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Fairmount in USA Today

Augustine Carter (in a New Visions Civic League sweatshirt) and Mayor Wilder in front of one of the new Better Housing Coalition houses on Short Q Street, from the USA Today’s As older cities shrink, some reinvent themselves.

RICHMOND, Va. – A triangular island at the intersection of 23rd and Q streets is paved with bricks and landscaped with dogwood and liriope. The carefully designed patch of green replaced an abandoned house. As modest as it is, the tiny Q Street park is a powerful symbol of change in the blighted Church Hill neighborhood.

It’s not simply a physical transformation but a dramatic switch in mindset. Richmond’s population has lost 56,000 since its peak in 1970, when it had 250,000 residents, and the city is finally coming to terms with it. Green space is replacing boarded-up houses. Small single-family homes are rising where crowded cinderblock apartment buildings once stood. Singles and couples are moving into rehabilitated homes that once housed families of eight.

Slowly, old American cities that have been in a downward population spiral for a half-century or more are reinventing themselves as, well, smaller cities. They’re starting to adopt – many, like Richmond, do it unknowingly – tenets of the burgeoning, European-born “Shrinking Cities” movement. The idea: If cities can grow in a smart way, they can also shrink smartly.


The Better Housing Coalition, a non-profit group, builds affordable housing to revive neighborhoods. It built about 75 houses in Church Hill. Through grants and various incentives, working-class families can afford to own them.

Mary Thompson grew up in a family of eight and moved here as a teenager 54 years ago. She raised five children and thought about moving many times as family homes around her became drug houses and bordellos. “One day you look up and there’s a lot of blight,” Thompson says. “It can happen overnight.”

She hung in there. Now, the dilapidated eyesore at the intersection is gone, the quaint Q Street park in its place. That prompted the homeowner across the street to repaint his house. Teachers and police officers are moving into the neighborhood. There are more singles and one-child families.

The new look in some Richmond neighborhoods is a sign that the city may be finding its niche. “We just pray that we get good families,” says Augustine Carter, 78, a retired hospital worker who lives here.

Even the new park gets a mention!

See also: Fairmount gets some good words (8/5/06)

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