Fixing Broken Streams and Broken Dreams

The Bellemeade Walkable Watershed project aims to reclaim a damaged creek, create a route for kids to walk to school, and boost community spirit in a gritty, inner-city Richmond neighborhood.

by James A. Bacon

Bob Argabright got involved with Richmond city schools nine years ago when he volunteered to help two young students learn to read. It wasn’t long before he discovered that the challenges faced by inner city kids run far deeper than a difficulty with letters and words. As he delved deeper into their lives and their surroundings, his volunteer activity became a full-time vocation. Today, the retired paper industry executive is such a fixture at Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School that children wave to him in the hall, call him by name and even run up to give him a hug.

“I think it’s totally unfair for a child to be born in the 23229 zip code and be set for life while a child born in 23224 has a low probability of success,” says Argabright. “Ninety percent of our kids say they want to be a rap star, an NFL football player or a beautician. We’re trying to show them other paths. … We’re teaching these children to dream.”

As unlikely as it might sound, Argabright is hoping that a few children might conceive the ambition of becoming an architect or an environmental engineer.

Making that connection would have been unlikely a year ago, when the students at Oak Grove-Bellemeade were attending the old Bellemeade Elementary School, an aged and decrepit school building that screamed urban blight. But this month they moved into a new, LEED-standard school building next door that is fresh, clean and airy. Every section of the school bears a name associated with the James River — the river bed, forest floor, forest canopy, and the like — to serve as inspiration for teaching about nature. Moreover, the city is moving forward with a project to restore the severely eroded creek behind the school with the aim of creating a community resource and a focus for environmental education.

The Bellemeade Walkable Watershed is a triumph of public-private collaboration, says Michelle Virts, deputy director of utilities. “It’s a great opportunity for the city to stretch our dollars.” The project is funded largely through a $187,000 National Fish & Wildlife grant to restore the creek, and a $60,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to build a watershed coalition, but the city is chipping in land, public works money and staff time, while not-for-profits like the James River Association and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay are providing volunteers for clean-up and money for tree planting.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the walkable watershed is how the community is leveraging a single project to advance multiple goals: stream restoration, environmental education, a community garden and a network of sidewalks and trails. By making it possible for hundreds of kids, many of whom live in housing projects, to walk or bicycle to school instead of ride the bus, the project, it is hoped, will ward off the obesity that plagues Richmond’s inner city.

Many educators, public officials and not-for-profits have contributed to the project. But Argabright is the thread tying the efforts together. “Bob is extremely active in the neighborhood,” says Virts. “He makes things happen.”

“Bob Argabright is totally on fire about this thing,” says Champe Burnley, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, who recalls meeting with him more than half a year ago. Argabright was thinking ahead to when the new route opens for children to walk and bike to school. How many poor kids own bicycles? Not many. Even back then, he was working the angles to rustle up some used bikes. He now has 300 (only some of which, he regrets, are suitable for children) sitting in a warehouse in anticipation of the day when they can be used.

Argabright is not one to claim credit. He sings the praises of everyone involved in the project, from Oak Grove-Bellemeade’s principle Jannie Laursen to Lara Kling with the Blue Sky Fund, which has raised $275,000 to fund outdoor nature programs for inner city schools, including Oak Grove-Bellemeade. He depicts his contribution mainly as showing up at community events, pushing to get things done and building a web of contacts linking corporate leaders with City Hall and neighborhood volunteers and activists. Says he: “What I’m doing is networking, doing what I’ve done my whole career.”

Re-greening Richmond

Two developments were key to making the project happen. One was construction of the Oak Grove-Bellemeade School, which opened its doors this year. Children from the old Bellemeade School, located right next door, moved in right away. Students from Oak Grove will transfer next school year. The 90,000-square-foot facility is state-of-the-art. But it’s one thing to teach a subject like science in the abstract to inner-school children who have seldom ventured outside their concrete-and-asphalt domain, and quite another to teach them in a natural environment. More.

9 Responses to Fixing Broken Streams and Broken Dreams

  1. “I think it’s totally unfair for a child to be born in the 23229 zip code and be set for life while a child born in 23224 has a low probability of success,” says Argabright.”.

    Just under 1,o00 dependents in the 23229 zip code came from families with an adjusted gross income of less than $25,000.

    I doubt the children within that group consider themselves “set for life”.

    Meanwhile, in the 23224 zip code 19 tax returns were filed with AGI of over $200,000. In fact, the average AGI for these people was $1.9M.

    People are rich and people are poor – not zip codes. More people live below the poverty level in Fairfax County then there are people living in 80 of Virginia’s other counties.

    • You are right, poverty is about people, not about zip codes. How many people in the 23229 zip code file return with AGI over $200,000? As a resident of that zip code, I daresay the number is many times more than 19. The truth is, people in poverty live not just in the inner city, but also in affluent areas throughout the greater Richmond region. This is poverty we often do not see. Nevertheless, children in these households have access to the schools, parks and amenities available in these affluent neighborhoods. The poverty in the Oak Grove/Bellemeade communities is more concentrated and more visible than in my 23229 neighborhood and is very concentrated in households with children. Please do not let a few IRS statistics blind you to the fact that the children in the Oak Grove/Bellemeade area need access to a variety of resources and opportunities if they are to have a chance to become successful adults and productive citizens.

      • poverty is everywhere – yes.. but why are some schools in some zip codes much worse than others in other zip codes – seemingly regardless of the poverty stats?

        and idea?

