Michael Lease, his wife and collaborator in the storytelling project, Kimberly Wolfe, and their three-year old son, Felix, on the front porch of their bungalow. (Photo by Tina Griego)
On a recent Sunday, Michael Lease slips on a backpack holding his camera and recording equipment, puts a garden-ripe tomato in a paper lunch bag, and heads into his Battery Park neighborhood.
It’s a beautiful afternoon and the streets are quiet in this predominantly African-American neighborhood just east of Chamberlayne Avenue and south of West Brookland Park Boulevard. Nearly all the children have grown and gone, and the elderly intend to remain as long as their hearts beat.
Lease and his wife, Kimberly Wolfe, bought a bungalow on Hawthorne Avenue two years ago. Young, white and parents of a 1-year-old, Lease and Wolfe were conscious that they were moving into a community where they might be seen as interlopers. An old neighborhood, like an old city, is an ongoing story, a layering of history that will not be contained to the past. Battery Park, born as a streetcar suburb, was a middle-class white neighborhood before it became a middle-class black neighborhood. Among its residents today are those who know firsthand the trials and tribulations that accompanied that transition from segregation through the brief years of integration before whites fled altogether.
It is with mixed reactions that these older residents, here now 50 years and longer, greet the newcomers. They snap up the neighborhood’s affordable, 90- and 100-year old American Foursquares and bungalows perhaps never knowing -- or never bothering to know -- that before they walked these curved, tree-lined streets, former governor and city mayor Doug Wilder did. Or that former Richmond Public Schools superintendent Lucille Brown still does.
Wolfe, an aspiring archivist, and Lease, an artist, are atypical newcomers. Lease has made a name documenting the stories of communities. Wolfe shares his interest in the life of a place. In 2002, when the pair was living in Frostburg, Maryland, where Wolfe is from and where Lease went to college, they created a gorgeous, old-fashioned photo album capturing a day in the life of the town. They made five albums and gave a copy each to the public and university libraries. Ten years later, after they’d moved to Richmond, the pair returned to Frostburg and created a community photo album, scanning photos and collecting stories from residents. Most of these albums, too, they gave away. In recent years, their work has gravitated toward oral histories.
After moving to Battery Park, Wolfe says, they decided that, “we just need to sit down with some of our neighbors and hear their stories and then make nice portraits of them, and document their past and where the neighborhood is now since we arrived.”
They pitched the idea to the Battery Park Civic Association. “We just wanted to get neighbors together to tell stories, and everyone was like, ‘No, it has to be more,’” Lease says. “’You have to take pictures. You have to do oral histories and video.’”
This was not the first effort by neighbors to do something along these lines. In the aftermath of a 2006 tropical storm and collapsed sewer line that flooded the neighborhood, two residents, one black, one white, attempted to collect their neighbors’ memories as a way to preserve Battery Park’s history.
“The flooding of the park brought home very vividly how quickly things can be lost,” says Karen Wylie, who was one of the two residents, and is treasurer of the Friends of Battery Park group.
Lease and Wolfe reignited the idea, Wylie says, and the Battery Park Civic Association created a committee of black and white residents to conduct interviews throughout the neighborhood. The first storytelling event, held this past spring, featured five residents in a panel discussion. The civic association has planned another storytelling event, community dinner included, for Oct. 4. The eventual goal, Wolfe says, would be to transcribe the interviews, and use passages in an album for the neighborhood.
Which explains the recording equipment and the camera in Lease’s backpack.
This day’s interview is down the street with a woman who moved into the neighborhood in 1957. Lease hands her the bag holding the tomato and she thanks him and ushers us inside. They chitchat while Lease sets up the microphone.
Michael Lease, one of the newer residents of Battery Park, prepares to record an interview with long-time resident Barbara Blackwell Perry on Sunday, Sept. 19. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“OK,” he says, “I think we’re ready. So, we’ll just start here. So, um, hello.”
“Hello,” she says, laughing.
“Will you please tell me your full name?”
“My name is Barbara Blackwell Perry.”
Retired elementary school teacher and counselor Barbara Blackwell Perry has lived in the same house in Battery Park for 58 years. (Photo by Tina Griego)
Over the next hour, Mrs. Perry tells us of her father, who was a waiter at Hotel Rueger, and her mother, who first worked as a domestic before going into business as a seamstress. Her husband, Spencer, owned Perry’s Restaurant on Second Street. She describes the growing number of white neighbors as Battery Park “returning to its roots.”
Michael Lease and Barbara Blackwell Perry talking about changes in a neighborhood that has gone from white to black and, in recent years, has been seeing the return of white families. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“So, Mrs. Perry,” Lease says, ”tell us about what you studied at Virginia Union.”
Education, she says.
“And when I met my husband and we had been dating, I guess, for about five or six months and he was talking about getting married and my mother said, ‘The only way Barbara can get married is that she continues to go to school and if she can’t continue to go to school, that’s out of the question.”
She earned that degree and two master’s degrees and worked at George Mason Elementary School as a teacher for 20 years and a counselor for 10.
I call Mrs. Perry a few days later to ask her what she thought of the storytelling project. She pronounces it an “excellent idea.”
“I feel like the neighbors who moved in when I moved in are gradually going to glory,” she says. “The neighbors moving in should know the neighbors who have been here so long. I don’t know that they need to know the stories, but they need to know their neighbors.
“The way I look at it, when you no longer know your neighbors, you no longer have a neighborhood.”
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