Perhaps it's Oregon Hill's intractable natural and man-made boundaries: The James River rapids are on the south, the Downtown Expressway is on the north, U.S. 1 forms the eastern boundary and Hollywood Cemetery is immediately west. Or maybe it is the grit and independence of its residents, many of them descendants of Welsh ironworkers who emigrated in the early 1800s to labor and sweat at the former Tredegar Ironworks. And don't underestimate the energy and determination of many residents and homeowners seeking to revive their weathered neighborhood: By any measure, Oregon Hill remains a hardscrabble, independent community. It is hardly surprising, then, that the neighborhood delivered Ralph Nader vote totals with double-digit percentages in the presidential election earlier this month. Florida may be on the fence, but the folks on Oregon Hill know where they stand. And often that stance is one of mistrusting "the system." And for good reason. For the past quarter century "The Hill" has been a neighborhood under siege. In the 1970s, the Richmond Metropolitan Authority demolished scores of homes and whacked the neighborhood in two for the Downtown Expressway. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, land-starved Virginia Commonwealth University extended southward into Oregon Hill's fabric before shifting its growth north to Broad Street. Then Ethyl, a corporate behemoth to the east, bought scores of residential properties and demolished entire blocks of 19th-century building stock. And now comes the next assault. Trustees of the St. Andrews Association, a trust set up in the 1920s in the will of Oregon Hill benefactor Graces Arents have applied for a demolition permit to remove 12 houses it owns on Linden Street. Here's the cruel irony: Arents was a Richmond philanthropist and social reformer who left a bequest to build those houses in Oregon Hill. How can the Association in good conscience demolish the buildings? The Association's move parallels the successful renovation of 10 other Arents-funded homes just a few blocks north, a joint project of the St. Andrews Association and the Richmond Better Housing Coalition. While the community is applauding the spirit and reality of this renewal, the question has to be asked: Why can't such partnerships work on Linden Street? Officials have responded that the buildings are too far gone. Please. They aren't. And this argument is weakened by the fact that the Association a number of years ago evicted residents of the dwellings and have allowed the buildings to sit idle. Deterioration, particularly with frame structures, is going to occur by neglect. Especially sad is the timing of the St. Andrews Association (not to be confused with St. Andrews Episcopal Church and the St. Andrews School, two Oregon Hill institutions that add immeasurably to the life of the community). Its move to demolish the buildings is directly at odds with heroic efforts the ragged neighborhood is making to shore itself up. In the 800 block of Spring Street, the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council has recently built two new double houses, providing four new households. The handsome frame houses, sensitively designed to blend into the fabric of the area, have characteristic front porches and low-key, Italianate architectural features. Land has been cleared in the block for a third double house. Plans call for this structure to have even more pronounced Italianate features. In other words, the neighborhood improvement council is seeking to build on the neighborhood's rich building and architectural traditions, not just attempt plain-Jane in-fill. These Spring Street projects aren't isolated incidents. At 617 S. Cherry St., the pre-Civil War John Miller House, one of the few documented antebellum houses in the state documented to have been built by free African-Americans, is being meticulously restored. And the Parsons House, a diamond-in-the-rough brick house on Spring Street at Belvidere, perhaps the grandest house in the neighborhood, is about to undergo major restoration and adaptation for new uses after having served the state penal system for decades. However slow, these steps at neighborhood rehabilitation have been sure. How tragic, then, that while the neighborhood struggles for months to get half a dozen houses restored or built, bulldozers can wipe out a dozen in a morning. And Grace Arents houses, historic fabric built by the neighborhood's patron saint. It doesn't make sense. Richmond City Council, in a wise gesture, recently decreed repopulation of the city a policy priority. The hundreds of apartments being built above storefronts downtown and in warehouses along the canal are a spectacular step in that direction. But why not restore these Oregon Hill Linden Street houses, find homeowners, and place them back on the tax rolls? Memo to St. Andrews Association: Respect the intent of Grace Arents, the woman who built these houses and established the trust you administer. The need for housing is as great today as it was in her era. And you are not alone: Oregon Hill is on the
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