Where's Westhaven at? [with video!]

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Where's Westhaven at? [with video!]

Go long! UVA cornerback Chris Cook prepares to dunk Mayor Brown, whose taunts of "Bring it on" had that distinct underwater sound seconds after this picture was taken.

Mayor David Brown unzips his shorts, dropping them to his ankles, and removes his shirt. Naked except for a pair of black swim trunks, he climbs up the ladder to the platform, turns to the crowd and raises his arms. "Bring it on!" he says. "Bring it on." Sheriff Cornelia Johnson, splendid in her brown uniform with yellow brocade and a big hat, pays $1 and steps up to the line. She eyes the mayor, takes aim and fires. The rubber ball rockets into the dirt, well short of the target. The sheriff, surprise, surprise, throws like a girl.

It’s Saturday, August 4, the 10th annual Westhaven Community Day, and at 10am, Hardy Drive is blocked off at both ends and cars are lining the adjoining streets along Eighth and Page. Though I was born in Charlottesville and grew up in Albemarle County, I hadn’t known where Westhaven was until a few days ago. More cars pull in as I park. It’s hot and getting hotter. Stretching away from the stage in the center of the street are tables staffed by various organizations that provide services to the residents of the city’s oldest public housing project and that today are providing free pens, fake tattoos, candy and church fans.

Plenty is going on here, crammed into the small stretch of street that runs through Westhaven. The police have set up an obstacle course with orange cones, and the preteen set is lining up to navigate it on a pocket bicycle, little knees up by little heads, wobbling clown-like but serious around the course, while a cop yells color commentary through a cone: "Gregory Taylor, making his way down the track…he checks behind him to see if anyone is catching up, but he’s way out ahead!"


Pocket man: Neither 90-degree temps nor teeny-weeny little pedals deter kids on the obstacle course.

Just up from the tikes-on-bikes is a big, rubber, bouncy castle, packed with kids careening off the walls and into each other, and next to that is the dunking booth, where the mayor, seated on the spring-loaded platform, chest alarmingly white, repeats, "Bring it on!" One buck gets you three throws, and after Sheriff Johnson fails to dunk the mayor, he calls out to Chris Cook, a UVA cornerback, taunting him. Cook throws the football from, like, three times the official distance, casually, not really trying, and hits the trigger. The mayor goes down ass first. Through the window in the booth, you can see his body descend in slow motion, amid bubbles and spraying water, arms and legs over his head. He resurfaces, sodden and grinning. Cook stands with two other football players, all of them looking like they aren’t sure what to do when they’re not on the field, and lobs casual, loooonnngg passes down the street to the kids.


Exclusive video from Westhaven Community Day.

An hour into the all-day affair, it’s heating up, literally and figuratively. The sun beats down, and the DJ playing loud music under a big lawn umbrella turns an electric fan face down on his receiver to keep it cool. The street is filling with residents, friends and volunteers. Kids and bicycles and scooters weave in and out. The organizations whose tables line the street illustrate both who is investing in the community and the problems that must be faced: the Bookmobile, the Music Resource Center and youth media workshop Light House. New Beginnings Church adjoins an End the War/Impeach Bush table. National College, UVA, PVCC and Virginia Tech have set up tables, as have Planned Parenthood, the AIDS Service Group (providing free testing all day), and the Sexual Assault Resource Agency. A guy twists balloon animals. There’s a snow cone booth and cotton candy. It is a block party, yes, but with a pronounced undercurrent of poverty, politics and race.

Farther down, in the last apartment on Westhaven’s east end, Maybelle Kenney sits on her porch surrounded by plants and eating some lunch. The music is muted. Ms. Kenney has lived here "40-some years" and tells me that this is the biggest Community Day yet. She is not well: She’s just started on a kidney machine; she has a slipped disc and diabetes. Her doctor says she shouldn’t be out in the heat, so she sits in the shade with the door open to let an air-conditioned breeze blow on her back. "I’m not going up there," she says, craning her head around the porch column to look up toward the music, "but I really am enjoying myself." She sits back and pauses to eat some more potato chips before continuing, "It’s a beautiful community; it’s just the outside people that come in and do wrong."


Like a Polaroid picture: Girls belonging to the Men and Women of Distinction Social Club take over Hardy Drive.

