The eighth 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.
One could hardly find a better metaphor for Union Hill’s relationship to and position within Richmond than its street grid. A ravine to its south and Shockoe Valley to its east separated Union Hill from the rest of the city, causing it to form as a semi-independent community of mixed-race, working-class folks. The decision to lay out the neighborhood’s streets at a diagonal to the regular grid arose out of the area’s rugged terrain, but the culture of taking a new slant to everything Richmond has remained.
The filling of the ravine finally allowed Union Hill to be connected to the rest of the city and also earned the neighborhood the name it carries to this day. The grading required to link its streets to Church Hill resulted in the joining of the two hills, which locals referred to as their “union.” The remains of this awkward adjoining of Union Hill with the rest of the city provide much of the neighborhood’s unique charm. Triangular parcels, narrow cross streets, and original stone paving are all holdovers from this formative period.
Waves of white flight and then black flight over the last half of the twentieth century drained the area of its residents, causing many of its historic structures to fall into various states of dilapidation. By the 1990s, Union Hill had largely succumbed to blight, and the era’s only prescription was ham-fisted crime fighting and the wholesale demolition of abandoned structures.
One local community group — the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods — fought such razing across the city by arguing to save the capital’s built history and culture. With Union Hill’s addition to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 2001 and to the National Register of Historic Places just a year later, the fight to preserve the past was concluded; however, a new battle for the future of the neighborhood had just begun.
Long neglected and ignored by the adjacent and more affluent Church Hill, today Union Hill is being absorbed into it. Few who live in the area could tell you that Jefferson Avenue and North 25th Street serve as the unofficial dividing lines between the two districts. Top notch eateries like The Roosevelt and Sub Rosa Bakery have blurred the lines, as ever posher establishments like Union Market and Metzger Bar & Butchery open in the area.
Although older and quirkier joints in Union Hill like Alamo BBQ and Pomona continue to thrive, the quest to preserve affordable places to live in the area is becoming ever more difficult. Drawn by its proximity to high-paying jobs at VCU Health, its sizeable stock of both vacant land and historic homes, and beautiful views of the downtown skyline, Union Hill has quickly become one of Richmond’s fastest gentrifying neighborhoods. The market is so hot it’s even drawing in developers from Los Angeles.
Although the Commission for Architectural Review is supposed to vet new construction to ensure it fits in with the area’s historic character, as Union Hill is one of sixteen designated “Old and Historic Districts” in Richmond, they have repeatedly granted permits to four-story modernist apartment complexes, while blocking more mundane requests from current residents to change the color of their front door.
Better Housing Coalition’s newly christened Goodwyn at Union Hill renovation marks one addition of affordable housing to the area, but plenty of other new homes are coming on the market at a half million or more. The revitalization of Union Hill demonstrates the potential of a brighter future for even today’s most troubled neighborhoods; however, the one piece of Union Hill’s past it may find hardest to preserve are its root as a mixed-race, working-class community.
For a city of nearly 230,000 people, it’s hard to believe there is just one singular public transportation route to its international airport: the Greater Richmond Transit Company’s Route 7. To ride the bus from the foot of Jefferson Park in Union Hill out to RIC takes over fifty minutes; that same ride in a car takes just fifteen.
Although your correspondent’s bus arrived on time and steadily worked its way down Nine Mile Road through Highland Springs to deliver passengers at RIC ahead of schedule, there is no reason a bus ride to the airport should take nearly three times longer than one needs to pass through security and come to their gate.
This inefficient and inconvenient set up for visitors and locals alike begs the question: Why doesn’t the Pulse go to the airport? “My understanding of why the Pulse doesn’t go to the airport is simply that this was the first line of BRT and a first distance all the way to RIC was not in the initial recommended alternative,” said GRTC’s Director of Communications, Carrie Rose Pace.
The recent success of expanded service on several of Henrico’s GRTC routes may offer air travelers a reason to hope, however. By adding nights and weekend service to the #91 and the #7, the County nearly doubled ridership, proving that the more buses are funded to be useful, the more they will be used.
Extending the Pulse into Henrico County, out to Short Pump in the West and to RIC in the East, would help cement the Pulse as a backbone of regional transportation. The addition of stops along the route to the airport in Fulton, Montrose, and the Laburnum Square Shopping Center would boost mobility in otherwise underserved and under-resourced communities. Providing an affordable, reliable way for people to get to and from the thousands of jobs at RIC and Short Pump would be a huge boon to working families and Greater Richmond’s economy alike.
Richmond International Airport:
Although today the area around Richmond International Airport may be more famous as the home of the flagship Country Style Donuts location, this patch of Henrico County first rose to prominence as the site of the Battle of Fair Oaks during the Civil War. Those interested in Richmond’s more obscure landmarks may even endeavor to visit Seven Pines National Cemetery — named after the trees planted along the cemetery wall to honor the 1,216 interned Union soldiers buried here.
During World War I, a number of homes for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men were built around the cemetery, planting the seeds of a future community. After the war, Oliver J. Sands purchased the land from the military and humbly named the area after himself, creating today’s Sandston. As president of the Richmond & Fairfield Railway, Sands built an electric streetcar line from the city out to Sandston to prime the corridor for development. Despite the current hegemony of car culture, the length of the trolley line will never be forgotten thanks to Nine Mile Road, which follows the streetcar’s former route.
The area’s first use for aviation didn’t come until the establishment of the Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field in 1927. The flying field’s dedication was such a big event back in the day that famed aviator (and Nazi sympathiser) Charles Lindbergh even attended. Naming the facility after the brother of then-Governor Harry F. Byrd was a strategic move on the part of Mayor John Fulmer Bright — often referred to as “Richmond’s Most Obstinate Man.” Bright’s steadfast support was so instrumental in securing the predecessor to our modern airport that the City of Richmond initially owned the facility, despite its location in Henrico.
As a joint civil-military airport, RIC was deemed so crucial to the prosperity and security of the nation that during World War II the military built the Elko Tract, a 2,220-acre decoy airfield to its east. Laid out to resemble the Richmond street grid, the notion was that incoming German bombers would mistake the decoy for the real Richmond and bomb an empty field instead of the capital of Virginia. Plans to develop the Elko Tract into a mental hospital for blacks were abandoned shortly after the war, making the area into one of Virginia’s few ghost towns.
Far from forgotten, today’s RIC is transforming from a sleepy mid-sized airport into an engine of growth for the entire region. Few Richmonders might suspect that an airport in which you can get through security and to your gate in under twenty minutes generates 16,000 jobs and contributes $2.1 billion in economic activity annually to the region. An entire ecosystem of manufacturers and employers dependent upon easy access to cargo flights has sprung up around RIC, and is rapidly expanding.
RIC — Virginia’s third largest airport after Dulles and National in the Metro D.C. region — is also building out passenger flight capacity. Given the airport’s breakneck growth, the expansion of Terminal A was a no-brainer. The investment seems to be paying off too. This past August, passenger volumes at the airport reached a record-high 398,592 travelers — representing an 8.2% increase in traffic from 2018.
The success of Union Hill and RIC both demonstrate Richmond’s vast potential for revitalization and growth. Whether it’s an influx of new neighbors or of passengers and manufacturers, our region needs to plan for the future with mobility as the backbone of our growth. Although Richmond may be ahead of some of our peers like Norfolk, which currently has no public transportation to their airport, we should aim higher and plan strategic investments like a Pulse extension to the airport, which would lift up underserved communities as much as it would enhance the mobility of our entire region.
Top Photo via Friends of Jefferson Park/Facebook