'Church Hill People's News' bringing community together

By Phil Riggan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Church Hill is Richmond's first and oldest neighborhood.  It's geographic, economic and racial diversity can breed tension -- and pride.  But its one resident's mission to help everybody meet in the middle.

John Murden runs the Church Hill People's News blog.  He has an appreciation for the old homes and history of the neighborhood. Originally from Chesterfield County, he moved to Church Hill in 2003.

"I've always loved the old houses and coming from the suburbs, when I got downtown I realized how fantastic it was just to live in the old architecture," he said.

He's also a teacher at Martin Luther King middle school in Church Hill.

"Moving in to a part of the neighborhood that was more directly faced with some of the urban challenges has I think been a strong piece of me becoming involved, and possibly me running the site," he said.  "Working where I live and walking to work every day and being out in the neighborhood and seeing my students -- It's a connection that re-enforces the whole package."

In his part time, between grading papers and renovating houses, he runs the blog -- serving the Church Hill community for the past five years.

"It started as a response site. I noticed we were showing up in the news a lot -- for good stuff and bad stuff," Murden said. "We needed a place where we can talk about how our neighborhood is perceived from the outside."

Residents began sending him items to post -- things that were important for the neighborhood to talk about.

"There was a summer where a guy was breaking into a bunch of houses," he recalled. "He hit like 60 houses up here -- I remember, he had gotten out of jail and needed something to do, so that's what he did.

"We were tracking ... 'he's on this block' -- People were starting to come together on the site to realize what was going on."

The site has evolved into a place where residents can meet and discuss community issues.

"I go to civic association meetings for my neighborhood and the ones around -- so I know people.  It's a close-knit environment up here."

He said the blog grafts on to the existing civic structure, and he tries to keep everyone involved.

He points out "we have public housing up here and we have multi-hundred thousand dollar homes in the park back here, and that's part of what I think makes the site work so well is the variety."

He says sometimes topics come up that reveal neighborhood friction or tension -- between racial lines, geographic lines, class lines.

"I never know what's going to really get people going," he said.

So how does he have time for blogging?

"Most of the site happens in the morning when I'm drinking my coffee," Murden admitted, estimating that about 60% of the updates come at that time.

He attempts to be neutral and objective with the blog and he doesn't claim to be a journalist adding: "I'm four sentences and a really good picture if I'm lucky and that's usually enough."

He has posted several projects, including his photo essay on 100 vacant houses in Church Hill, inspired by a similar project in Detroit.

"I was like 'Oh gosh, I could do that in my neighborhood' -- I don't need a whole city for that," he said.

It complimented another project called Before and After -- showing what a house looked like from run-down to renovated.

"We've got a lot of houses that were vacant 5-6 years ago that are fantastic houses to live in now," he said.

He said that some people that have moved to Church Hill in the past few years tell him the blog helped them choose the neighborhood and that it has given them a sense of connectivity to the district.

The site has also helped bring people together on community issues. Residents kept getting in trouble with Richmond's animal control officers for letting their dogs roam free at Chimborazo Park.

"People realized that to be able to take their dogs to the park something has to be done and that ended up being a dog park," he said. Residents used the blog to get organized and make plans, resulting in the dog park, which opened in August of 2008.

Murden also has a hand in a few other community blogs in Richmond. Find links to those sites under the associated links in the upper right side of this story.

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