In the late 1960s, the city of Norfolk launched the redevelopment of the East Ghent neighborhood, near the downtown business corridor, where the housing stock had eroded to slums.
White and Black residents who could, moved out to the suburbs or other parts of the city.
Left behind were thousands of the poor and Black families and individuals who had been pushed out by the urban renewal project the city undertook in the downtown area, to make way for the SCOPE arena and other city facilities.
In 1967, the first African American Cabinet Secretary, Robert C. Weaver, who ran the newly minted Housing and Urban Development (HUD), toured the area, according to the city’s history book “Norfolk: The First Four Centuries.”
HUD was one of the agencies created to fight the “War on Poverty,” initiated by the Johnson Administration in the 1960s.
Urged by Weaver, Norfolk was one of many cities with decaying urban cores to apply for and receive millions of Model Cities funding to raze, redesign and then replace slums with a new upscale market and rental housing stock.
But first, again, the city had to relocate hundreds of poor and working-class residents who were told that once the named “East Ghent Project” was complete they could return.
Lavonne Pledger remembers the time. He said after years of living in the area, his grandparents’ house was one of them in the bulldozer’s path.
“They were told they could come back, so they were forced to move to Park Place,” said Pledger. “Of course, that never happened.
“They were pushed out of Ghent, and never returned because they were made to feel they were unwelcome or they could not afford it.”
His mother lives in that house now, in Park Place.
He said she still has some bitter memories of how her parents were uprooted from their homes and forced to move.
The East Ghent redevelopment was one of various chapters from the city’s economic history, where old, blighted communities of mostly poor and Black people met the same fate of removal for redevelopment.
Today, East and West Ghent are two of the most prized neighborhoods in Norfolk.
A new chapter is unfolding as the “St. Paul’s Project.” Overwhelming poor and African American, three of the city’s largest public housing communities are targeted to be razed to make way for renewed communities and lives for its current inhabitants.
The historic marriage of the City and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA), have resolved to move forward with this project.
Again the city is applying for millions of federal dollars to do the job. In fact, the fourth Black HUD secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, was invited and came to Norfolk to tour the three communities.
Tidewater Gardens is targeted as the first to be razed and revised. The city is applying for federal Choice Neighborhood (CNI) Grants worth $30 million to help fuel its “People First” Initiative to prepare, relocate and stabilize many of the residents in the community.
It is a competitive grant, so Norfolk is in a race with other cities applying for the funding.
Under CNI, each family in the community will be assigned a case worker to help them address all of their educational, housing and employment. They will be able to find alternate homes away from the project site or elsewhere if they so choose.
Norfolk officials and NRHA are hoping this “proactive” approach will mean better outcomes for the residents, who admit suspicions and distrust, along with activists and even some city officials who recall previous efforts.
One component of the plan is the Mayor’s St. Paul’s Development Advisory Committee. It’s an 18-member panel, composed of council members, NRHA officials, leaders of churches, businesses and non-profits existing within the borders of the St. Paul’s project borders.
It is designed to provide ideas to assure that resources are used to achieve a viable outcome for the residents who may want to find housing in the renewed communities or elsewhere.
After razing Tidewater Gardens, the others—Calvary Square and Young Terrace, where Pledger has called home for the past decade—will be razed and revitalized, according to the plan.
The advisory committee is deliberately designed to give representatives from the three public housing communities a “seat at the table” of planning for the project and to relay information back to their neighbors and look after their interests.
Pledger, who represents Young Terrace, and reps from the two other two public housing communities, also sit on a subcommittee tasked with coordinating the goals of the “People First” program.
He is the youngest member of both.
From his mother’s home in Park Place, he moved to Young Terrace 10 years ago with two children in tow, who are now 10 and 11-years-old.
His family lives in a unit which has a view of the downtown business district.
He is an elementary school P.E. Assistant for Norfolk Public Schools and part-time fitness trainer. His $30,000 salary enables Pledger to acquire housing due to his children, but no food assistance or SNAPS.
During the first meeting of the Advisory Committee, when asked what he brought to the panel by co-chair Councilman Paul Riddick, he said he was a part of the community and eats, sleep and breathes” to assure his fellow residents are provided with better opportunities.
But he admits another factor energizes his consciousness and concerns.
“When all of this started, my mother told me ‘don’t let them do to your people what they did to your grandparents,”’ said Pledger during an interview with the GUIDE recently. “That has been in the back of my mind. If there is going to be any revitalization of these projects, it needs to be honest and responsible.”
Before he was selected to the panel, and adjusted his schedule to attend the meetings of other committees and events associated with the St. Paul’s project, he was recruited to sit on the Young Terrace Tenant Management Council (TMC).
He was even elected its president for a term.
In cooperation with the NRHA, the TMCs are the public housing tenant’s immediate leadership which responds to housing, maintenance, safety and other concerns.
The TMCs jointly voted to impose various rules of conduct for residents, Pledger said. It recently imposed a smoking ban, with “four strikes and you are out” provision, which he said he opposed.
He is an eyewitness to the social and cultural environment of the “projects.” He said he has managed to secure a working and sympathetic knowledge of institutional and self-imposed barriers, culture, and burdens that residents face each day, powered by poverty and isolation and generating violence and other dysfunctions.
He sees the positive among his fellow residents and the potential for the youth and young adults like him, hoping they all will be served well and empowered by the process with opportunity and mobility away from poverty.
He also has garnered a working knowledge of how the federal and local government and non-profit agencies interact and serve those same neighbors.
Pledger applied the concept directly. During the third meeting of the advisory committee, facing a shortage of funds for a summer meal program in the public housing communities, Norfolk School Superintendent Melinda Boone, who sits on the advisory committee, worked out a way for the NPS to fill the void.
“This is the way I am hoping this committee and process will work,” said Pledger. “If there is something we need to make this process work, somebody should be there to respond, help them resolve any problem so we will not need their help.”
But Pledger said like his neighbors, they are optimistic about the inevitable change to come.
But considering history, he and others have many concerns which will lead up to the bulldozing of the place they now call home.
“I am tired of gunshots at night and having to place my children in the bathtub so they can be safe,” said Pledger. “I am also tired of cinder block walls and being poor. But I also want this project done in a way for all of us to benefit and have a better life.”
Publisher’s Note: Part One of this ongoing series appeared in our April 26, 2018 edition.
By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide