Northern Exposure 

From Battery Park to Barton Heights, the city's next residential frontier runs headfirst into a growing cultural divide.

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Gargoyles fend off the evil spirits. More than 100 of the small, medieval dragons, goats and lions are prominently displayed throughout the house of Todd Hardy and Scott Myers — on the windowsills, atop the refrigerator, along the staircase and over the doorways, not to mention the Notre Dame-style downspouts on the balcony overlooking the backyard.

When Hardy and Myers moved into the early 20th-century foursquare on Overbrook Road in 2000, it was little more than a shell of a building. Living in a suburban home on a 10-acre lot in King William County, they had both gone through recent layoffs and were looking to downsize. “We were living above our means,” Hardy says. So they bought the house on Overbrook out of foreclosure for $53,000.

There was a reason for the low price. It may have been a beautiful house in an old trolley suburb, originally annexed from Henrico County in the early 1900s, but the area also suffered from high crime, considerable poverty and not-so-subtle racial tensions.

“I was on the front porch scraping wood,” Myers recalls of those early days, consumed in renovation work. A small group of black men passing through the neighborhood took notice. “They screamed, ‘Whitey go home,'” Myers says. “And I said, ‘I am home.'”

 

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Shortly after Todd Hardy, president of the Battery Park Civic Association, moved into the neighborhood in 2000, a woman was brutally murdered down the street. Today he says the neighborhood is changing for the better.

After years of elbow grease, the house with a Greek revival facade is a showpiece — from the antique furniture to the finished fluted columns with Scamozzian Ionic capitals to the stained-glass windows. The kitchen is a bit more modern, metallic and granite tile with a flat-screen TV protruding above the counter. The house is assessed at $176,000, though it's probably worth much more.

This section of North Side — east of Chamberlayne Avenue and south of Brookland Park Boulevard — is one of the last frontiers in the city's broad residential renaissance, which started in earnest more than two decades ago. A unique mix of early-20th-century archAfter years of elbow grease, the house with a Greek revival facade is a showpiece — from the antique furniture to the finished fluted columns with Scamozzian Ionic capitals to the stained-glass windows. The kitchen is a bit more modern, metallic and granite tile with a flat-screen TV protruding above the counter. The house is assessed at $176,000, though it's itecture and a variety of post-World War II infill housing — many are early Sears and Roebuck houses — make the neighborhoods slightly more suburban. 

“The housing stock over there is such that you get one of these houses that everybody dreams about in a neighborhood that you feel relatively safe living in,” says Brad Gamlin, a senior planner in the city's Department of Community Development. “It's big enough to raise a family in, but is not functionally obsolete like some of the older houses are.”

But unlike Church Hill and the Fan, or nearby Ginter Park, the area best known as Barton Heights is just beginning its comeback. In the last 10 years, Gamlin says, houses in the Barton Heights area have nearly tripled in value, by 140 percent, compared with the city average of 70 percent during the same period.

“You can definitely see the changes from 2001 to now. The number of boarded-up houses has decreased dramatically,” says Gamlin, who also lives in the area.

Gentrification really hasn't taken hold here. Many of the houses flipping over to young professionals, artists and gay couples are purchased from aging residents, not financially strapped families. The influx of younger, educated residents is fueling a neighborhood political bloc while new residents begin exerting influence, but it's an influence that's creating a unique racial tension. Unlike other areas of the city, North Side has an important demographic, an anomaly in a city so desecrated by crime and poverty: a relatively healthy, influential, middle-class black community.

The area once was a center of African-American intellectualism, home to Spottswood Robinson, the famed civil rights attorney, and former Gov. Doug Wilder, along with countless prominent black lawyers, pharmacists, dentists and educators, including Ethel Thompson Overby, one of the city's first black principals. Chamberlayne Avenue, today known more for its street walkers, used to be known as “Champagne Avenue.” 

