In Richmond it is impossible to please everyone. Take for instance the $6.2 million project Richmond has proposed for the renovation of Monroe Park – including raising pathways, replacing concrete with crushed stone, adding benches, lights, trees, plants, lawn games and possibly a carousel, a café and a stage – seems like a positive legislative push, right? Well, not exactly. It caused some Richmond residents to complain that renovations will force the park’s homeless population to re-locate elsewhere.
The argument has arisen as to whether or not this is an act of gentrification, purposed to pull the park out from under the feet of the homeless. If renovation is gentrification, which it isn’t, better that than deterioration, which has inevitably befallen Monroe Park and will continue to do so if nothing is done.
Monroe Park is a public park, not owned by VCU or by any private entity, but by the City of Richmond’s Department of Recreation, Parks, and Community Facilities, and overseen by the Monroe Park Advisory Council.Council members have emphasized that the renovation is “for anybody and everybody” and that the goal is to “raise the quality of life to a higher standard.” They approximate that it will take a year and a half to accomplish their goals.
In contention with these goals Food Not Bombs, an organization that works closely with the Wingnut Anarchist Collective, serves meals in Monroe Park every Sunday, demanded that at least 25 percent of the park be available at all times to conduct their services. In response, Charles R. Samuels, city councilman of the park’s district, encouraged them and other outreach programs to redirect to Richmond’s Conrad Center. But due to foreseeable psychological effects (the Conrad Center is neighbor to two jails and a court house) the Wingnuts refuse to accept this alternative, and claim that Samuels blatantly lied in his account of the park’s poor conditions in order to gain favor for the renovation. Samuels had previously claimed that “trash and garbage are being left behind, clothing dumped on the street both loose and in bags, and buses dropping off homeless people … Monroe Park has no working bathrooms, no drinking water and no shelter.”
The Wingnuts call Samuels’ statement a lie because the park’s toilets actually do flush; the rest remains true. Anyway, these upgrades will benefit the homeless more than anyone else, since not many college students are going to Monroe Park to use bathrooms or drinking fountains.
But the Wingnuts again argue that by renovating the park the city is promoting ‘homeless-only’ spaces that isolate people and break down communications between the homeless and the Richmond community, creating racism and classicism. I agree. A ‘homeless-only space’ would be discrimination. We must remember that they are members of society as well. But I argue that the park is slowly becoming a ‘homeless-only space’, therefore an upgrade to the facilities will turn that tide and hopefully bring the Richmond community together.
Historians say Monroe Park used to be the heart of Richmond. It was used as the State Agricultural Fair Grounds in the 19th century, then during the Civil War when it was a military camp and hospital. It was also the field for Richmond’s first baseball team, and during early 20th century it was the popular gathering place for Richmond workers during lunch breaks. James Cabell Branch once wrote that the Monroe Park was “filledwith nurses and their well-attired wards who were joined later in the day by older promenaders; often band music could be heard on summer evenings.”
It be nice to hear music in Monroe Park once again, but in order to get there we must listen to jack-hammers and bulldozers first. Try not to complain, because the ends will justify the means – and create a place we can be pleased about.
**Correction: The print and previous online versions of this article erroneously said the Wingnut Anarchist Collective runs a feeding program in Monroe Park. Instead that is Food Not Bombs, an affiliated yet separate group.