“The Greatest Place on Earth”

At the foot of Powhatan Hill, just east of Rocketts Landing and the old Fulton Gas Works, a green, lush swath of land sits untouched by the city’s recent renaissance. It’s a sweeping river valley with swaying oak trees and a hazy, picturesque view of the city skyline. In the city’s East End, the valley is the birthplace of Richmond and the former homestead of the all-powerful Chief Powhatan more than 400 years ago.

A passing glance from a car window can quickly assess the real-estate potential: Condos are going up at the old Richmond Cedar Works across the street; to the west, a few rows of new vinyl-sided houses sit adjacent to a Frisbee-golf park and a BMX bicycle track, which lures preps and college kids when weather permits. If Mayor L. Douglas Wilder had gotten his way a year ago, developers would be putting the finishing touches on a new baseball stadium around the bend on Williamsburg Road, where the vacant gas works sits by the river.

But the city’s next big redevelopment is just about to begin. During the next several months, the valley will finally give way to bulldozers and construction crews. New suburban-style homes, expected to start selling in the low $160,000s, will rise from the dirt. The Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority will send out press releases touting the project as the last leg of the Fulton Urban Renewal Plan, which dates to 1966 and involved the demolition of “859 blighted structures” in the early 1970s. Expect ribbon cuttings with City Council members, a nice spread in the newspaper and pretty TV reporters singing the praises of urban revitalization.

But don’t expect the whole truth. Fulton, as it turns out, is anything but what it seems. What is today an empty field with a few protruding highway railings was once a proud, tightknit African-American community bustling with blue-collar families. In a city that never seemed to find its way in the aftermath of slavery and desegregation, Fulton was a beacon of community spirit, work ethic and strong families.

Such is the power of Fulton’s ties that the old neighbors are still here — literally. In the name of urban renewal, the housing authority tore down houses, brick by brick, and relocated 785 families more than three decades ago. Like persistent ghosts, however, the people didn’t leave. They come and sit in the fields by the empty street grid. Look closely, behind the trees, and you’ll find them. They never left Fulton.

Most of them were born in this valley in the 1930s and ’40s. For more than 30 years, they’ve come back to this empty field every afternoon, in spring, summer, fall and even the coldest days of winter, to sit under the sprawling trees in metal chairs. They smoke cigarettes and cigars and sip Budweiser. They play dominoes on a rickety kitchen table. Sure, the city tore down their houses and booted them out, but they are surprisingly complacent. No one seems angry, but quite content to sit around, as one of them puts it, to “tell some lies and drink a beer.”

“The greatest place God ever created” is how Willice White Jr. describes Fulton. He was born on Denny Street in 1939 and recalls how you could knock on any door at dinner time and get invited inside for a meal. Doors and windows were left open, and if “you did wrong,” children could expect a prolonged community “whupping” — first by neighbors and again by their parents. The old neighborhood had supermarkets, movie theaters, restaurants, social clubs and two proud, historic black churches. Originally a white community, Fulton turned over to former slaves when the white families moved on in the late 1800s. To hear the old folks tell it, Fulton was more of an economic center in black Richmond than the more prominent Jackson Ward.

“The best living that you could possibly have. Everybody knew each other,” says Raymond Street, 66, who on a recent afternoon, places his chair on an old concrete slab next to the table where five men are slapping dominoes. The slab was poured by his father in the early 1950s. He’s sitting in what used to be his front yard. “I had seven brothers,” he says, “and you got anything you ever wanted to get.”

That Fulton had become an economic center was no accident. Between Williamsburg and Government roads emerged the first de facto suburb of the city. People would park their cars in Fulton and take the trolley, or streetcar, downtown. In the evenings when they returned from work, they’d often do their shopping here.