After desegregation, however, the area lost much of its intellectual capital. “Black flight” ensued in the 1970s and into 1980s, with many of the area's prominent and wealthier citizens fleeing for the suburbs, not unlike the white flight that afflicted other parts of the city. It left behind those without the means to relocate, fueling a vicious cycle of poverty that continues to haunt Richmond.

Still, the area's crime and poverty is generally milder compared to the nearby housing projects such as Gilpin Court, or, for that matter, in neighborhoods such as Church Hill in the 1980s and poverty-laden Blackwell on the city's South Side.

Many of the neighborhoods east of Chamberlayne are hence quieter, perhaps deceptively so during the day, a key attribute that attracts the younger set.

“Quite a few individuals, couples and families who have tried to buy something somewhere else, but because of the basic affordability of that area many people have chosen to move to Barton Heights and southern Barton Heights,” says Richard Woodson, the deputy real estate assessor for the city. “Younger couples are willing to pioneer over here just like they were able to pioneer over in Church Hill 25 years ago.”


THE PIONEERS include couples such as Lauren and Jon, who moved into the neighborhood in January 2008. After house-shopping in Church Hill, Montrose Heights, Forest Hill and other more expensive neighborhoods, they settled in the 2900 block of Hanes Avenue, a block south of Brookland Park Boulevard. 

They met in 2005 while attending Virginia Commonwealth University, pursuing graduate degrees in public administration. They married two years later at Sandals in Montego Bay, Jamaica. They lived in an apartment in Tobacco Row for a year, but were itching to buy their own home.

In their 20s and both students of urban planning, they landed good jobs out of college — Jon working as a planner in Stafford County, Lauren as an policy analyst for the Virginia General Assembly crime commission — but couldn't manage the $400,000 homes in the more established parts of the city. They bought their house, a traditional foursquare built in 1922, for $163,000.

They understood the risks involved. Lauren visited the neighborhood numerous times, even at night, and studied the police crime stats. “I had a ton of reservations,” says Jon, namely with Lauren's safety. But they moved in — even after concluding, like many of their neighbors, that there was an established drug house on the next block.

“We drove past it. Before we moved in we saw them and we knew,” says Lauren, referring to the men who would stand on the corners, and the parade of cars that would stop in front of the house at night, with people going in and out within a matter of minutes. “It was a risk, and we knew it was a risk.”

When the weather warmed up, what they perceived as drug traffic intensified, and then there were the teen parties at the Cultural Diversity Center on North Avenue. On weekends, the parties would let out after 10 p.m., sending throngs of unruly teenagers into the streets. There were fights, sometimes gunshots, Lauren says, often in the alley that ran behind their house.

“They had a shootout right out in our alley,” she says. “They ran across North Avenue right up into Barton Heights. … It was like something out of a Mad Max movie.”

Neighborhood protest eventually forced the teen center to close in August. Lauren credits frequent calls to police, not to mention the building code office. 

 

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Police officers from the 4th Precinct regularly attend meetings of the Battery Park Civic Association, where tensions have increased lately as the neighborhood changes.

The alleged drug house has been a source of tension between neighbors and members of the civic association and the Richmond police since the summer of 2008. Lauren frequently called and e-mailed police officials, and has gone so far as to get the license plate numbers of the alleged dealers' cars. At one point, she managed to get the cell phone number of the man who allegedly runs the drug operation.

Lauren says police were slow to react, and did little with the tips she and her neighbors passed along. (She and her husband decline to give their last names for fear of retaliation.) Another longtime neighbor who lives across the street from the house says it's well known as a drug destination. “I don't understand why it's so hard to bust them,” she says. “I was calling [the police] way back when Sheriff [C.T.] Woody was on the force. … It's almost legal to sell drugs down here.”

Lt. Brian Corrigan, the officer in charge of Sector 412, which includes Hanes Avenue, Battery Park and Barton Heights, says the department has investigated the alleged drug house and come up empty. The police department has done five voluntary searches on the property (the only kind of legal search possible without probable cause), monitored the house and dispatched undercover officers to make drug buys — to no avail. 

