppose every single thing you got.”

The session ends on July 9 without discussion after a Republican majority votes to adjourn. Political experts predict it will become a wedge issue in the November elections.

click to enlarge Julie Timm - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Julie Timm

Aug. 21

The Greater Richmond Transit Co. seems on a roll. Its Pulse dedicated bus line opened roughly two years ago has seen ridership increases as high as 17 percent in a year. A new line has opened to Henrico County and an extension is planned to the along Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield County. Yet, perennial questions remain, such as how to improve service to lower-income urban areas and rural ones. Richmond lacks a truly regional transit system, suggesting old fears of race-based prejudice.

These are the issues confronting Julie Timm who takes over on this day as chief executive officer after serving as a transit official in Nashville and Hampton Roads.

“There’s definitely a need for better connectivity between our local buses and the Pulse,” she told Style in a recent interview. Plus, GRTC needs to find a good balance between providing frequency in heavy-use areas and somehow serving rural ones where people are more spread out.

One possibility is “mobility on-demand” where Uber-like vans pick up people in places like Hanover County and drive them to bus routes.

The big unanswered question is how to handle regional support: Chesterfield County is a partner in GRTC but not Henrico, which contracts with GRTC for some limited service.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

Aug. 22

Bolt Mobility becomes the first approved dockless scooter operator in Richmond this summer, but critics say it isn’t fulfilling its mission or following the spirit of an agreement signed with the city.

In August, a tech worker discovers that Bolt was opaquely geo-fencing Gilpin Court, the largest public housing project in Richmond. Although the Bolt app is supposed to highlight banned areas in red on a map, Gilpin Court remained green, even as scooters that entered the zone were deactivated.

The ban on operation limits the viability of the scooters for lower income residents and seems to contradict Bolt’s own mission statement addressing equity. It also calls into question statements by Mayor Levar Stoney, who said it would help fill a first-and last-mile gap in the transportation network.

Months later, the geo-fencing restrictions are still in place, and the in-app map still shows the entire city in green. In October, Bird, the first scooter company to attempt distribution in Richmond, returned, becoming the second licensed operator in the city.

Sept. 19

This year, a series of full-page newspaper advertisements started running in regional newspapers touting Dominion Energy as a green utility that was a national leader in renewable energy.

On Sept. 19, the company announced it was proposing “the largest offshore wind development in the country” by planning 220 wind turbines off the Virginia coast that would produce 2,600 megawatts of power, bigger output than its North Anna nuclear station. This obvious attempt at re-branding seems to denote a major shift for the company known for pushing controversial projects such as the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline for natural gas. Before, Dominion had dragged its feet on renewable energy.

What happened? Environmental and consumer groups have been more effective at challenging Dominion’s views. The company is losing its usual political clout as more lawmakers refuse to accept its generous donations. Earlier this year, the General Assembly ordered substantial changes in Dominion’s plans to handle toxic coal ash waste.

More sought-after companies are demanding that it use electricity from solar and wind. According to Greentech Media, the list includes such high-tech giants as Apple and Adobe. The outlet also notes that renewable energy firms Direct Energy and Calpine have complained that Dominion is stalling their efforts to sell power to customers.

Dominion’s wind and solar effort is winning rare praise from critics such as Ivy Main with the Sierra Club. She calls the foray into renewables “welcome” but warns it still won’t match the output from three planned natural gas plants.

click to enlarge BRENT BALDWIN
  • Brent Baldwin

Sept. 20

Hundreds gather in downtown Richmond as a part of global protests demanding action on climate change.

Yes, climate change is real and man-made, and nobody on the planet is going to be spared from its devastating effects — it’s going to fundamentally reshape civilization as we know it. And it’s already happening, from millions of Syrian climate refugees altering world politics to whole California towns burning to the ground.

Suggested reading: “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells. If you read only one nonfiction book on the climate this year, this one about the consequences of global warming would be a good choice.

click to enlarge George Mason Elementary - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • George Mason Elementary

Sept. 24

The Richmond Commission for Architectural Review comes to the rescue of George Mason Elementary in Church Hill.

It was a good year the preservation of old schools. George Mason was rescued from the bulldozer while the long-empty Westhampton School at Patterson and Libbie avenues is being preserved for adaptive reuse.

Each is an architecturally and historically iconic building in its respective, former streetcar residential neighborhood. Both environs are all but devoid of other significant institutional buildings. The 1917 Westhampton structure is being developed into commercial office space and will be part of a newer, mixed-use use project with apartments. The City of Richmond’s Architectural Review Board, a residents’ committee, successfully rescued George Wythe from oblivion. Now, the city must find a new use for the fine, Italianate 1922 building that was designed by noted Richmond architect Charles Robinson, who designed numerous other distinctive Richmond Public Schools.

Oct. 22

Activists who first united last year to protest the heating crisis in public housing have kept up their efforts. When the authority filed evictions against 52 families in Creighton Court in October, community organizer Omari Al-Qadaffi mobilizes to raise money to help those families pay their rent and keep their homes.

click to enlarge Ghazala Hashmi of Chesterfield County, who became the first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia Senate, stands beside Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who is considered a potential gubernatorial candidate. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Ghazala Hashmi of Chesterfield County, who became the first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia Senate, stands beside Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who is considered a potential gubernatorial candidate.

Nov. 5

The biggest political event in 2019 — in fact in a number of years — is the narrow Democratic victory in seizing control of the General Assembly. That promises a much-changed atmosphere when the legislature convenes next month.

Democrats swept the Senate by 21-19 and the House of Delegates 54-43. That means they get to chose all-important committees and could break longstanding Republican deadlocks on more progressive legislation.

