Deep in the heart of Church Hill, where cobblestone boulevards give way to single-letter street names, the local Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club is in the midst of extensive renovation and expansion, a process that critics say comes at the expense of the area’s black community.
“This is textbook gentrification at it’s best. Anyone that disagrees has a motive that does not consider the impacted community members and legacy of Church Hill and the club,” said Lorraine Wright. Wright used to serve on the advisory board for the club, spearheading youth development workshops and a debate team within the organization, which she says suffered from poor conditions and unusable areas long before 2018. Most recently, the club’s services have moved into a single open space at the Franklin Military Academy while the club’s facility undergoes a year-long, $6.1 million renovation that will herald a shift in the club’s focus toward education, health, and fitness.
Wright brought increased attention to the club’s changes in a Facebook video condemning the firing of longtime club employees Dorothy J. Crenshaw and LaWanda Rowe, formerly the club’s program director (26 years) and administrative assistant to the director (38 years) respectively. The firing occurred with no notification given to the advisory board, and led to two separate work complaints being filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with help from former Richmond City Council member Sa’ad El-Amin.
Those complaints were eventually denied, however, and Crenshaw and Rowe have both shifted their focus on to other pressing matters in their lives, according to Wright. This marks the latest development in a still-contentious issue, one that Wright sees as a deliberate effort to draw wealthier new residents into the area, at the expense of long-term residents and underrepresented citizens and without the purview or input of the community or those meant to give guidance on the club’s direction.
“I would really propose that this is strategic,” Wright said. “Every single step and everything that’s happened is absolutely intentional. And that’s our concern.”
Despite the club’s name, the Boys and Girls Club of America are involved very little in its operation, leaving the Salvation Army, and local leader Captain Donald Dohmann, to determine its future. For Dohmann, that means leaving any legal challenges to the organization’s lawyers, after what he says have been repeated attempts to reach a compromise with Crenshaw, Rowe and Wright, with no success.
“The only thing I can share with you at this point is that everything has been turned over to our legal department,” Dohmann said. “We feel that we have made good resolve on meeting the individuals and unfortunately, there are some individuals that have not accepted that offer. But we’re moving forward.”
Wright disputes Dohmann’s interpretation of the events leading up to the complaint filings, which she and Rowe have described as being much more dismissive of the former employees’ contributions. They also disagree on a proposed raise of pool fees from $15 annually to $20 monthly, which Wright says was only removed after community pushback, and Dohmann contends was never part of the renovation plans.
Regardless of the complaints’ dismissal, the conflict over the club’s future could have a potentially wider effect on Richmond society, as El-Amin and Wright have discussed introducing ordinances to the City Council that would put “a moratorium on increases in taxes” and restrict how much properties in areas undergoing gentrification can be improved, as a way of mitigating or stopping the impact that rising property values can have on long-time residents with lower incomes.
“We have to be diligent, we have to vigilant and we have to be proactive,” said El-Amin, who recently criticized Venture Richmond’s new ownership of the 2nd Street Festival as part of a conscious effort “to put Jackson Ward on the path of gentrification” in an October opinion piece in the Richmond Free Press. This along with the club’s renovation contributes, in El-Amin’s estimation, to “the complete annihilation of the African-American community as we know it.”
“It already happened in Church Hill,” El-Amin said. “It’s happening in Jackson Ward, it’s happening in Barton Heights, it’s happening everywhere. It is lethal to the black community, and we have to stop it by whatever means are necessary — legislation and whatever else comes up.”
Wright, for her part, expressed her intent to reach out to Councilman Parker Agelasto, formerly of the 5th District, “to discuss his potential support of the ordinance proposals, prior to his term expiration.” She also affirmed her commitment to establishing a community board for the club, made up of and controlled by indigenous or long-term Church Hill area residents. This proposed board would potentially allow Crenshaw and Rowe to continue serving Union Hill’s community, in a space distanced from the organization through which they did that same work for decades.
“For Ms. Rowe and Ms. Crenshaw, they don’t want to go back to the club, they feel so disrespected,” Wright said. “But it’s those kids, and you can even tell every single time I speak to them.”
“They’re talking about the kids. They’re not even talking about themselves, they’re talking about the kids.”
Photo by George Copeland