Photo courtesy of The Cook Collection
Hull Street in April 1910; the banner proclaims the benefits of Manchester’s union with Richmond
In the summer of 2002, this writer glimpsed a tattered bulletin board on the second floor of the former auditorium of the Matthew F. Maury School, 1411 Bainbridge St., in Old Manchester. An accidental abstract was made from a troubled frenzy of frenetic arrows, fingers and shapes. This inadvertent metaphor seemed to summarize the history and predicament of Old Manchester and its tributary neighborhoods. Competing interests and sometimes cross-purpose planning and policies have pushed the community forward, only to drag it back.
The complicated Manchester story began ahead of Richmond’s — in 1769 — with an industrial canal (still extant) to harness the James River for turning the wheels of mills. It encompasses wharves and slaves and textiles; a probable refuge for then-Gov. Thomas Jefferson as Richmond’s tobacco warehouses were torched by the traitorous Benedict Arnold; and an early 19th-century effort to run a school for the deaf and mute. The Mayo family was granted a state charter to connect Richmond and Manchester by toll bridge — a span that had to be rebuilt often after getting washed away by James River floods; this remained a problem until the completion of a floodwall in the late 1990s. The main streets were patriotically named for naval commanders of the Barbary Wars off North Africa and the War of 1812, including Commodores Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge and Isaac Hull. A pre-Civil War gravity-powered railway hauled coal from Chesterfield County mines to Manchester’s docks. It was an independent city that never quite collected enough revenue to be run properly and that was denigrated with the nickname “Dogtown.”
After an often-rancorous referendum, Manchester consolidated with Richmond in 1910. For most of the 20th century, the community possessed a burgeoning Hull Street of restaurants, movie theaters, shops and salons and South Side versions of Broad Street stores, including a Thalhimers. Hull Street held a Christmas parade and a Fourth of July spectacle. But Hull, like Broad, served also as a racial demarcation line.
Then came the 1970s, when public housing was interspersed among the single-family houses of Manchester’s residential districts, called Oak Grove and Blackwell. Retail businesses shifted to Southside Plaza and then to Cloverleaf Mall. Many residents fled. Schools crumbled. Businesses, large and small, relocated or closed.
A period began of wholesale demolition of structures deemed unworthy of saving. Overnite Transportation established its headquarters in Manchester, and its founder J. Harwood Cochrane, a major philanthropist, amassed 160 parcels of land that he ceded to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Some early adopters rediscovered Manchester. Texas-based franchise Spaghetti Warehouse opened in a former industrial-machinery manufacturing plant at 701 Bainbridge St. in 1992. After the restaurant’s 1998 demise, the Carter Ryley Thomas public relations firm opened shop there. The homegrown Legend Brewing Co. opened a small pub next to its brewery at 321 W. Seventh St. in 1994. Last year, Legend, the precursor of the current microbrewery boom, celebrated its 20th year.
In the void where both the city and many private enterprises disowned Manchester, churches created public-service entities. These organizations began reclaiming blighted housing and providing services that either weren’t previously available or were not close enough to be of help for people without cars. There also were efforts by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Better Housing Coalition.
In 1996, the city targeted Blackwell, along with several other Manchester neighborhoods, for revitalization under the Neighborhoods in Bloom program; this provided a vehicle in 1998 for federal Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) funding. From 1999 to late 2001, 440 public housing units, along with other blighted structures, were razed.
HOPE VI helped fund the construction of 161 apartments (Townes at River South), 188 single-family homes in the vicinity of Stockton and Ninth streets, a school and a park. The program also provided family-support services.
The floodwall’s completion opened Manchester’s riverfront to increased access and inclusion, a decade later, in a long-discussed riverfront development plan.
In 2002, after a decade of civic effort, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources recognized the Manchester Residential-Commercial Historic District. This meant state historic tax credits for the rehabilitation of ailing structures; in 2006, the neighborhood entered the National Register of Historic Places.
The 2004 opening of Fountainhead Properties’ Plant Zero arts complex ignited the district’s rejuvenation. The VMFA’s Real Estate Foundation sold 178 parcels of land received years earlier from Overnite Transportation’s Cochrane for $5 million. Robin Miller & Associates bought 153 parcels; developers Sam McDonald and Charles MacFarlane of Manchester Partners purchased the remaining 25.
These events, and subsequent rezoning, spurred the refitting of warehouses into loft condos and the construction of apartment buildings. After the recovery from the 2008 crash came a wave of construction and renovations, including the Manchester Courthouse, with its three criminal general district courts. The transformation of the 17-acre former Reynolds Metals plant site got underway. Now Cushman & Wakefield Thalhimer’s plans call for high-rise residential towers facing the river — the beginnings of a continuation of downtown such as was thought would occur a century ago.
Along the peripheries of Old Manchester, and within its admiralty of streets, chain stores and independent restaurants and shops are opening and being planned. Artists are converting former industrial spaces.
And in the Marion Mashore Playground, off Decatur Street and behind Hull, teenagers play basketball, families grill and parents push kids on swings. They live nearby in small houses, and they will play their part in Manchester’s gradual progress.
The Valentine’s Fifth Community Conversation Series, in collaboration with Richmond magazine, continues at the museum with Old Town Manchester on March 3, followed by a bus tour on March 7.