Friday, August 5, 2011

Richmond's Redistricting History

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As city redistricting meetings come to a close, city legislators prepare to present a redistricting plan to the Justice Department. The approved plan will take effect on January 1, 2012. The required approval from the Justice Department is a protective measure put in place by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But Richmond’s nine voting districts have their own controversial history, forcing redistricting plans to revisit a dark period in the River City’s Past

In1977, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of Richmond had violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally annexing 23 sq. miles of Chesterfield County to dilute the voting power of Richmond’s growing Black population.

On June 19th of this year, the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Redistricting held a meeting in City Hall to come to a resolution on city redistricting suggestions. Early in the meeting, David Hicks, Senior Policy Advisor to the mayor emphasized the importance of poverty distribution and racial balance. During the meeting the committee discussed plans that aimed to disperse poverty throughout more districts and address the continued disenfranchisement of people of color.

Hicks explained, “One of the fundamental questions is what is it that we can do a critical structure to engage the people and the process that can at least address the entrenched poverty. And another issue is whether or not, you know the continued existence of, you know a political system that’s based solely on a black-white distinction still has any place. And that’s not to say there’s still not a need for Voting Rights Act or there’s still not a need to protect the constitutional rights especially of historically disenfranchised people, but it is to say that there are many more considerations that people look at especially now today then they maybe looked at in the 60s when it comes to black-white race issues.”

Hicks was speaking to the 1977 Supreme Court ruling which called for the creation of four black districts, four white districts and one swing district to replace the city’s existing at-large elections. Although the council has yet to approve any redistricting plans, the committee’s discussions are vital in helping Richmond understand its history of politics based solely on racial lines and whether dispersing African American residents will in fact encourage equal representation in the future.

Professor emeritus of urban studies and planning, Dr. John Moeser describes the long history of white dominated politics in Richmond. The story of annexation began in 1948 when at-large elections were adopted. Affluent white Richmonders maintained an overwhelming influence on city and state politics.

Moeser said, “Race loomed large and the white power structure looked uneasily, particularly after 1950, at the growth of the black population. They were so concerned they began to think about how to maintain a white majority here in the capital city of Richmond Virginia.”

In the 1960s demographers predicted that the Black population of Richmond would reach 52% by 1970. In order to prevent an end to white dominated politics the top leaders of the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County met to discuss annexation in a series of secret meetings. Chesterfield County was predominately white, and its annexation would mean a solution to the increasing influence of African Americans in Richmond. Eventually a judge approved the annexation and Richmond gained 23 sq. miles of Chesterfield County.

Moeser said, “That annexation proved to be very effective. The black population which on December 31st was 52%, suddenly plummeted to 42%”

Black Richmonders would not accept this affront to their political power. In 1971 Curtis Holt, a Civil Rights activist, maintenance man and president of the Creighton Court Civic association sued to block the annexation on the grounds that it diluted black voting strength.

Moeser said, “He didn’t have a lot of education, but he knew instinctively that what happened was wrong. So a suit was filed in federal court challenging the annexation.”

The lawsuit gained notoriety and Holt found himself deeply involved in a complicated series of court cases. Holt argued for de-annexation based on the 14th amendment.However, when the case reached the Supreme Court in 1977 the justices’ ultimate ruling was based on 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Moeser explained, “What happened was the city had not gotten approval from the federal government when it annexed Chesterfield County, and so that was the point of law that really carried the day.”

Although the Supreme Court found the annexation constitutionally impermissible, they did not call for deannexation as Curtis Holt had hoped.

Moeser said, “The city was able to argue to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court that the annexation was important for economic reasons so the court said ok, in order to keep the annexation, your going to have to get rid of these at large elections and you are going to have to adopt a 9 ward system of representation.”

In 1977 the city held a special election to test district representation. Although the annexation remained, the city created, under extreme scrutiny, a nine district system that would equally represent both black and white interests. After elections, for the first time in Richmond’s history, a majority of city council seats were held by black politicians. Additionally, the council appointed the city’s first African American mayor, Henry Marsh III.

