For 110 years the Virginia Union University campus on North Side has anchored the intersection of Brook Road and Lombardy Street. And since the 1940s, the Belgian Building, a relic of the 1939 New York World's Fair and one of our city's modernist showpieces, has stood in dramatic architectural contrast to the elegant lines and rusticated walls of the campus' assemblage of nine spectacular, Romanesque Revival buildings. Since the 1890s these academic, administrative and residential structures have lined the gentle knoll, running the length of the campus and sloping gradually down to what was once Bacon's Quarter Branch.
And like all of our area's campuses — from Virginia State University in Chesterfield County to Randolph-Macon College in Ashland — the VUU grounds have been parklike and fluid, melding easily into their surrounding neighborhoods. Until recently, that is. What Virginia Union students are encountering as they return for the fall semester is a high metal fence encircling most of the perimeter of their campus and a security gatehouse and checkpoint.
The fence has nothing to do with landscaping and beautification. Instead, it's a disturbing signal and a physical symbol of an institution shutting itself off from its surrounding community. While colleges and universities are understandably and increasingly concerned about their role in loco parentis, and robbery, rape, drugs and even murder are realities on American campuses, the installation of this penal-looking security fence is a sad indicator of a slippage in cherished, long-held cultural values and community landscaping aesthetics.
Locally, in recent years the reality of enclosed spaces for security reasons has gained traction. We don't give gated residential communities a second thought. And corporate and institutional installations that look like armed camps — witness the Federal Reserve Bank on Byrd Street or the Philip Morris office complex on West Broad Street — are reminders that our nation's might rests in its perceived financial and commercial prowess. Not to mention that there are forces out there who resent this.
But locking down an American college campus — with No Trespassing signs, spiked fences and guardhouses like VUU has done — is something else altogether. Our nation's long and proud tradition has been that academic centers were not just open to all, but that students should interact freely and naturally with surrounding communities
This tradition was established in the 1860s when President Abraham Lincoln signed the land-grant college act. For the first time an expanded higher-educational system was deemed essential to serve a fast-growing population and increasingly industrial world. College and university campuses no longer would be seen as ivory towers, but rather as egalitarian and welcoming places and spaces.
In response to the spirit of the times, in the late 19th century Frederick Law Olmstead, our nation's genius landscape architect and the shaper of New York City's Central Park, designed numerous college campuses. In each instance he stressed the importance of their openness to the community by making them parklike and welcoming.
In the 1890s here in Richmond, just a few blocks up Brook Road, the Union Theological Seminary campus was being established at the same time as VUU. Both were open to their respective, surrounding neighborhoods, and in both cases the buildings were sited to look outward: at VUU, symbolically eastward toward the rising sun, and at UTS, outward to symbolize the wider world that its graduates would serve as pastors.
If the installation of heavy metal fences at Virginia Union University is a psychological and aesthetic blow to our long-cherished tradition of how colleges interact with their communities, these in-your-face barriers also are hurtful on a more local basis.
The development of VUU at the turn of the last century coincided with the installation of Richmond's electric streetcar system. When many of Richmond's prominent blacks sought to expand to suburban areas it was to the environs of VUU that they flocked (much like white Richmonders purchased and built homes along streetcar lines near Union Seminary and later, the University of Richmond, as historian Selden Richardson points out in his insightful book, “Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, Va.”).
In the early 1900s the University Reality Company, obviously named to project the cachet of selling properties in the VUU neighborhood, established one of the city's first black suburban subdivisions, Frederick Douglass Court. University staff, professors and other affluent blacks moved to the area. Maggie L. Walker, a prominent banker and civic figure, purchased a lot nearby, but never moved there. Another leader did, however. Spotswood Robinson (1916-1998), a lawyer and judge who played a leading role in the civil rights battles of the 1950s, lived most of his entire life in the neighborhood.
True, there are a few sketchy businesses to the immediate northeast of the Virginia Union campus, but more importantly the university spawned an attractive residential neighborhood that still holds its own. Much like streetlights of a certain intensity signal the possibility of illicit and dangerous activity in an area, the Virginia Union security fence both visually and intuitively gives off the dour and negative vibrations. Its neighbors should find it offensive.
There are few places where I've encountered such draconian fencing to keep the academics in and ostensibly, unwanted individuals and activities out. Columbia University in New York City has always had a wall around it. Dillard University, a historically black institution in New Orleans, and the University of Southern California, in downtown Los Angeles — both areas with traditionally high crime rates — have erected protective fencing. But the VUU fencing seems to be overkill.
In recent years, with traffic-calming measures and landscaping installed adjacent to the college along Lombardy Street and new residential and commercial development closer to West Broad, things are really looking up in this part of town. The draconian fencing is step in the opposite direction. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: “VUU President Perkins: Tear down this wall.”