Posts by Author: Gregory Scruggs

Lafayette Trades Oil for Cajun Songcraft to Drive Economy

A local violin shop welcomes visitors to Lafayette for the Music Cities Convention. (Photo by Gregory Scruggs)

On a recent Thursday night, music fans packed a converted 75-year-old warehouse in Lafayette, Louisiana to hear age-old French songs made new again at a rollicking “fais do-do,” or Cajun dance party. Jourdan Thibodeaux and his band Les Rodailleur stomped their way through a number with fiddles and accordions ablaze as couples danced in time. Veteran singer Zachary Richard, beloved throughout the francophone world, regaled the crowd with the tale of a shady lawyer and an orange tree. Chanteuse Anna Laura Edmiston held the audience at rapt attention with her rendition of a medieval ballad.​

This all-star cast of Acadian musicians, who keep the flame alive for Louisiana French, was also noteworthy for the evening’s source material: a treasure trove of lost recordings by Caesar Vincent, a humble farmer who roamed rural Louisiana his entire life by horse or on foot — he never owned a car, or for that matter a television — and had an encyclopedic memory of folk songs spanning old-world France to new-world Acadiana, the French-speaking cultural region of Louisiana also known as Cajun country.

Musicologist Barry Jean Ancelet uncovered the clutch of archival material at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and invited contemporary musicians to arrange and record new versions. The resulting album premiered live earlier this month at the fais do-do, which kicked off this year’s edition of the long-running Festival Acadiens et Créoles, a three-day festival dedicated to the music, food, and crafts of southern Louisiana.

In a welcome twist for Lafayette’s musicians, the local government picked up half the cost of the project under a new funding stream called CREATE, a $500,000-per-year voter-approved pot of money to support innovative projects that will boost the local cultural economy.

For Ancelet, who also directs the festival, the infusion of cash to support new artistic endeavors sounds as good as the zydeco rhythms that thumped through Lafayette all weekend. “It will matter immensely and immediately,” he says backstage at Warehouse 535 during the Caesar Vincent concert.

That catalyzing impact from local dollars is precisely what Joel Robideaux, mayor-president of Lafayette’s combined city-parish government, hopes to accomplish with the fund, which sets aside roughly five percent of a property-tax surplus to the creative cause. Voters approved the idea last year after Robideaux introduced it during his annual parish-wide address.

The CREATE cultural fund is a first step to having a cultural impact on a local economy where larger macroeconomic forces hold sway.

“When I announced that I was running for office the price of oil was over $100 a barrel and when I got sworn in 15 months later, it was $28 a barrel,” Robideaux says on the sidelines of the Music Cities Convention, which brought dozens of music industry and city policy experts to Lafayette earlier this month during the Festival Acadiens.

“The up-and-down oil and gas industry is not something we can control,” he says. “[But] a lot of our identity is tied to our music, food, and culture, so if there were some tax dollars out there that can be spent better to help diversify our economy, then that makes sense.”

Jonathan Williams, a Lafayette businessman who hosts a monthly fundraising jam session for aging and retired musicians, believes that local leaders saw the handwriting on the wall with the volatility in oil and gas for a regional economy that serves offshore Gulf of Mexico petroleum.

“We’re an oil town,” says Williams. “The fact that the oil industry did drop, it forced the powers that be to the position of having to diversify. Whenever you have government focusing on the development of our creative economy, that’s exciting.”

Williams, who donates roughly $80,000 per year of his own money to his cause, sees CREATE’s half-million as a good start.

“$500,000 is maybe going to scratch the surface,” Williams says, provided that the fund helps leverage other philanthropic dollars.

That approach is precisely how Robideaux, also a certified public accountant, views CREATE, which will go back to the voters for renewal in 2025. “It’s not a stopgap handout for when you’re short on money for an event this year,” Robideaux says. Rather, CREATE exists to provide the matching funds so often required to apply for grants, which local arts groups could not go after without a reliable backer.

Mark Falgout, who owns Warehouse 535 and popular honky-tonk The Blue Moon Saloon, was one of CREATE’s initial beneficiaries when he used the city fund to host the first stateside edition of the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation’s songwriter workshop, which this past May became the South Louisiana Songwriters Festival, or SOLO. Some of that festival’s participants performed at the Caesar Vincent concert.

“I was able to attract the foundation in because the city was on board,” Falgout says. “The city was able to get on board because I had contacts with the foundation.”

CREATE’s dollars were a welcome change for the music promoter after past experiences with the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, where requests for funding to help promote the Lafayette sound at events like Austin’s South by Southwest and music expos in Nashville were rebuffed as more of a tourism concern.

“As a community, the business leaders are starting to gather the idea that the cultural side is an important economic driver,” he says on the steps of Warehouse 535 as patrons thank him on their way out the door.

For Falgout, the first-ever local songwriting festival was not only a solid business proposition that drove customers to his venues, but also an opportunity to keep Cajun music fresh.

“If I’m going to be in the music business, it all starts with a song and that craft is being lost here,” he says. “We’re teaching [local musicians] so that once again Lafayette becomes a hub of creative, new, relevant material as opposed to just the historical context of Cajun zydeco.”

That legacy nevertheless is a large part of what motivated Robideaux to launch CREATE. Last year, the mayor attended a soul concert at the Acadiana Center for the Arts auditorium where the center’s director acknowledged several Grammy nominees in the audience. Across the hall, an unrelated event was handing out a lifetime achievement award to Louisiana accordionist Preston Frank, where yet another group of prominent musicians assembled. There were more local Grammy nominees and winners under one roof than he could count on both hands.

“All that on a weeknight in January?” Robideaux said. “It reinforced that we have something special here.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

 

A Bus Tour through the Past, Present, and Future of Environmental Justice

More than 50 years after the Freedom Riders rode buses into the South to test the legal desegregation of interstate travel, another bus with a freedom message traveled across state lines this year. The bus was called Freedom to Breathe and it bears the message “social justice is climate justice”, painted on its sky-blue chassis. The campaign pulled into San Francisco this week in time for a major summit highlighting local responses to climate change.

The Freedom to Breathe bus covered 5,000 miles from Atlanta to California, stopping along the way to witness how climate change disproportionately affects poor communities and people of color, while also highlighting grassroots solutions to address environmental degradation.

“Each stop showed that these communities have the wrong complexion for protection,” says Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard, widely acknowledged as “the father of environmental justice.”

Bullard hosted the bus in Houston, where he has documented how landfills were clustered in black neighborhoods. He sees a direct connection between 1960s struggles for civil rights with today’s environmental justice movement.

“The Freedom to Breathe bus tour parallels those Freedom Rides of the ’60s in that it’s saying all Americans have a basic right to not be inundated with pollution and the right to breathe clean air should not be a privilege reserved for those with money,” he said.

The bus observed climate-driven gentrification in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood; the impact of fossil fuel infrastructure along the Gulf Coast’s “Cancer Alley” that includes historically black communities like Africatown, Alabama; and the lingering effects of flooded refineries in Port Arthur, Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

But they spotted glimmers of hope as well.

“These communities that are under siege and overpolluted — they are still resilient, they are still developing plans and strategies to green their communities,” Bullard said.

From urban agriculture to fossil fuel setbacks, here are three examples of grassroots climate action happening across the U.S. that the Freedom to Breathe bus tour visited:

  • Fighting for Setbacks in Oil Country: Karnes County sits in the heart of Texas oil country, but it has just one air quality monitor. In towns like Karnes City and Odessa, that lone monitor is insufficient to track the emissions of 2,300 operating wells, and residents suffer from asthma, chronic headaches, nosebleeds, and heart palpitations as a result. Locals banded together as KARE, Karnes Area Residents for the Environment, to push for a local law that would require a minimum setback for oil wells and fracking installations from residential properties. Currently, there are homes as close as 500 feet from oil well to front door. But they have an uphill battle: The state does not regulate such setbacks and has been known to preempt city and county governments that get in the way of the fossil fuel industry. After Denton banned fracking in 2015, the Texas legislature overruled the town with a state law that allowed the practice to resume.

  • Carbon Capture with your CSA: At Chispas Farms, just across the Rio Grande from downtown Albuquerque, fallow fields resting for the next season don’t just sit bare. Instead, the farmers plant cover crops that boost the farm’s carbon capture capacity far beyond that which its food-producing plants can suck out of the atmosphere. Once those veggies are ready for harvest, meanwhile, Chispas gladly accepts SNAP benefits at local farmer’s markets, allowing lower-income Albuquerqueans a chance to participate in their seasonal CSA.

  • Solarize Affordable Rental Housing: Most residential solar panels in the U.S. end up on top of homes where the owners live in the building. Renters, especially those in apartment buildings, have had almost no opportunity to find solar-powered homes. That might change after this week’s announcement by Sunrun, Inc., a publicly-traded home solar company, that it is moving into multifamily housing. Freedom to Breathe visited Sunrun’s Las Vegas manufacturing facility on its way to California, where the company plans to develop a minimum of 100 megawatts of solar on affordable multi-family housing over the next decade, in buildings where 80 percent of tenants fall below 60 percent of the area median income. Back in Nevada, Sunrun will soon begin offering a discounted electricity rate to low-income households through a state program called RenewableGenerations.

 

This Tactical Urbanist Is Pasting Slave Narratives All over Richmond

“Alejandro’s enslavement dungeon was right there in that Exxon. And that was the baseball diamond, that was home plate right there.”

Self-described historical strategist Free Egunfemi is giving an impromptu tour of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, where history ricochets from the cruelest implements of the slave industry, in which Richmond played a leading role, to modern-day urban revitalization schemes such as a minor-league ballpark.

She pulls into a parking lot behind Main Street Station’s gleaming new glass-enclosed train shed, a $91.5-million renovation, and approach a crooked sign that reads “Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Archaeological Study Site,” next to a one-room white cottage up on blocks. Two more detailed signs propped against a fence explain the site’s significance: Robert Lumpkin maintained a slave-trading complex here for 30 years leading up to the Civil War. Vehicle traffic roars overhead on Interstate 95.

Egunfemi pops open her trunk, pulls out a bucket of wheat paste, and unravels a rectangular black-and-white banner. She paints the paste onto the concrete base of a light post and then wraps the banner. In huge Helvetica, it reads: “Dial 804 277 8116 Then Press 67#.”

A man’s recorded voice answers: “We call out the name of Emily Winfree, a self-determined enslaved Richmond woman that insisted on establishing her black matriarchy by any means necessary. The wind-battered old cottage in the corner of this parking lot was owned by Ms. Winfree, where she raised her many children, whose father was none other than the man who had enslaved them.”