Christopher Silver, a former research technician with the city’s housing authority, described the area in a community newsletter, Fulton Neighbor, in 1977:

“Back when the clattering street cars still vied with the automobile for a share of Richmond’s traffic, which was not so long ago, Fulton was at the eastern end of the line. It was in Fulton that people coming in from the country would park their wagons and cars before boarding the streetcar which would take them either to work or to the central business district. …

“…The heart of Fulton’s shopping complex was where Louisiana Street and Williamsburg Avenue met. The streetcar stopped there, made a loop and either headed back up Main Street or over the viaduct and across Church Hill. … Jammed into this short stretch in the late 1940’s were Pete’s Barber Shop, the American Lunch Restaurant, the LaTouche and the Bowle’s grocery stores, the Fulton Clothing works, Fairlamb’s Confectionary, Smither’s Restaurant, Robinson’s Barber Shop, Ray Long’s furniture store, Harry Simon’s department store, Home Bakery, the Star Theatre, Allen’s Shoe Shine Parlor, Tinken’s Confectionary, Whitlock’s Barber Shop, Homeworker’s Handicraft and Co-operative and Arleigh Davis’ plumber shop.”

And that was just the beginning. The commercial district stretched farther toward Rocketts Landing and included the Richmond Cold Storage Co. at Denny Street, Pearsall’s Furniture Co., Nu-Way Cleaners, an A&P and several other supermarkets and service stations. “There was not much you couldn’t get in Fulton, and the country people knew it,” Silver wrote. “Although these suburbanites, then merely referred to as country folk, were steady patrons of the Fulton market place, residents from adjacent Fulton Hill as well as the thousands who lived in Fulton did all their shopping in the neighborhood.”

The area thrived unabated for years until the first suburban shopping centers went up, including Willow Lawn in 1955, and began to siphon away the retail dollars. By the 1960s, the area had become a shadow of its old self. Inundated with aging stores and rental properties, this dense neighborhood of 19th-century row houses became increasingly populated with poorer residents, with fewer job opportunities. In 1966, city leaders had gone so far as to declare Fulton its “worst slum.” City Council commissioned a study looking at options for revitalization.

“Fulton Bottom is, for the most part, an aged and ragged neighborhood wracked by crime and poverty,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in 1969. “Most of its houses are officially classified as dilapidated, and many are considered unfit for human occupancy. Most people, no doubt, regard the East End community as a blot upon the city, a place to shun if possible.”

As the housing authority ratcheted up its urban renewal program for Fulton, however, the community fought back. The area had its blight, but beneath the veneer of despair was a strong neighborhood with deep family ties to Fulton’s rich history.

The city government was to blame, the residents complained, and city officials readily admitted that it had neglected the area — failing to enforce building codes, for example — which exacerbated the poor housing conditions. Originally, the plan was to turn the area into an industrial zone with limited housing — trading residents for industry. But RRHA switched gears in the face of intense opposition. It couldn’t justify destroying a community of nearly 3,000 residents and replacing it with virtually nothing.

So its revamped plan called for tearing down Fulton in phases. Some $32 million in federal grants were secured, some of which was intended to help property owners revitalize existing homes that were structurally sound. Fulton residents were to be offered the opportunity to live in the new development as well.

Most families took the city’s relocation package — which included up to $15,000 and a new home in a new neighborhood — and moved out. With the community fracturing, a devastating flood in 1969 considerably weakened the opposition, and the neighborhood finally gave way to the authority’s bulldozers, observed Scott C. Davis in “The World of Patience Gromes: Making and Unmaking a Black Community,” a book published in 1988 that chronicled the demise of Fulton.

Keith Beverly, a 54-year-old former Fultonite, recalls that people were removed from their homes the day the dirt movers arrived. While many took the RRHA’s money and split, some refused to leave. They had to be dragged from their homes, literally.

“A lot of people, when it came time to leave, they had to turn off the lights. It broke a lot of hearts,” recalls Beverly, who’s known by some of the regulars in Fulton as the son of “Bear,” Beverly’s giant of a father. “They wouldn’t have been able to do today what they did 30 or 40 years ago.”

