Flowers crowd out protests in Richmond’s newly reopened Lee circle

RICHMOND — Earl Gary pushed a wheelbarrow full of yellow-flowered tickseed, stopping every so often to drop a plant into the earth along the edge of the traffic circle where protesters once marched and sang and sprayed graffiti.

The state removed the iconic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from this site in 2021, leaving a barren field surrounded by a chain-link fence and a concrete Jersey wall. This week, the fence finally came down, and Gary’s landscaping company put the finishing touches on a dense layout of some 6,000 flowers, shrubs and trees that cover all traces of the past.

White companies wouldn’t remove Confederate statues. So a Black man did it.

“This all symbolizes rebirth, regrowth and change in the city,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in an interview.

What it doesn’t do, though, is re-create the public gathering place that put the site on the world’s stage. The new circle features no benches, no real pathways, no open areas — and no reminder of the reckoning that took place here with powerful symbols of racist history.

That has led some to say that the $100,000 landscaping project misses a significant chance to build on the potential for healing unleashed by that spontaneous civic uprising. In 2020, people filled the circle with voter registration tables, art installations, gospel choirs, speeches, nighttime light projections, food and water giveaways, and even a basketball hoop — all in the middle of the city’s most prestigious and beautiful residential avenue.

No longer untouchable, Richmond’s Lee statue becomes focus of civic outpouring

“It looks absolutely horrific, it’s not welcoming at all,” said Princess Blanding, whose brother, Marcus-David Peters, a Black man, was killed by Richmond police during a mental health crisis in 2018. Protesters renamed the circle in her brother’s honor.

“It was reclaimed by the people for the people,” Blanding said. “What the people made it into was a very welcoming place that was very diverse, it encouraged the community and welcomed the community. … What we have now is a very cold space that is not inviting, that is not safe to access.”

The new garden “was designed for people not to be there,” said Ana Edwards, a longtime advocate for memorializing Richmond’s Black history. “I’m sure beautification was what was in mind. But the fact is that it was really remarkable as a community gathering space that really represented a tipping-point moment [for the city]. So not only did the city eradicate the statues, they also eradicated the historic moment that was made in 2020, and that’s too bad.”

Protesters mourn the loss of their most powerful icon of resistance.

Residents of the historic homes along Monument Avenue have long been caught in the middle. Though a handful filed suit to try to save the statue, far more came out in favor of removal and openly supported the protests. Over time, though, even supporters grew weary of the noise, the traffic, the urinating on lawns and the nighttime police incidents.

When the City Council began debating the landscaping plan last fall, members of the neighborhood group Historic Monument Avenue asked that the wall around the circle remain in place until all the work was done.

“Regardless of how meritorious the protests were, it was never intended to be an open meeting space. It’s a traffic median,” said Michael Lantz, president of HMA. One day, he said, the city should figure out a permanent way to beautify the spot — maybe a European-style fountain or some other kind of public art.

“I think there needs to be a deliberative thought process … which will take into account varied interests and will respect all the various parties involved,” Lantz said. Then-governor Ralph Northam (D) asked the General Assembly to earmark more than $10 million for an ambitious effort to re-envision Monument Avenue in 2021, but that effort was abandoned after the state decided to hand the site over to city ownership later that year.

Janice Hall Nuckolls, whose house looks out at the circle, said she likes the new landscaping. “I’m happy to have the walls down and the fence down,” she said. “The complaints I’ve heard are that it’s way over-planted; however, that was done purposely because this was not designed to be a park for people to go in and gather and congregate.”

It’s too dangerous for pedestrians to cut across the busy street to get to it, she said — adding that decades ago, the city had to take down an iron fence around the circle because so many cars hit it.

Two years after protests, some of Richmond’s Confederate statues remain

Edwards, the Black historian, said the city could make the site more accessible if it wanted to. “It’s just a matter of will and intention,” she said.

City officials call the landscaping a temporary solution until someone can come up with a long-term plan. Stoney — who is Black and has 16 months left as mayor before term limits kick in — said he’s turning his attention to another part of the city: Shockoe Bottom, near downtown, where plans are in the works for a major museum recognizing Richmond’s past as a center of the slave trade.

“We know that just because we removed the monuments and landscaped the circle that racism and bigotry and division haven’t ended. We still have a lot of work to do as a community and as a country,” Stoney said. “It’s our hope that we have all grown from what occurred in 2020 and we can continue to build on that.”

For Gary, 48, a Black military veteran whose company, YME Landscape, won the contract to put the plants in the circle, the project is a special opportunity. He grew up in Richmond and used to pass by Lee and other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue without giving them much thought. But he came to realize that as symbols of racism, they kept society from being able to heal its divisions.

“I think it’s good for both sides not to have a monument that stood for something we know was opposed to unity or togetherness,” he said, pausing to wipe sweat from his forehead.

Behind him, in the center of the circle, Brandon Fountain knelt to look into a cluster of purple coneflowers. Fountain, 32, became known as Bee the Gardener during the protests of 2020. He nurtured a public garden behind the statue that withered and died after the fencing went up.

Fountain cultivated a new spot next to a nearby church and has continued to come to the circle almost every day. After the fence finally came down, he walked into the circle on Thursday morning, played some music on his phone and did a quiet dance of celebration.

“I think it’s good,” he said later. “I would much prefer this over what’s been there the last two or three years.”

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