CNS Radio report and story by Danny Rathbun
RICHMOND – A group of activists have set up camp in the southwest corner of Monroe Park – complete with sleeping bags, tents and even a couch – to protest the proposed renovation of the park.
The renovation plans, announced by City Councilman Charles Samuels in September, include installing new lighting and drainage, turning the historic Checkers House into a cafe and building a playground.
Proponents of renovation say Monroe Park is a run-down and even dangerous place that’s been taken over by the homeless and is in dire need of repair. Opponents say the renovation is a smoke screen to evict homeless people and social-service providers from the park.
A similar “sleep-in” protest was held in the late ’90s to support the homeless in the park. People slept there for three days as a sign of solidarity. The renovation proposed at the time fell by the wayside, but that was attributed to a lack of money, not the public outcry.
Herbert Joyner, who was camping in the park last week, said it needs just minor repairs. The extensive renovations proposed by Samuels are an attempt by the VCU and the city to gentrify the area and drive out the homeless, Joyner said.
“VCU does not own Richmond, Virginia,” Joyner said. “They bought up all the property that’s around this park. And Mr. Monroe that’s on the statue right up here – he donated this park for the people. They have been trying to run us off for years and years.”
The park was purchased by the city 160 years ago. Most of the original park construction, such as the cement pathways and outer walk ways, reflect the original design. The last renovations to the park focused on fixing up the fountain five years ago.
LeLonnie Colmes, another protester, took issue with plan to close the park for nine to 18 months while the renovations are under way. This would leave the homeless who stay there with no place to go and disrupt meals-distribution programs provided by such nonprofit groups as Food Not Bombs.
“This is the only place that they really have to congregate during the day,” Colmes said. “Without this, like, there’s not any place for churches or Food Not Bombs or anything like that to do feedings, anything like that, or even just for them to hang out in a place that’s not stuck in front of the direct public at all times.”
The protest has attracted a number of VCU students like Nicholas, a sophomore who asked that his last name not be used.
“I don’t want to see the homeless people get kicked out of this park,” Nicholas said. “Because when they get kicked out of the park, with the large fence they plan on building, they’re going to go into the VCU area; they’re going to go into the business district, the Fan, wherever; and then they’re going to get arrested, and they’re going to go to the city jail.”
According to Colmes, the protesters will continue to camp in the park for as long as they can.
“The longer we’re here, the more … people are going to hear about it – and the more they’re going to have to take sides, and actually evaluate their views on what’s going on and take a side,” Colmes said.
She said the protest will “show them we’re actually serious; we’re not just a bunch of dirty punk kids hanging out on a couch in Monroe Park.”
The city has not finalized the plans for the renovation of the park. Samuels has said keeping the park open during renovation would greatly increase the cost of the renovations.
On the Web
For more information, visit
www.monroepark.com – Official history of the park
http://wingnutrva.org/tag/charles-samuels/ – Protesters’ take on the issue