“Ms. Emily Winfree rented out part of the house to a boarder so that she could maintain as much autonomy from the enslaver who failed to provide the necessary resources for his own children,” it continues. “Even though the cottage was not actually situated here originally, we see it as a symbol of the strength of Richmond’s black matriarchal queen mothers that made a way out of no way, by any means necessary.”

For the last several years, Egunfemi, a 44-year-old Richmond-raised social entrepreneur, has researched these stories, recorded them to a phone-activated system, and put up posters big and small encouraging passersby to call in for a dose of the untold Richmond history reflected in her company’s name, Untold RVA.

Posting untold history guerrilla-style in Richmond’s public spaces is an act that Egunfemi calls “commemorative justice,” a concept that resonates during a time of national debate about Confederate monuments, African-American historical memorials, and white supremacy. Her use of tactical urbanism to tell the story of enslaved persons in the former capital of the Confederacy comes as Richmond debates the future of the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, also known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, and the adjacent African Burial Ground, where bodies of free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans have been found.

Nearly ten years after the city’s first master plan for the site, and with little to show by way of progress as real-estate developers increasingly eye Shockoe Bottom for historic loft conversions and hip cafes, Egunfemi is determined to take matters into her own hands. She maneuvers past the signs installed by the city-sanctioned Slave Trail Commission. When asked if she needs permission to put up her own handiwork, she responds, “I don’t operate in the space of permitted activities.”

“A City Within a City”

If Robert Lumpkin is antebellum Richmond’s archvillain, the site of his slave jail also abuts the final stand of the city’s tragic hero. This week, Untold RVA will mark the 218th anniversary of Gabriel Prosser’s aborted slave revolt, which, if successful, might have altered the course of U.S. history.

Gabriel was an enslaved blacksmith on a plantation near Richmond who had the rare fortune of literacy. He had read about the successful slave rebellion in Haiti and in 1800, he led a conspiracy spread by collaborators on several plantations to capture the state armory and hold Governor James Monroe hostage. Thunderstorms thwarted the planned August 30 attack. Two conspirators betrayed the cause, and the plot was revealed. Gabriel was eventually caught and hanged from gallows on the same site as the African Burial Ground, just a short walk from the church where Patrick Henry intoned “Give me liberty or give me death!” 25 years earlier.

Stones from the gallows platform are still visible in the bridge carrying Broad Street over I-95. The burial ground was later paved over to make way for the city jail, the dog pound, and most recently, a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot.

The African Burial Ground, at one time paved over for a parking lot, is where black Richmonders come to pay their respects to enslaved ancestors. It's also the site of the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Photo by Gregory Scruggs. 

Following Gabriel’s aborted revolt, fears that a Haitian-style rebellion had infiltrated the U.S. spread throughout the young country. “This was the geopolitical event of the New World in terms of slavery,” argues Ana Edwards, who chairs the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which fought with protests, and through arrests, to reclaim the African Burial Ground. In 2011, the state legislature turned the site over from the public university to the Richmond City Council’s Slave Trail Commission, founded in 1998, and the city removed the asphalt. Today, the burial ground is an open, grassy expanse with a trimmed lawn, separated from the Lumpkin’s Jail Site by a tunnel under Broad Street. An entrance sign informs visitors that sports or recreation are prohibited

On the edge of the burial ground that abuts I-95, weathered wooden signs offer up free history lessons on the Men’s and Women’s Sacred Trees — earlier prototypes of Egunfemi’s project — and the women’s tree is bedecked with scarves. On a June visit, apples, cinnamon sticks, a penny, and a lone candle form an offering at the base of the men’s tree, while the trunk is wrapped in clothesline from which hang the names of enslaved persons culled from a recently discovered database — another Untold RVA project. A short obelisk frames a blue-and-white mural. There is an official historical marker from the city’s Slave Trail Commission, but otherwise these offerings and monuments to ancestors are homespun, grassroots efforts from groups within Richmond’s African-American community such as the African Ancestral Chamber and especially from Egunfemi and other practitioners of African spirituality.

In the seven years since the African Burial Ground was uncovered, it has become a gathering place for black Richmonders, who pay their respects as one would in any cemetery. Richmond cultural ambassador Janine Bell, who runs the Elegba Folklore Society, a cultural arts group, leads the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration there, replete with a libation-pouring ceremony.

Bell also sits on the city-council-appointed Slave Trail Commission, which installed and maintains 17 historical markers throughout Shockoe Bottom and along the James River, delineating the Richmond Slave Trail. This oldest part of the city was the epicenter of the antebellum slave trade that extended far beyond Lumpkin’s Jail, a history that contemporary Richmond first began to reckon with in June 1993 during a momentous “unity walk” along what eventually became the trail.

“There were dozens of dealers lining the streets, whether they were in their own places of business [or] went to a hotel lobby, a basement, an [auction] block, the courthouse steps — in terms of the actual sale of people,” Bell says from the Elegba Folklore Society storefront and office, a space scented with burning incense and dotted with displays of jewelry and traditional clothing. Pan-African music plays softly in the background.

“Shockoe Bottom historically has been called a city within a city,” she says. The Commission is the steward of $19 million in state and local funds to establish a museum or interpretive center in a proposed historical park on the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, which Bell hopes will be the centerpiece of a heritage district.

“The landscape needs to be built around that commemorative act,” she says. “Drop the pebble, then build the rings around it.”

But the road to achieving such a vision has been rocky. The Slave Trail Commission proposed a 4.5-acre museum plan in 2009. In 2013, former Mayor Dwight Jones announced a minor-league baseball stadium and slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom that would have hampered efforts to uncover more evidence of Richmond’s slave market. The next year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Shockoe Bottom one of its most endangered historic places. Jones withdrew the plan in 2015 under heavy protest from activists and historic preservationists, who pitched their own community proposal for a 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.

Lumpkin's Slave Jail site, also known as the Devil’s Half-Acre. Years of back-and-forth over how the historical site will be presented means that the current commemoration consists only of a few rickety signs. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

That same year, the city hired a cultural consultant to conduct a public engagement effort called Richmond Speaks that delivered a report calling for immediate action on an expanded site. Sacred Ground prepared another community proposal in 2017. Now three years later, the city has hired a design firm that conducted its own round of community engagement this month. Meanwhile, former Governor Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first African-American governor, insists that the $19 million is destined for his erstwhile National Slavery Museum, which foundered in Fredericksburg and he now hopes to install in downtown Richmond. In a June interview with Next City, he brandished a $25 check that he said was the museum’s annual incorporation fee. The next month, he halted fundraising.

The saga has led Bell to conclude, “I don’t think there is a comprehensive civic vision.” But she is adamant that something will happen on the Lumpkin’s site with the current design firm, SmithGroupJJR, which was part of the team that designed the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “[There is] design work that is going to sit at the Devil’s Half-Acre and that may continue over to the African Burial Ground,” she says.

Despite the public money set aside, moving from design to build is still up in the air. The National Slavery Museum Foundation, which was set up by several commission members as the Lumpkin Jail site’s fiscal sponsor and is not to be confused with Wilder’s National Slavery Museum, had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. Commission chair Delores McQuinn, a state delegate, says a new 501(c)3 will be incorporated soon now that there is a significant sum of money available for the project, which she believes will ultimately required fundraising beyond the $19 million.

“The work has been done with very little resources,” she says. “We kept the vision moving forward to make certain that the story would be told with truth and reconciliation.”

A memorial in Shockoe Bottom is necessary because Virginia — the “virgin state” as Bell wryly notes — invented the slave-breeding industry and Richmond was its export hub. Over the objection of South Carolina’s elite, who profited heavily off the importation of enslaved Africans to Charleston, Virginian planters, led by Thomas Jefferson, inserted a clause in the constitution that allowed for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade no earlier than January 1, 1808. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill that made good on the clause.

According to the book “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry,” as the U.S. expropriated indigenous land in the Deep South and allocated it to whites in need of labor for their plantation agriculture, Virginian planters, facing exhausted soils, found a new economic system based on human capital where slave-rearing women produced interest in the form of children. Richmond, a port city on the James River, became the focal point for this system to transfer enslaved labor from the Chesapeake region to the Deep South.

“[Richmond] was a funnel for Virginia’s massive slave-breeding industry, perfectly situated to feed both overland human traffic (the infamous coffles) and ocean-going exporters of captive people bound for the big end-user markets: New Orleans, and, farther up the river, Natchez,” writes “The American Slave Coast” co-author Ned Sublette, via email. “Richmond made heavy use of the auction technique, because it was the most efficient way to move numbers of people.”

Cinemagoers got a taste of the city’s auction history in the 2013 film “12 Years a Slave,” where Solomon Northup is trafficked through one of Richmond’s slave jails in 1841. Receipts from Richmond slave sales in 1857 totaled $3.5 million, which equates to about $106 million in 2018 dollars.

My Ancestors Love Me

Egunfemi, born in New Jersey and raised in Richmond from the third grade, learned none of this in school, despite taking Advanced Placement U.S. History. (Last year, the Kellogg Foundation gave a racial-healing grant to the Richmond-based non-profit that led the 1993 unity walk. It will be used, in part, to ensure that every Richmond pupil is given a guided tour of the Slave Trail.)

She credits a trail walk hosted by Elegba Folklore Society around Juneteenth in 2000 with opening her eyes to Richmond’s untold history. As early as 1998, however, her sisters circle of seven other women met regularly at Ancarrow’s Landing, a boat launch that was home to the Manchester Docks. The docks were a jumping off point for enslaved persons traveling by ship, who were packed into boats to sail south around Florida to the slave markets along the Mississippi River.

Free Egunfemi at work.  “Typography is my superpower,” she says. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

Egunfemi is a fourth-generation African spiritualist whose surname, which means “my ancestors love me” in Yoruba, was derived in a roots ceremony in 2014. Dressed in white, the members of her circle would make offerings to their ancestors along the banks of the James River with white flowers, coconuts, and moonshine brewed from rainwater. On the advice of their ancestors, they substituted magnolia leaves, buckeyes, and pine cones for plants such as the kola nut traditionally used in Igbo divination.

This spiritual notion that large swaths of the city, especially in Shockoe Bottom, are her ancestors’ land motivates much of her work. (Her first name, Free, is an homage to ancestors who settled on Pocahontas Island, one of the oldest black communities in the U.S. that was home to a large number of free black residents.)

Egunfemi has soured on the glacial pace of the formal memorialization process, which has failed to deliver thus far on a decade of promises for commemoration. “We’ll be dead before a [museum] happens,” she tells me. But her defiant streak also stems from how she is perceived for her spiritual beliefs.

“There’s a deliberate tone deafness from those that are working in this space, that they don’t understand or care to understand that people are taking care of this ancestral work as a result of their spiritual practice,” she says. “You’re talking about commemoration but there hasn’t been a recognition that this is ancestor remembrance, not just history for history’s sake.”

