Lawrence Williams' mother worked as a maid at the elementary school he attended in Church Hill. So when he was sick, instead of staying at home she would tuck him in on the top shelf of a school storage room. His father was a union machinist at the Reynolds Metals warehouse, a job he was able to fill after state Sen. Henry Marsh won a lawsuit against the company for hiring discrimination.
Williams, 55, recalls a “Little Rascals”-style childhood. He'd leave a school at the end of the day where teachers were stern and proud of their profession; walk home with his buddies who had to change into fresh clothes in the middle of playtime on Saturday afternoon; live life in a strong neighborhood girded with schools and churches.
In the mid-1960s, segregation was officially over, but separation remained. Williams' mother started cleaning rooms at a mostly white school and would bring home extra worksheets and leftover craft supplies for Williams to experiment with.
The added homework and the art supplies contributed to him developing the visual thinking that helped him get into Harvard, where earned a degree in architecture. If you ever fly out of the private corporate terminal of Dulles Airport, you'll see Williams' clean, curving lines. Closer to home, he designed a new church for the Rev. Dwight Jones, mayoral candidate and pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond, when he was an longstanding interim preacher at a church on Route 5.
Now Williams works alone out of a Franklin Street address, in a building owned by Richmond Free Press Publisher Ray Boone, whose newspaper takes up the second floor. Marsh's offices are on the third.
Williams' open office is draped with building schemes and clippings of newspaper photographs he finds particularly inspiring. One, part of a story reminding readers to register their children for preschool, shows a man carrying a little girl. He likes the message it sends, every element of the photo's composition conveys the father's determination and the girl's dependence, literally riding on his shoulders.
One bit of advice that's stuck with him from architecture school is that in design, every detail must enhance the fundamental concept. It's an idea Williams has expanded into a guiding philosophy for work, life and governing. Articulating the fundamental concept, however, can be tricky. Williams uses intellectual shorthand that can obscure the complex idea he's engaging. He talks about “the way Byrd Park works” and invokes the way the layout of the streets and houses cooperate with the shape of the land as a parallel for his vision of how the city should be designed.
When the downtown master planning process was getting started, Williams unsuccessfully lobbied to have the boundaries of the study area stretch north of Interstate 95, drawing in the crescent of neighborhoods from Highland Park to the East End. Those were formerly black middle-class neighborhoods where he grew up, but were cut up by the interstate. Housing projects were built to replace the homes claimed by the roadway, and summarily cut off from the city's core.
Looking at a plan that would add value back to those hilltops, and putting parks and retention ponds in the low lands where housing and industry has never really flourished are the keys to Williams' vision.
Williams is guided by neighborhood wisdom. He says it's important for the father to name the children so they feel empowered to care for them. In his case this yielded a Lawrence Jr. and a Lauren, both grown. He recently divorced with their mother, Melinda, a general practitioner who spent the bulk of her career as an obstetrician and gynecologist.
Another neighborhood tie he carries is his friendship with Daisy Weaver, City Council's capable chief of staff, who Williams says would be in the running as his chief administrative officer if elected. He's not the best-known or best-financed candidate, but he's confident he can do the job.
“I learned from the masters. I am a master, and now I need an apprentice,” he says, lamenting the lost time when young men learned skills from working with older ones. In the absence of an apprentice, he'll spend his skills on the city.