The third installment of a monthly series in which a hometown Richmonder who has spent a decade abroad explores the many different neighborhoods accessible by GRTC bus lines to discover the ways transit connects us all.
Even the keenest of eyes could fail to notice the nondescript Doric column in the median of Route 1 announcing: “Richmond City Limit.” Here, at the border of the city’s Southside and northern Chesterfield County, the two localities bleed into one another. Even GRTC reaches beyond the cartographic boundary, extending Route 3 another mile into Chesterfield — the municipality which owns a fifty percent stake in GRTC, but so far pays for just a single route of the three that serve its residents.
Could anyone along this corridor tell you that the Clopton neighborhood was named after John B. Clopton, a state senator that served in the War of 1812? Who remembers that Ampt Hill used to be a plantation back in the 1730s? Does anyone at all know how people began calling this area Bensley? These historic place names have no meaning today.
That’s why I want us to coin a new name for the area: Jefe Davis. Currently most Richmonders refer to this stretch of Route 1 by the Confederate president it honors, but by replacing his forename with “Jefe” — Spanish for “boss” or Mexican slang for “dad” — we could instead subvert the name’s aggressive whiteness with an irreverent wink to the culture of the area’s fastest growing group: Latinos.
Over the past decade, the Richmond region’s Latinx population has exploded. The 2010 census recorded just 13,689 Latinos in our region; however, that population is expected to grow to over 111,581 people by 2020, according to UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center. That same report, commissioned by the General Assembly and released to the public earlier this year, anticipates greater Richmond’s Latinx population to break 207,581 by 2030 and exceed 332,337 by 2040.
So far, that growth is centered along Route 1 from Willis Road up to Terminal Avenue. Anyone who has driven north through Jefe Davis has surely noticed the concentration of enticing Hispanic eateries that stretches from La Michoacana (the region’s premier paleta shop) up to Azteca (a Mexican grill that garnered criticism at the last City Council meeting for its open air cooking). Some of Virginia’s finest tacos are sold here in the parking lot of a used car dealership.
The proliferation of pupusas reveals another hidden truth about Jefe Davis: the area is home to perhaps the largest population of Salvadorans in the Commonwealth. Both the 2000 and 2010 Censuses recorded El Salvador as the top country of origin for new migrants to Virginia. The rapid influx of Latinx people over the past two decades has left greater Richmond’s institutions struggling to catch up.
The high concentration of new arrivals along the corridor means many Jefe Davis residents either cannot vote, or have not been motivated to vote by the policy choices presented to them. Richmond’s 2015 push to enforce new building codes in the area’s many dilapidated trailer parks was not welcomed as an effort to increase the quality of their housing; instead it was seen as an attack on their communities that would force a wave of evictions. While nonprofits like the Sacred Heart Center and Southside Community Development & Housing Corporation’s new bilingual Financial Opportunity Center have expanded their offerings to serve Richmond’s burgeoning Latinx population, localities seem unmotivated to meet even basic needs.
As soon as Chesterfield begins, the sidewalks end. Former Jeff Davis Highway Association president Kim Marble and community activists like Cloud Ramirez have been warning county leaders about the dangerous lack of sidewalks along a 45mph road where hundreds of kids get on and off school buses every day. “Every day without sidewalks puts pedestrians at risk. Lives are at stake,” said Marble in a recent Times-Dispatch article.
A new Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan promises to install sidewalks and reverse the decades-long decay of the corridor, but the lack of a timeline or dedicated funding has many locals worried. The proposed extension of GRTC’s Route 3 service down to John Tyler Community College in Chester could, however, prove a game-changer.
A recent study by the University of Texas showed Latinos — twice as likely not to have access to a car — “have lower poverty rates, experience less pollution, and get more exercise” if they live in walkable, bikeable areas with reliable public transit. Until the proposed sidewalks and the transit pilot project become a reality, Chesterfield residents will have to make do with the gravel-strewn shoulder of Jeff Davis Highway.
The Bus Ride:
Hopping on the Northbound Route 3 bus at the line’s southernmost terminus — the far side of a Food Lion parking lot by Chippenham Parkway — I realized I only had a five-dollar bill for my fare. The driver advised me to go for a $3.50 day pass and make the most of their inability to give riders change. A few stops later another rider came up to me and gave me $1.50 in change. He explained that the driver told him GRTC owed me. Dumbstruck by this unexpected and unnecessary kindness, I looked to the front of the bus just in time to see the driver wave at me and yell, “I got you, baby!”
To get to Six Points in Highland Park, the GRTC app (powered by Google Maps) estimated a travel time of 52 minutes. That would mean I’d be 12 minutes late to meet my friend Patricia Bradby, president of the Better Housing Coalition’s Young Professionals Board. Transit App, on the other hand, assured me I’d be there three minutes early.
