From San Juan to Richmond

July 23, 2014
Living and learning in urban America

The eldest part of the capital city of Puerto Rico, known as Old San Juan, is lined with narrow cobblestone streets and colonial-style buildings dating as far back as the 16th century to the city's founding.

Elsewhere in San Juan, modern buildings decorate affluent neighborhoods while businesspeople scurry to and from work. There’s also a socially diversified community, home to a state university and medical sciences campus; a financial district; an arts district; and an area settled by ex-slaves.

And then, there's the impoverished and polluted community living along the Martin Pena Canal.

“The similarities and opportunities for comparative analysis between San Juan and Richmond are much deeper than I could have ever imagined,” says Urban Americas professor Amy Howard.

As the students in her Urban Americas, a Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) class, have learned, it’s not just San Juan’s history or cityscape that parallel the city of Richmond. Urban communities across the continent struggle with complex, interconnected issues like poverty, pollution, transportation, housing, food access, and education.

“I want students to think about how these issues intersect and what their role is as citizens to individually or collectively address them,” says Howard, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE).

She and her students spent five days exploring the Puerto Rican capital and meeting with community members and activists. They spoke with an architect and urban planner working to restore Old San Juan; met with members of the Flamboyan Foundation for education reform; rode the Tren Urbano, the city's rapid transit system; and explored the villages and polluted waterways of the Martin Pena Canal.

Martin Pena Canal and food justice

“(Visiting the Martin Pena Canal) was the most impactful part of the Puerto Rico trip for me, because I'm really passionate about social justice issues,” says Karolina Castro, ’16.

Displaced Puerto Ricans built shanty homes atop a garbage heap beside the canal during the Great Depression. Since an adequate sewer system was never built, the village and canal floods with human sewage and pollution regularly.

“They can't even eat the fruit that grows from the trees because the land is so toxic,” says Castro. But they are doing something about it.

“(Residents) claimed their agency and created positive change for themselves and their neighbors,” says Howard, by banding together to secure a land trust and cleaning up the landfill and canal.

“Sometimes, these persistent (urban) problems feel overwhelming, like nothing can be done. So, to see an example of positive social change that community members themselves made possible was very exciting for all of us,” continues Howard.

Back in Richmond, Castro and her teammates used the lessons they learned in Puerto Rico to work with local nonprofits, such as William Byrd Community House and Peter Paul Development Center, both partners in the CCE's Richmond Families Initiative civic-engagement program, to provide low-income urban residents access to nutritious food.

Tren Urbano and mass rapid transit

“The first thing I noticed riding the Tren Urbano was that it's gorgeous. It looks like a piece of art,” says Harry Lambert, ’16. “The second thing I noticed was that it was nearly empty and very quiet.”

The 10-mile transit system, similar to the New York subway, was built in 2004 and projected to carry 100,000 riders daily by 2010. Today, it receives less than one-quarter of that projection, due to its limited route.

“The choice of where to put the line was political and not efficacious,” says Howard. So it simply doesn't go where people need it to.

Lambert and his teammates partnered with RVA Rapid Transit and made great strides in the organization’s mission of bringing mass rapid transit to Richmond. However, political partisanship has prevented rapid transit from coming to Richmond in the past, and continues to threaten its future, making the lessons Lambert and his classmates learned in Puerto Rico even more important.

Building community

As a Living-Learning program, community is at the heart of every SSIR. The yearlong courses begin with a semester of research and community-based learning. During winter break, students and faculty travel together to further explore the lessons learned in fall and prepare students for their capstone projects, which are completed and presented in spring.

“For me, it is almost the perfect vehicle for community-based learning because the expectation is that you’re going to build community and do things outside of class together,” says Howard.

And the students seem to agree.

“I was a little nervous going in,” says Lambert, “but because of the way the community was structured, I came to know each person on a new level. We laughed, we cried, and we struggled together.