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Once a crime magnet, Richmond neighborhood changing

Submitted by News Desk on Mon, 01/12/2009 - 12:34pm

Battered old cars used to roll slow past Nevin Park, every inch dusty except for the gleaming new rims. When the sun went down — or any time, really — tired women dressed too skimpy for the weather peeked out from under dingy awnings.Richmond

The usual crowd sipped from bagged bottles, or leaned through the windows of scrapers stopped in the middle of the street, while homeless from the shelter down the block shuffled past.

John Spradlin, who manages the last surviving restaurant off Richmond's lower Macdonald Avenue, once regarded his stretch of Fourth Street as "a kind of barometer for crime" in the city. And the cinderblock facade of La Perla Mexican Deli did occupy a space in the backdrop of innumerable street crimes over the years, in the heart of the Iron Triangle neighborhood.

But not so much any more.

Reports of serious crime fell more than 15 percent in Richmond in 2008 from the previous year, evidence of persistent community effort, attentive policing and recent government emphasis on rebuilding the city's urban core. Nowhere does that change seem more palpable than the once-infamous corner of Fourth and Macdonald.

"Back in the '90s, I would have to say that ... hearing shots out there was almost the daily norm," Spradlin said. "But I've really noticed a difference. A lot of things that the city has done down here have been a great help. They've let the neighborhood know that the city is on our side."

Here loiterers once slouched before old gutted storefronts, seniors now carry boxes into new affordable housing. Walls gleam where city crews once struggled to obscure graffiti tributes to the dead. The park, long an open-air drug market, sits empty day and night by virtue of a tall fence surrounding its yearlong renovation.
The changes throughout 2008 helped disrupt one of the city's most prolific drug-dealing tracts, police say, leading to fewer shootings and significant disruption of the open-air drug trade in central Richmond, which also suffered from further refinement of the department's community-oriented patrol structure and successes in investigating and prosecuting local gangs, both by city detectives and task forces including state and federal authorities.

"It's no secret that the physical environment really affects the nature of crime," said police Capt. Allwyn Brown, who supervises the patrol in central Richmond. "The lower Macdonald no longer has the same look and feel. It's been a real reversal in that regard."

Deprived of their customary haunts, neighborhood drug dealers dispersed to surrounding blocks, forming smaller drug tracts. That decentralization, along with more frequent and more timely removal of leaders and suspected enforcers, made for less crime overall, and fewer opportunities for rival neighborhood groups to target those in the Iron Triangle.

The Iron Triangle and the neighboring Belding Woods and Shields-Reid neighborhoods comprise the Central Policing District, traditionally one of Richmond's most active regions for street violence. In 2007, when the city established a modern high of 47 homicides, those three neighborhoods accounted for 22 of them, including 15 in the last three months.

But in 2008, with both the park renovation and construction of the Trinity Plaza apartments across the street walling off much of the public space, the Central District saw only five killings, three in the final three months of the year.

Department records also show that as of mid-December last year, incidents of aggravated assault, including firearm assaults, fell from 474 to 370 citywide — a 22 percent decline — and reported robberies fell 9 percent. Richmond finished 2008 with 28 homicides, a 40 percent drop.

"When I moved back here, I found a desolate, violence-torn, drug-ridden city," said Bobby Newsome, a new tenant at Trinity and a deacon at Bibleways Community Church down the street. "But as things are built up again, the people feel built up."

Local clergy know better than anyone that changing the character of a block without destroying its community takes time, particularly in neighborhoods where poverty and attendant social ails have compounded generation by generation.

Changing the skyline, as the new senior apartments did, sends a powerful message, even if it only scratches the surface of a neighborhood's need.

"I am really proud of this project," said the Rev. Raymond Landry, part of a faith-based coalition that led the project. "It's a demonstration that if you pay attention and you're willing to take action, change can happen."

Tenants began moving into Trinity's 65 affordable senior apartments last month, and a new grocery and coffee shop will soon open in attached storefronts. Both the businesses and the construction project employ city residents.

The land now occupied by Trinity once contained a liquor store and a row of shuttered, rubble-strewed storefronts. Two years ago, a public works crew requested a police escort after receiving threats there while painting over graffiti tributes to a homicide victim.

Community buy-in was key in a project that, while aided heavily by the Richmond Redevelopment Agency, had its origins in innumerable meetings over previous years involving local pastors and other community leaders.

A church owned much of the property, and that asset helped attract grants, an experienced developer and the aid of city redevelopment, which made the $17 million project an early centerpiece of its massive plan to restore Macdonald Avenue as the city's main drag, from Interstate 80 to Richmond Parkway.

"The plan was to stop investing so much of our redevelopment revenue on the shoreline and start spending in the inner city," Redevelopment Director Steve Duran said.

The agency divided the corridor into five project areas and set about solving problems in each, from road widening and repairs to luring businesses to replace shuttered old storefronts.

Nevin Park, for which residents held a New Orleans-style celebratory funeral in 2007, will reopen Jan. 31 with a more open design that will aid patrolling officers, and a green space better connected to the Nevin community center in its northeast corner. The project cost about $3 million, city officials say.

Across the street at La Perla, Spradlin says it's worth every penny.

"I would have to say that crime in this immediate area, this part of Fourth Street, was like a barometer for crime in the city," he said, looking out the restaurant's wrought-iron security gate at a new police surveillance camera perched on a utility pole. "But the crime is not really here any more."