Egunfemi sees an ecumenical underpinning to civic dialogue on the subject, as when the city erected the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue in 2007 concurrently with similar statues in Liverpool, the main British port for slaving ships, and the Republic of Benin, where African slavers captured victims to sell. She rejects reconciliation. “Why reconcile when there is only one guilty party?” she asks.

Ultimately, Egunfemi believes that the heavily Christian identity of Richmond’s populace — especially within the black community — rejects her spiritual practice. “They believe that this is devil worship,” she says. However, Reverend Sylvester “Tee” Turner, a Slave Trail Commission member, told Next City, “I do not consider it as devil’s work and I have learned to respect it.” Bell, who Egunfemi regards as a respected elder, is also a spiritualist and sits on the commission.

Egunfemi was part of the protest movement against Dwight Jones’ harebrained stadium proposal. But in 2013, she says her godfather told her, “I’m tired of you blocking, it’s time to start building.” She took his advice to heart and founded Untold RVA the next year with a mission to tell the city’s untold historic narratives in order to inspire self-determination in today’s Richmonders. A serial entrepreneur who has hustled as a face painter, lock twister, jewelry importer, and even a vegan iron-chef champion, she incorporated as an LLC, having no interest in grant-based non-profit fundraising.

Along the way, Egunfemi has ingratiated herself with Richmond’s creative community, the folks who moved into Shockoe Bottom’s converted tobacco warehouses for cheaper rent and a patina of historic authenticity. This is a neighborhood where an artisan denim manufacturer chose to set up a workshop that acknowledges the slave-trading past, but increasingly a neighborhood where homegrown bank Capital One has set up a business incubator.

At first, Untold RVA was a self-directed effort and a money-losing proposition. She made wooden signs at a cost of $600 each — a big expenditure, especially if any were stolen or vandalized. Then she discovered posters and had a revelation. “Typography is my superpower,” she says.

In 2014, she won a $1,500 grant from Feast RVA, an event where patrons make a small donation and then vote on which artist presentation should receive the total sum. Egunfemi pitched an idea to put the stories of historic black Richmonders on city buses. The idea never panned out, but the approval was validating.

“Even if the established memorialization community wasn’t going to support what I was doing, I knew that my friends in the creative community — the maker, doer, start-up, DIY media, blogosphere in Richmond — were all supportive,” she says.

Egunfemi also discovered that her modus operandi had a name: tactical urbanism, a term she learned from Ryan Rinn, executive director of Richmond’s Storefront for Community Design. (Rinn’s is the voice in the Emily Winfree recording.)

“She’s the consummate tactical urbanist in Richmond,” Rinn tells Next City, over Jamaican food near the storefront’s office, where wild inversions of the city’s iconically controversial Robert E. Lee statue festoon the walls, the product of a recent design studio. “For someone not trained in design, her aesthetic is unique, recognizable, and worthwhile for our city’s landscape.”

Over the last five years, Untold RVA has been Egunfemi’s umbrella for what seems like too many side hustles for one person to manage. Over a fried seafood lunch at Sugar’s Crab Shack, she lays them out. She gives tours for scholars and occasionally tourists, but downplays those because of limited time. Institutions such as local colleges and museums hire her to teach the history of Shockoe Bottom to students through interactive workshops that include candle-lighting ceremonies, poster-making, and narrative recording sessions. Richmond Region Tourism contracted her to do the same for hospitality industry workers.

Today, she is the social-entrepreneur-in-residence at the Six Points Innovation Center, a teen community center. 6PIC is in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification — something else Egunfemi hopes to halt. She’s created a plan to paint walls and put up posters to signify that the block is a black ethnic enclave before any outside investors attempt to buy up properties.

“My ancestors speak to me through the language of bright ideas,” she says.

Unseating the “Lost Cause” Lie

Egunfemi maintains a hard-line stance in favor of the tactical-urbanism approach for commemorating the history of enslaved persons in Richmond. “I don’t think we should use Gilded Age methods to memorialize ancestors,” she says. “Why build a $1-million statue when the schools are falling apart?” (A statue of Maggie Lena Walker, a Richmond native daughter who was the first black woman to serve as president of a bank, was unveiled last year. There are also statues in Richmond of tennis great Arthur Ashe, the free and enslaved boatmen who plied the city’s canals, and of Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself to freedom.)

A statue honors Henry "Box" Brown, an enslaved man in Richmond who, at the age of 33, packed himself in a wooden crate and shipped himself to an abolitionist in Philadelphia, thereby securing his freedom. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

She is critical of the Slave Trail Commission signage for being too wordy, likening it to a textbook that no passerby will stop to read, although others find the signs — some of which were crafted by Bell — engaging and informative. In the face of audio technology where she can track the area code of incoming calls, she believes text and sculpture too static and not adapted to today’s digital culture. “With a monument, you can’t get any feedback,” she says. Her goal is to make people want to take pictures and share online — to make Richmond’s untold history go viral.

Egunfemi’s unorthodox attitude comes at a critical time when many believe that formal memorialization is a necessary counterpart to existing monuments. In the wake of Charlottesville, the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue and other statues glorifying Confederate soldiers on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is a perennial topic of conversation for the national media. For as long as Lee remains on his pedestal, many local activists are more interested in the kind of additive approach that building up history in Shockoe Bottom can provide.

New-World memorials and museums are opening regularly, from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama to the Memorial ACTe slavery museum in Guadeloupe, which sees 300,000 visitors annually. Charleston’s International African-American Museum is slated to open in 2020 and Rio is debating a slavery museum. Two years ago, the U.S. chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites launched a national initiative to inventory sites for the UNESCO Slave Route Project.

Richmond has a site of conscience as significant as those recognized by UNESCO — Gorée Island in Senegal and the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles in Ghana — even if currently, most of it is buried under a parking lot.

“People will flock here like when you go to the dungeons in West Africa,” Bell says. “People go there, stand at the Door of No Return, prostrate themselves on the floor, pour libation, feel the presence of people. They want to know.”

Public historian Christy Coleman, head of the American Civil War Museum, concurs. “People are flocking to these places,” she says, also citing the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, which centers the enslaved experience.

“For so long Richmond hung its hat solely on its role in the Confederacy and the ‘lost cause’ mythology,” she says. “Part of the lost-cause mythology was that slavery wasn’t that bad. The acknowledgment of the second-largest slave trading port in Richmond, Virginia unseats that lie.”

Coleman is quick to acknowledge Untold RVA’s strength. “The guerrilla [approach] — it’s frigging fantastic the way that they get message out,” she says. “Too often folks like that are not brought to the table for creative solutions. There’s an innovation that happens when you don’t have money.”

But she still believes that a formally sanctioned historical park — she favors the 9-acre proposal and doesn’t believe a large facility is necessary — is the best way to draw widespread attention.

“The rest of the world needs to know about this place,” Coleman says.

Whether they ever will remains an open question as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown comes next year, with few signs that Shockoe Bottom will have been transformed into a globally significant site of memory by then.

“If the history people don’t get their act together, they’re going to lose out” warns Coleman. “Not because [real estate developers] have money, but because they have a vision.”

The Urban Land Institute sent a team to Richmond in February with the goal of advancing economic development alongside uncovering more of the neighborhood’s antebellum heritage. Louis Solomonsky runs the most active real estate development and management company operating in Shockoe Bottom, which over 25 years has accumulated a portfolio of more than 1,000 apartments. “We’re hoping and crossing our fingers that the Slave Trail Commission can develop their park and museum” he says in his Shockoe Bottom office, piled high with blueprints. Solomonsky’s latest proposal is for a hotel where the baseball stadium would have stood.

“Our city council refuses to even have an opinion on Shockoe Bottom,” Edwards laments. (City councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represents the district that includes the Bottom and serves on the Slave Trail Commission, declined to comment for this story.)

“We are being presented with a black electoral leadership front that seems to be an obstacle. But the main reason that they would be the obstacle would be because they either know or are afraid that their funding or support will be pulled if they do this,” Edwards says, affirming that support comes from the white Richmond establishment. Despite her frustration, she remains hopeful that, in collaborating with the city to “make the case for the economic significance of the site’s use in the way articulated by our plan,” they can influence the ultimate outcome of Richmond’s master planning process, including the plan to celebrate the city’s tricentennial.

Signs of gentrification in Shockoe Bottom. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

Mayor Levar Stoney’s office will issue a proclamation on August 30 declaring “Gabriel Week.” Osita Iroegbu, Senior Policy Advisor for Community Engagement, Inclusion and Equity, told Next City via email, “The Mayor is working collaboratively with the community and other stakeholders on the best ways to honor and memorialize the history of Shockoe Bottom while simultaneously working to ensure any future effort will create educational, cultural and equitable economic opportunities for all City residents in terms of access to employment, minority business inclusion and affordable housing opportunities.”

Egunfemi, who spent years in the trenches, is ultimately agnostic, confident that she and other spiritualists will continue to make offerings at the African Burial Ground to Gabriel and their ancestors no matter what type of official memorial is erected in the vicinity. Meanwhile, she’ll keep mixing wheat paste.

“I’m going to be putting up signs for the rest of my life. And my kids will be too.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

 

This Tactical Urbanist Is Pasting Narratives of Enslaved People All over Richmond

“Omohundro’s enslavement dungeon was right there, in that Exxon. And that was the baseball diamond, that was home plate right there.”

Self-described historical strategist Free Egunfemi is giving an impromptu tour of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, where history ricochets from the cruelest implements of the slave industry, in which Richmond played a leading role, to modern-day urban revitalization schemes such as a minor-league ballpark.

She pulls into a parking lot behind Main Street Station’s gleaming new glass-enclosed train shed, a $91.5-million renovation, and approaches a crooked sign that reads “Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Archaeological Study Site,” next to a one-room white cottage up on blocks. Two more detailed signs propped against a fence explain the site’s significance: Robert Lumpkin maintained a slave-trading complex here for 30 years leading up to the Civil War. Vehicle traffic roars overhead on Interstate 95.

Egunfemi pops open her trunk, pulls out a bucket of wheat paste, and unravels a rectangular black-and-white banner. She paints the paste onto the concrete base of a light post and then wraps the banner. In huge Helvetica, it reads: “Dial 804 277 8116 Then Press 67#.”

A man’s recorded voice answers: “We call out the name of Emily Winfree, a self-determined enslaved Richmond woman that insisted on establishing her black matriarchy by any means necessary. The wind-battered old cottage in the corner of this parking lot was owned by Ms. Winfree, where she raised her many children, whose father was none other than the man who had enslaved them.”

“Ms. Emily Winfree rented out part of the house to a boarder so that she could maintain as much autonomy from the enslaver who failed to provide the necessary resources for his own children,” it continues. “Even though the cottage was not actually situated here originally, we see it as a symbol of the strength of Richmond’s black matriarchal queen mothers that made a way out of no way, by any means necessary.”