Dr. Edward Peeples is an emeritus professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an accomplished Civil Rights activist.

Peeples remembered, “But we did see a creeping power of black electorate and saw more and more people emerge as leaders in the Black community, and that was encouraging to us. Well, we had more black candidates and more blacks on council and in that period when there was a lot of hostility between Main Street and the black community.”

Born in 1935 and raised in South Richmond, Peeples remembers growing up surrounded by white supremacy and strict segregation. As Peeples experienced it, racism practiced by working class whites like himself was a result of careful manipulation by more powerful whites who most benefited from racial dominance. Racial tensions remained high after the first district elections, even with a Black Mayor.

Peeples explained, “A bitterness arose. It was always five to four or four to five on any issue that had race. Now people will say well good grief they agree on 80% on the stuff. But that was little things like zoning that didn’t have a racial component to it. Yea, there was a lot of agreement. But these were non consequential when it came to human rights. But when it came to human rights there was this bitterness that came between them.”

The African American population in Richmond today still remains underrepresented due to decreased voter participation in Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods. Additionally, the city council today holds a 6 to 3 white majority.

-Annie Brown

(Image One Courtesy of Richmond City Government, Image Two Courtesy of )

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The City of Richmond Offers Citizens Relief from Excessive Heat with Cooling Stations

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This summer the City of Richmond has activated cooling shelters when the temperature or heat index reached or exceeded 95 degrees. There are three locations, each open to the public, that serve as cooling stations: the Department of Social Services located at 900 East Marshall Street, 701 North 25th Street at the East District Center, and the Southside Community Services Center at 4100 Hull Street Road.

WRIR LP 97.3 FM Local News Team visited both the Marshall Street and Hull Street Road locations to observe and interview Richmonders at the cooling shelters.

One citizen commented she didn’t know the site had been allocated as such until her arrival.

“I actually had a meeting at three o’clock, and the sign said cooling station, so I picked up some water, and that was it,” she said.

She said with the weather being so hot she attempted to beat the heat by drinking lots of water and staying in shaded areas when faced with spending time outdoors.

Another Individual said he knew the location had been designated as a place for people to go on hot days, and he watched many come inside for water.

“Well very frequently, I would say every five, ten, minutes,” he said. “Even as I travel to and from the building, I observe people benefiting from it, and people appreciate it.”

Jean Karppinen with the Family Preservation Team C at the Southside Community Center said she was aware the building served as a cooling shelter for both customers and citizens during regular business hours when the temperature reached a certain point.

“What I like to do is I like to take a little squirt bottle, just with water, and spray myself down,” she said. “That keeps me cool.”

Josephine Myers Deputy Director for the Department of Social Services for the City of Richmond said cooling sites offer the general public cool water and air conditioning relief during the hottest part of the day.

“We activate if there is an excessive heat advisory or a warning that’s been issued by the National Weather Service,” she said. “If the heat index is expected to exceed 95 degrees, or the temperature expected to exceed 95 degrees we would generally activate a cooling shelter.”

She said the city-wide cooling shelters have been providing these services for many years.

“It was put together by our staff here at the Department of Social Services, we started this in 2006 and it was the idea of our then Director of Social Services,” she said. “I function as the shelter manager for the department when we have a need to open disaster shelters, so this task was given to me, to come up with a process of the protocol.”

Myers said a branch of the Fire Department operates as the Department of Emergency Management.

“We generally have citizens classes, we have a team of volunteers that come in and we give them a disaster kit and we talk about cold weather, hot weather, that kind of thing, and of course when we activate our shelters we do a press release, and we give some tips in terms of what folks need to bring if they come, what’s provided,” she said. “We do a lot of marketing once we are activating.”

She said the Department of Social Services is currently working on collaborating with non-profit organizations in the community in hopes of increasing the amount of cooling stations as well as expanding the services offered.

“On weekends when we activate shelters, we’re only activated from twelve noon to five, so we’re trying to partner with some community organizations so that we can take advantage of their facilities so that we can extend the hours, maybe starting at nine, or eight o’clock in the morning, and maybe expanding all the way up until eight or nine at night,” she said. “Generally when the temperature exceeds 95, and we’ve been recently getting temperatures as high as 100, 107, it extends into the evening hours.”