Beverly is one of the youngest of the Fultonites, and shortly after the RRHA’s plan shifted into motion, he joined the neighborhood’s most aggressive resident, Spencer Armstead, in forming a group called Together Inc. It was a last-ditch effort to save some of the area’s history. Despite the plan to phase in the development and preserve some homes, RRHA wound up demolishing the entire neighborhood using the power of eminent domain. The funding dried up, and the new housing, particularly in the valley, would take more than 30 years to come to fruition.

Fulton, however, didn’t go quietly into the night. Beverly and Armstead’s group petitioned to save several of the community’s landmarks, including the former Rising Mount Zion Church, founded in the 1860s after the fall of Richmond, the former Webster Davis School and a tiny house that was home to Fulton’s most famous son, Samuel L. Gravely, who became the U.S. Navy’s first African-American admiral.

Armstead, who later changed his name to Spencer Jones, appealed to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission to get the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, which would have protected the buildings from demolition. But the commission voted down the request because the community around them had been destroyed, writes Selden Richardson, author of “Built by Blacks: African-American Architecture & Neighborhoods in Richmond,” in which he devotes a chapter to Fulton’s demolition. Out of context, the commission had ruled, the structures had been robbed of their historical significance.

But the men didn’t quit. Spencer Jones, in particular, has kept fighting. His home on Denny Street was the last old Fulton structure to come down in the 1980s. He’s appealing again to the National Register of Historic Places and charges that the housing authority failed to conduct an environmental impact study in the valley, which is required by law. “I think the redevelopment is full of shit. Everybody knows that this program was operated illegally,” says Jones, a scruffy, stocky man with broad shoulders and big hands, his arms outstretched in the valley as the sun sets on a late August afternoon. “They’ve been making sure that everybody’s palms got greased, except for the people of Fulton. This would have never happened if this was a white neighborhood.”

The old folks refer to Jones as “the chief,” even if all of them don’t entirely agree with his assessment. Some say the people of Fulton are as much to blame as the city. “The people of Fulton sold out Fulton,” mutters one of the men, who declines to give his name, but says he’s been coming, every day, to Fulton since the 1930s.

Still, it’s difficult to blame residents for selling out after the city deemed the community its worst slum and made clear its plans to “revitalize” Fulton. Indeed, one house remains in the valley, up slightly on the hill, on Goddin Street. It wasn’t part of the community and was constructed the year before City Council jump-started Fulton’s urban renewal program in 1966. The house, a brick rancher built in 1965 by Charles Robinson, was out of character in a community of row houses and turn-of-the-century architecture, Federal-style homes and classic Queen Anne towers.

Robinson died in 1989, but his son, Earl Robinson, who helped build the house as a child, has been living in the valley among the bushes in “tranquility” for more than 30 years awaiting the housing authority’s urban renewal plan. Robinson remembers when the last phase of new housing went up a few years ago west of Admiral Gravely Boulevard. There was an open house, complete with balloons and music and lots of families looking to buy their first homes.

“It was, what you call it, a grand celebration,” says Robinson, a 64-year-old former maintenance man for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The new houses give Fulton the appearance of a developing suburb next to the empty valley. Robinson, a tall, lanky man with an easy demeanor, lives by himself, but he considers the men in the valley his neighbors, his family. They look after his house when he’s not there, and Robinson occasionally strolls down to take part in a friendly game of dominoes.

He knew it was only a matter of time before the development spread east toward his house. Earlier this summer, it finally happened. Officials at the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority summoned Robinson to their offices and informed him that he’d soon be getting some new neighbors – 39 of them. His house on the hill will be surrounded by four new houses. “They told me that my home would stay as it is, but the plan called for all new structures,” Robinson says. “Right off the bat, I’ve got to say, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ But I knew it was coming.”

Housing authority officials told him he could keep his property as is, with the fence and the shrubs, even though his neighbors will be restricted from having a yard like his. He also won’t have to join the housing association or be restricted by its bylaws.

Standing in his front yard overlooking the valley, Robinson worries what his new neighbors will think, and whether he’ll fit in. He isn’t poor, but he’s not exactly rich either, and he suspects the new neighbors will have to have “good jobs” to afford to live in the new Fulton. RRHA, which is funding the development with federal HOPE VI program grants, says the community is targeted for low-to-moderate income families.

