Live documentary performance captures Church Hill’s history in its residents’ words

Tonight, the collaborative efforts of University of Richmond professors Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera, their students, and various students and teachers from Armstrong High School come together to bring you Church Hill: A Changing Neighborhood.

It’s a live documentary performance followed by a panel discussion, and the focus is truly inspiring.

According to Browder, Church Hill: A Changing Neighborhood is “a documentary drama that draws on archival research, oral history interviews with Church Hill residents, and contemporary newspaper sources to highlight the impact of redevelopment on Church Hill residents.”

What this means is that they are putting on a play consisting 100% of words spoken by actual Church Hill residents. Browder’s students this year have chosen Church Hill as their focus for studying the way in which a neighborhood changes when it begins to gentrify, as well as ways to help preserve the culture so as to form a diverse neighborhood instead of an absorbed one.

“Our students initially wrote a fictional play as a way of dramatizing gentrification, and they ended up hating that,” says Browder. “They threw it away and made the decision to start from scratch because they felt like they weren’t entitled to tell the story about Church Hill.” Their way around it was to use residents’ words and abolishing any fictional element from the script. The range of characters, by the way, stretched from Armstrong High School students to a 92-year-old community member with stories to tell.

In the process, Browder’s and Herrera’s students forged relationships with their high school counterparts and could be found marching with them on City Hall yesterday to the rally in support of Richmond Public Schools.

Those same students at the last minute rewrote the play yet again to include the planned closure of Armstrong. “It’s hard to get the two (or more) Church Hills together in the same room to understand what it means to have a neighborhood that contains the highest concentration of poverty almost anywhere on the East Coast and the biggest food desert in the United States, while they also have bakeries written up in the New York Times and Bon Appétit,” reflects Browder. “It’s almost as if the two worlds never come together even though they live together, cheek and jowl.”

“Gentrification is something that takes place incrementally, and we don’t always notice what’s going on as it’s happening. We think of this play as a way to call attention to this process and understand what happens when, say, public housing is shut down and the people who live there may not have a place to go that’s close to where they live now.”

The panel after the performance will include Lynn McAteer from Better Housing Coalition, Chimere Miles from Engaging Richmond, Lydell Poag from the Armstrong Leadership Program, Melisa Quiroga-Herrera from the University of Richmond student body, and Armstrong alum Maurice Sydnor (class of 1965).

Church Hill: A Changing Neighborhood

  • Tuesday, April 16th • 6:00 PM
  • Armstrong High School, 2300 Cool Lane
  • Free!

If you can’t make it to tonight’s performance, you’ll be able to see a video of it on Church Hill People’s News.

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