The City of Richmond has issued several press releases urging citizens to stay hydrated and avoid prolonged exposure to the heat during daylight hours and reminded in the event of a heat related emergency, please call 9-1-1.

-Sarah A. Freiseis

Friday, July 15, 2011

Richmond Fosters Appreciation For Works By Russian Jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé

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On July 7th WRIR Local News attended the media preview of Fabergé Revealed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition features over 500 objects, making it the largest collection of Fabergé in the United States, and as an exclusive to the VMFA will not travel.

Internationally renowned Fabergé scholar Dr. Geza von Habsburg joined the VMFA as Faberegé guest curator and authored Fabergé Revealed the book. He said his Fabergé story is one that goes back over forty years.

“I have known the collection for many, many years and the director had decided that it needed, really, a modern publication," he said. "I was available and I just offered to do the catalogue - that was two and a half years ago.”

Dr. Geza von Habsburg said he is delighted to have been involved in the project and gladly shares his excitement for the collection.

“An absolutely unique opportunity to come and view some of the finest pieces by Fabergé in the whole world, and Fabergé is such a pleaser to the public, that it’s going to be very well attended.”

VMFA Director, Alex Nyerges said putting together a showing of this magnitude goes back many years. He said as they defined the exhibition and determined who and what the team would include, getting Dr.Geza von Habsburg to be a part of that team became critical as he considers the doctor to be the most foremost expert in the field.

“It was essential because there were several things, one is creating the exhibition, two is creating a permanent collection installation which will actually happen in 2014, but then the other is the creation of this seminal volume of scholarship, that seven pounds of book, on the Pratt collection and all of our Fabergé work, so that's a much longer undertaking,” he said. “Geza’s intense scholarly work has been the last couple of years, but then going along with that we have the design of the publication, the photography that happens, the design of the exhibition, all of the loan materials which require extensive paperwork and contact, there’s shipping and insurance - a myriad of details that are handled by all of our staff here. We have people who are registrars, experts in handling loans, we he have designers, photographers, and they’re all the best.”

Nyerges said the museum's public relations and marketing departments create media materials for events like this one, and futhermore the special events department gets involved, housekeeping, food and beverage - all are considered in the big picture.

“Last night we had a sponsors event for all of our major patrons, and so brought them in here and we had 850 people from not just around Richmond, and Virginia, but literally from around the world," he said. "And then the other component today is the scholars day, where from now till eight o’clock tonight we have got sixty or eighty scholars from across the globe from Russia, from Finland, from the UK, from across America and Canada, it's the largest brain trust about Fabergé ever.”

He said the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts hosted an exhibition of Fabergé in 1996 called Fabergé America and it drew in about 120,000 visitors. He said they anticipate Fabergé Revealed to do very well, especially considering Fabergé is the number one attraction in the permanent collection at the museum, and has been for seventy years.

“Be prepared to be dazzled, even if you don’t like jewelry and you don’t have any interest in the Romanovs and the Tsars, these are the most dazzling, intricate, amazing objects that have ever been created,” he said. “Fabergé and his workshop - the best jeweler in the world, in history, period.”

A large majority of the Fabergé collection at the VMFA was donated by Lillian Thomas Pratt in 1947. Additionally the Fabergé Revealed exhibition showcases over 100 pieces belonging to Fabergé enthusiast and collector, Dr. Daniel Hodges.

"Being from Virginia, born and raised in Roanoke, it's kind of neat," he said. "Lillian Pratt with her Fabergé collection, and a 21st century collector of Fabergé, looking at what could be purchased fifty to seventy years ago as opposed to what you can obtain now, it's different.”

Hodges, who divides his time between Virginia and Louisiana said he was inspired to lend his collection to the museum in New Orleans post Katrina. He said although he had only ever intended it to be private, the Hodges Family Collection of New Orleans has been a good thing.

