Current and past residents of public housing in North Old Town held a meeting Thursday night to address concerns highlighted in a newspaper article conveying their community was contributing to a “growing sense of lawlessness” in the area.
“We’re here to discuss what we can do as a community,” said activist and resident Lenny Harris, who guided the evening forum held at Charles Houston Recreation Center. “We have to learn to protect our community and protect ourselves. We have to stop letting people come into our community and tell us how to live our way of life. There’s nothing wrong with us standing on the corner talking about sports and nothing wrong with having a barbecue in our backyard.”
The community meeting was attended by about 100 people and held in response to the Connection Newspapers article “Neighborhood Under Siege?” quoting homeowners associations' leaders and others saying their quality of life has been deteriorating over the last two years.
Meeting attendee Deputy Chief Cleveland Spruill of the Alexandria Police Department was invited to speak and said the police are committed to making Alexandria a safe place for everyone.
After the meeting, Spruill told Patch that “there are things in the community that need to be addressed but no one can argue that the area of concern is not significantly improved,” noting that Police Chief Earl Cook takes community relations very seriously. He was promoted to police chief about two years ago and was born and raised in the Berg, the Old Town neighborhood that includes a public housing complex.
Harris said at least 2,000 of the 4,000 residents living in housing overseen by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority can vote and that those voters must be mobilized to have their voices heard.
“Can you imagine if we all voted?,” Harris asked.
Mayor Bill Euille attended the entire meeting as an audience member.
“This is an opportunity for communities to come together and be aware of issues and challenges we face,” he told Patch after the meeting. “I’ve been to 10 to 15 of this type of meeting over the last five years where people come together over an issue but then they leave. The message is we’ve got to stay together. That’s how we get through.”
Euille said he did not believe there was a large rift between different communities in Alexandria but there are some “differences of opinion on lifestyle choices.”
Speaker Jeffrey Thomas said: “We are in the moment. We have to create a movement. We have been so accommodating. They have built half-million dollar homes across from the projects. Nothing has been vandalized. No one has been mugged. “
Alexandria Housing Authority Vice Chairman Derek Hyra said in a meeting with Old Town Alexandria Patch on Thursday afternoon that it’s important to AHA to address the issues of redevelopment and bringing neighborhoods together. “When you have people who are earning $15,000 a year and below next to people making $100,000 a year and above, there likely will be issues and tensions,” said Hyra, who is also a professor at Virginia Tech’s Old Town Alexandria campus. “It’s up to all of us to minimize tensions that may arise.”
Harris said there are tensions between community members. “Racism is a problem,” Harris said. “When one ethnic group thinks they’re better than another, that’s a problem. I want to promote peace and well being in the community.”
Several speakers criticized the lack of representation at Thursday night’s meeting from the North Alexandria Residents Coalition and other nearby homeowners groups. However, Jennifer Smith who represented that coalition, sent an email to the City Manager’s Office while the meeting was going on saying her group was disappointed it wasn’t invited.
“In our opinion, this meeting is a calculated effort by the city and ARHA to discredit the good citizens who live in Old Town and are using race as a divider. We’re appalled,” Smith wrote. “Many of the people who live in the Old Town area, the people that have been accused of not telling the truth, are social workers and other individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping others."
Acting City Manager Bruce Johnson is expected to send a reply to Smith on Friday.