The first Westhaven Community Day in 1997 was a half-day event organized so residents could get to know each other. Joy Johnson, Westhaven’s longtime beating heart and raised voice, moves over to make room on the cooler full of drinks where she is sitting in front of the Neighborhood Policing Substation. At the next Community Day, she tells me, they decided to bring in the people who served the community—many of whom didn’t actually know where Westhaven was.

Johnson issues commands and takes questions while she talks to me, finally answering one from me as she readies to move on. What is your favorite part of Community Day? "Watching all the kids have fun," she replies, "and being able to showcase that our kids have talents." She pauses, looks at me, and then adds with wry smile, "They all have white t-shirts on, but they ain’t in gangs."


The Men and Women of Distinction Social Club puts on a dance in the street. Eight girls, maybe 5 to 16, are wearing black shirts with the club name on them, and white shorts, and the DJ plays James Brown’s "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag" and, like the song says, they do the Monkey, and the Mashed Potato, and the Twist, feet stutter-stepping on the sizzling pavement, faces sweaty, turning cartwheels and then doing splits, as the crowd waves their fans in slow synch. A male step group from the Omega Psi Phi, known as Que ("kew"), is up next, in purple shirts, camouflage ranger’s hats, and combat boots painted gold. Two of them proudly display fraternity brands on their bare skin, the scars puffed up and glistening. Their dance is more like martial arts, all muscularity and growls. They stomp, chant and pose. At the third song, there is a rush as the girls and the younger kids join the True Ques, everybody doing the moves together: Slide to the left, take it back now y’all, two hops, left foot stomp, Charlie Brown! Take it back now, Cha Cha! Let me hear you clap your hands!
   
Lounging against the railing in front of the Policing Substation, Wayne Arabie tells me what he just told the TV cameras: "Everybody says this is a bad neighborhood. This ain’t a bad neighborhood. It’s the elements that come in here from outside." In June, Westhaven was in the news again for the city’s first murder of the year—its reputation as a haven for criminals reinforced, despite the fact that neither the presumed shooter nor the victim were Westhaven residents. I ask Arabie why these outsiders come to Westhaven, but his wife, Teresa, answers: "Because they don’t have to live here."

Wayne and Teresa lived in Westhaven for eight years, before moving to Louisa. The first thing Teresa was told when they moved to Charlottesville and applied for public housing was "Stay out of Westhaven." She was terrified when she found out that they had indeed been placed there. She sat in the truck crying and had to be dragged into her new home, she says. But they stayed and raised their kids and come back often to visit a place that now feels more like home to them than anywhere else. 

What the Arabies hope is that Community Day next year will see the many businesses that have made donations today (businesses such as Plan 9 and Whole Foods) actually attending and taking part. They want to see more people from "outside." "Outside" they say, from "the rich city" of Charlottesville. Wayne and Teresa tell me repeatedly how proud they are to have been Westhaven residents and how much they love the Westhaven community. Never once do they substitute "Charlottesville" for "Westhaven." It sounds, I point out, as if they are talking about two different worlds. "Westhaven was built in a hole so that UVA couldn’t see us," Teresa says. She looks at me intently. "They’re scared of us," she says, and then lowers her voice, "but we’re just like them."

By 4pm Community Day is winding down. There will be dancing until 8pm, but the information tables are cleared, the dunking booth is empty, and the bouncy castle is deflated. People are heading back to their houses, kids are grouping off to dance or goof around. A young man rides by on his bicycle and I see that he has "CRIPS" tattooed on the inside of his forearm.

All day I have been an outsider looking in, seeing Westhaven for the first time. UVA can’t see Westhaven despite the fact that it sits just on the other side of the not-entirely metaphorical railroad tracks from W. Main Street, less than a mile from the Corner and the Rotunda. Most of Charlottesville can’t see Westhaven, tucked away in a crescent bowl at the exact center of the city. From Westhaven you can’t see the doublewide trailer in Louisa that the Arabies were eventually able to move into. But from the brick and tan stucco housing units, dirty and soot streaked, you can see—clearly rising up above the laundry lines and small, fenced yards—the Tyvek-covered skeletons of some of Charlottesville’s expensive new condos.

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