Mo Karnage: building community through activism in Battery Park
My time in Barton Heights The first time I lived in Southern Barton Heights was in 2005, I was on Rose Avenue and 18 years old. I was subletting a room in a house with far too few breakers in the breaker box and a grey water system my roommates forgot to tell me about. It was hot and you couldn’t have on a fan for very long without flipping a breaker. I used to walk the few blocks up to the yellow store for juice. That was only for about 2 months before I returned for my sophomore year at a college in Massachusetts.
When I graduated in 2008 I moved into the Battery Park area in June, on Montrose Avenue. I was there for a year. I briefly moved to Churchill in June of 2009, but by August I had purchased a house on Barton Avenue back in Southern Barton Heights. I’ve been living at 2005 Barton Avenue for over four years now. Since living in this area in 2005 I have been involved in a variety of projects. We used to do free food distribution at our house on Montrose. I also did a politically motivated squatting of a home owned by slumlord Oliver Lawrence
I’ve participated in or organized trash cleanups, food distribution, cop watching, events for kids, bike repair, parades, musical performances, really, really free markets, mobile food pantries, craft nights, movie screenings, puppet shows, neighborhood association meetings, and more in this neighborhood. A lot of these activities are advertised and documented at www.wingnutrva.org – the Wingnut Anarchist Collective is the group behind a lot of this stuff. We’ve also done Food Not Bombs for 4 years out of the house, serving every Sunday in Monroe Park. I’ve made friends and I’ve made not-friends. I’ve pissed people off by accident and on purpose. I’ve done seemingly trivial things that meant a lot to others. I love this neighborhood and the people in it.
I’m from Hanover County and used to the sort of rural neighborliness there, and I see that southern friendliness in this neighborhood. There are strong Christian and Muslim communities here. I also see a lot of police harassment, racial profiling, poverty, hunger, boredom, struggling, health issues, transportation issues, addiction and mental health issues, and environmental concerns in this community. A lot of this isn’t specific to Barton Heights, it’s more about how capitalism functions.
We don’t have many jobs here, we don’t have many public spaces aside from the sidewalks. We need community centers and jobs and coffee shops and restaurants and stores. But within the context of capitalism and the racism of the real estate market, neighborhood improvements have a very strong potential to bring on gentrification. Gentrification is when low income folks are forced out of an area by rising prices. As things become nicer, real estate assessments go up, property taxes and rents then also go up, and it becomes difficult for folks to remain where they are. Which is a major problem and a detriment to community. Additionally, racist practices such as redlining, affect the ability of people of color to have fair access to money and homes.
This neighborhood is interesting geographically, as we are essentially situated on a peninsula. We have the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike valley on the East side, with the new Dove Court Public Housing Development bridging the gap between us and Highland Park. We have the valley and train tracks to the south, hosting industrial businesses and the Richmond City Jail, Juvenile Lockup, Courthouse, Conrad Center, and industrial waste. We are across a Southern bridge from Gilpin Court, another project of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, who’s own police force is headquartered right there. We have the old dump turned golf course to the West – which has had environmental consequences for not only the children forced to attend A.V. Norrell Elementary, but also for everyone who lives around Battery Park and experiences flooding, which is due to the poor engineering decision (aka environmentally racist) to dam up the end of that park with the landfill.
Barton Heights has issues. I know that to address these issues we need more autonomy and more community. More police might, at best, split up more families and drive the “criminal class” out, but only to another neighborhood. We need to be radical, we need to address the root causes of the issues. And the root causes aren’t the people here, but what’s affecting the people here. I think anyone moving to this neighborhood needs to understand that. We are a community of people. And the things that you like about the area won’t stick around if you alter the make-up of the area too much. If you bring us businesses, hire local residents. If you bring us businesses, apprentice our local youth. If you have problems with your neighbors, use mediation and conflict resolution techniques instead of calling the cops or code enforcement for every little thing. Talk to people, wave to people. If you see kids getting into trouble, work with them and their caretakers to create positive activities for them to engage in. If you want to hire someone to mow your lawn, hire a neighbor. We should be listening to each other and sharing stories and learning from the amazing people who make up this neighborhood.