Where you live in Richmond won’t necessarily kill you, but it can give you an unwelcome head start toward the grave.
Take Gilpin Court, Richmond’s oldest public housing community, whose residents have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than residents across the James River in Westover Hills, a mere 5½ miles away.
That’s one of the calculations by researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They created a map that shows 63 as the life expectancy in Gilpin, compared with 83 in Westover Hills — the largest gap uncovered so far in a yearlong study that has mapped several other cities and could complete 15 others by summer.
Charlene Pitchford lives in Gilpin Court, once the northernmost section of Jackson Ward called Apostle Town because of streets such as St. Peter, St. Paul and St. James. Standing outside the Calhoun Family Investment Center, she said the gap in life expectancy reflects the community’s need for more education, transportation and grocery stores and fewer fast-food establishments.
“It doesn’t shock me. But it just saddens me,” said Pitchford, “because it’s nothing that I can do at this point unless we as a community decide that we want to change.”
The center, near the northwest corner of Gilpin Court, includes a pool that has been closed since May 2013, removing a potential source of fitness, recreation and life-saving swimming instruction from within walking distance of Gilpin’s families. A receptionist inside the center said the pool needs extensive repairs. But two years?
“We can have resources, but if the community doesn’t buy into it, it’s not going to work,” Pitchford said. “And we as a community, we have to be accountable for ourselves as well. We have to say, ‘We’re tired of this.’ We’ve got to want to change.”
The same could be said for Richmond, where various organizations appear eager to engage this disparity and others. Derek Chapman, associate director for research for VCU’s Center on Society and Health, said a goal of the mapmaking is to raise awareness and stimulate innovative solutions — “to get the right people at the table to generate this discussion that will lead to the next step.”
“Every place we look, we see this very wide difference in life expectancies across very short distances,” Chapman said. That Richmond’s have been larger could be attributable to the use of census tract data from the Virginia Department of Health, rather than the data from ZIP codes and the other larger population samplings used in other cities, he said.
Communities in the region differ vastly in the resources available for residents to pursue g…
Census tracts tend to have consistent characteristics like poverty and income, he said, noting that about 72 percent of the population in the Gilpin census tract lives in poverty, compared with 3.5 percent in Westover Hills.
“There’s a direct correlation between where you live and life expectancy, and poverty maps very closely, as do other factors,” such as access to healthy foods, education, transportation and safe neighborhoods, he said.
The latter looms large in the view of Gilpin Court resident Shanika Williams, 24, “because I have experienced a homicide in these areas plenty of times of someone close to me, compared to a neighborhood that’s not in the projects.”
Education increases the likelihood that a person will have knowledge of healthy options and earn a higher income in a job that provides access to those options, as well as health insurance, Chapman said.
The dramatic disparities among Richmond census tracts are a result of multiple policies that have concentrated disadvantage and curtailed opportunity, said Thad Williamson, director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Wealth Building, an innovative poverty-fighting initiative. He noted that efforts are underway to tackle those disparities by the Office of Wealth Building, the Richmond City Health District and other groups.
“It just dramatizes the connection between community wealth and community health,” he said. “It’s very useful, because I don’t think we can have enough reminders in the community of the urgency of action.”
Community forces on the ground are doing what they can.
On May 30, Friends Association for Children in Gilpin Court will host a community health fair for its member children and families and the entire Gilpin community. The event will include tips on nutrition, exercise and available resources, as well as health screenings.
On Saturday, The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club will host the third annual Hoops for Health and Healthy Living Festival, an event inspired by a January 2013 article by Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Tammie Smith documenting similar life expectancy disparities between residents of the East End and West End.
The event will feature more than 25 community organizations providing “accidental education” on healthy lifestyles through diet, recreation and education. The activity-oriented event goes beyond placing literature on the table, with groups such as Tricycle Gardens teaching people how to make smoothies from produce grown in their own garden, said Matthew Pochily, spokesman for The Salvation Army Central Virginia.
“I have a great deal of confidence that if we continue to practice, show and engage the audience and the community with healthy living practices, that we can over time make a dent in this,” he said.
Public and private policy helped create these unhealthy communities. These maps have documented a level of disparity that eats away at our city like a cancer. We must be accountable, change course and strive to make Richmond a destination where everyone can have the expectation of a long life.