For the last several years, Egunfemi, a 44-year-old Richmond-raised social entrepreneur, has researched these stories, recorded them to a phone-activated system, and put up posters big and small encouraging passersby to call in for a dose of the untold Richmond history reflected in her company’s name, Untold RVA.

Posting untold history guerrilla-style in Richmond’s public spaces is an act that Egunfemi calls “commemorative justice,” a concept that resonates during a time of national debate about Confederate monuments, African-American historical memorials, and white supremacy. Her use of tactical urbanism to tell the story of enslaved persons in the former capital of the Confederacy comes as Richmond debates the future of the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, also known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, and the adjacent African Burial Ground, where bodies of free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans have been found.

Nearly ten years after the city’s first master plan for the site, and with little to show by way of progress as real-estate developers increasingly eye Shockoe Bottom for historic loft conversions and hip cafes, Egunfemi is determined to take matters into her own hands. She maneuvers past the signs installed by the city-sanctioned Slave Trail Commission. When asked if she needs permission to put up her own handiwork, she responds, “I don’t operate in the space of permitted activities.”

“A City Within a City”

If Robert Lumpkin is antebellum Richmond’s archvillain, the site of his slave jail also abuts the final stand of the city’s tragic hero. This week, Untold RVA will mark the 218th anniversary of Gabriel Prosser’s aborted slave revolt, which, if successful, might have altered the course of U.S. history.

Gabriel was an enslaved blacksmith on a plantation near Richmond who had the rare fortune of literacy. He had read about the successful slave rebellion in Haiti and in 1800, he led a conspiracy spread by collaborators on several plantations to capture the state armory and hold Governor James Monroe hostage. Thunderstorms thwarted the planned August 30 attack. Two conspirators betrayed the cause, and the plot was revealed. Gabriel was eventually caught and hanged from gallows on the same site as the African Burial Ground, just a short walk from the church where Patrick Henry intoned “Give me liberty or give me death!” 25 years earlier.

Stones from the gallows platform are still visible in the bridge carrying Broad Street over I-95. The burial ground was later paved over to make way for the city jail, the dog pound, and most recently, a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot.

The African Burial Ground, at one time paved over for a parking lot, is where black Richmonders come to pay their respects to enslaved ancestors. It's also a site for the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Photo by Gregory Scruggs. 

Following Gabriel’s aborted revolt, fears that a Haitian-style rebellion had infiltrated the U.S. spread throughout the young country. “This was the geopolitical event of the New World in terms of slavery,” argues Ana Edwards, who chairs the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which fought with protests, and through arrests, to reclaim the African Burial Ground. In 2011, the state legislature turned the site over from the public university to the Richmond City Council’s Slave Trail Commission, founded in 1998, and the city removed the asphalt. Today, the burial ground is an open, grassy expanse with a trimmed lawn, separated from the Lumpkin’s Jail Site by a tunnel under Broad Street. An entrance sign informs visitors that sports or recreation are prohibited

On the edge of the burial ground that abuts I-95, weathered wooden signs offer up free history lessons on the Men’s and Women’s Sacred Trees — earlier prototypes of Egunfemi’s project — and the women’s tree is bedecked with scarves. On a June visit, apples, cinnamon sticks, a penny, and a lone candle form an offering at the base of the men’s tree, while the trunk is wrapped in clothesline from which hang the names of enslaved persons culled from a recently discovered database — another Untold RVA project. A short obelisk frames a blue-and-white mural. There is an official historical marker from the city’s Slave Trail Commission, but otherwise these offerings and monuments to ancestors are homespun, grassroots efforts from groups within Richmond’s African-American community such as the African Ancestral Chamber and especially from Egunfemi and other practitioners of African spirituality.

In the seven years since the African Burial Ground was uncovered, it has become a gathering place for black Richmonders, who pay their respects as one would in any cemetery. Richmond cultural ambassador Janine Bell, who runs the Elegba Folklore Society, a cultural arts group, concludes the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration there, replete with a libation-pouring ceremony.

Bell also sits on the city-council-appointed Slave Trail Commission, which installed and maintains 17 historical markers throughout Shockoe Bottom and along the James River, delineating the Richmond Slave Trail. This oldest part of the city was the epicenter of the antebellum slave trade that extended far beyond Lumpkin’s Jail, a history that contemporary Richmond first began to reckon with in June 1993 during a momentous “unity walk” along what eventually became the trail.

“There were dozens of dealers lining the streets, whether they were in their own places of business [or] went to a hotel lobby, a basement, an [auction] block, the courthouse steps — in terms of the actual sale of people,” Bell says from the Elegba Folklore Society storefront and office, a space scented with burning incense and dotted with displays of jewelry and traditional clothing. Pan-African music plays softly in the background.

“Shockoe Bottom historically has been called a city within a city,” she says. The Commission is the steward of $19 million in state and local funds to establish a museum or interpretive center in a proposed historical park on the Lumpkin’s Jail Site, which Bell hopes will be the centerpiece of a heritage district.

“The landscape needs to be built around that commemorative act,” she says. “Drop the pebble, then build the rings around it.”

But the road to achieving such a vision has been rocky. The Slave Trail Commission proposed a 4.5-acre museum plan in 2009. In 2013, former Mayor Dwight Jones announced a minor-league baseball stadium and slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom that would have hampered efforts to uncover more evidence of Richmond’s slave market. The next year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Shockoe Bottom one of its most endangered historic places. Jones withdrew the plan in 2015 under heavy protest from activists and historic preservationists, who pitched their own community proposal for a 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.

Lumpkin's Slave Jail site, also known as the Devil’s Half-Acre. Years of back-and-forth over how the historical site will be presented means that the current commemoration consists only of a few rickety signs. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

That same year, the city hired a cultural consultant to conduct a public engagement effort called Richmond Speaks that delivered a report calling for immediate action on an expanded site. Sacred Ground prepared another community proposal in 2017. Now three years later, the city has hired a design firm that conducted its own round of community engagement this month. Meanwhile, former Governor Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first African-American governor, insists that the $19 million is destined for his erstwhile National Slavery Museum, which foundered in Fredericksburg and he now hopes to install in downtown Richmond. In a June interview with Next City, he brandished a $25 check that he said was the museum’s annual incorporation fee. The next month, he halted fundraising.

The saga has led Bell to conclude, “I don’t think there is a comprehensive civic vision.” But she is adamant that something will happen on the Lumpkin’s site with the current design firm, SmithGroupJJR, which was part of the team that designed the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “[There is] design work that is going to sit at the Devil’s Half-Acre and that may continue over to the African Burial Ground,” she says.

Despite the public money set aside, moving from design to build is still up in the air. The National Slavery Museum Foundation, which was set up by several commission members as the Lumpkin Jail site’s fiscal sponsor and is not to be confused with Wilder’s National Slavery Museum, had its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS. Commission chair Delores McQuinn, a state delegate, says a new 501(c)3 will be incorporated soon now that there is a significant sum of money available for the project, which she believes will ultimately required fundraising beyond the $19 million.

“The work has been done with very little resources,” she says. “We kept the vision moving forward to make certain that the story would be told with truth and reconciliation.”

A memorial in Shockoe Bottom is necessary because Virginia — the “virgin state” as Bell wryly notes — invented the slave-breeding industry and Richmond was its export hub. Over the objection of South Carolina’s elite, who profited heavily off the importation of enslaved Africans to Charleston, Virginian planters, led by Thomas Jefferson, inserted a clause in the constitution that allowed for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade no earlier than January 1, 1808. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill that made good on the clause.

According to the book “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry,” as the U.S. expropriated indigenous land in the Deep South and allocated it to whites in need of labor for their plantation agriculture, Virginian planters, facing exhausted soils, found a new economic system based on human capital where slave-rearing women produced interest in the form of children. Richmond, a port city on the James River, became the focal point for this system to transfer enslaved labor from the Chesapeake region to the Deep South.

“[Richmond] was a funnel for Virginia’s massive slave-breeding industry, perfectly situated to feed both overland human traffic (the infamous coffles) and ocean-going exporters of captive people bound for the big end-user markets: New Orleans, and, farther up the river, Natchez,” writes “The American Slave Coast” co-author Ned Sublette, via email. “Richmond made heavy use of the auction technique, because it was the most efficient way to move numbers of people.”

Cinemagoers got a taste of the city’s auction history in the 2013 film “12 Years a Slave,” where Solomon Northup is trafficked through one of Richmond’s slave jails in 1841. Receipts from Richmond slave sales in 1857 totaled $3.5 million, which equates to about $106 million in 2018 dollars.

My Ancestors Love Me

Egunfemi, born in New Jersey and raised in Richmond from the third grade, learned none of this in school, despite taking Advanced Placement U.S. History. (Last year, the Kellogg Foundation gave a racial-healing grant to the Richmond-based non-profit that led the 1993 unity walk. It will be used, in part, to ensure that every Richmond pupil is given a guided tour of the Slave Trail.)

She credits a trail walk hosted by Elegba Folklore Society around Juneteenth in 2000 with opening her eyes to Richmond’s untold history. As early as 1998, however, her sisters circle of seven other women met regularly at Ancarrow’s Landing, a boat launch that was home to the Manchester Docks. The docks were a jumping off point for enslaved persons traveling by ship, who were packed into boats to sail south around Florida to the slave markets along the Mississippi River.

Free Egunfemi at work.  “Typography is my superpower,” she says. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

Egunfemi is a fourth-generation African spiritualist whose surname, which means “my ancestors love me” in Yoruba, was derived in a roots ceremony in 2014. Dressed in white, the members of her circle would make offerings to their ancestors along the banks of the James River with white flowers, coconuts, and moonshine brewed from rainwater. On the advice of their ancestors, they substituted magnolia leaves, buckeyes, and pine cones for plants such as the kola nut traditionally used in Yoruba divination.

The spiritual conviction that members of this community can tell their own story, the story of their ancestors, is what motivates much of her work. (Her first name, Free, is an homage to ancestors who settled on Pocahontas Island, one of the oldest black communities in the U.S. that was home to a large number of free black residents.)

Egunfemi has soured on the glacial pace of the formal memorialization process, which has failed to deliver thus far on a decade of promises for commemoration. “We’ll be dead before a [museum] happens,” she tells me. But her defiant streak also stems from how she is perceived for her spiritual beliefs.

“There’s a deliberate tone deafness from those that are working in this space, that they don’t understand or care to understand that people are taking care of this ancestral work as a result of their spiritual practice,” she says. “You’re talking about commemoration but there hasn’t been a recognition that this is ancestor remembrance, not just history for history’s sake.”

