The tenth installment in a monthly series in which a hometown Richmonder who has spent over a decade abroad explores the many different neighborhoods accessible by GRTC bus lines to discover the ways transit connects us all.
From the wrought iron railings to the red brick rowhouses’ done up in the Greek Revival, Italianate, and Late Victorian styles popular after the Civil War, the architecture of Jackson Ward exudes a confidence and a class few Richmond neighborhoods can rival. Much of that beauty and charm also feels interrupted. The vacant parcels, surface parking lots, and — of late — modernist infill developments are the scars of a war the city waged against this ward.
After the Union conquered the Confederacy, prominent cities across the South were divided into wards. Although Richmond eventually shifted to our current district system of representation, a couple of the city’s six wards — Clay, Madison, Marshall, Monroe, Jefferson, and Jackson — cling on in common parlance.
From its inception, Jackson Ward was a haven for freed Blacks who had bought their way out of bondage. Released into the hostile world of the postbellum South, many former slaves congregated in such preexisting Black communities to find safety, livelihoods, and community.
The confluence of these two distinct groups of Americans triggered a renaissance embodied by the neighborhood’s dual nicknames: “Black Wall Street” and the “Harlem of the South.” Everyone knows the names Maggie Walker and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but few ask why little more than a pair of statues are left to remind us of their rich legacy.
In 1940, the General Assembly established the Richmond Housing Authority, which had the power to condemn any property within the city. The plans drafted by an all-White firm and approved by an all-White City Council targeted Jackson Ward — a prosperous Black community in no need of “redevelopment.” As if the message to Richmond’s Black population couldn’t have been made any clearer, the first area to be razed was Apostle Town, a sub-neighborhood immediately adjacent to Maggie Walker’s historic Penny Savings Bank.
RHA condemned middle class Black families’ homes en masse to build the broad urban boulevards, office buildings, freeways, and megaprojects symbolic of this era of racist “urban renewal,” like the Richmond Coliseum and the Greater Richmond Convention Center. The destruction of Black wealth and displacement of Black communities was intentional. Over the course of the 1950s alone, RHA condemned and demolished 4,700 homes and replaced them with just 1,736 units of public housing.
City voters twice rejected the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (today’s I-95) only to have the General Assembly overrule them and lay out the highway’s path straight through the heart of Jackson Ward. In Richmond’s Unhealed History, local pastor Ben Campbell recounts how the new interstate “destroyed 1,000 homes, cut a block-wide barrier canyon through what had been the neighborhood’s historic center, blocked 31 streets, and eliminated pedestrian pathways between the newly created halves.” If you can imagine state lawmakers demolishing Carytown to build a new highway through Richmond, then you can begin to understand how powerless and devastated locals must have felt.
This calculated pattern of tearing apart Black, urban communities was repeated again and again to construct the Downtown Expressway and wipe the neighborhood of Fulton Bottom off the map — all to ease the commute of suburban Whites fleeing their Black neighbors. Only once Black people controlled five of Richmond’s nine City Council seats did the all-out war on their communities taper off.
By this time the damage was done and Richmond had achieved the dubious superlative of having the sixth highest concentration of public housing in the nation, thanks to five “courts” clustered in the East End. Concentrated poverty and absentee landlords left the area to deteriorate for decades, until Jackson Ward’s designation as a historic district in 1978 laid the foundation for its turnaround.
Beginning in the late 80s, historic tax credits powered home renovations. The First Fridays Art Walks revived the neighborhood’s reputation as a cultural center. Unfortunately, money flowed into the area but not into long-term residents’ pockets. What began the new millennium as a majority-Black neighborhood had already become two-thirds White by 2010.
As Jackson Ward regains its status as a coveted downtown neighborhood filled with lively bars, engaging theaters, and delicious restaurants, it enters into a new crisis, one of identity: what does it mean to be a Black neighborhood without Black people?
Few things are easier than catching the bus from Jackson Ward to Randolph. It’s impossible to miss it, since 3rd Street is the start of the route. The bus shows up early and idles, allowing passengers plenty of time to board before its punctual departure. Taking transit from Randolph to Jackson Ward presents an entirely different experience.
Standing with my friend V on South Lombardy — bellies rumbling with hunger — it felt like the 78 was never going to come. That feeling of waiting forever was partly due to the stop’s lack of a bench or shelter. Studies show that people perceive wait times to be a third shorter when stops have such necessities, or even a tree. A couple blocks away we could see a concrete pad, bench, and trash can left over from a stop abandoned in the great route redesign.
