Originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 60, printed October 28. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
By Phil Wilayto
It was the end of September when the fences and barbed wire went up around Abner Clay Park, the 4-acre green space in the heart of Jackson Ward. That came as a surprise to at least one of the organizations that serves free meals there.
“We were given no warning or notice,” read a post on the Facebook page of Richmond Food Not Bombs, which has been providing meals in Richmond parks for the past 25 years.
The fencing marked the beginning of what is expected to be a year-long park renovation, to include upgrades to utilities, sidewalks, landscaping, and a new plaza and basketball court. In the meantime, it means one more place where the all-volunteer FNB won’t be able to provide their free meals.
Jackson Ward, once the heart of Richmond’s Black community, has been undergoing gentrification for years.
“They keep getting rid of places,” member Aaron told the Defender. “Kanawha, then Monroe, Festival Park by the Coliseum. These all have long been used as gathering places.
“The places where people can hang out are gradually disappearing over time.”
Kanawha Plaza by the 9th Street Bridge used to be a place where some homeless people would spend the night, until the police evicted Occupy Richmond from their encampment there in late 2011. Then the park in the downtown banking district was “renovated.”
It was 22 months of renovation before Monroe Park was reopened in late September of last year, That’s where FNB had for years served its Sunday meals. Once the public park was closed, FNB moved to Abner Clay.
“With Monroe, we got plenty of advance,” Aaron said. “This time we weren’t informed by the city.”
Aaron said the group isn’t opposed to the city upgrading Abner Clay, especially if the project includes bathrooms, which it now lacks. Also, he said it could use more water fountains and better trash facilities. But the group questions why the whole park had to be closed, instead of doing the renovation in stages.
That question also was raised when Monroe Park was fenced in. At the time, many park advocates suspected it was to “encourage” homeless people to move away from the park, which is located near the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
When Monroe was reopened, it had a nice new coffee cafe – but the public bathrooms had been removed. At present there are no plans for public restrooms at the renovated Abner Clay.
The Defender emailed some questions to the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. These are the questions and the answers we received:
How long will Abner Clay Park be closed for renovations?
We are expecting the park to be closed for renovations until September 2020.
Is it true that the park was closed with no notice to park goers or service providers, specifically those who provide meals?
Users that previously held permits were contacted about the park undergoing renovations this fall and given alternate locations that could be used. We also communicated with the civic associations about the closure for renovations. If there happens to be a group that we were not in contact with that needs an alternate location, please have them contact our Permit Officer at 804-646-0761.
If so, why was notice not given?
Fortunately for PRCF, we selected a very eager contractor that began work prior to the date selected. Notice was given on our Facebook page once we learned that the contractor was installing the construction fence around the park.
Before the park was closed, was there an announced period for public input or comment?
The renovation of Abner Clay Park has been a long time coming. The Master Plan for the park began in 2014 with several community meetings with the surrounding civic associations. Community members that attended provided a great amount of insight that assisted in creating an open and inviting space that can host a variety of events, while still keeping the charm of the Jackson Ward neighborhood.
Why was barbed wire used to close off the park?
The barbed wire was a mistake of the contractor. Once the department was notified, we promptly rectified the situation.
By the way, Richmond Food Not Bombs is always looking for new volunteers. If interested, message them through their Facebook page or call (804) 505-0365.
Categories: Community News