"I’ve always been a chronic collector - American paintings and furniture and what not, and I happened upon some pieces by Fabergé, and I realized the amount of work that went into making them, I mean thousands of hours to make one piece, and just the detail it was phenomenal," he said. "So I bought my first piece and then bought another piece, and then I started collecting and then researching and running all over the world - running these pieces down, it’s kind of a treasure hunt, and it’s been phenomenal, thus far I've got like 150 pieces, they were just things that I used in my home and enjoyed."

Fabergé Revealed opened to the public this past Saturday, July 9th, and will run through the second of October.

-Sarah A. Freiseis

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Local Band Black Girls Mix Smooth Music with Controversial Name

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Black Girls was one of 94 bands performing at this year's Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference, better known as MACRoCk. The event, in its 14th year, was held this past April 1st and 2nd in Harrisonburg, Virginia and hopes to promote and support college radio, independent artists and labels, as well as their fans. Last year's event hosted big names like Animal Collective, but this year the spotlight returned to up-and-coming Virginia bands like Black Girls.

After their performance at MACRoCk, Black Girls band members, Mike Bryant – piano and lead guitar, Fletcher – rhythm guitar and background vocals, Stephen Ferris IV – drums and background vocals, sat down with Richmond Independent Radio News to discuss their unique sound and upcoming plans. Right now, Black Girls have a CD collection of songs available for listeners and the band is in the process of recording their first EP. Although Black Girls formed two years ago, many of the band have played together since their college days.

“We put together a band of like, it was called River City Choir and it was just like whiskey drinking americana music, and it wasn’t really anything.”

It wasn’t much. We played some backyard parties and stuff.”

We just enjoyed each other’s company so much, we were like you know what let’s plug in the instruments and start a real band.”

We kept going got some electric guitars and blah blah blah.”

Since those early days, Black Girls have traveled light-years musically from “whiskey drinking americana” to “snuff rock” a mix of surf, psychedelic, glam and soul. Snuff rock isn't just a sound or a tongue-in-cheek reference to substance abuse, it's a movement according to the Black Girl's record label, Worthless Junk Records. The band says its funk-infused snuff rock is influenced by T.Rex, The Dream, Sly and the Family Stone, R.Kelly as well as Steely Dan.

Steely Dan is probably the hugest of them all, and that's not a joke.”

With a musical style all their own and a controversial name, Black Girls are getting noticed by Richmond concert-goers as well as the local press. However, the media reviews are a mixed bag. While Style Weekly named Black Girls the “The Best Band of 2011,” RVA magazine editor Andrew Necci was not so kind.

Put it on the record that RVA magazine is not supporters of Black Girls ('the editor of RVA magazine') yea, he called us hipster, racist douche bags blah blah blah the whole nine yards. Never seen the show, never heard the music. No, but we enjoy it. I think any press is good press.”

The name “Black Girls” was not chosen to stir up trouble, it is meant to coincide with the band's unique sound. While all six members of the band are white, male, self-proclaimed hipsters, their music is melodic, soulful and distinctly southern.

We think it’s a funny thing that people come up and one of the first things they say to us after they see our music they say to us, ‘That’s not what we expected’ and that’s kind of what we go for. The music’s like a little smoother. It’s not…I dunno. It’s a different kind of thing and you would think a bunch of hipster douche-bag looking guys like us ('racist hipster douche-bags, laughs') to make music like that, and so we think the name fits.”

When Style Weekly voted Black Girls “The Best Band of 2011”, the band told Style that it owes its accelerated ascension on the local music scene to “hard work and the support from fans.”

We play Richmond a lot. We have a good fan-base there. People are really supportive of us in Richmond”.

While the band has a number of Richmond shows scheduled for the near future, Black Girls plans to refocus its energy towards song-writing and national recognition.

We’re going to do a Southern kind of thing this summer (in Georgia right?) Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, whatever. (And then West Virginia) Oh yea, we’re playing Camp Barefoot in West Virginia it’s a festival (a hippy festival) a hippy jam band festival which should be awesome…I guess.”

