2016-12-14 / Featured / Front Page

Poverty on Jeff Davis: Dreaming of mass transit


ASH DANIEL/CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER ASH DANIEL/CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER In a gravel parking lot on Jefferson Davis Highway, a small band of people is forming. They vary by age and race, class and background. But they’re about to embark on a journey for a common cause.

Some of these faces appeared before the Board of Supervisors in November, urging Chesterfield’s governing body to conduct a public transit feasibility study of the county. One woman, a minister named Cloud Ramirez, invited the board to meet her in the parking lot of her apartment complex to see what her neighbors have to go through to get food.

The nearest full-service grocery store is a Food Lion nearly a mile and a half away. Without a car and few sidewalks in the area, residents in this section of the corridor must undertake a dangerous journey on foot to get there.

Though Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland spoke in support of mass transit at the November meeting and asked the group to get in contact with the county’s transportation department, none of the board members have taken Ramirez up on her offer. But the Observer did, spending part of a Saturday afternoon in early December traversing the narrow shoulders and grassy medians of Jeff Davis Highway as cars whizzed past. This is their story.

County planning officials are working on a plan to revitalize Jeff Davis, but currently there is no funding to extend public buses into the eastern Chesterfield corridor. 
ASH DANIEL/CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER County planning officials are working on a plan to revitalize Jeff Davis, but currently there is no funding to extend public buses into the eastern Chesterfield corridor. ASH DANIEL/CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER • • • •

Cloud Ramirez moved into the Bellwood Maisonettes apartments a decade ago. Before then, she lived next door in the Shady Hill trailer park, though her recollection of that time is a bit fuzzy.

“I’m not all that clear,” she says. “I was a drunk.”

Sober for the past six years – which she credits to God – Ramirez recently co-founded the nonprofit Empowered Warriors with her neighbor Carrie Aus. The organization helps the underprivileged access services, but even before she gave up the bottle, Ramirez was known as a person to whom people in her community could turn.

A group led by mass transit proponent Cloud Ramirez walk along Jeff Davis Highway on a recent Saturday, where there are no sidewalks. 
ASH DANIEL/CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER A group led by mass transit proponent Cloud Ramirez walk along Jeff Davis Highway on a recent Saturday, where there are no sidewalks. ASH DANIEL/CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER “They’re all good people,” Ramirez says of her neighbors in the corridor. “They need to know that somebody’s got their back and trying to keep them together.”

While most of those on the walk either live, work or worship in the corridor, only Aus is without access to a car. The walk is intended to be a demonstration, one that Ramirez and Aus did the previous weekend, live-streaming the journey on Facebook. During that trip, some drivers pulled their cars to the side of the road and tried to pick them up, thinking they were prostitutes.

Even though Chesterfield owns 50 percent of the Greater Richmond Transit Co. and appoints three of the six members on the board, GRTC operates only one bus line in the county, the Route 82 Express bus that runs from the Commonwealth 20 movie theater to downtown Richmond.

By the end of 2017, GRTC is expected to have its new bus rapid transit service running from Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing. Advocacy group RVA Rapid Transit has supported an expansion of rapid transit – buses that run along dedicated lanes with limited stops for speed and efficiency – down many of metro Richmond’s major corridors, including Jeff Davis Highway. This expansion is included in the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s near-final draft of its Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan, which is intended to be a blueprint for regional public transit through 2040. Ramirez and others on the walk are members of RVA Rapid Transit’s Metro Richmond Clergy Committee.

“We don’t know what public transit looks like,” Ramirez says. “We’re advocating for God’s people. It’s a desperate need.”

• • • •

Setting off northbound on Jeff Davis Highway, the half-dozen marchers descend a set of concrete stairs and begin walking on the shoulder of the road. Some cars honk; others speed up as the pedestrians come into sight.

This corridor is characterized by a heavy industrial presence mixed in with older commercial and residential real estate. The average median household income is less than half the county average, and the rate of poverty is more than four times the rest of Chesterfield. For some of its tenants, the half-century old Bellwood Maisonettes is the last stop before living week to week in a motel. The stop after that is homelessness.

On one of the few patches of sidewalk in the area, the group encounters a man with a bandaged hand. He tells Ramirez in Spanish that he was injured trying to catch himself when he fell down the stairs. While there are a handful of bodegas between the apartment complex and the Food Lion, Ramirez says they’re usually too expensive for the people who live in the Maisonettes to shop at.

