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Photo courtesy the Valentine, Cook Collection
The Woody Funeral Parlor, 700 N. 28th St., circa 1919
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Photo courtesy The Valentine
Intersection of 29th and M Streets, looking west, on Dec. 29, 1951
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Photo courtesy The Valentine
Springfield Hall, 700 N. 26th St., built circa 1850
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photo by Bill Lane, courtesy The Valentine, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
Police officers question two girls outside Fairmount Elementary School, 1501 N. 21st St., after third-grader Laurie Corbin, age 8, was shot in the head while running across playground. (March 21, 1975)
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photo by Gary Burns, courtesy The Valentine, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
Two boys standing on the sidewalk at 28th and Broad streets in Church Hill consider the possibilities for a long cardboard tube. (Nov. 30, 1971)
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photo by Masaaki Okada, courtesy The Valentine, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
A boy pops a wheelie on his bike on Princess Anne Avenue in Church Hill, Aug. 29, 1980
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photo courtesy The Valentine, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
Sylvia Richardson, principal of Bellevue Elementary School in Church Hill, greets pupils arriving for the first day of school on Sept. 5, 1989.
Church Hill has gone through the Dickensian cycle of "the best of times, the worst of times," involving concentration, deterioration, demographic and situational alteration and rehabilitation. Determining how to move forward to the benefit of residents who’ve lived there for generations, and those who’ve arrived in the past decade or less, makes North Church Hill one of the most dynamic nodes in the constellation of Richmond neighborhoods confronting these issues.
The Valentine’s fifth Community Conversation series is addressing several of the city’s communities that are in flux. It’s the turn now for North Church Hill, with the Conversation at the Valentine on Tuesday, 6 to 8 p.m., and a bus tour on Saturday, Feb. 7, 10 a.m. to noon. The discussion is free to attend; reservations are recommended for the tour.
This conversation is greatly complemented by the Valentine's current exhibition, “Made In Church Hill," This multi-media show embraces the history and changes of the community. Viewing it, one should become aware of the sweep and arc of urban history — which is bundles of biographies and memories that create a foundation to understand the place.
The exhibit grew out of work by writer Laura Browder and photographer Michael Lease, who collaborated on documenting the recollections of Richmond bus drivers in 2013. With Virginia Commonwealth University professor and Anderson Gallery coordinator Traci Garland and University of Richmond theater professor Patricia Herrera, they embarked on another important community context effort. They partnered with undergraduate service learning classes from the University of Richmond and VCU, and the Church Hill Academy, Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, and sound artist Vaughn Garland.
Some years ago, around 2007, I wrote a piece about abandoned and blighted structures and rode along with the Community Action Patrol. I spoke with Church Hill residents Mary Anne Conmy and her brother, David, who recalled for me how, just outside her north-of-Broad house, they were surprised at gunpoint and forced to withdraw money from an ATM. I wrote:
“At one point, they admire a neglected storefront at E. Leigh St. and N. 25th. The walls and windows were papered with old posters, including one for the movie Before Sunset. The tagline was still visible: ‘What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?’
Conmy laughs big. 'Isn’t that so appropriate for that place?' The front stair landing where their abductor crouched almost touches the brick wall. Yet, they marvel at the finely wrought iron balcony rail that looks like it could be in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
The houses, vacant, neglected and restored, are as familiar to her as friends at a party. Touring the few nearby blocks and following the course of her and David’s gun-prodded walk, her heels click on the herringbone brick-patterned sidewalk. She and David interrupt their story several times to point out where one house is being renovated, badly, and another is in dire need of help — 518 N. 25th St. has a tree growing out of its porch.
'It’s just inexcusable that this sits here like this,' she says, and she’s pulled the property assessments, because she wants to know who owns these places that should be, in her view, added to the life of her neighborhood. She insists that almost every house can and should be saved if the city exercises sense and judgment and the properties don’t get turned over to uncaring speculators.”