Egunfemi sees an ecumenical underpinning to civic dialogue on the subject, as when the city erected the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue in 2007 concurrently with similar statues in Liverpool, the main British port for slaving ships, and the Republic of Benin, where African slavers captured victims to sell. She rejects reconciliation. “Why reconcile when there is only one guilty party?” she asks.

Ultimately, Egunfemi believes that the heavily Christian identity of Richmond’s populace — especially within the black community — disdains her spiritual practice. “They believe that this is devil worship,” she says. However, Reverend Sylvester “Tee” Turner, a Slave Trail Commission member, told Next City, “I do not consider it as devil’s work and I have learned to respect it.” Bell, who Egunfemi regards as a respected elder, is also a spiritualist and sits on the commission.

Egunfemi was part of the protest movement against Dwight Jones’ harebrained stadium proposal. But in 2013, she says her godfather told her, “I’m tired of you blocking, it’s time to start building.” She took his advice to heart and founded Untold RVA the next year with a mission to tell the city’s untold historic narratives in order to inspire self-determination in today’s Richmonders. A serial entrepreneur who has hustled as a face painter, loc twister, jewelry importer, and even a vegan iron-chef champion, she incorporated as an LLC, having no interest in grant-based non-profit fundraising.

Along the way, Egunfemi has ingratiated herself with Richmond’s creative community, the folks who moved into Shockoe Bottom’s converted tobacco warehouses for cheaper rent and a patina of historic authenticity. This is a neighborhood where an artisan denim manufacturer chose to set up a workshop that acknowledges the slave-trading past, but increasingly a neighborhood where homegrown bank Capital One has set up a business incubator.

At first, Untold RVA was a self-directed effort and a money-losing proposition. In conjunction with a carpenter, she made wooden signs, called “portals,” at a cost of $600 each — a big expenditure, especially if any were stolen or vandalized. Then she discovered posters and had a revelation. “Typography is my superpower,” she says.

In 2014, she won a $1,500 grant from Feast RVA, an event where patrons make a small donation and then vote on which artist presentation should receive the total sum. Egunfemi pitched an idea to put the stories of historic black Richmonders on city buses. The idea never panned out, but the approval was validating.

“Even if the established memorialization community wasn’t going to support what I was doing, I knew that my friends in the creative community — the maker, doer, start-up, DIY media, blogosphere in Richmond — were all supportive,” she says.

Egunfemi also discovered that her modus operandi had a name: tactical urbanism, a term she learned from Ryan Rinn, executive director of Richmond’s Storefront for Community Design. (Rinn’s is the voice in the Emily Winfree recording.)

“She’s the consummate tactical urbanist in Richmond,” Rinn tells Next City, over Jamaican food near the storefront’s office, where wild inversions of the city’s iconically controversial Robert E. Lee statue festoon the walls, the product of a recent design studio. “For someone not trained in design, her aesthetic is unique, recognizable, and worthwhile for our city’s landscape.”

Over the last five years, Untold RVA has been Egunfemi’s umbrella for what seems like too many side hustles for one person to manage. Over a fried seafood lunch at Sugar’s Crab Shack, she lays them out. She gives tours for scholars and occasionally tourists, but downplays those because of limited time. Institutions such as local colleges and museums hire her to teach the history of Shockoe Bottom to students through interactive workshops that include candle-lighting ceremonies, poster-making, and narrative recording sessions. Richmond Region Tourism contracted her to do the same for hospitality industry workers.

Today, she is the social-entrepreneur-in-residence at the Six Points Innovation Center, a teen community center. 6PIC is in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification — something else Egunfemi hopes to halt. She’s created a plan to paint walls and put up posters to signify that the block is a black ethnic enclave before any outside investors attempt to buy up properties.

“My ancestors speak to me through the language of bright ideas,” she says.

Unseating the “Lost Cause” Lie

Egunfemi maintains a hard-line stance in favor of the tactical-urbanism approach for commemorating the history of enslaved persons in Richmond. “I don’t think we should use Gilded Age methods to memorialize ancestors,” she says. “Why build a $1-million statue when the schools are falling apart?” (A statue of Maggie Lena Walker, a Richmond native daughter who was the first black woman to serve as president of a bank, was unveiled last year. There are also statues in Richmond of tennis great Arthur Ashe, the free and enslaved boatmen who plied the city’s canals, and of Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself to freedom.)

A statue honors Henry "Box" Brown, an enslaved man in Richmond who, at the age of 33, packed himself in a wooden crate and shipped himself to an abolitionist in Philadelphia, thereby securing his freedom. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

She is critical of the Slave Trail Commission signage for being too wordy, likening it to a textbook that no passerby will stop to read, although others find the signs — some of which were crafted by Bell — engaging and informative. In the face of audio technology where she can track the area code of incoming calls, she believes text and sculpture too static and not adapted to today’s digital culture. “With a monument, you can’t get any feedback,” she says. Her goal is to make people want to take pictures and share online — to make Richmond’s untold history go viral.

Egunfemi’s unorthodox attitude comes at a critical time when many believe that formal memorialization is a necessary counterpart to existing monuments. In the wake of Charlottesville, the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue and other statues glorifying Confederate soldiers on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is a perennial topic of conversation for the national media. For as long as Lee remains on his pedestal, many local activists are more interested in the kind of additive approach that building up history in Shockoe Bottom can provide.

New-World memorials and museums are opening regularly, from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama to the Memorial ACTe slavery museum in Guadeloupe, which sees 300,000 visitors annually. Charleston’s International African-American Museum is slated to open in 2020 and Rio is debating a slavery museum. Two years ago, the U.S. chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites launched a national initiative to inventory sites for the UNESCO Slave Route Project.

Richmond has a site of conscience as significant as those recognized by UNESCO — Gorée Island in Senegal and the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles in Ghana — even if currently, most of it is buried under a parking lot.

“People will flock here like when you go to the dungeons in West Africa,” Bell says. “People go there, stand at the Door of No Return, prostrate themselves on the floor, pour libation, feel the presence of people. They want to know.”

Public historian Christy Coleman, head of the American Civil War Museum, concurs. “People are flocking to these places,” she says, also citing the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, which centers the enslaved experience.

“For so long Richmond hung its hat solely on its role in the Confederacy and the ‘lost cause’ mythology,” she says. “Part of the lost-cause mythology was that slavery wasn’t that bad. The acknowledgment of the second-largest slave trading port in Richmond, Virginia unseats that lie.”

Coleman is quick to acknowledge Untold RVA’s strength. “The guerrilla [approach] — it’s frigging fantastic the way that they get the message out,” she says. “Too often folks like that are not brought to the table for creative solutions. There’s an innovation that happens when you don’t have money.”

But she still believes that a formally sanctioned historical park — she favors the 9-acre proposal and doesn’t believe a large facility is necessary — is the best way to draw widespread attention.

“The rest of the world needs to know about this place,” Coleman says.

Whether they ever will remains an open question, as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown comes next year, with few signs that Shockoe Bottom will have been transformed into a globally significant site of memory by then.

“If the history people don’t get their act together, they’re going to lose out,” warns Coleman. “Not because [real estate developers] have money, but because they have a vision.”

The Urban Land Institute sent a team to Richmond in February with the goal of advancing economic development alongside uncovering more of the neighborhood’s antebellum heritage. Louis Solomonsky runs the most active real estate development and management company operating in Shockoe Bottom, which over 25 years has accumulated a portfolio of more than 1,000 apartments. “We’re hoping and crossing our fingers that the Slave Trail Commission can develop their park and museum,” he says in his Shockoe Bottom office, piled high with blueprints. Solomonsky’s latest proposal is for a hotel where the baseball stadium would have stood.

“Our city council refuses to even have an opinion on Shockoe Bottom,” Edwards laments. (City Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represents the district that includes the Bottom and serves on the Slave Trail Commission, declined to comment for this story.)

“We are being presented with a black electoral leadership front that seems to be an obstacle. But the main reason that they would be the obstacle would be because they either know or are afraid that their funding or support will be pulled if they do this,” Edwards says, affirming that support comes from the white Richmond establishment. Despite her frustration, she remains hopeful that, in collaborating with the city to “make the case for the economic significance of the site’s use in the way articulated by our plan,” they can influence the ultimate outcome of Richmond’s master planning process, including the plan to celebrate the city’s tricentennial.

Signs of gentrification in Shockoe Bottom. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

Mayor Levar Stoney’s office will issue a proclamation on August 30 declaring “Gabriel Week.” Osita Iroegbu, Senior Policy Advisor for Community Engagement, Inclusion and Equity, told Next City via email, “The Mayor is working collaboratively with the community and other stakeholders on the best ways to honor and memorialize the history of Shockoe Bottom while simultaneously working to ensure any future effort will create educational, cultural and equitable economic opportunities for all City residents in terms of access to employment, minority business inclusion and affordable housing opportunities.”

Egunfemi, who spent years in the trenches, is ultimately agnostic, confident that she and other spiritualists will continue to make offerings at the African Burial Ground to Gabriel and their ancestors no matter what type of official memorial is erected in the vicinity. Meanwhile, she’ll keep mixing wheat paste.

“I’m going to be putting up signs for the rest of my life. And my kids will be too.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was amended to correct several errors. The name of the slavery dungeon owner cited in the first sentence was Omohundro, not Alejandro. The kola nut is used in Yoruba divination, not Igbo. And Free Egunfemi did not say the land of Shockoe was her ancestors’ land.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

 

Plaza Heralds New Era of Afrocentric Development in Seattle Neighborhood

 Painters with Seattle-based mural non-profit Urban ArtWorks put the finishing touches on large-point lettering announcing the Imagine Africatown Pop Up Plaza. (Photo by Gregory Scruggs)

Destiny Harris was one of over 200 volunteers who turned out on Sunday, July 8, to paint the walls and parking lot of the Midtown Center strip mall, a large parcel being redeveloped in Seattle’s historically-black Central District.

“I see my neighborhood getting torn down every day so I decided to help my community around me,” said Harris, who attended elementary through high school in the Central District. “It does feel more empowering to show people that we can build our community back the way it was.”

Once one of the only areas in the city where black families were permitted to buy homes or rent apartments, the Central District has faced a ton of change over the past few decades. The area’s black population dropped from a peak of over 70 percent in the 1970s to less than 20 percent today. The remaining black community itself has also changed, with Ethiopian restaurants just as likely examples of black-owned businesses as soul food spots.

At the Midtown Center parking lot, volunteers painted a kente cloth motif, referencing African diasporic roots extending from formerly enslaved persons to newer neighborhood arrivals from Ethiopia and other East African countries. Local artists painted “IMAGINE AFRICATOWN” on the walls facing the kente cloth parking lot. A collage of photos submitted by nearby residents covers the top of a “community coffee table” on the lot. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan came to cut the ribbon on the pop-up plaza on Saturday.

