A Snapshot in Displacement: Armstrong High School, Creighton Court, and Woodville Elementary School
This week, Richmond city officials announced they were closing the inclement weather shelter and a homeless shelter that has served as a public refuge since the April 2020 clearing of the self-made homeless encampment Camp Cathy. Several hundred individuals, including children, will soon be displaced from their immediate shelter without any clear remedy. The city of Richmond has a dire shortage of affordable housing, and actions like this exacerbate the suffering of those that cannot find safe, healthy, and affordable homes. This lack of homeless shelters is a crisis and occurs as the city rests on the precipice of demolishing our public housing to be rebuilt as mixed-income housing (without one-to-one brick-and-mortar replacement of lost units). This demolition of public housing already occurred in Richmond’s Blackwell community, and it resulted in an entirely predictable displacement of individuals from their homes, communities, and networks of care and support.
The unconditional belief that market forces can more efficiently and effectively improve government goods and services has run amok in Richmond. And, alas, neoliberal decisions to privatize public goods, such as public housing, often lead to the loss of other public services, including public schools. To say Richmond is on a slippery slope would be a gross understatement. Both public housing and urban public schools have suffered from decades of disinvestment and neglect, and policy maker’s solutions should be repair and investment rather than destruction and replacement. With replacement, what is presented as the harmless closure of a public school to save money or remedy imbalances in school populations can often be a front for the eventual eradication of additional public goods. Sometimes a community can fight to save a school, like Bellevue Elementary School, from such “repurposing.” Other times, as witnessed repeatedly in Richmond over the last 20 years, neighborhood schools are closed and private or public-private development follows. In fact, former Mayor Wilder refused to allocate funding for new schools until Richmond Public Schools (RPS) closed and consolidated other school buildings. In hindsight, these school closures foreshadowed the closure of public housing and intensification of gentrification. The demolition of public housing then leads to calls for the closure of more public schools: a truly vicious cycle.
In the fall of 2004, Richmond Public Schools (RPS) closed Armstrong High School and merged it with John F. Kennedy High School, renaming the consolidated school Armstrong High School. In one fell swoop, two schools lost their history and identity. Armstrong High School’s history dates back to 1865 as the Richmond Colored Normal School and was one of two schools in Richmond to service African American students during the segregation era. The other school was Maggie L. Walker High School, which closed in 1990 until it was remodeled and reopened in 2001 as the Governor’s School. As a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article notes, Maggie Walker High School was “grounded in Black history for more than a century”, and the building now serves as home for a “program that for decades has faced allegations of elitism and racism.” Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy High School lost its name, mascot, colors, and legacy with the merger. As one alumni noted, “They pretty much have erased the history of Kennedy…Kennedy has been forgotten, except by those of us trying to keep things alive.”
Despite plans and hopes to memorialize the Black history at the site of the former Armstrong High School, perhaps with an eternal flame or a monument, or even renovation of the school, the building and its history was demolished in 2016. Armstrong High School’s 2016 demolition made way for the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority (RRHA)’s public-private partnership to build the mixed-income housing development, The Armstrong Renaissance Apartments, complete with a “courtyard” to “preserve” Armstrong’s illustrious history. Back when the Richmond Times-Dispatch had a dedicated housing reporter, that reporter identified the Armstrong Renaissance area — slated to near completion in 2021 — as gentrifying, with houses selling for more than original promised price, increasing rents, and rising property taxes for long-time residents. One neighborhood resident noted, “Black people are not coming back to Church Hill for $400,000.” Today Armstrong High School is gone, and instead the creep of gentrification brought on by redevelopment at what was once a public school threatens life-long residents and communities in the area.
Additionally, RRHA is using the Armstrong Renaissance complex as a place to relocate some residents of Creighton Court as it begins the demolition of the 504-unit Creighton Court. Demolition will run from May 2022 to October 2022. In the meantime, Creighton Court residents have already been displaced, moving to private apartments or using Section 8 or Housing Choice Vouchers back in 2019. Those that remain are “in limbo” with the desperate need to find alternate housing through federal housing vouchers. This is the first public housing development to be demolished in Richmond since the 1997 “revitalization” of Blackwell for mixed-income housing largely resulted in a permanent displacement of Blackwell residents to the counties. It will set precedent as it is the first of the remaining public housing complexes to be demolished in Richmond to be replaced with these mixed-income developments, potentially resulting in gentrification and increased displacement of low-income residents. Indeed, gentrified areas of Richmond have already changed, with the now-more affordable surrounding counties and other parts of the city with sub-standard, private, but affordable housing beckoning in the face of forced displacement and gentrification.
Long-term studies on the impact of the destruction of public housing indicate that low-income people are inevitably displaced from housing due to a variety of factors, including lack of public oversight over alternate affordable housing programs like vouchers. This displacement from communities results in other hardships as individuals become alienated from their support networks. This resulting dispersal of Black and low-income families leads to other consequences with the dilution of these populations as a voting block, including school closures and political representation, as predicted by Omari Al-Qaffi. Of course, there are people that have moved and will move into the new housing at (for example) Armstrong Renaissance, and the experience serves as a major improvement in life conditions. Additionally, it is also essential that public housing receives the proper funding, resources, and support to allow this important public good to receive its fullest potential (and agency) for residents.
This prescient prediction did not take long to start looking like reality: the RRHA’s closure of Creighton Court has now led the RPS Superintendent to recommend consolidating the school that services Creighton Court, Woodville Elementary with the nearby Fairfield Court Elementary (see map above) given the “uncertain future of Creighton Court.” This recommendation comes several months after the School Board ordered the Superintendent to publish a Request for Proposals to build a long overdue new Woodville Elementary by October 31, 2021. Woodville Elementary School has been scheduled to be rebuilt as far back as 2002 in an RPS Master Plan. The plan to close Woodville Elementary School is presented as harmless: a way to maximize efficiency in rebuilding school buildings in an urban district where the care for and construction of schools is a constant political fight over resources, power, and perception. But in reality, it is just another heavy handed turn of the neoliberal flywheel. In other words, Richmond is sliding down hill, and with the closures of more schools, we are picking up speed. We will be San Francisco before you know it. We Richmonders tend to think of ourselves as kind members of a liberal city, but if we want that to be more than our brand, we need to embrace the idea that our success is shown by how we take care of our most marginalized.