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Nevin Park filling the bill, so far

on October 20, 2009

20091013_nevinchartIt’s a sunny Labor Day afternoon at Nevin Park, and Hassan “Perkins” Muhammad is sitting at a picnic table, bouncing his young son on his lap. The rest of the family is busy tending the grill. It is, in many ways, a typical American barbecue. But at Nevin Park, leisurely family gatherings like this are quite novel.

The park, which sits almost directly in the heart of Central Richmond, had for years been an ugly reminder of the decay and violence that has come to define the Iron Triangle neighborhood — perhaps as much as the three railroad tracks that surround it. Parents were wary of taking their children there to play, intimidated by drug use, prostitution and violence.

It’s been more than seven months since city officials unveiled the renovated Nevin Park, and judging by the neighborhood response — and by the return of the family picnic — the project appears to be a success. Mostly.

“Now, you can sit in this park,” said Muhammad, 50. “You can go to sleep, and ain’t nobody going to touch you. And that’s a good thing. You still got your little drunks and winos up in here, but they ain’t hurting nobody.”

The park reopened in late January after a yearlong, $3.7 million renovation, and is a centerpiece of the city’s revitalization effort along MacDonald Avenue.

John Gibbs, the project manager for Wallace, Roberts and Todd Planning and Design, said that the project was about more than beautifying a city park. Almost from the outset, he said, builders wanted the park to stand for more than just a play-area for children; they wanted it to instill local pride.

“[The park was] the icon of everything that was negative in the community,” Gibbs said. “We were focusing on it as a park in an open space, but it became clear that this wasn’t just about providing green spaces and trees.”

The park now features a new playground, a cast-iron fence around the perimeter, an entrance to the community center that faces the park, and police-monitored surveillance cameras perched atop light posts.

So far, neighbors say, the park feels safer. There’s less visible drug-dealing, and fewer homeless people camping out, although statistics provided by the Richmond Police Department show that crime hasn’t actually decreased since the park reopened.

Ashley Burgie, 22, lives at the homeless shelter just down the block. So far, she’s been impressed with the new park.

“Considering how much hell is going on around here, it’s a nice little area for people to just come chill out,” she said, “you know, just hang.”

But park neighbors temper their optimism when talking about the rest of MacDonald Avenue. There are virtually no open businesses around the park, save for a couple of corner stores, and despite the freshly painted crosswalks and new streetlights that line MacDonald, windows are still boarded up. Even the renovated buildings have “For Lease” signs hanging in the windows.

What the Iron Triangle really needs is new jobs, residents say. Lillie Mae Jones, a 77-year-old community activist and lifelong Richmond resident, says that high dropout rates and a lack of accessible jobs for teenagers and young adults are to blame for the neighborhood’s troubles. Giving young people a place to hang out after school is a start, but alone, it isn’t enough.

“People are proud of the park,” she said. “It just needs direction. So that’s where the problem is — where can (kids) go and what can they do? How can we help them do it?”

Michelle Milam, a crime-prevention manager for the Richmond Police Department, said that ultimately neighborhood involvement, not extra police presence, is what’s needed to clean up the Iron Triangle. That’s why, in addition to putting two, full-time bike patrol officers in the area, the department is starting a program that will train residents around the park to spot and report suspicious activity.

“If we could police our way out of violence, we’d have the whole thing solved,” she said.

Ridding the neighborhood of drugs and violence may be beyond the park’s reach. But what it can do is provide the backdrop for family barbecues, and for neighbors in the Iron Triangle, that’s a start.

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