But don’t expect it to get too lefty, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “It’s a big risk for Democrats if they can be portrayed as crazy California liberals,” he says.

The party will be moving on issues that don’t require much in the way of state spending. Farnsworth says they could be the Equal Rights Amendment, stricter gun laws, and allowing localities greater freedom in moving Confederate memorials. Raising the minimum wage might be a topic better suited for the 2021 gubernatorial race, he says.

Suburbanites, many newcomers to Virginia who may not be big supporters of Donald Trump, secured the blue victory. One major factor in the win was that courts had overturned a number of voting districts that had been drawn by Republicans.

The other big news is diversity: Eileen Filler-Corn will be the first woman to be speaker of the House of Delegates; Ghazala Hashmi of Chesterfield County will be the first Muslim woman in the state Senate; and Suhas Subramanyan of Northern Virginia will be the first Hindu Indian American in the House of Delegates.

State Sen. Glen Sturtevant ran on gun control, increasing education spending and limiting local school boards, but none of it was enough for him to sustain a challenge from first-time political candidate Hashmi.

Turnout was high in an election for the 5th District City Council seat, with seven candidates vying for a one-year term.

Social worker Stephanie Lynch, a relative political newcomer, won election with a focus on education, neighborhood issues like safe streets, and skepticism toward the proposed Navy Hill project. Although every candidate was opposed to the plan or skeptical, voters cited Lynch as someone they trusted to vote no.

City Council will be her first elected office, but she has years of experience with state government. Lynch pledged to use her experience with the General Assembly to get more state funding for the Richmond Public Schools.

Across the city, activists hailed her win, seeing her as a sure vote against the Navy Hill development.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/FIle

Nov. 8

Under pressure from other activists, including the group Richmond for All, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority announces it will halt all evictions for the year. On Facebook, local activist Omari Al-Qadaffi celebrates the victory: “A small battle has been won. The fight to put people over profit continues.”

The activists would mobilize only days later at City Hall to protest the proposed Navy Hill development and demand more funding for public housing.

December

The Navy Hill plan, Richmond’s largest economic-development proposal in recent history, has been accompanied by the seemingly longest rollout, most expensive buildup and murkiest public vetting process in memory.

December marks a year since City Council was expected to vote on a $1.5 billion plan to build a new coliseum and nearby housing, hotel, office space and assorted redevelopment in the 10-block area of downtown.

Whose expectation was it? The people behind the deal — some of whose identities remain cloaked in mystery — as revealed by a 2018 Freedom of Information Act request from The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

That isn’t the timeline that played out. For the sake of an informed citizenry and civic debate, that’s been a blessing and a curse.

The blessing? More time to understand, through more complete public questioning. The curse? More time to get spun, sold and confused by pressure from consultants and lawyers.

It’s been two and a half years since the general public first found out about this idea, through a June 2017 article in Richmond BizSense. The proposal was pitched by Tom Farrell, the chairman, president and chief executive of Dominion Energy, and his group of high-powered corporate colleagues.

They say $20 million’s been spent on this project already. Nothing’s built. The source of that $20 million is unknown, though work by journalists and lawsuits by community members got at least some info out — that Dominion and Atlantic Union Bank were two of the spenders. Developers have declined to identify investors.

City Council, kept in the dark for the many months of negotiations between Mayor Levar Stoney’s team and the developers, put the brakes on things this summer by demanding an advisory commission of experts to review the merits of the project. It was a counterbalance to the mayor’s supposedly independent consultant, Hunden Strategic Partners, which, it’s been discovered, expressed interest in the original request for proposal.

But oops, some on council didn’t like the makeup of the residents’ commission, so they pushed to add Hakim Lucas, the president of Virginia Union University, who’d already teamed up with developers to publicly push for the project’s passage.

Now there’s another consultant to which City Council approved a $190,000 payment this month. But the city’s procurement office chose the consultant, a company that the Richmond Free Press revealed had some ties to the developers and the Greater Richmond Convention Center project.

The upside of it all: The reporters who stay on the case and all the people, unpaid, who continue to press for answers, attend and live-tweet long meetings, file lawsuits to get public information and dig into questions that may never be fully understood.

Next year, we might have an end to it all. The decision will rest with City Council members. In November, they face re-election.

Dec. 7

More than 250 people turn out for the Shockoe Bottom Symposium at the Library of Virginia, marking the largest turnout for any public meeting on Shockoe Bottom. The Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation project had invited the mayor to come and express his support for the community proposal for a 9-acre Memorial Park.

“He did come, and he did speak, but he declined to make that endorsement,” says Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender, a crucial local voice for social justice. “We are interpreting this as his intention not to give up any land east of the railroad tracks, because that is coveted by the developers.”  

“Our goal is to make crystal-clear the historic importance of Shockoe Bottom; its tremendous potential for education, reparations and conciliation, and the great crime that would be committed if its physical presence were lost to inappropriate development,” says Sacred Ground chairwoman Ana Edwards in a release.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Dec. 10

Artist Kehinde Wiley’s sculpture “Rumors of War” is unveiled at its permanent home in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and a crowd of thousands turns out on a cold and rainy day to celebrate. Unfortunately, it took awhile for the $2 million dollar monument’s covering to come off — it got snagged on the young African American male horseback rider’s tied-up locks.

If you know Richmond history, there was something slightly poetic in this minor setback — as folks stood around to celebrate Richmond’s symbolic progress, this seemed like a subtle nod that we still have a long way to go.

Just look at the shape of our city’s public schools.

“I’m always suspicious of stuff that’s, like, tied in a bow, perfect,” Wiley was quoted in The Washington Post as saying during the hiccup. “Life is messy.” 

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