Keep an eye out for this up-and-coming Richmond band with a smooth snuff rock sound. Although their name offends some their fan-base continues to grow. So let's settle this once and for all, are the Black Girls a bunch of racist hipsters?

Yea, obviously. Wait but, no should be in there for the edit. But, for the edit 'no.' A few seconds of silence…No.”

-Annie Brown

Friday, May 20, 2011

The City of Richmond Recognizes a Pothole Problem, Asks Citizens to Help Them Fix It

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The local news team at WRIR LP 97.3 FM has been following reports on the road conditions in Richmond specifically in regards to potholes in the area. This issue was brought to the forefront of concern following heavy snow in early 2010. Since that time there have been marked improvements but the issue remains a concern and our investigating team set out to determine what it really takes to fill a pothole.

We wanted to test a theory - is reporting a problem half the battle? Meaning if our local government doesn't know about a specific pothole, how is to be fixed; and secondly what are the results of asking citizens to report and monitor issues.

We reported potholes throughout the Richmond area using The potholes varied in size, location, proximity to one another, and assorted traffic patterns. With each entry we received an email confirming our submission.

We were also informed of certain "acknowledged" potholes via email within a few days of submission.

We hit the streets to revisit an "acknowledged" pothole and found a traffic cone positioned next to the pothole which measured approximately 8 inches in depth. A few days, and a rainstorm later, we returned to find the pothole had yet to be filled, however the cone had been placed inside of the pothole that was completely filled with water, disguising its magnitude.

We wanted to learn more about what happens between submission and the point at which the pothole is fixed and the issue is marked as "closed."

Ben Berkowitz, CEO and co-founder of, explained using the system for reporting potholes and said the site is a platform for citizens to report anything in a public space that is broken or damaged and needs to be fixed.

He said, "I would open the SeeClickFix app, which is a free app that can be installed on your phone, I would take a photo of the problem, and I would get my GPS location, or I would map the location using the application, then I would give a quick summary and a description, so it might be 'pothole and it's four feet wide and in the right lane' in the description field, and then I hit submit."

He said items posted on the website are sent by email to local governments and other agencies within a given community that are involved with fixing problems. He said each issue reported is submitted as open, and once the individual or party responsible for that area is notified they are able to participate in an open forum conversation where community members can also give a problem more clout by voting up an issue.

In terms of priority I think that governments typically respond, no matter how many votes there are,” he said. “Votes definitely help to avoid duplicate issues in the government, and they help neighbors connect with each other around problems."

He said he was inspired to create the site after having troubles with graffiti in his own neighborhood (not in Virginia), after calling city hall and leaving many messages he felt like those types of concerns should be publicly documented.

"Your government may fix a pothole, or your neighbor may clean up graffiti on a building, or help improve a park," he said. "So there is an ecosystem of people who are helping and augmenting government improve the public space not just by reporting but also by solving problems.”

He said media partners play an important role in fixing issues by spreading the word about and by embedding a widget on local news sites which helps encourage citizens to use the tool.

"There's always been this somewhat adverse relationship between local media and local government when it comes to pointing out problems,” he said. “But this is a way for local media to hold government accountable while government is holding themselves accountable in a constructive way where government can actually act on the individual concerns.”

Berkowitz said Richmond is unique because the city's 311 call takers input issues they take over the phone into SeeClickFix and manage the complaints though their tracking system.

"The Mayor had an open government and mobile initiative that he thought SeeClickFix would be a really good fit for, so they reached out to us," he said. "Richmond is using one of our pro tools called SeeClickFix plus and what that means is when you open the iPhone or Android application in Richmond the city's logo shows up on the application, and the different service request types that they want reported will be reported to them."

Sharon North, Public Information Manager for the City of Richmond's Department of Public Works, said Mayor Jones enacted a program called MPACT Mayors Participation Action Communication Team.

“You can enter just about anything you want on a SeeClickFix, we see a lot of is a straddle between three departments, public utilities, public works, and police," she said. "From the public works standpoint we see a lot with potholes, with people wanting bulk and brush pick-ups, or if trees need to be trimmed back with urban forestry.”