I caught up to Mary Anne; she’s still in her 1840 house. “Absolutely!” she enthuses. “I’m never leaving.” The places she and David surveyed with me in 2007 are almost all renovated, though some received more attention than others. At least that tree isn't sprouting from the porch.
That old storefront with its New Orleans balcony underwent a sharp and smart rehabilitation not long after the feature ran in the magazine. Conmy, her brother, sister and mother all live within blocks of each other, in a way families used to do.
She quickly gets to the heart of the present moment of North Church Hill. “I’m embarrassed about how ignorant I was of the situation back when you interviewed me.” She wanted to see the shambling old houses remodeled, but the cost to the neighborhood’s sinews of connections — its longtime residents, many of them renters — has been high. “The matters of gentrification,” she says. “So yes, I love to see places brought back, but don’t like to see old people and the not-as-wealthy run off.” Conmy sighs and relates how, when going by one of Church Hill’s well-known restaurants, she’ll overhear visitors talking about “how much better it is here,” when perhaps they’ve not set foot in Church Hill in decades, or, not at all, and judged it by hearsay.
An ongoing community conversation rolls through the online Church Hill People’s News run by John Murden.
“We started in 2004,” he says. “We were before Facebook, before YouTube,” he pauses. “Hard to believe they weren’t in the world yet.”
Broad is a historic divider of the two Church Hills. The expanse north in the formative years of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was called Shed Town, which blurred into Union Hill.
Architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott writes in her Old Richmond Neighborhoods how the Shed Town designation arose from either the structures of brick yards or the hardscrabble temporary housing of squatters. Scott, in her typical lofty manner, writes, “In the [1850s] the former Shed Town was really an eastern extension of Union Hill, with the difference that the houses were less crowded together and a slightly more substantial class of citizen lived there. Where Union Hill was a centre for mechanics, most of whom rented their homes, Shed Town was rather the neighborhood of small tradesmen, most of whom owned their homes.”
Then in her last paragraph on Union Hill, Scott summarizes the then-present, “In the last 10 years, Shed Town has rapidly changed to a Negro section, though Thirty-second and Chimborazo Boulevard, largely built up with modern houses on the site of earlier farms, are still white. Negroes who for decades had occupied the northeast part of the plateau, have simply moved further south and west,” and she adds, in a rather prim, yet critical fashion, “Many houses are well restored and kept up, and the wide streets, small buildings with ample space for more, the total lack of shut-in ghetto character of Jackson Ward, make the conversion of the whole region to Negro development seem logical.”
photo by Clement Britt, courtesy The Valentine, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder on the eve of his election as governor of Virginia, Nov. 7, 1989
This was the neighborhood in which the future first African-American mayor of Richmond and former state senator, Henry L. Marsh III, delivered newspapers and L. Douglas Wilder grew up, the first African-American lieutenant governor and governor, (and later first post-World War II elected mayor).
They recall a neighborhood of printing shops and a blacksmith, corner stores and powerful community bastions like the Fourth Baptist Church and neighborhood industries, like the Nolde bakery. And racially segregated street cars. In the Valentine exhibition, Wilder reflects on watching police summoned to move black passengers who refused to move. Here, too, was where preservationist and community advocate Elisabeth Scott Bocock started the Hand Workshop Art Center that grew into the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.
By the 1950s, Church Hill’s slow decline was underway as white and black residents moved elsewhere for yards and new schools. Preservationists stepped in; the Historic Richmond Foundation (now Historic Richmond) in 1957 created the city’s first historic district around St. John’s Church. In the early 1980s, the organization turned its attention across Broad, and this movement has ultimately led to the flowering of restaurants and small businesses in North Church Hill. There are plans, too, for the rethinking of Creighton and Whitcomb courts, which in the past have been associated with the drug trade and its attendant violence.
What comes next for North Church Hill will be determined by its people, and their representatives. In the meantime, you can overhear the community talking about itself as you listen to Tuesday's conversation.