March 31, 2015 News & Features » Cover Story

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Lonesome Highway 

While plans abound for most of Richmond's struggling areas, the five-mile stretch that is Jefferson Davis can't seem to attract a savior.

click to enlarge U.S. Route 1 south of Richmond, otherwise known as Jefferson Davis Highway, has seen better days, and the cavalry don’t seem to be coming.

Scott Elmquist

U.S. Route 1 south of Richmond, otherwise known as Jefferson Davis Highway, has seen better days, and the cavalry don’t seem to be coming.

Julie Jarman had just dropped off her 6-year-old daughter at school. As she headed back down the long, gravel driveway to her secluded home off Jefferson Davis Highway, she came across a man and a woman in a car, pulling up their pants.

The sight wasn’t particularly shocking. Jarman says she catches prostitutes and their customers in her driveway at least three times a year. Evidence of the sex trade — used condoms — show up more frequently.

But the reaction of the half-dressed man set the incident apart, Jarman says: He freaked out behind the wheel and attempted to speed away. Instead, he drove directly into a tree.

The car, in connecting with the tree trunk, came to a dead stop next to an otherwise idyllic pond where Jarman’s husband, Tracy Jarman, a truck driver, likes to go fishing with his daughter.

Jarman says she watched a woman of about 60 years open the passenger side door, collect her purse and stroll away as if nothing had happened. The driver managed to separate his car from the tree and tried to escape down a service road that leads to a cell phone tower. But it’s a dead end and he had nowhere to go.

Jarman called the police and her brother, Daniel Clark. Clark arrived first, and held the man at gunpoint until police arrived. After some discussion, officers charged him with trespassing.

For Jarman, it was just another day on Jefferson Davis, where bizarre incidents like these chip away at what’s left of the neighborhood’s quality of life.

“We’re moving,” she says. “It’s a shame, because it used to be a nice place where I could walk somewhere without people thinking I’m a prostitute. You could go outside and not have to worry about someone grabbing you.”

 

click to enlarge Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who represents the city’s 8th District, leads a “march for a better neighborhood” that she organized in October. About 60 residents walked the highway from Captain D’s restaurant to Alexander Avenue. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who represents the city’s 8th District, leads a “march for a better neighborhood” that she organized in October. About 60 residents walked the highway from Captain D’s restaurant to Alexander Avenue.

US. Route 1 runs through Richmond, roughly parallel to Interstate 95, from north to south. It crosses over Belle Isle on the Lee Bridge, and once it hits the South Side, around Hull Street, it’s known as Jeff Davis.

In every other corner of the city, you’ll find at least a plan, strategy or advocate for revitalization. Hull Street is the subject of a massive redevelopment plan. The East End has the attention of Bon Secours and its community development grants. The city housing projects are the focus of a planned overhaul embraced by Mayor Dwight Jones. Nonprofit community groups quietly work in the neighborhoods of the North Side.

Jeff Davis has struggled to attract the same kind of attention. The five miles of it that run through the city limits are beyond faded. Sidewalks are gritty, and they’re largely deserted between the two pawnshops, seven motels, 17 convenience stores and 35 empty storefronts that line the streets. The last serious look at the neighborhood came in 2010 when Virginia Commonwealth University students volunteered to put together a study of the neighborhood as part of their course work.

Prostitution, illegal dumping and thefts are perennial problems — the subject of bitter complaints from long-time residents. Police logged 25 robberies and 121 assaults last year, and there were more arrests for prostitution than any other neighborhood in the city.

“People say it looks like Baghdad around here,” says Reva Trammell, the city councilwoman who lives in and represents the neighborhood. “That’s what they compare it to. A war zone.”

click to enlarge Julie Jarman lives in the Jefferson Davis area with her husband, Tracy, and their 6-year-old daughter. It used to be a nice place, she says. But now they want to move. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Julie Jarman lives in the Jefferson Davis area with her husband, Tracy, and their 6-year-old daughter. It used to be a nice place, she says. But now they want to move.

Trammell says police do what they can to address the problems. She, along with residents and business owners, say things have improved dramatically since the ’90s, when the city logged more than 100 homicides a year.

But now, she says what the neighborhood needs is a realistic plan to drive some kind of economic development in the area.

She knows the neighborhood can support it, she says. When she moved there in the ’70s, she recalls: “We had everything, that’s why my dad moved us over there. There were like five different grocery stores, a bakery. There were businesses everywhere on Jefferson Davis. There were restaurants. We even had, right there on the county line — it was a steak place — like, a Golden Corral.”

At a minimum, Trammell wonders, can’t the street get one sit-down restaurant?

There’s no consensus on what exactly Jeff Davis needs to thrive. Last year, Trammell proposed legislation to create an economic development task force that would focus on the neighborhood. But she was working on the project with the city’s former chief administrative officer, Byron Marshall. It was derailed following an employment dispute that ended in his departure from the city last year.

First elected to office in 1998, Trammell says she does what she can to help constituents, and she dutifully forwards reports to city administrators. Beyond that, there isn’t much she can do. Trammell faults Mayor Jones for neglecting the strip.

