Citizen speaks out on lack of attention to Suffolk’s downtown neighborhood

Published 6:34 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

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The deterioration of Suffolk’s downtown areas, particularly of its African-American sections, brought about a lively discussion at Wednesday’s City County meeting.

Suffolk resident Denise Murden raised the issue during the public’s portion of the March 1 meeting. This follows the recent concerns from John F. Riddick on the deteriorating condition of the neighborhoods in downtown Suffolk. Riddick is the son of Hayward Miles Riddick, Suffolk’s first black mailman, and nephew of both Moses A. Riddick, the city’s first black vice mayor, and Deputy John Riddick, who is both one of the first black deputy sheriffs in Nansemond County and served the School Board for 50 years.

“When Mr. John Riddick spoke out through the Suffolk News-Herald and then again before this council that our city’s historic African-American neighborhoods were being overlooked, I wanted to understand more and see for myself what he was saying,” Murden told council. “I gave him a call and a friend and I spent an entire afternoon with him seeing for ourselves what it is like to live in these neighborhoods.”

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Murden said she and a friend went around the area with Riddick who shared with them the conditions of the neighborhood, which had “modest, low-income houses that were mostly well cared for” by mostly African-American citizens.

“What struck me the most is how difficult and time consuming it must be to get your groceries, fill your prescriptions, visit the doctor, use the library and fill up your gas tank,” Murden said.  “I live in King’s Fork Farm right behind the high school and I have four full service grocery stores within five miles of my home and a fifth under construction that will be less than a mile away. I have access to two pharmacies a mile away that are across the street from one another. I also live one mile from Obici Hospital and all the medical facilities surrounding it. And within two miles I have access to eight, yes, eight gas stations.”

Murden then compared the growth in other parts of the city while noting the lack of attention to the downtown area owned predominantly by African-American communities.

“It doesn’t seem to be for lack of places to put stores and gas stations,” she told council. “Mr. Riddick showed us several buildings that could, and should be knocked down. And there are several vacant lots that could easily accommodate some of the services that the community requires.”

During closing comments, Councilman LeOtis Williams addressed City Manager Albert S. Moor II on the process of placing murals in the area both Riddick and Murden addressed, while asking Deputy City Manager Kevin Hughes to speak on the current project of 10 to 12 new city lights being made within the deteriorated neighborhood.

“Currently, we have I believe, 10 or 12, I can’t remember the exact number, under design that will allow us to continue the lights that we wrapped around the light poles that you can see on Main and Washington Street, towards that Phoenix Bank block also down Hall Avenue as well,” Hughes said.

He explained they have developed a design with Dominion Power in place now and are moving towards installation. 

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have it in place by say, end of spring, beginning of summer. It’s hard to nail them down on our timelines, but we have them in possession, and we’re finalizing the design right now,” Hughes said.

Timothy Johnson acknowledged both Murden and Riddick’s comments on the issue, while also suggesting he make his concerns known through the 2045 Comprehensive Plan and let the planners know his feelings.

“Ms. Murden, what you said tonight about Mr. Riddick,  I’ve had a conversation with Mr. Riddick this week as well. You’re spot on,” Johnson said.

Vice Mayor Lue Ward, who was also the former member of the Nansemond Suffolk branch of the NAACP, thanked both Murden and Riddick for speaking out on the issues in the neighborhood.

“This has been going on for a while, but I always get in trouble for saying it, but I gotta say it like I feel it,” Ward said. “It means a lot for you to come in there, in the community. Because some of the people, you’re right,  they’re not listening.”

He said it takes somebody else from the outside to come in to get the point across.

“They got a saying, ‘It’s not the message, it’s the messenger.’ And you were the messenger tonight,” he added.

Ward reflected on the downtown area by noting that there was a Food Lion in White Marsh that left. He noted that they kept their lease, which resulted in those same downtown citizens having to travel to the Food Lion center on Portsmouth Boulevard.

“That wasn’t no coincidence,” Ward said. “Back in the days, Washington D.C. came here and said it was a food desert. How they didn’t have milk there. They didn’t have a lot of things going on right in that area.” 

He said this was the only store there on White Marsh Road.

“They took the store from that community. This is not something nobody don’t know,” Ward said. “We see it. So that area has been suffering for a while, and we do have elected officials who are elected in their community. Their job is to work for your community and represent your community. That’s not saying that nobody had nobody there to speak for them, they did. They do. And what you said tonight got to cut us.”

Ward thanked both Riddick and Murden again for speaking out.

“Mr. Riddick when you came in, you said it right. I rode around the community and looked at all this blatant area and looked at the houses, you said it right,” Ward said.

The good thing about it is that the new developments are coming and can make some of the community better than it used to be, he said.

“I’m glad you came because I tell people, ‘come to Council,’ because I can sit up here and talk like I’m talking now and the first thing they’re going to say ‘Ain’t nobody here.’ You got to indulge, this is your city. You gotta come,” Ward said.