  2. I end up with conflicting thoughts when I read stories about retired CEOs helping their communities.

    re: helping kids dream

    it’s said that they do not see the obvious connection to dreams and the school they are in. I would have hoped that they knew without a doubt that the path to a better life was through a good education and the schools was their first and last good chance to climbing a ladder out of their current circumstances.

    that’s what I was always taught – that schools was a gift and to not squander it.. and use it to better yourself.

    it’s a pity that kids in these lower-income zips don’t seem to have that perspective … and aspire to be pro sports or hairdressers…

    geeze… this is terrible.

  3. One of the areas that Kaine championed and then Obama in the SOTU was the concept of universal Pre-K – which does have some conflicting studies as to if the “effect” lasts beyond K-3 but I don’t think there is any question that at-risk kids, if they do not get Pre-K do not start out on the same level as kids who have educated parents who spend time teaching their kids to read.

    We do rank 15th and lower – on core academics – math, reading and science compared to other countries and there are studies that seem to indicate that if you take out our low performing kids that we are then competitive against Europe and Japan.

    Why we have such diversity in the quality/performance of our schools (and even minority kids (both Hispanic and Black) within good schools) when our policies supposedly guarantee each child getting equitable resources – and they do – in basic dollars (without local add-ons) is a paradox.

    No European or Asian schools seem to have this bifurcation in their performance and results and yet in our schools – it’s not only persistent and stubborn – it’s a disaster as these kids grow up unable to become a net paying taxpayer and instead an entitlement “taker”.

    It’s all the more paradoxical when you consider that at-risk kids and their parents already receive a significant amount of entitlements ranging from the earned income/child tax refundable tax credits that can amount to as much as 5-7K tax refunds, but food stamps, free and reduce lunches, free health care, etc.

    we spend all this money – and the results don’t seem to get much better.

    I’m not one who believes that this “proves’” that the policies do not help… ergo… we should do away with the policies (as if then the problem will fix itself).

    but clearly – we have an underclass and to date – we are not effective (enough) in significantly reducing it.

    Is universal pre-K the needed piece not yet implemented? Perhaps but also just as important are special programs in K-3 to identify kids who are behind and to get them the help to get them back on grade level. After 3rd grade – it becomes a much more difficult endeavor with a high failure rate.

    I don’t know that we know the answers yet, but I think we have to follow that path for a while to see if it works. The amount of money just for that is – as the POTUS put it about 1/7 as costly as the downstream consequences of not having it.

    It’s a total mystery as to why other countries, some with just as high immigration rates and diversity of population don’t seem to have our problems – especially with regard to urban school “blight” and related issues.

    But we do have to fix this or else we’re going to drown in adult entitlements.

    the entire purpose of taxes for public schools – is – to produce an employable workforce – in the 21st century – that effectively compete for global jobs.

    If we fail at this – we are going to watch other countries out-compete us for economic success.

  4. Jim Bacon: “But it’s not the housing, as much as the prevailing form of urban design when the housing was built.”

    Line this article “Broken Streams and Broken Dreams” up side by side with Jim’s “The Blessings of Old Housing Stock.”

    Then start connecting the dots between the articles.

    Watch how these connected dots grow to paint an incredible pattern of solutions. Like revelations they emerge. Showing the way to better more workable neighborhoods for everyone. Making places everywhere work.

    Even like Fan, Richmond. And Charleston SC and Savannah, work.

    Then consider Jim’s failed motorist’s door law. How stuff needs fixing.

  5. Jim’s article notes that “Hillside Court … is a zone of desolation for kids. The grounds are bare; there is nowhere to play. Mothers don’t feel safe letting their children outside … every (window) has the shades pulled down to stop anyone from peering in … children (stay) cooped up and inactive indoors.”

    This statement applies to a surprising degree to many post WWII communities whether impoverished, middle class or affluent. The Hillside Court heroes are breathing life back into their community, taking steps that move it closer towards what makes all successful neighborhoods work.

    Many post WWII “no-where communities”, whether they be middle-class, affluent or whatever, would be far more successful too, like Fan, Richmond, if they took similar steps towards the same objective, using volunteer action.

    I’m reminded of a magazine article years ago by a woman telling how she grew up on a poverty stricken DC street just after WWII. How her youth there was so much safer, more vibrant, and enriching than the lives of kids growing up on that same but far more affluent street today. Money wise its rich. But its lifeless. Kid can’t go out, except to get in trouble. Neighbors hardly speak. Daytime’s and night times they live inside behind drawn shades. So its nowhere as rich as her poor street was when it was full of life, and everyone looked after one another, kinda like in Barcelona.

    That’s what the heroes of Hillside Court are about, I gather. And Mark Lewyn’s article on how to free up our zoning laws is aimed at the same goal.

    Causes may vary. Essential goals often are surprisingly the same. Finding ways to breath life back into old neighborhoods built on the failed idea that neighborhood’s are just for safety and sleeping, and otherwise life can easily be lived somewhere else. Makes perfect sense if the auto is king. But, for ever larger numbers of us, that 1950′s American dream is a nightmare.

  6. suburbia where I live is subdivisions with single family detached homes on cul-de-sacs with only one entrance/exit – and the obligatory sign advising that it is a “neighborhood watch” subdivision.

    http://www.covpd.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/neighborhood-watch-sub-page.gif

    this is how those who can – put themselves in safe neighborhoods.

    those who can’t – live like the folks alluded to here.

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