“He’s the one who runs City Hall and economic development,” Trammell says. “I don’t. He’s the one who can say, ‘Hey, we need this or we need that.’”

click to enlarge George Rosenson has run his video store for 30 years, watching the neighborhood change. As video rentals fall off, which he acknowledges is a separate issue, he survives by offering a large selection of adult titles. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • George Rosenson has run his video store for 30 years, watching the neighborhood change. As video rentals fall off, which he acknowledges is a separate issue, he survives by offering a large selection of adult titles.

George Rosenson, a 79-year-old who speaks with a thick, Eastern-European accent, stands behind the counter of his video store, Video Mart Corp.

He opened 30 years ago, and as a holdout in a dying business, he knows he faces worse odds than most trying to eke out a living here. “I’m headed to oblivion with the buggy-whip factory,” he says.

His collection of tapes once topped 30,000. Now he survives mostly on the sale and rental of adult movies.

From his shop, he’s watched the neighborhood change. He says the place used to have more life. Now most of his customers skulk in from around the city and Chesterfield. “A lot more traffic was here,” he says. “Philip Morris used to have more employees. DuPont had more employees.”

He recalls bakeries and shoe stores. “Now it’s thrift stores and junk stores,” he says.

Jerry Finn is the second-generation owner of Hull Street Outlet, an army surplus store on Jeff Davis. He takes a less bleak view of the street’s fortunes. But he acknowledges the problems. “Yeah, if you’re an old-time resident here — the attitude is entirely different,” he says. “This is not the good old days. Things change.”

Both Finn and Rosenson say they don’t stray far from their shops. And when they close at night, they head home. “We’re not here in the evening,” he says. “I have no idea what goes on after hours.”

That prostitution and other quality-of-life crimes plague the area doesn’t surprise him, he says: “You’re right off [Interstate] 95 in an area where people make money doing shift work.”

Not everyone’s even convinced the street was ever that great of a place to live. Jimmy Cox, an 84-year-old who opened a business on the highway in 1970, says it was always a rough neighborhood: “I’m not sure there were any good old days for Jeff Davis.”

 

click to enlarge Luis Pardo is growing the tire shop business he bought. He says city economic development officials stopped by recently but nothing came of it. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Luis Pardo is growing the tire shop business he bought. He says city economic development officials stopped by recently but nothing came of it.

Any growth the neighborhood has experienced in the past few years can be squarely attributed to a thriving Latino population.

Census data shows that Hispanics make up anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of the population, up more than 300 percent in some areas from the numbers recorded by the 2000 census. They own take-out joints, appliance stores, bodegas and thrift shops.

The changes have presented unique challenges for the community, with schools struggling to keep up and some lower-income areas such as Rudd’s Trailer Park — Richmond’s largest — facing growing pains and pressure from city officials (see sidebar).

Luis Pardo moved to Jeff Davis 18 years ago, taking a job at the used-tire shop he now owns and has expanded.

The area appeals to Latino residents because rent is low, Pardo says. It’s an affordable place to lay down roots and start climbing the economic ladder.

His business is thriving, he says. Pardo wants to add three bays to his shop. Last year, he says a city official stopped by and outlined a program to help finance his expansion plans, but he never heard from him again and nothing came of it.

Lee Downey, the city’s top economic development official, recently toured Jeff Davis with Councilwoman Trammell.

“There’s a lot of potential,” Downey says. “There’s some great business owners down there.”

After Mayor Jones presented his city budget last month, Trammell made a point to note that he didn’t mention any major projects in her district.

That doesn’t mean the city doesn’t want to help, Downey says. His department needs to find “creative sources of funding” and ensure that business owners are aware of existing programs, he says.

click to enlarge Joyce Elkins, Connie Butler and Ada Southall sit on the porch of their trailer with Alliyah Southall and Alberto Rivera. They live together in the trailer park behind Luis Pardo’s tire shop. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Joyce Elkins, Connie Butler and Ada Southall sit on the porch of their trailer with Alliyah Southall and Alberto Rivera. They live together in the trailer park behind Luis Pardo’s tire shop.

Tom Papa, a city developer who recently purchased 38 acres off the highway, says there’s one tool the city has been slow to use: state and federal historic tax credits.

Papa says the 28 old tobacco warehouses he bought already qualify for the credits, which have spurred significant development elsewhere in the city. But he says the city planning and economic development departments have yet to move on a long-discussed proposal to have the corridor designated as a historic district. That designation would make properties within the borders eligible for the program, which can provide millions of dollars in financing at no cost to the city for large projects. Individual home owners also are eligible.

Papa says he’s still developing plans for the warehouses and has yet to submit proposals to city planning officials.

It’s pretty much a no-brainer,” he says. “There’s lots and lots of old buildings over there. The houses are — they’re really beautiful. They are truly the workforce housing that the city wants to create.”

Downey says the city is working on the historic district internally. Funding is set aside for the project but the city has yet to hire a consultant to do the work.

It’s unclear why the city hasn’t moved quicker to pursue tax credits. Downey says his department is working on it. He stressed that, far from being a panacea, tax credits are just “one tool in the tool box.”

“We need to and are making a concerted effort to get down to the businesses to say, ‘If you had some support, what would you be doing,’” Downey says. “When you hear their stories, it’s pretty exciting.”

“The potential is there.” S

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