“I feel that’s my backyard,” he says. “We’re all family.” He waves to one of the men who’s walking up Fulton Street, talking on his cell phone. “This is years of this. This isn’t August 2007. It’s 2001, it’s 1999. It’s been the same.” Indeed, the men have been coming to Fulton to congregate and play dominoes for more than 30 years.

“What you see is the togetherness of the old neighborhood,” Robinson says.

Richardson, the author and local historian who is president of the board of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, holds out hope that the housing authority will find some way to accommodate the old Fulton neighbors. He marvels at their persistence, how their deep emotional connection to this community has kept them coming back, year after year, even though their homes have long since been destroyed.

“This whole area is just a tragedy,” Richardson says. “Look how long they’ve been sitting there in nothing. It’s really the last great affront to the Fulton neighborhood.”

In an official statement, the housing authority says the last leg of the “successful” Fulton development will begin in the next several weeks. As for the history and timing, it’s simply a matter of changing plans and budgets, says Valena Dixon, a spokeswoman for the RRHA, and an unfortunate part of the process. As for the community center for the old folks, accommodations for the old Fultonites who continue to gather beneath the trees? Dixon doesn’t have an answer, except to say the housing authority continues to work with the Fulton community as promised in the original plan.

It would be easy to cast the plight of Fulton as a product of thinly disguised racism. Why, after all, would the city build a Frisbee park and a BMX bicycle track smack dab in a largely black community, and not build a community center for the old Fulton neighbors who spend their days preaching the virtues of black history and strong families? And it’s hard to lay blame at the current administration of the RRHA, which inherited the 1960s. The affront seems much more engrained. Halfway up Powhatan Hill along the sidewalk, there’s a plaque commemorating the historic meeting between Jamestown settlers Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport and Chief Powhatan in May 1607. Yet the state’s John Smith Trail excludes the area from the official tour. The site was also absent from the Richmond’s 400-year anniversary festivities earlier this year, yet historians say the meeting likely played a central role in Powhatan’s decision to allow the Jamestown settlers to set up shop in the New World. Spencer Jones smiles at the idea of Powhatan surveying the valley more than 400 years ago, before Smith and Newport ever set foot on the hill. “This is the most beautiful valley on the planet Earth,” he says.

If there’s any anger toward the city, the old neighbors who gather beneath the trees don’t show it. They’ve been coming here all their lives. In the winter they huddle under one of the trees and burn scrap wood in giant oil barrels. They used to hold annual reunions at the Powhatan Hill Park, but two years ago the city of Richmond ended that too, telling the men they needed to pay a park-usage fee of $680, Jones says. The memories of old Fulton, their stories, are all they need.

“We used to steal watermelons, and float back across the river,” says Raymond “Hucklebuck” Robinson Jr., whose memory sparks a round of jawboning from the men on a recent August afternoon. They weigh in on the issues of the day, such as Michael Vick’s stupidity for getting caught up in the dog-fighting scandal, and the Yankees’ tight pennant race. But mostly, it’s the stories of old Fulton that occupy their attention.

In the winter, they’d sled down Powhatan Hill on anything they could find, including old car tires and car hoods. It was one of the few times, before desegregation, that the youth from white Fulton Hill and black Fulton would put aside their differences. Before desegregation, the old Fulton was a “black zone” and the top of the hill a designated “white zone.” But when the snow came, the races came together. Usually, when the black kids ventured too far up the hill, they were met with white fists, and vice versa. But sledding required cooperation. What goes up also had to come down.

The men have been allowed to congregate in the valley for as long as anyone can remember, but don’t know where they’ll go when the bulldozers show up. They don’t seem concerned with that reality, either. Soon, they’ll disappear without much of a fuss.

“It was so sweet, I don’t want to talk about it,” says Verlin Walker, 49, in a rare show of emotion. “We don’t own nothing. The city took everything.” S

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