Destiny Harris, who did her primary and secondary schooling in Seattle's historically-black Central District, adds a splash of green to the block-sized paint job at Midtown Center. (Photo by Gregory Scruggs)

The Central District’s black residents will be making their historic legacy and remaining presence known in a more permanent fashion, thanks to new design guidelines and community-led efforts to develop properties in the neighborhood, including the Midtown Center strip mall.

Africatown, a community land trust that owns 20 percent of the Midtown Center property, received a $1 million grant last month from the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development. The grant promises to advance the land trust’s efforts to develop affordable rental, homeownership, and business opportunities in the Central District. Community land trusts are specialized nonprofits that take ownership of land usually for the purpose of renting or making housing or commercial and cultural space available for ownership at permanently affordable prices.

The intersection where Midtown Center sits, at 23rd and Union, once found itself at the center of the city’s gentrification debates after a flashy legal pot store opened on the same corner where police once harassed young black men who sold cannabis pre-legalization. The episode earned the area the label of “the most controversial block in Seattle.” (The store, it turns out, is owned by a Jewish businessman with his own roots in the Central District, which was a Jewish neighborhood before it was a black neighborhood.)

Founded by K. Wyking Garrett, a third-generation Central District resident, Africatown wants to reclaim the history of a neighborhood jazz scene that nurtured both Ray Charles and Quincy Jones, while also incorporating the thousands of immigrants from East African countries who have settled in the Seattle area in recent decades.

The stake in Midtown Center is the second property in the Africatown’s portfolio, which also includes a partial ownership stake in an affordable housing development a block away, on the former site of the first black-owned bank west of the Mississippi.

Future developments in the Central District, by Africatown or others, will all be subject to new city-approved design guidelines that call for Afrocentric design standards for projects in the neighborhood.

“Africatown is pioneering this [approach],” says urban planner Nmadili Okwumabua. “The architecture will preserve their presence, the culture, the history, the story.”

Based in Atlanta, Okwumabua came to Seattle in July to give a lecture as part of a weekend effort to solicit design ideas for Midtown Center from local residents. Attendees talked about Afro-diasporic food, music, and festivals as amenities they hope for in the new development. Okwumabua made the case that brick and mortar is just as important as the arts and food.

“Architecturally it’s important that Africatown include [African influence] in their buildings — not just the festivals, the food, the music — the buildings as well,” says Okwumabua. “A thousand years from now archaeologists will ask who were these people and why did they do this?”

Meanwhile, Africatown’s resident engagement has already yielded design changes for Midtown Center from the for-profit developer who controls the other 80 percent of the property, including paving patterns and an art wall inspired by the recent mural installation; a proposed media wall on the public-facing corner with content covering neighborhood history; and increased public space that will give neighborhood residents a place to congregate like they customarily have at that corner of the property. (The for-profit side will also include over 400 units of affordable housing.)

Revealing a collage of photos submitted by local residents. (Photo by Mujale Chisebuka)

There remains some neighborhood concern that this 80 percent of the Midtown Center property not owned by Africatown, which is further along in the development process, won’t have commercial tenants that reflect the needs of the remaining black community. At a recent design review meeting, Lake Union Partners, the developer of the 80 percent, publicly committed to offering below-market rents to recruit black-owned businesses in the smaller retail spaces while charging a chain drugstore at or above market rate on the corner to subsidize the lower rents. But no leases have been signed, yet. The block is slated for demolition by the end of the year.

Although Africatown lags behind the faster pace of the for-profit developer, the non-profit group continues to build momentum. On Saturday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan cut the ribbon on the July mural and street furniture installation, formally christened the Imagine Africatown Pop Up Plaza. Perched alongside the city’s now ubiquitous blue-and-white land use signs heralding a new development, a new sign catches the eye with architectural renderings inspired by the fictional cityscape of Wakanda, from the comic-book-turned-blockbuster-film, “Black Panther.” Its message reads: “Coming Soon.”

 

Rocking the Billion-Dollar Boat in Seattle

On an April evening, with skies clear enough to signal the end of Seattle’s winter gloom, Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant strode to a podium in front of the Amazon Spheres, a biodome for employees that has become the architectural symbol of the company’s massive downtown campus.

Sawant’s background — she grew up in Mumbai and studied computer engineering — is similar to many of the software engineers employed at Amazon, the world’s second most valuable corporation. Some of those employees peered curiously from mezzanine windows as protesters beckoned them to join the rally, held in support of a new local tax on large employers, the proceeds of which would directly fund affordable housing in a city whose homelessness crisis has reached unprecedented levels.

Other Amazon employees played with their pooches in a company-sponsored dog park only a few feet away from the rally, trying to ignore chants of, “Ho ho, hey hey, Amazon has got to pay!” Tourists snapped selfies in front of the cashier-free Amazon Go next door, while rally speakers decried how the company paid zero federal taxes last year while receiving a $789-million windfall from the newly reformed tax code.

“Every square inch of this city is starting to be a space that only the very wealthy, only the billionaires, only the most massive profitable corporations can inhabit,” Sawant yelled into the microphone.

Seattle house prices and rent-burdened households have soared ever higher, and the metropolitan area now has the third largest homeless population in the country. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that the region must spend at least $410 million annually to stem its homelessness crisis, which was declared a civil state of emergency in 2015.

“Are we going to accept this?” she asked. The few hundred before her waving signs roared back, “No!”

“That is why our movement to tax Amazon and other big corporations is gaining ground,” she said.

Today, the Seattle City Council is expected to vote on implementing the so-called “head tax” for companies grossing more than $20 million a year, taking direct aim at big-revenue tech firms — chiefly Amazon — that have made the city their home. The tax, which would charge a company approximately $500 annually per employee, is expected to raise $75 million a year for affordable housing and homelessness services. On May 11, the Council voted 5-4 to reject a watered-down, more business-friendly proposal by Mayor Jenny Durkan, which would have charged $250 per employee and raised about $40 million per year. Mayor Durkan has indicated she may veto the bill in its current form.

Kshama Sawant speaks at an April rally in support of the so-called "head tax."(Photo by Gregory Scruggs)

The business community vociferously opposes the tax. Amazon itself recently made its biggest public political move in Seattle when the tech giant announced a construction pause on a new tower and signaled it may sublease Seattle’s second-tallest office building instead of filling it with its own employees, all pending the outcome of the vote.

Construction unions, fearing lost jobs, have packed city council hearings to oppose the tax, while homeless advocates insist the money is desperately needed as people die on the streets. Although Amazon is not a sympathetic character in Seattle, some homeowners have banded together in a show of neighborhood activism to protest the city’s desire to collect more revenue when they don’t believe existing funds are making a dent in the rising number of unsheltered people.

The heated debate around the tax has sharpened some divisions and created at least a few new ones, most notably between the corporate behemoth, Amazon, and the city with which it has become so closely associated. Somehow, Sawant has made her way to the center of it all.

A Socialist Awakening

Sawant was born in Pune, India and had a middle-class upbringing in Mumbai, with a family she describes as “protective and loving,” while also “apolitical and math-oriented.” The omnipresent suffering on Mumbai’s streets, she says, planted the seeds of her political awakening.

“I was obsessed with the question of poverty, injustice, and oppression from a very young age,” she said in a recent interview at City Hall. “But I was frustrated with the answers I got of why poverty exists.” Arguments that the poor didn’t work hard enough, for example, she found ludicrous.

“Human society has more than enough resources to solve this problem,” she said. “Was there a logical explanation?”

Sawant mulled those thoughts after she received her bachelor’s from the University of Mumbai in 1994, and then pursued a career in IT, first in India and then in North Carolina at the now-bankrupt Nortel Networks. As her philosophy on poverty and injustice continued to evolve, she enrolled at North Carolina State University to pursue a doctorate in economics. In 2006, she moved with her then-husband, another Indian software engineer, to a Seattle suburb, where he worked for Microsoft. She defended her doctoral dissertation, “Elderly Labor Supply in a Rural, Less Developed Economy: An Empirical Study”, in 2009.

That same year, she moved inside Seattle city limits and began attending political meetings while teaching economics and statistics at local colleges. “I was looking for somebody who could confirm my analysis that obviously poverty and suffering of the kind that we see — caste oppression and sexual violence — is not endemic to human society,” she said.

Around the time she became a U.S. citizen (in 2010), Sawant stumbled upon a Socialist Alternative Party meeting in Seattle. “It offered me exactly what I was looking for: a Marxist critique of capitalism and an argument for a different kind of society,” she said.

Ironically, as her first marriage fell apart, Sawant took up the cause of marriage equality as an activist within the Socialist Alternative Party, helping to organize marches in support of the cause (which Washington voters eventually approved, in November 2012).

2011 proved to be a pivotal year. Labor unions took over the Wisconsin State House. Sawant recalls seeing the occupiers wave Egyptian flags, which stuck with her as evidence of a growing solidarity between workers’ movements in the U.S. and abroad. And Occupy Wall Street gained traction, with Seattle hosting its own encampment, first downtown and then on a plaza in front of Seattle Central College, where Sawant taught. She claims to have played a role through her union, American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, in bringing the protest to the college.

She did not sleep overnight at Occupy Seattle, but visited daily, building relationships and learning more about the causes joined under the Occupy banner. She recalls showing up with carafes of hot chai on the cold, rainy night that Occupy Seattle’s camp moved the several blocks to her community college.

The next year revealed the limits of outsider activism. “Occupy was such an inspiring movement and then suddenly you had the Obama re-election year and no political alternatives were being offered,” she said. “Movements die a slow death by not having a political avenue for the movement to build itself.”

Spurred by that desire for alternatives, Seattle’s Socialist Alternative Party debated running a candidate for city council in 2013. Sawant argued vigorously in favor, and was surprised when the local party chapter nominated her to be the candidate.

“I was not eager in any way,” she said. She feared her foreign name would be unpronounceable and her Indian accent would turn off local voters. As a self-described introvert, she was anxious about the kind of public scrutiny that comes with running for office. That anxiety was well-founded. After she called for protests during Trump’s inauguration, her office was inundated with racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic threats.

With a strong ground game, deep base of volunteers, and an influx of small-dollar donations instead of typical big-donor checks, Sawant upset four-term incumbent Richard Conlin, somehow overcoming an eight-percentage-point polling deficit on that election day in 2013.

The Fight for $15, and More

Sawant’s campaign posters offer a simple checklist: $15/Hour. Tax the Rich. Rent Control. Stacks of the red posters are always at the ready in her office. Her door is always open to community organizers. After a recent interview, staffers mobilized to join a standoff over a city sweep of an unsanctioned homeless encampment.