As we trundled up Route 1, at each stop a few more people got on the bus, many of them young mothers with adorable toddlers in tow. Several times, the driver noticed someone trying to catch the bus who was a block away or stuck on the other side of the road, due to the heavy traffic and lack of safe crossings. Each time she waited a minute and was met with a relieved rider who otherwise would have had to wait 30 minutes for the next bus. For a casual rider like myself, such a delay would amount to little more than an irritation. For someone on the way to work or to pick up their child, such a delay could mean getting fired or paying a fine.
Passing over the James on 301 we enjoyed the single best view from public transit in the entire city. The bus emptied out on Broad, and I had the place mostly to myself as we cruised up 4th Avenue. The bus driver checked in on me several times to make sure I hadn’t missed my stop. When I alighted the bus at Six Points, I checked my phone to notice I was thirteen minutes early. It made sense the lack of stopping from Broad Street northbound had saved us ten minutes. How the GRTC app (aka Google Maps) was off by twenty-five minutes will forever remain an unforgivable mystery to me.
Highland Park can be hard to pin down. Geographically, the neighborhood sprawls from Shockoe Valley in the South all the way up to Pensacola Avenue in the North. Some Richmonders use “Highland Park” interchangeably with “Northside.” For others, the name conjures parts of Henrico — known more specifically as East Highland Park — to mind.
The area can also be somewhat of a mishmash architecturally. Since Highland Park’s founding as a streetcar suburb in 1891, the neighborhood has always been known for having the largest stock of Queen Anne style homes in Richmond. As a reaction to the ornate Victorian and Revival styles of the nineteenth century, around the turn of the century the plain woodwork and practicality of American Foursquare became all the rage. Outside of the Chestnut Hill-Plateau Historic District, however, almost anything goes, so today it’s not uncommon to see an odd amalgam of brick, wood and stucco of all sizes and styles on one block.
The cultural breakdown of Highland Park also began as a unique fusion of Southern and Eastern Europeans. Fleeing the poverty and war of imperial Europe, hard-working Italians, Germans, and Poles flocked to America to start a new life in the land where the streets were paved with gold. Between 1910 and 1930, speculators bought up swaths of Highland Park, constructing small groups of homes intended to mimic the design and size of Sears & Roebuck catalogue homes. The ploy worked, luring in the lower middle-income Catholics that later founded St. Elizabeth’s on Second Avenue.
Later generations of Highland Park residents didn’t prove as welcoming to newcomers. In 1942, nearly all residents of the neighborhood signed a pledge not to be the first on their block to sell their house to a black buyer. Their solidarity held off change for two decades, but in the mid-1960s white flight swept across the neighborhood, and by 1970 roughly seventy percent of all homes in the area had changed hands. Profiteering realtors played on the fears of the remaining whites, buying their homes at a bargain to sell or rent to new black residents, making a killing in the process.
Just as “Six Points” — the intersection of Meadowbridge Road, Second Avenue, East Brookland Park Boulevard, and Dill Avenue — undeniably serves as the heart of Highland Park, African-American culture is increasingly taking center stage in the area’s growth. Last year, historian Free Egunfemi organized the first Gabriel Week, a series of events to honor Gabriel Prosser, a literate, enslaved blacksmith who was hanged for planning a slave rebellion in Richmond in the summer of 1800.
Egunfemi’s push to rebrand Meadowbridge Road as the “Black Monument Avenue” dovetails with other efforts to emphasize the blackness of Highland Park as an asset rather than a liability, such as the Six Points Innovation Center’s Blackedemic in Residence and the Afrikana Film Festival.
Neighborhood institutions like Boaz & Ruth, Trims Barber Shop, and Chicken Box (arguably the best fried chicken in the city) will be joined by new businesses and neighbors as a slate of projects encompassing the Benefield Building, Firehouse 15, and the Vawter Avenue Warehouse come online. Even the vacant Bank of America branch which caused much despair upon its closure may get a second act as a community hub, should a rumored transfer of the property to the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust go through.
Gentrification and redevelopment are sweeping across all parts of Richmond, bringing the advantages of greater prosperity and new neighbors, as well as the drawbacks of displacement and an increasing housing affordability crisis. In no two other areas, however, is recent growth being driven within a clear cultural context and legacy as it is in Highland Park and along the Latino-dominated stretch of Route 1. The affordability and accessibility of these two neighborhoods along GRTC’s Route 3 have allowed vibrant cultural enclaves to spring up over the past decades. If we value this diversity, the challenge over the coming years will be to implement policies that champion the people who provide it.
Modern photos and screencaps by Wyatt Gordon. Historic photos from The Valentine’s archives