Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Local Activists Sleep in Park in Protest

A group of activists have set up camp in the southwest corner of Monroe Park, complete with sleeping bags, tents, and even a couch, to protest the proposed Park renovations.

The renovation plans, announced by City Councilman Charles Samuels in September, include new lighting and drainage for the park, turning the central Checker’s house into a cafe, installing a play ground, along with other projects totaling about $7.8 million. Proponents of renovation say the park is run down and dangerous; that it's been taken over by the homeless and is in dire need of repair.

A similar “sleep-in” protest was held in the late ‘90s to support the homeless in the park. People slept there for 3 days as a sign of solidarity. Proposed renovation fell by the way side then, though a lack of money, not public out-cry, was blamed for the failure to improve the park.

Herbert Joyner, who has been camping in the park for the last two days, argue the park just needs some minor repairs, and that these renovations are an attempt to gentrify the park by the VCU and the city, to drive out the homeless.

“VCU does not own Richmond, Virginia. They bought up all the property that’s around this park, and Mr. Monroe that’s on the statue right up here, he donated this park for the people. They have been trying to run us off for years and years.”

The park was purchased by the city about 140 years ago. Most of the original park construction, such as the cement path ways and outer walkways, remain unchanged from the original turn of the century design by . The last renovations to the park were completed about five years ago and consisted of renovating the central fountain.

LeLonnie Colmes, another protestor, took issue with the renovation forcing the park closed for nine to 18 months, as estimated by Samuels, leaving the homeless who stay there with no place to go and disrupting feeding groups, like Food Not Bombs.

“This is the only place that they really have to congregate during the day. Without this, like, there’s not any place for churches or Food Not Bombs or anything like that to do feedings, anything like that, or even just for them to hang out in a place that’s not stuck in front of the direct public at all times …”

The protest has also attracted a number of VCU students, like Nicholas, a sophomore who asked that his last name not be used for fear of losing his scholarship.

“I don’t want to see the homeless people get kicked out of this park. Because when they get kicked out of the park, with the large fence they plan on building, they’re gonna go into the VCU area, they’re going to go into the business district, the Fan, wherever, and then they’re gonna get arrested, and they’re gonna go to the city jail.

According to Colmes, the protesters will continue to camp out in the park for as long as they can.

‘The longer we’re here, the more … people are going to hear about it, and the more they’re going to have to take sides, and actually evaluate their views on what’s going on and take a side, and figure out what this actually means to them and raise their awareness about it, and show them we’re actually serious, we’re not just a bunch of dirty punk kids hanging out on a couch in Monroe Park.”

The city has yet to finalize the Monroe Park Master Plan, which would guide renovation. Samuels has said keeping the park open during renovation would multiply, not just increase costs of renovation. Funding has also been an issue for the renovation plan. Samuels told RVANews the city would cover about $3 million of the plan for underground pipe-work, but the rest of the estimated $7.8 million will have to come from private donors.

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