I want to update you on a couple stories: one with a happy ending; the other, not so much.
First, some quick housekeeping: This Tuesday, March 1, is The Valentine history museum’s Community Conversation on recycling. In last week’s Sunday Story, "Tin Can Revelations," I gave the wrong date. This is what happens when you're looking at the wrong month on your calendar. If you missed the story and are dying to know what becomes of your recycling once the truck carries it away, I, intrepid reporter, take you to the plant where all the action is. Indonesia comes into the picture. It’s fascinating.
On to our updates. Bad news first.
A condemned trailer at Rudd's Trailer Park. (Photo by Tina Griego)
As you may have read, Rudd’s Trailer Park goes up for auction on Wednesday. This is the South Side community I wrote about last August. Stretched along U.S. 1., it’s the place where I said you would be shocked by the living conditions, by the poverty. Ramshackle is a good word here. It’s decrepit despite the attempts by residents, most of them Mexican or Central American, many of them immigrants, to turn 50-year-old trailers into something more like houses, with attached porches and new tile flooring and drywall. Despite its physical appearance, it is — or was — nonetheless a community, a working neighborhood of people who actually spoke to each other, who kept a communal eye on things, and who shared a mutual desire to give their children lives beyond manual labor.
The city targeted it — and the other eight trailer parks in Richmond — with a comprehensive code enforcement campaign that set off a domino effect. Multiple (and disputed) code violations led to condemnations led to something resembling a mass eviction/exodus led to a federal housing discrimination lawsuit (still pending) and an investigation by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (still underway). That brings us to a half-empty trailer park with mounting unpaid bills — and Wednesday’s auction.
“We have the minimum bid set to $160,000 and its assessed value is $2.46 million with 117 pads,” says Ronnie Soffee, the manager who co-owns the park with his sister and brother. “That’s the city for you, sweetheart. Worth $2.46 million and can’t sell it for a 10th of that. There’s no justice. Just us.”
Soffee says the real estate taxes are $32,000 a year and he owes about $85,000 in back taxes, not to mention a past-due water bill that's running into the thousands.
His beef with the city goes back some years, but has worsened over the last couple. I wondered whether there was a part of him that would be glad to sell the property — which he haphazardly maintained — even though it’s been in the family for 70 years.
“No,” he says, adamant. “No. If I had my way, I would want it to be like it was three years ago, but that didn’t satisfy the city because it didn’t look like Short Pump. My answer is that it ain’t Short Pump, and everyone has to have some place to live. Three years ago, it was bustling and happy. We didn’t have anyone here getting murdered, and look what’s happening in the rest of the city. In this place, believe it or not, people looked out for each other.”
Most of the people who lived in the park have moved to apartments elsewhere, says Phil Storey, the Legal Aid Justice Center attorney who is part of the team representing residents in their suit against the city. Storey says that if the new owners decide they don’t want to keep the place as a trailer park, they have to give the remaining tenants 180 days' notice.
I asked Soffee whether he would be at Wednesday’s auction.
“I’m afraid not to be there. And I’m afraid to be there,” he says. “See if you can figure that out.”
And now for the good news.
Norma Sutphin (Photo by Tina Griego)
Back in mid-January, I wrote a Sunday Story about The Valentine’s plan to publish in the legal notices a list of items for which it has no documentation. They are items without their stories, known formally as objects Found in Collection.
I started the story with one such item, a 1910 postcard written by Mrs. Schiebelhuth of Church Hill to her friend Mrs. H.C. Rizer in Cumberland, Maryland. The Valentine doesn’t know who donated the postcard, why or how it ended up in the collection.
It was like dangling bait in front of some readers. (And I will confess here that I drove to the 607 N. 25th St. home where Mrs. Schiebelhuth once lived in search of what clue I do not know.)
I saw that Battery Park's Kimberly Wolfe, whom I also wrote about not too long ago, put out a call on her Facebook page to her Cumberland friends and family to find the descendants of Mrs. Rizer. Nothing came back, but closer to the home front, Liz Fessenden, who loves genealogy, hopped online. The next day, she sent me an email:
“Read your Sunday Story with interest. Did a bit of genealogy research on 'Mrs. Schiebelhuth.' She was 30 years old when she wrote the postcard featured in your article. I learned of her birth, her adoption, her marriage, her two daughters, the separation from her husband and her death in 1947. AND I was able to find her granddaughter in Richmond.”
Tell me, readers, is that not wonderful?
Fessenden supplied me with Mrs. Schiebelhuth’s granddaughter’s name and email.
A couple of weeks later, I met Norma Sutphin in the archives of The Valentine. She was sitting at a table, her grandmother’s postcard, still protected by its plastic sleeve, resting before her. She told me she had never seen her grandmother’s writing and that it reminded her of her mother’s.
“My grandmother's name was Mary Christine,” she says. Mary Christine Schiebelhuth was, indeed, 30 years old when she wrote that postcard. She died 36 years later of complications from diabetes.
“She’s a fascinating woman,” Ms. Sutphin says. “There’s some mystery about her childhood.” Indeed, it involves a riverboat father, a mother who died in childbirth and adoption. Ms. Sutphin, the youngest grandchild, only vaguely remembers her grandmother. She says she wishes her elder sister, who died recently, were still alive because she knew her grandmother better and would have loved this discovery.
Ms. Sutphin studied the elegant cursive through the card’s protective plastic cover. “When you think about it,” she tells me later, “she’d actually touched it and written it. It’s remarkable when you think about it.”
The granddaughter sits in a room of books and files and holds the card her grandmother held more than a century ago. Ms. Sutphin intends to bring The Valentine proof that Mrs. Schiebelhuth was her grandmother. Then, she says, she will take the card home and share with her family this tiny treasure with a story lost and then found.