Corrigan chalks it up to misperception. “A lot of this is they are not used to seeing people standing around with nothing to do,” Corrigan says of the newer residents. They often complain that nothing's being done, he says, because they don't see marked police cars, or “police jump outs.”

Maj. John Keohane, who oversees the 3rd and 4th precincts, says the department has been monitoring the house and the neighborhood for the better part of two years and come up with little evidence that there's a drug operation on Hanes.

“There is activity, but it does not appear to be drug activity,” Keohane says. “That [conclusion] is based on our sector officers, our focus unit and our narcotics officers.”

Nonetheless, Lauren and the Battery Park Civic Association have continued to pressure police and City Hall. They've been successful. Hardy, who serves as the civic association's president, met with both Police Chief Bryan Norwood and Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring to discuss the drug house, along with other crime issues, in May. At about the same time, Norwood assigned Officer David Taylor to walk the neighborhoods around Brookland Park Boulevard, the city's first true walking beat. Since then, overall crime in the area has dropped significantly.

The constant pressure from residents, however, has created tension with the police department along with the older, longtime residents of the area.

“This is the one community that I can get beat up in,” Corrigan says, speaking figuratively. He attends the civic association meetings, and says members often blame him for everything from potholes to stray animals. “That's frustrating to me,” he says. “So there is tension.”


 

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Lawrence Day, founder of the Men of Barton Heights, says the newer residents moving into Battery Park are drowning out the older, black residents — and don't respect the area's history.

THAT TENSION bubbled over in June, when the Men of Barton Heights, a nonprofit youth organization that runs a basketball program for young black men in North Side, held a basketball tournament in Battery Park. The group's president, 53-year-old Lawrence Day, started the group in 1997 to offer young black men a refuge from the streets, with the goal of instilling community pride and respect. The tournament, which brought hundreds to the park, caught some neighbors by surprise. They called police.

The incident outraged Day, who says the calls were racially motivated, likening it to how “blacks were treated in this same neighborhood some 40 years ago, at a time when young black men were profiled as criminals and drug users and our young women were profiled as prostitutes,” in a flyer distributed throughout the neighborhood. “These elements have come into our neighborhoods with an attitude of dictatorship.”

Day showed up at the civic association meetings and lambasted the members as racially insensitive. The flyer caught the attention of Councilman Chris Hilbert, who represents North Side on City Council.

“People got the message loud and clear that the white residents in the neighborhood weren't welcome,” bemoans Hilbert, who was offended by the flyer. But Hilbert says he understands Day's point of view: “He has seen an ugly part of our past in his youth. I think he has a perspective that a lot of us who are white can't really appreciate.”

Hilbert has seen the neighborhood change dramatically since 2004, when he was first elected to City Council. “The first time I ran for Council and went door to door, I would say it was rare to run into a family that wasn't African-American. And that is certainly not the case now,” he says, adding that he has tried to be an arbiter. “There are times when there are real cultural divides that aren't being bridged.”

That cultural divide isn't so much that the new residents moving in are white, Day says, but that they're dictating the direction of North Side without truly becoming integrated into the community.

“The problem is they only make up 5 percent of the population, but their voice makes up 90 percent,” Day says of the newer white residents. “To be involved in the neighborhood you have to go the schools, the churches. They don't do that.”

The lack of true integration has vexed the city for years.

“Some people come in and all they look at is this is a house and it's a good deal — but that's not creating a neighborhood,” says Mort Gulak, associate professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gulak recalls working with the Carver community near the university a few years ago, when the housing committee rejected plans for a group of houses with garages underneath. “They disapproved of the development plans because they'll never see anybody in their neighborhood,” Gulak recalls. Too often, he says, “the younger folks don't understand community.”

 

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Officer David Taylor began working the city's only true walking beat in the neighborhoods around Brookland Park Boulevard last spring.

The young professionals, artists and couples moving back to Richmond still largely shun the public school system, especially when their children reach middle-school age. Many politicians and city leaders see this lack of trust in public schools as the city's biggest Achilles' heel: How can they attract and, more importantly, retain that influential white middle class when their children come of school age?