In 2015, Sawant achieved her first checklist item when Seattle became the first major U.S. city to set a $15 per hour minimum wage. The “fight for 15” spread to cities nationwide and became a fixture on the presidential campaign trail — during the Democratic primary, at least.

Labor union members are divided on the head tax. Some want big business to pay their share; others, such as ironworker Adilson Correia, fear the measure will prompt companies to disinvest, costing jobs. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“Putting [the $15 minimum wage] on the national political map was a massive, historic victory,” Sawant says. “It represents a transfer of wealth of $3 billion from the bosses to the workers.”

Sawant calls the head tax proposal the “new fight for fifteen” and hopes this kind of big-business tax will spread, especially to potential Amazon HQ2 cities. (Denver already has a head tax; Chicago is considering reimposing one; Mountain View, Google’s hometown, is also contemplating such a tax.)

“That’s why the stakes are so high,” she said, and why Amazon has reacted so publicly with its plan to halt construction, a move that successfully divided organized labor on the issue and led a local ironworkers union to drown out Sawant at a rally in early May.

“We don’t question [the workers’] worry,” she told Next City a week after that rally. “Shame on Amazon and Bezos for holding their jobs as a club against all working people who are struggling for affordable housing. There is no financial compulsion that Amazon is facing to do this. They are simply doing this as a scare tactic. They are engaging in extortion.”

But the “fight for fifteen” aside, Sawant’s track record on other legislative priorities has had fewer victory laps.

Tax the rich? Washington’s Supreme Court quickly shot down a municipal income tax that tried to dodge a state constitutional ban.

Rent control? That’s still illegal under state law. But as part of a patchwork “tenants’ bill of rights,” she introduced legislation that clamped down on move-in fees and required minimum rental upkeep from landlords (a process that got her sued for defamation when she nicknamed the bill after a notorious local slumlord). She also proposed an ordinance requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance if they price out tenants.

Legislating on Her Terms

On the head tax — what has proven to be the highest-stakes legislation yet in her career — Sawant supports but did not sponsor the bill in the form that will be voted on today. Particulars of the current bill arose from the recommendations of a March report prepared by a 17-member city-sanctioned progressive revenue task force.

“Sawant isn’t a sponsor of the bill and is not guiding the [head tax] conversations,” Council Member Teresa Mosqueda said, via e-mail.

Sawant said that she declined to co-sponsor the bill because it asks for only half of the $150 million annually that the coalition Housing for All insists is necessary to adequately address the housing and homelessness crisis. But she also said she heard one of the co-sponsors threatened to withdraw support for the bill if she co-signed. None of the bill’s four co-sponsors answered queries about the bill’s sponsorship.

Former city council member Tim Burgess had an explanation for the tension among sitting council members. “There are two personas of Kshama Sawant. There is the private, one-on-one persona that you see which is kind, respectful, and considerate,” Burgess said. “And then there is the public Kshama Sawant and the public is definitely belligerent, loud, forceful, and denigrating to those who take a different position.”

Although Sawant served alongside Burgess in city council for four years, she was the lone dissenting vote in a council decision that made Burgess the mayor for 71 days last year, to fill a vacancy left by former Mayor Ed Murray’s resignation in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal.

Burgess, who considers himself a centrist, said that his professional relationship with Sawant was “essentially non-existent.”

“There was not the kind of give-and-take, back-and-forth that happens between all the other councilmembers,” he said.

Sawant dismissed such criticism: “That your primary role is to get consensus behind the scenes? No.”

None of the eight other sitting council members agreed to comment for this story.

Kirsten Harris-Talley, another former council member who recently chaired the city’s progressive revenue task force, feels differently. Harris-Talley served on city council for two months last year to fill Burgess’ vacant seat when he became interim mayor in place of Murray. Her short tenure on the city council included budget negotiations that involved working closely with Sawant.

“She is extraordinarily easy to talk to and very pleasant,” said Harris-Talley, who had the office next to Sawant’s. “She’s really clear, bold, and declarative. A budget process is challenging and there was back-and-forth all the time.”

Burgess fears Sawant’s confrontational style may backfire. “She has used the Socialist Alternative rhetoric of ‘tax the rich’ and go after Amazon,” he said. “Other council members don’t appreciate [that kind of rhetoric] and don’t agree that’s the right approach to build support for public policy, especially in the tax area where willful compliance of tax measures is so important.”

About Sawant’s rhetoric, Harris-Talley also disagrees. “She has a very direct, almost British style of commentary, which I think for American parliamentary process can feel a little overly acute. But I don’t think that’s actually the case,” she said. “There is a robust form of conversation that produces directness, emotion, and humanity in deliberation.”

Still, Burgess insists on more cordiality inside city council. “Where it crosses the line with me is when it becomes disruptive,” he said. “Kshama’s staff members — city employees — will be in city council chambers encouraging people to disrupt the council meetings. That’s totally wrong.”

Although her style may rankle fellow council members and alienate middle-of-the-road voters, Sawant also inspires admiration from supporters, emotion that was visible at the April rally and at other public events along the way to the May 11 vote.

“Kshama Sawant is the type of leader we need not just in Seattle, but in the nation,” said Stan Strasner, a Seattle substitute teacher, after attending one of last week’s city council hearings on the head tax. “On issue after issue, she’s on the right side.”

All Politics Is Local

Sawant’s focus on big issues may come at the expense of neighborhood politics. In 2015, Seattle switched to a district-based system. Sawant went from holding an at-large seat to being re-elected to represent District 3, which encompasses renter-heavy Capitol Hill, the historically black and rapidly gentrifying Central Area, and wealthy Montlake and Madison Valley, bastions of single-family homeowners.

Sawant herself owns a 114-year-old mortgaged house in the Leschi neighborhood with her current husband, Calvin Priest, a Socialist Alternative organizer. She reported a net worth of $270,000 in the most recent election financial disclosure forms.

Political analysts believe her district is safe, but her bold stands have captured the attention of international socialist movements. She traveled to Berlin and Dublin just in the several weeks Next City was in touch with her office for this story. Can she balance this higher international profile with attention to such granular constituent concerns as park maintenance and pothole repair?

Burgess, who in his time on the council was an at-large member, said he received regular complaints from District 3 constituents who felt they got little traction from Sawant’s office. “She travels a lot giving speeches and building support for her political party,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, [Sawant’s office] did not seem to think constituent services were that important.”

Next City reached out to several community organizations in Sawant’s district — some of whom are still bitter about a recent restructuring of city-to-neighborhood consultation — and received a mix of responses. Knox Gardner, a community leader who voted for her twice, complained that he never sees her around the neighborhood, that he’s gotten no traction on a dispute with the transportation department over a curb project, and that she does not respond to neighborhood festival invitations.

“She has not pivoted AT ALL to actually being a DISTRICT representative,” he wrote via Facebook Messenger. “For actual ‘pothole politics,’ she is beyond useless.”

In contrast, the Capitol Hill Community Council feels she can balance both her district-specific and citywide responsibilities. Officers there told me that her fight for citywide issues such as homelessness and housing affordability helps their neighborhood with its most pressing needs.

“It is true that she is concentrating on the big issues. But really, what could be more important than solving the homeless issue?” asked Diane Snell, a Sawant donor and voter who serves on the board of the Leschi Community Council, in Sawant’s own neighborhood.

Sawant cites her efforts to expand a utility discount program and secure compensation for small businesses affected by a road work project as examples of her attentiveness to constituent services. However, at least one of those small businesses publicly disputes that Sawant was a helpful partner.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we can always do better,” Sawant said. “We approach all political questions with humility, working endless hours, completely dedicated to this work.”

In a district where resentment against Amazon runs high, a successful head-tax vote may propel her to re-election in 2019. At the same time, her perceived indifference to neighborhood concerns may prove her undoing, especially in the face of the head-tax backlash that has caused Seattle civic discourse to reach a boiling point — a discourse in which Sawant has deliberately turned up the heat.

“All of us are finding it hard to live in this city and it’s becoming a playground for the wealthy,” she said. “The real boiling point that we should worry about is the question of who gets to occupy urban spaces. What has reached a boiling point is the absolute un-liveability and unaffordability of this city.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

 

The Missing Link in Seattle’s Streetcar System

A Seattle Streetcar stop along the First Hill line, with Yesler Terrace under redevelopment in the background. (Photo by Gregory Scruggs)

On a typically rainy Tuesday morning, a group of commuters huddled under a glass shelter along a median in a traffic-calmed street, waiting for the Seattle Streetcar’s First Hill line. Among them was a physician’s assistant, who expressed her disappointment at Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision late last month to pause further construction on a downtown streetcar extension.

“It’s really too bad because this is so much more efficient and cleaner,” says Susan, who asked that her last name not be used because she was not authorized by her employer, a local hospital, to speak to the media. “It’s always full, people love it, and I would hate to see it downsized in any way.”

The 2.5 mile-long First Hill line opened in 2016, connecting neighborhoods on the edge of downtown like Pioneer Square and Chinatown to Capitol Hill, the city’s densest residential neighborhood, via a major cluster of hospitals on First Hill. But, like a metaphor for a divided city, it does not connect with the 1.3 mile-long South Lake Union line, which opened in 2007 and serves the Amazon campus.

The two lines combined averaged between 4,000 and 5,000 riders per month in 2017, according to a Seattle Department of Transportation database.

A proposed extension, called the Center City Connector, would connect the two lines, and also serve key downtown destinations like the ferry terminal, Pike Place Market, and the Seattle Art Museum. The transportation department projected the extension would nearly quintuple streetcar ridership to 20,000-24,000 per month.

The project broke ground earlier this year, but ground to a halt on March 30. The mayor cited a cost discrepancy between the Seattle Department of Transportation and King County Metro, the transit agency that operates the streetcar. In an internal memo, the agency suggested that operating the expanded network would cost 50 percent more than what the department claimed publicly, because of higher staffing needs. The city indicated it will conduct an independent review of the streetcar project, which itself could add millions to the final cost.

The consequences of delaying the expansion worry transit activists like Seattle Subway, a grassroots group that was instrumental in the voter-approved passage of a landmark $54 billion regional transit package in 2016.

In a petition to the mayor, Seattle Subway notes that the federal government has already allocated $75 million to the Seattle Streetcar, money that can’t be redistributed to some other transit project, and that turning down the funds may jeopardize a host of other regional transportation infrastructure priorities currently on the table with the Federal Transit Administration. It’s happened before: when Seattle voters turned down federal dollars for a mass transit system in the 1960s and ’70s, the funds ultimately went to Atlanta, a decision many see as the original sin of greater Seattle’s woefully inadequate public transportation network.

