Richmond’s great divide

VCU study finds 20-year life span gap between neighboring communities

Gilpin Court resident Lillie Estes says residents need the means to make a behavior change, but they cannot do it alone.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Lillie Estes thought Richmond would just be a stopping point.

“I actually came here in ’77 to go to VCU, and it captured me,” she remembers.

Estes decided to settle here, and Gilpin Court has been home for the past eleven years.

Gilpin Court resident Lillie Estes says residents need the means to make a behavior change, but they cannot do it alone.
Gilpin Court resident Lillie Estes says residents need the means to make a behavior change, but they cannot do it alone.

“I love my neighbors,” Estes said, describing a tight community that is much more than the crime and violence that outsiders see.

Still she knows, what is not here hurts in a big way.

“We’re making poor choices because our options are poor,” she said.

The nearby East End of Richmond was identified in 2012 as one of the largest food deserts in America. There is limited access to healthy foods here, and many residents do not have a way out.

“We have to be really aware of the challenges that people that live in abject poverty face,” says Estes. “Transportation is crazy. How do we get from one place to another?”

“The magnitude of this is really striking to people,” observes Dr. Derek Chapman of the VCU Center on Society and Health.

Dr. Chapman looked at Richmond’s transportation, education, housing and more earlier this year and found what is available and what is not has created much more than a socio-economic divide. Using death certificate records, Chapman learned the lowest life span in the city is in Gilpin Court, 63-years-old. Just five miles away in Westover Hills, people are living twenty years longer.

Gilipin Court has the lowest average life span in Richmond at 63 years old.
Gilipin Court has the lowest average life span in Richmond at 63 years old.

“We view these maps as conversation starters just to raise awareness about these large gaps across short distances,” Dr. Chapman said regarding the study, which was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“In a way it’s truth telling, right?” says Danny Avula, Deputy Director of the Richmond City Health Department.  “These are real factors that are going on in our communities.”

Avula says the situation cannot change overnight, but he is hopeful some relatively new efforts are steps in the right direction. The Get Fresh Corner Store Initiative started in 2013, bringing fresh produce to the East End. There is also a focus on creating better housing options.

“The anti-poverty commission has recognized that public housing is something that we need to get away from, and so there’s a lot of conversation and now steps being taken,” explains Avula.

Adds Thad Williamson, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building, “There are plans to look at the old Armstrong site first to begin building units there and, as the process unfolds, we can gradually begin converting Creighton Court to a new model.”

Creighton Court, just two miles from Gilpin Court, is slated for a new mixed-income community. Williamson says it is part of the bigger picture his office has worked on since opening last year, along with a focus on early childhood education and job training.

City health workers are now embedded in each public housing complex, and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority teamed up with SportsBackers and the YMCA of Greater Richmond to bring a fitness program to Gilpin Court to boost bodies, minds and spirits.

However, Fadu Muhammadali, who has lived in Gilpin Court for four years, would like city leaders to take a different approach. He would like them to actually talk with the residents.

“Find out what we need, find out what we want ’cause that’s where our money goes,” says Muhammadali in front of his apartment.

For Estes, who points to numbers from a 2010 Hope in the Cities – Initiatives of Change study, little has changed in five years.  She wants to see the city get moving.

“I share the urgency of residents who are saying that because in an important sense, they are right, but we’re taking steps as a city that have never been taken before,” explains Williamson.

“It’s not to place blame on anyone,” says Estes.  “It’s to look at the facts that we have and to put forth work plans to correct them.”

Estes knows the community needs the means to make a true behavior shift. Improving health and extending life spans, she says, takes everyone working together.

“Develop the political wheel, community wheel, the humanitarian perspective, that we treat each other as our brother and sisters’ keeper,” she says. “That piece of consistency needs to be taught so that the pathway can stop being a metaphor, and it’s an actual pathway that people can travel on and pull themselves into community wealth building.”

The Office of Community Wealth Building is part of Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration.  Williamson says City Council is scheduled to vote on ordinances to make it a permanent Richmond office next month to maintain the programs established.

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