Perhaps the answer is simply getting to know each other, says Kimberly Hicks, who lives in the 2900 block of Hanes Avenue. Hicks, 42, has lived on North Side her entire life, and relocated last summer to Hanes from Griffin Avenue, a few streets over. She says growing up she knew all of her neighbors, and they looked out for one another. There was a sense of community that's getting lost in the new-look North Side.

“We loved each other on Griffin,” she says. “Around here, they don't have that neighborly love.” The newer residents, she says, “come here and they don't speak. It doesn't hurt anybody to just say hello.”

If there's a cultural divide, there's also a digital one. The younger residents tend to connect more via e-mail and text, and voice neighborly concerns via online message boards and on the Web. During the Battery Park Civic Association meetings, the older, black residents routinely complain about not receiving important community information that's usually distributed electronically.

Lucille W. Green and her husband, Harold Green Sr., have lived on Edgewood Avenue in Battery Park for 43 years. Both are former school teachers and are active in the civic association. They're also well-connected politically.

Lucille Green served as the Battery Park Civic Association president when Wilder was mayor and could bend his ear when needed. Ditto for current Mayor Dwight Jones. “I can talk to the mayor because he's my granddaughter's father in-law,” she says.
But there are times when the civic association loses elders like the Greens. Green says the younger folks can also be too pushy and disrespectful. They fail to understand the history of Battery Park, she says.

“They try to tell us old folks what to do and we're not going to stand for it,” says Green, adding that the younger set has tried to make it difficult for some businesses, including the nearby Chevron, and don't want longtime park rules, such as the policy against dogs. “It's not fair, and it's not right. And some of them don't have respect for the older people in the neighborhood.”

Still, she sees the neighborhood changing for the better in many respects. The people moving in keep up their property, and care about the community. “They are moving in and fixing up, restoring property and making it look good,” she says.

Hilbert says despite all of the recent racial tensions, the neighborhood is moving in the right direction. At a North Side back-to-school rally in August, he says, the turnout was impressive. While Day's flyer may have struck a nerve, it also may have gotten through to some of the newer residents. At the rally, the community raised money for 500 book satchels. “It kind of occurred on the heels of that rift,” he says of the rally. “It was a very diverse group of people. It seemed like the differences kind of melted away.”


 

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Kimberly Hicks with her son, Jerome Robinson III, outside their home on Hanes Avenue. She moved into the house last summer but has lived on North Side her entire life.

WITH TIME, perhaps comes tolerance. Jim Budziszewski lost his job as a computer tech in Washington and moved to Richmond in December 2001. He moved into an apartment off Hilliard and Brook roads, but had driven through the Battery Park area on a few occasions, and recalls lamenting how he loved the architecture, but the neighborhood looked too dangerous. “Eight years ago, it was a lot sketchier,” he says.

When he began house shopping last year, he saw a noticeable difference. In June he bought his house in the 2800 block of Hanes Avenue, just a few doors down from the alleged drug house his neighbors have told him about. He says he isn't home enough to see the drug traffic he's been forewarned about, and recently things have been quieter. That didn't stop him from buying a gun — a 9mm Stoeger Cougar — something he says wasn't entirely motivated by his perceptions of the neighborhood.

Police took a battering ram to one house on the block, he says, and there are occasional gunshots — but they're usually off in the distance.

There was an incident Christmas night, he says. “I had people over here. A single gunshot went off around 11,” he says. “I called it in and within a few minutes, around 11:30, two more shots went off and it was definitely the porch next door.”

He knows his neighbors, and figured they were probably just messing around. “I just figured it was some kids doing something stupid,” Budziszewski says.

He called the police, but says he never really felt threatened. He was more concerned about New Year's Eve. A neighbor told him the stroke of midnight tended to bring a special kind of fireworks: the inner-city tradition of shooting guns into the air.

“I waited up until 12:30 and nothing happened,” he says. “There was not one shot.”

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