The most treacherous part of the walk is the overpass of Falling Creek, where the only way to cross is on the road’s narrow shoulder. The group walks single-file through this portion before reaching the 7-Eleven on the other side, the halfway point.

One of the walkers, Francis Ogunlade, expresses incredulity that a county with a top-ranked school system like Chesterfield hasn’t done more for this area.

“You would not believe you’re still in Chesterfield,” Ogunlade says of the area. “It’s like a third-world nation in Chesterfield.”

Originally from England, Ogunlade works as a rehabilitation counselor for the state. Without access to jobs or training for people in the corridor, he wonders how things will change.

“How are they going to compete? It’s a vicious cycle of poverty,” Ogunlade says. “We’re trying to represent everybody who has been forgotten.”

The group walks cautiously from the median across three lanes of traffic, reaching the grassy divider for the Chippenham Parkway off ramp. From there, a beaten path snakes its way through a pulled back chain-link fence to the Food Lion.

Leading the way for most of the journey is 76-year-old Gloria Randolph. Well-dressed and wearing heels, Randolph says she’s praying for the corridor, and becomes emotional at times when discussing it. Bus service connecting the corridor to area schools like John Tyler Community College, Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University would be transformative for the area, she says.

“We want our children to see better, to know better, to do better. We want them to stand on our shoulders, and we want them to know that we care,” Randolph says. “We want them to know that my generation cares about their generation.”

Standing in the parking lot of the Food Lion, the group rests. Ramirez explains that the group is actually cheating; it isn’t making the return journey carrying a week’s worth of groceries or with children. Aus says that traffic on Jeff Davis is lighter because it’s the weekend.

“If we’re not sitting on an island, I don’t know what you’d call it,” Ramirez says. “Everyone deserves to have basic needs met.”

The group doesn’t get too far on the return walk before meeting Mark Molina, who lives in the area. Molina says it takes him two hours to walk to work, and 40 minutes each way on bike to collect his mail. He’d love access to bus service, but says that critics of mass transit believe buses bring problems.

Kim Marble says she’s seen amputees in wheelchairs make the same journey to shop at Food Lion.

“It wouldn’t take much to make it a little more safe,” says Marble, vice president of the Jefferson Davis Association, a nonprofit made up of civic and business leaders in the corridor. “We can’t take away from the harshness of life, but we can make it a little better.”

Marble says the county is beginning to respond to challenges in the area, but there’s still a long way to go.

“We want to see other people who are living in the corridor realize their dreams,” Marble says. “It’s a big task, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Dominic Carter, a minister at Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, says it would be great to get more area churches in the community involved in their efforts. God, he says, has already told him that mass transit is coming to the corridor.

Chesterfield has been studying the corridor for a new Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan. Jim Bowling, principal planner and project manager for the Planning Department, says that while they’re hoping to add better access to pedestrians and cyclists in the area, traditional bus service might not be in the cards.

“We’re looking for creative ways to move people around without extending Richmond transit service,” says Bowling, who mentions having churches provide occasional service as a possibility. “We are a suburban county, we grew up dependent on the automobile. We are beginning to wrap our heads around the fact that not everyone has two cars in their driveway.”

Going forward, Bowling says the area is very desirable for new industry, and the county is working on a revitalization plan that should be ready in a few months.

“We want to address the needs of the existing population,” Bowling says. “We are beginning to realize that they need some help to revitalize.”

Outside of the Nuevo Amanecer Latino Market, there’s a structure from an earlier time: a trolley shelter for a line that once ran from Richmond to Petersburg. A historic marker dates it as operational from 1902 to 1936.

“This is a remnant of public transit on Jeff Davis,” Marble says. “We used to have public transit.”

• • • •

Back at the Maisonettes, the area outside Ramirez’ apartment has become a sort of way station for people when they venture out for food. She’s set out chairs and a canopy so her neighbors can rest, particularly those in poor health.

One such resident is Meredith Lyell. The 72-year-old previously worked as a nurse and medical transcriptionist, and lived on Forest Hill Avenue. Lyell used to take the bus everywhere, but had to spend everything she had on medicine and doctor’s visits for her husband, who died nine years ago. Living on Social Security, Lyell had a hard time finding a place to live, saying that every other place she thought suitable had unrealistic income requirements.

Lyell – who uses a cane since having a hip replaced – has only made the trek to Food Lion once. She relies on the Dollar General across the street, catching rides with friends to shop, or having someone shop for her.

“Just because we live in the Bellwood Maisonettes doesn’t mean that we’re trash,” Lyell says. “People fall on hard times, and if you’re not able to pull yourself together, this is it.” ¦

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