Transit app showed our bus would arrive in seven minutes. Thanks to the app’s live tracking updates every 20 seconds, we could see the bus was indeed seven minutes up the route from us. The problem was that the bus sat in that exact spot for thirteen minutes. I almost asked the driver what the hold up had been, but since the 78 only runs once per hour I was just happy that we caught it at all.
Due to the 78’s lack of frequency, the bus was nearly full. This route is the only hope for residents of Byrd Park, Randolph, and Maymont to get out of their neighborhoods via transit. Cycling between Carytown and Broad Street, the 78 serves mostly as a shuttle to get riders to the far more frequent routes of the 5 and the Pulse.
As the bus left Randolph and zipped across the city, we picked up time fast. Most passengers left us at the inaccurately named VCU/VUU Pulse station. Once we arrived at Mama J’s, all tardiness was forgiven.
Walking through Randolph, it’s hard not to feel like this neighborhood has been misplaced. The area reeks of the 1980s: light colored brick, plastic siding, soulless architecture all around. Its streets have more in common with a subdivision in Henrico or Chesterfield than neighboring Byrd Park and Oregon Hill. It’s clear that suburbia colonized this corner of the city, begging the question of what it used to be.
Dense blocks of charming rowhouses once stretched south from Broad Street through the Fan and all the way to the James. Consult any map from a century ago, and Richmond’s grid reveals itself to be a contiguous layout of natural urban growth. Many of the Fan’s streets like Colonial Avenue used to be grand North-South promenades people clamored to live on. Today, many of them dead-end at the Downtown Expressway.
Before Blacks could take the majority on City Council, urban renewal claimed one last victim: Randolph. Middle-class Black families began moving in to the southern half of the Fan in the 1950s and 60s as White families fled school integration in favor of Richmond’s economically (and de facto racially) segregated suburbs.
The Downtown Expressway killed multiple birds with one expensive stone. It eased the commute of said fleeing Whites. It plowed through a Black neighborhood, forcing the eviction and removal of hundreds of families from the area without just compensation. Lastly, it set up a clear dividing line between the affluent communities of today’s Fan and Museum District and the undesirable communities of Maymont, Oregon Hill, and Randolph.
As if plowing a massive interstate through the middle of the city wasn’t bad enough, RHA, led by White officials, began razing what remained of Randolph. Families were displaced with nowhere to go, and the land sat vacant and unused for years. Only thanks to the lobbying of former residents did the then-majority-Black City Council direct Richmond’s housing authority (renamed RRHA to include “redevelopment”) to rebuild the area.
Under the motto “Build a neighborhood, not a project,” RRHA laid out a pattern-book of new housing, including duplexes, single family homes, and townhouses. Surrounding three community parks, entirely new streetscapes were designed to give the area a suburban feel. Over the course of the 1980s, a mix of public housing and Section-8 subsidized rentals began to spring up.
Private development initially stayed away for fear that no one would want to buy homes near public housing. Over the past thirty years, Randolph has finally filled out with every variation of a suburban looking abode possible. The result has become one of Richmond’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods. Today, older Black homeowners mix with young multiracial renters rather seamlessly.
Betsy Jones, a Randolph native involved in the area’s redevelopment, sums up many residents’ feelings rather succinctly: “I’m proud of what we accomplished. However, we lost a lot of older residents through the original renewal efforts, and that was very painful.”
As Richmond’s housing shortage intensifies, Randolph’s affordable homes and prime location between the Fan, the James River, Maymont, and Byrd Park has not gone unnoticed. The neighborhood’s renewed desirability is triggering a “metamorphosis,” according to one developer.
What that means for Black homeowners and renters is displacement. Just 21 percent of Randolph residents were White in 2012. Since then 68 percent of the neighborhood’s home loans have gone to White buyers. Within a decade, a neighborhood named after the Commonwealth’s most famous Black educator — Virginia Randolph — could have very few Black residents outside its public and Section-8 housing.
Our city and the residents who dwell within it are ever-changing. Many of the areas we today consider Black neighborhoods, such as Highland Park, began their lives as immigrant communities mixing Catholic Europeans from a variety of countries. The question that stands before Richmond today is not if we will change as a city, but how.
We have the power to choose density over displacement. We can cap our downtown highways with green space, creating the infra-sutures needed to heal the rifts in our urban landscape. If we choose to do nothing, or fight adding housing, then we can’t be surprised a decade from now when those we call our neighbors today have nowhere left to live.
Top Photo by Wyatt Gordon