She said many of the areas listed for reporting are related to public works issues, and when public works crews see a pothole they report it just like a citizen would.

"The Department of Public Works is one of the city’s largest departments," she said. "Everything from the civil infrastructure, civil engineering, all the way down to solid waste collection, there’s urban forestry, roadway maintenance, street cleaning, vacuum leaf collection, pothole repair which is a part of roadway, major capital improvements like major paving projects, transportation engineering which is street lights, traffic lights, pavement markings, grounds maintenance, the lawns on city properties and city parks."

North said ideally the department would be able to fill every pothole the moment it’s reported, but at this particular point on average it's anywhere from ten to nineteen days.

“With potholes particularly they are prioritized based upon safety, safety is a primary concern for just about everything that we do in the Department of Public Works," she said. "Next we look at location and size of the pothole.”

The WRIR News Team discovered most of the potholes reported were fixed just outside of the average range. We also noted that the larger and more dangerous potholes were given priority. They were flagged as problematic, marked with traffic cones, and filled at a faster rate than the less damaging potholes reported. SeeClickFix is a user-friendly tool that allowed us to take part in the process and prompted us to dig a little deeper in understanding the procedure involved in turning a pesky pothole into a thing of the past.

-Sarah A. Freiseis

Friday, April 29, 2011

It's Not First Friday but Richmond Artists Have Some Work to Show You Tonight

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Art Walk has become a mainstay in Richmond and over 40 venues in Historic Jackson Ward and Monroe Ward draw crowds every first Friday of the month. But the growing artists district isn't the only avenue for Richmonders to see what local artists have been creating.

Tonight at 216 E. Main St. Reference Gallery will host "Thick Blood" featuring Richmond-based artists James Callahan, Taylor Baldwin and musical act Gull.

The show's curator Tim Bearse said the show is all about: "Death, dismemberment, ecological anxiety, bad behavior and sort of cult interior behaviors."

James Callahan makes comics under the name Barf. Taylor Baldwin is a sculpture artist who studied at VCU. And Gull is a one man band Bearse describes as "pretty much indescribable." Bearse said he wanted to bring these artists together because:

"I felt like there were great overlaps between people like working in a comic idiom and sculpture and this pretty much completely amazing one man metal act. With overlapping themes. Themes that seemed so related. In terms of where they start. Where their source is."

And Bearse said though the subject matter all three artists are dealing with is similar, this show provides a coming together of distinct audiences.

"All of these artists are together because I feel like they have very different followings of people who look at their work but maybe the themes and the sensibilities. I thought it would be great to do a show where like multiple kind of different art viewers could come together and see something that had a similiar theme or overlap. Also all of these artists are Richmond artists, working in town. So that was really important too."

The opening of the show begins tonight at 7:30pm and runs until 11pm with Gull performing at 9 o'clock. And if you miss it tonight, "Thick Blood" will be up until May 10th.

Further up Main St., at 101 S. Addison, the newly created gallery Day Tripper will showcase "Cuts" featuring a dozen artists, many from or based in Richmond.

The impetus of the show is Marshall Higgins who said he was bored a couple of months ago and decided to compile a book of his friends' art to have published by the website Blurb.

"And it snowballed from there and I got the book to be over 52 pages and then a friend said why don't you do a show to support it. Just kept on doing it and it rolled from there."

Higgins only stipulation for submitted work was it had to be created by cutting paper or another flat medium. He said that was because

"It was the easiest way I could see to sort of democratize it. Like I've got a lot of friends who are really, really good at drawing or painting or stuff like that but I have other people who have stuff to show me who are afraid to draw, you know? So that way it would be a little less austere and a little bit silly in a way."

And he said what came out of the assignment ran the gamut.

"Some of them my friend described yesterday as kindergarten chic where it's just silly but it's really well done, silly kind of playful. Some of them look like borderline photo realistic."

The opening is tonight from 7pm until 11pm and the book titled "Cuts" will be available for purchase. All the profit from sales of the book, one dollar each, will be donated to Art 180.

-Caroline Jackson