“The Center City Connector will be easy-to-understand, street-level transit that will create a rapid connection between major tourist destinations and small, minority-owned businesses in the International District,” says Keith Kyle, executive director of Seattle Subway. “[The extension will also] create a permanent transit link between the city’s largest public housing complex, Yesler Terrace, and downtown Seattle, the largest job center in the Northwest.”

Yesler Terrace, the first racially integrated public housing complex in the U.S. when it opened in 1941, is currently undergoing a complete redevelopment, transforming from two-story tract housing to dense high-rises, with the First Hill line running right through the center.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has an explicit racial equity and social justice policy supposedly guiding its transportation decisions. A department spokesperson did not answer whether halting expansion of the streetcar ran afoul of those policies, but did say, “Existing streetcar lines connect to local and regional buses rail lines that provide access to, from, and through Seattle.”

Meanwhile, Amazon has subsidized the South Lake Union line to the tune of millions of dollars. The Urbanist, another advocacy group, called on the tech giant to plug the fiscal gap for the Center City Connector. An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the proposal, but did confirm Amazon’s purchase of an additional streetcar and a decade’s worth of operations payments.

The mayor’s streetcar decision was the first in a flurry of mobility moves over the last two weeks as Seattle prepares for a so-called “period of maximum constraint” from this year through 2021, after a waterfront viaduct is demolished and buses are kicked out of the downtown transit tunnel, but before the light rail system extends to a major hub in north Seattle. After putting the pause on the streetcar, the mayor floated congestion pricing as a viable option but then also pushed back a promised downtown protected bike lane by two years.

The dizzying pace of decisions has left some transit activists’ heads spinning, like Beau Morton of the Transit Riders Union, which advocated for the city’s low-income transit fare.

“While Transit Riders Union members are divided on the streetcar, personally I think this is a pretty concerning development and just one among several delays and cancellations of transit and bike projects that has me wondering what exactly is going on with Move Seattle [a voter-approved transportation levy] and [the Seattle Department of Transportation],” Morton says.

 

Rio City Councilor Marielle Franco Was Also a Transit Activist

The late Marielle Franco, second from left. (Credit: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy)

A little over two weeks have passed since Rio de Janeiro city councilor and former Rio Human Rights Commission member Marielle Franco was shot and killed along with her driver in what authorities believe was a targeted assassination. Since then, protests and memorials have engulfed Brazil in honor of 38-year-old political rarity: an openly queer, black single mother, born and raised in a favela.

The hashtag #MariellePresente has gone viral and black cultural luminaries like singer Janelle Monae, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, model Naomi Campbell, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Black Lives Matter movement co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi have signed an open letter calling for a full and independent investigation into her death.

The global outcry over Franco’s death has rightly focused on her criticism of the police on human rights grounds. She had been serving on a city council committee looking into the recent federally-ordered military takeover of the Rio de Janeiro state police department and had called out a specific police battalion on her Facebook page for three murders in the Acarí favela three days before unknown gunmen tailed her vehicle as she left an event on women’s empowerment. Brazilian media has reported that the ammunition found at the scene was sold to the federal police in 2006, furthering suspicions that the police were behind her killing.

But Franco also doggedly pursued another topic in her all-too-brief term in office: public transit.

Franco was originally from the Maré, a favela community wedged between two highways, not far from Rio’s international airport. When she earned a scholarship to study sociology at the prestigious Catholic Pontifical University in Rio’s affluent south zone, that meant an hours-long commute on multiple buses to and from her classes.

“She told me once how she discovered an entire other city when she began her studies,” says an advisor, who preferred not to be named because Franco’s assassins are still at large, via WhatsApp. “She didn’t even know how to get [here] at first!”

The advisor says Franco recounted how sometimes she and other passengers would have to disembark and push the buses when they stalled.

“Lots of experts talk about mobility from a technical and efficiency perspective,” the advisor says. “She spoke from daily lived experience about how this technical debate exists separate from women’s demands and from a democratic perspective on urban mobility that takes into consideration the favela as part of the city.”

During her 14 months in office, she helped draft legislation banning public bus companies from relying on the driver to also collect the fare. (Brazilian buses commonly have a second employee on board responsible for fare collection.) She also authored legislation that legalizes the mototaxi profession, one of the key forms of transit serving hillside favelas’ narrow, winding streets.

Her biggest effort, however, was around women’s safety on public transport. Her campaign, Assédio Não É Passageiro (Harassment Isn’t a Passenger), called for the city to fund public education efforts, provide hotline numbers for reporting sexual harassment, mandatory training on unwanted sexual attention for transit operators, and fines for bus companies that don’t follow the law.

“Harassment and public safety are the principal problems that women face with regards to getting around the city,” says Clarisse Linke, director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s Brazil office, whose studies on the issue backed up Franco’s public campaigning.

Linke was instrumental in making Franco a keynote speaker at the institute’s international conference last year, in Santiago, Chile, where I interviewed her after we took a bike tour of the city with local cycling activists.

“We were putting together a program with a focus on social inclusion, so I thought it was important to have people from Latin America that were black and legitimate representatives of the people,” Linke says.

Linke calls her “an illuminated person” full of “integrity.”

“Marielle’s legacy will be the visibility she gave to these topics. We can’t ignore them,” Linke says. “The people who make policy in Brazil historically are privileged people like me, you, all of us. She showed us it was essential to give a voice to those are not privileged. She was a guiding star for all of us who were close to her.”

 

Municipal Financing Is Adapting to a World of Bigger Cities

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

As the dust settles from the first World Urban Forum since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, a trillion-dollar question looms large: How will the world pay for the UN’s ambitious vision of sustainable cities?

While no economist has ever put a price tag on the 20-year quest to implement the New Urban Agenda, a 2015 report called “The State of City Climate Finance” estimated a $4.5-5.4 trillion need in urban financing at the global level. With very few financial pledges made in Quito during Habitat III, it’s clear that countries will not be opening their foreign aid wallets to fully foot the bill.

That’s a major bone of contention for city leaders, like Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas, who feels a special responsibility to deliver on the New Urban Agenda as the leader of the summit’s host city. “The New Urban Agenda bestowed local governments with greater responsibilities they didn’t have in the past, but [national governments] didn’t bestow them with the necessary funding resources,” he told Next City at World Urban Forum 9.

So Rodas is taking matters into his own hands. Last December he announced a goal of zero emissions from public transit serving Quito’s old city, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which he hopes will be a pilot project for climate retrofitting historic districts around the world. To get there, he has been in talks with development banks and aid agencies about developing a fast-track line of financing for such projects.

“The idea of having a direct relationship with international development banks for financing could be a way to overcome a potential obstacle to reach financing if you have to go through the national government for a guarantee,” he said.

That’s the kind of creative thinking that gives hope to Sameh Wahba, who runs the World Bank’s urban program. Their financing strategy has also evolved post-Habitat III.

“Our [new] thinking comes from the realization of the limitation of our resources relative to the magnitude of the challenge,” he said. “The fact [is] that the cities needs are getting larger. Our money is no longer anything but a catalyst to larger financial flows.”

To that end, he cited the Bank’s efforts in Dhaka East to turn a flood-prone quadrant of the Bangladeshi capital into a planned urban expansion. But a bank loan alone won’t pay for the expensive new embankments and other hard infrastructure. Instead, land value capture will finance the project—the newly developable land will be worth a lot of money that municipal authorities can tax.

“By reducing the [flooding] risk you can further densify this area and create a larger development potential,” Wahba said.

Dhaka East, where a World Bank loan is just a start to get the fiscal ball rolling, is an example of the World Bank’s approach in its new City Resilience Program, which was announced in December at the One Planet Summit in Paris. Twenty-six cities, from Accra to Panama City, are poised to receive these catalytic World Bank loans.

Once the pump is primed, Wahba is confident that the private sector will invest to turn sustainable urban infrastructure plans into reality. Even though business and banking leaders were more likely spotted in Davos at the World Economic Forum than in Kuala Lumpur at the World Urban Forum, Wahba sees plenty of interest from pension and sovereign wealth funds in making a profit off of new, serviced urban land where there was once something rural.

For urbanization, he said, “There is a major demand from the private sector.”

 

Municipal Financing Is Adapting to a World of Bigger Cities

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

As the dust settles from the first World Urban Forum since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, a trillion-dollar question looms large: How will the world pay for the UN’s ambitious vision of sustainable cities?

While no economist has ever put a price tag on the 20-year quest to implement the New Urban Agenda, a 2015 report called “The State of City Climate Finance” estimated a $4.5-5.4 trillion need in urban financing at the global level. With very few financial pledges made in Quito during Habitat III, it’s clear that countries will not be opening their foreign aid wallets to fully foot the bill.

That’s a major bone of contention for city leaders, like Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas, who feels a special responsibility to deliver on the New Urban Agenda as the leader of the summit’s host city. “The New Urban Agenda bestowed local governments with greater responsibilities they didn’t have in the past, but [national governments] didn’t bestow them with the necessary funding resources,” he told Next City at World Urban Forum 9.

So Rodas is taking matters into his own hands. Last December he announced a goal of zero emissions from public transit serving Quito’s old city, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which he hopes will be a pilot project for climate retrofitting historic districts around the world. To get there, he has been in talks with development banks and aid agencies about developing a fast-track line of financing for such projects.

“The idea of having a direct relationship with international development banks for financing could be a way to overcome a potential obstacle to reach financing if you have to go through the national government for a guarantee,” he said.

That’s the kind of creative thinking that gives hope to Sameh Wahba, who runs the World Bank’s urban program. Their financing strategy has also evolved post-Habitat III.

“Our [new] thinking comes from the realization of the limitation of our resources relative to the magnitude of the challenge,” he said. “The fact [is] that the cities needs are getting larger. Our money is no longer anything but a catalyst to larger financial flows.”

To that end, he cited the Bank’s efforts in Dhaka East to turn a flood-prone quadrant of the Bangladeshi capital into a planned urban expansion. But a bank loan alone won’t pay for the expensive new embankments and other hard infrastructure. Instead, land value capture will finance the project—the newly developable land will be worth a lot of money that municipal authorities can tax.

“By reducing the [flooding] risk you can further densify this area and create a larger development potential,” Wahba said.

Dhaka East, where a World Bank loan is just a start to get the fiscal ball rolling, is an example of the World Bank’s approach in its new City Resilience Program, which was announced in December at the One Planet Summit in Paris. Twenty-six cities, from Accra to Panama City, are poised to receive these catalytic World Bank loans.

Once the pump is primed, Wahba is confident that the private sector will invest to turn sustainable urban infrastructure plans into reality. Even though business and banking leaders were more likely spotted in Davos at the World Economic Forum than in Kuala Lumpur at the World Urban Forum, Wahba sees plenty of interest from pension and sovereign wealth funds in making a profit off of new, serviced urban land where there was once something rural.

For urbanization, he said, “There is a major demand from the private sector.”

 



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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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