Richmond Times-Dispatch: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tours Jackson Ward, Henrico, talks infrastructure


U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited Jackson Ward on Friday to herald a plan to reconnect the historically Black community, but he never made it to the other side of the neighborhood bisected by the interstate highway nearly 70 years ago.

Buttigieg, accompanied by Gov. Ralph Northam and other Virginia Democratic leaders, walked down Leigh Street from the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia to the Maggie L. Walker historic site, a national landmark to the pioneering Black businesswoman who became the first Black woman to charter a bank in the United States.

But the site of her former St. Luke Penny Savings Bank sits on the other side of Interstate 95, in a largely neglected part of Jackson Ward next to Gilpin Court, the oldest public housing community in Richmond.

Still, Buttigieg got the point while walking down Leigh Street and seeing how city streets come to dead ends at the interstate a few blocks away, leaving the northern portion of Jackson Ward difficult to reach, both from the rest of the neighborhood and the highway that has divided them since 1955.

“It shows you how the decisions were made at the time,” he said during the Jackson Ward tour.

Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., before running for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, hammered the lesson home during a speech later in Glen Allen.

“Transportation should always be about connecting, never about dividing,” he said in an event to tout the benefits of the newly enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for major transportation initiatives crucial to pending economic development projects in Henrico County.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed in mid-November, includes $1 billion for competitive grants to reconnect communities — most of them historically Black — that were split apart by highways or other public construction projects.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney called the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike through Jackson Ward in the mid-1950s part of “the ugly history of Richmond.”

The turnpike, which would become part of the new interstate system, displaced 10% of the city’s Black population, damaging a vibrant community sometimes called “the Harlem of the South” because of its lively entertainment venues and Black financial institutions.

On the north side of I-95, the poverty rate is twice as high and median household income is three times lower than the part of Jackson Ward south of the interstate, according to U.S. census estimates.

And while the part of the neighborhood north of I-95 that includes Gilpin Court remains about 90% Black, 2020 Census data shows that overall, the historically Black neighborhood is now 52% white.

Richmond officials want to bridge that divide with a potential project, included in the Richmond 300 master plan adopted last year, to build a deck-bridge across the interstate between North First and St. James streets that could be used as a park, or support new buildings, as has been done in Washington, D.C., Boston and other major cities.

The city is expected to apply for a $1 million grant to pay for a feasibility study of the concept and how it could bring the two parts of Jackson Ward closer together.

“Part of what we need to be about is the business of righting past wrongs,” said Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, who has pushed for a larger pot of money to redress the damage done to minority communities by public infrastructure projects.

Buttigieg called the initial federal investment “a beginning” and suggested that future funding would depend on the results produced in Richmond and other localities seeking to redress past injustices.

“There’s never been anything like that,” he said of the initiative.

Buttigieg acknowledged the fears held by Black residents north of the interstate of being displaced by the same forces of redevelopment and gentrification that have changed the character of the neighborhood to the south.

“One of the most important things is engagement [with the community] from day one,” he said. “What I saw I think is real commitment on the ground to make that happen.”

Buttigieg was accompanied on the tour by Northam, Stoney, McEachin, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor and Richmond mayor who represented a portion of Jackson Ward on city council.

“Anybody who’s been a mayor is fine by me,” Kaine joked later in Henrico.

Buttigieg showed a disarming warmth during his tour of Jackson Ward. He and Spanberger lagged behind the tour group to accompany McEachin, who was using a cane because of a fractured hip.

He also talked to them about his family — twins Penelope Rose and Joseph August, whom he and his husband Chasten adopted upon their birth in September.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but definitely the best,” he said.

Buttigieg also showed his background in municipal government. He was impressed by the city’s creation of an office of equitable development, led by Deputy Planning Director Maritza Mercado Pechin, who led the tour, and its investment in bike lanes and other public infrastructure.

In Henrico, he met with business leaders in a roundtable about resolving long backlogs in the consumer supply chain and talked about the new infrastructure package at the site of an ongoing project to extend Woodman Road as part of a plan to expand the local road network to support economic development.

Buttigieg, along with Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas and Board Chairman Dan Schmitt, talked about the importance of public investments in infrastructure to support private investments in the economy.

“It’s the handshake between public and private that really makes things work in our country and communities,” he said.

The infrastructure act will send more than $8 billion to Virginia over five years to help pay for new roads, bridge repairs, expanded rail and public transit, a network of electric vehicle charging stations and improvements to airports and the Port of Virginia.

The package drew bipartisan support in the Senate, as well as 13 Republican votes in the House, but with mid-term elections looming in a year, a GOP spokeswoman on Friday derided Buttigieg’s public appearances to promote the benefits of the infrastructure act.

“Instead of trying to score political points on a taxpayer-funded PR tour with Ralph Northam, Pete Buttigieg should get back to Washington and work on solving the economic crisis his party created,” said Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

Much of the money will flow through existing transportation funds, which Spanberger said will help with priorities such as expanded passenger rail service between Richmond and Washington and construction of the 43-mile Fall Line Trail between Ashland and Petersburg.

“The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act makes this constructive progress through a heck of a lot of construction,” she said in Henrico, which is part of her House district.

State and local governments also will be able to compete for almost $35 billion in competitive grants under the law.

“We’re excited to team up,” Buttigieg said in Richmond. “Most of the money will go into the ground through cities and states. We’ll push it out to you, but you have to make the magic.”

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