The Lost Neighborhood

Within sight of downtown but invisible to most

At midafternoon Nov. 1, a uniformed National Park Service ranger leads a dozen visitors through the Maggie Walker birthplace on West Leigh Street in Jackson Ward. She traces the storied Richmond businesswoman’s climb, from humble beginnings as the daughter of a black laundress and an absent Irish father to her pinnacle as the nation’s first female bank president.

The guide then attempts to further connect the mostly teenage audience with the progressive and determined Walker, who died before some of their grandparents were born. “Mrs. Walker’s large, original bank building was torn down, but perhaps you’ve noticed her St. Luke’s Building,” she prompts. “You can see it from Interstate 95 as you drive past North Jackson Ward.”

The ranger doesn’t suggest that any members of her audience have actually been to North Jackson Ward, one of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods.

The students’ blank expressions reveal they have never seen the place, so the ranger describes the sorry condition of the four-story St. Luke’s structure, located on the weedy, trash-strewn corner of Baker and St. John streets.

It was here, beginning in the early 1900s, that Walker — who founded the forerunner of Consolidated Bank & Trust Co. — reigned over a host of other endeavors, including her insurance and publishing companies.

“The building is in bad shape,” the guide says. “There’s graffiti scrawled near the top, most of the windows are broken and boarded up, and people are living inside. I hope it can be saved, you know, before anything happens to it. It’s located on the edge of Gilpin Court: They want to tear down that neighborhood.”

The ranger surmised that if her visitors were aware of North Jackson Ward, it would have been in passing, at 55 mph. A destination of last resort — socially, racially, economically and geographically — it’s the city’s most isolated and desperate neighborhood.

The statistics are grim. Incomes in 80 percent of the neighborhood’s households fall below the poverty line of $15,000; 65 percent of its adult population didn’t finish high school; and 99 percent of its residents either rent or live in Gilpin Court, the city’s oldest and largest public housing project.

Gilpin was completed in 1943 to provide decent housing in the area. A 1941 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch described the neighborhood: “Children play in the poorly-paved or unpaved streets. The backyards beggar description. While there is an occasional, fairly respectable looking dwelling the great majority are unfit for human habitation.”

Sadly, some 75 years after Maggie Walker’s social and economic efforts and 63 years after Gilpin Court was built, this description is still apt for much of North Jackson Ward.

But there’s a difference now: The place is deadlier.

By 7 p.m. on the same day of that ranger’s tour of the area, the Maggie Walker historic site is closed for the day. But at 102 E. Federal St., a few blocks from the St. Luke’s Building, police respond to a shooting near a two-story apartment building. A man in his late 60s, having just left a friend’s birthday party in Gilpin Court, is hit by a bullet intended for someone else. He dies soon after at VCU Medical Center.

North Jackson Ward, with its concentration of societal ills, can be a tragic place. In recent years a number of organizations, including the Urban Land Institute and the North Jackson Ward Task Force, working with the city of Richmond’s Department of Community Development, have proposed demolishing some or all of Gilpin Court’s 783 rental units and building market-rate housing.

How many people would be displaced?

“We are talking about an approach that will create before it removes,” Alex J. Rose of the Urban Land Institute explained to a reporter when such concerns were raised in March. That’s when the organization announced a conceptual plan for the area.

But while no specific plan has been revealed, city leaders are feeling pressure to address North Jackson Ward because the downtown area directly south, across Interstates 95 and 64, is undergoing rapid and dramatic transformation.

In Jackson Ward, across from the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue on Leigh Street, a row of handsome townhouses is nearing completion. Nearby, dozens of antebellum residences and former warehouses and factories are being converted into upscale apartments. Across from the Richmond Coliseum, Philip Morris USA is fast-tracking construction of its 450,000-square-foot, $300 million research and technology center. Nearby, the sleek, modernistic glass facades of the UNOS corporate headquarters and the young Greater Richmond Convention Center shimmer narcissistically.

True, North Jackson Ward is geographically self-contained, but two jarringly opposite realities are staring at each other down across the interstates — and could collide.

North Jackson Ward contains 130 acres. The 2000 census counted 2,747 residents. The district is sharply defined by the curve of I-64 and I-95 on the south and east; CSX rail lines as they slice through Bacon’s Quarter Branch Valley on the north and a short stretch of Chamberlayne Parkway to the west.

While Gilpin Court’s mostly two-story “garden-style” apartments dominate the neighborhood architecturally, North Jackson Ward is also characterized by the Shockoe and Hebrew cemeteries, burial grounds for many illustrious figures from most eras of the city’s history.

Fifty years ago this area was the heart of Jackson Ward. Then I-95 sliced the district into two parts in the mid-1950s. Since then, North Jackson Ward has been isolated from the mainstream and consciousness of the overall city.

Deeply seated poverty aside, what makes rehabilitating North Jackson Ward especially difficult is that it does not function like many other city neighborhoods. In other places, the combined stew of people, nature, commerce, recreation, architecture, and cultural and educational institutions melds and flows with at least some natural synergy.

The Fan and Museum districts, for example, have pedestrian-scaled and tree-lined streets, similarly scaled single- and multi-family residences, and a harmonious sprinkling of eateries, small businesses, playgrounds and pocket parks, schools, churches and synagogues. There is a balance of these positive ingredients.

By contrast, in North Jackson Ward there are four highly distinct and hard-edged physical areas. These are the interstate highway; Gilpin Court, with its achingly monotonous housing stock; the enclosed cemeteries; and the rough-hewn Baker Street corridor. The last is an eight-block stretch of vacant lots, mostly dilapidated houses and a sprinkling of convenience stores.

Each area has its own radically different ecology, and they grind against one another unmercifully. These areas may share some history, but each has its own physical and architectural characteristics, distinct rules and pace, and each operates independently.

This will make coming to grips with North Jackson Ward especially difficult.

The Interstate Highway

All urban stretches of interstate highways are built for speed and are akin to traveling through 180-degree tunnels. They are designed to usher vehicular traffic in, encourage it out and or push it through densely populated areas at a reasonable speed.

Living next to such a roadway can be unpleasant and perhaps unhealthful. There is constant noise and pollution. Upscale neighborhoods, like Windsor Farms, however, are usually buffered from such roadways in the form of high, traditional brick walls or thickly and attractively planted shrubbery. The Downtown Expressway is heavily landscaped as it passes through Byrd Park and skirts the Fan District, less so as it passes through Randolph and Oregon Hill.

There’s no sound or visual screening for North Jackson Ward. As motorists commute to and from their jobs downtown, head eastward to the airport, or travel up and down the East Coast, their minds are on the road ahead or their next stop.

But the roar or screech of every passing car and truck is heard in North Jackson Ward. And the neighborhood’s air quality is not enhanced by the interstate highways.

Gilpin Court

The homicide near Gilpin Court Nov. 1 wasn’t an unusual occurrence. The neighborhood has one of the city’s highest crime rates and, not surprisingly, one of its highest concentrations of poverty.

According to the 2000 census, of the 2,747 people living in North Jackson Ward, 61 percent are female and 39 percent are male. Only 1.3 percent of the housing units are owner-occupied. Only 4 percent of households have married couples with children, while in 48 percent of the households, a female is head with no husband present.

As for a high-school diploma, 65 percent of North Jackson Ward residents don’t have one. Fewer than 1 percent of the population has a college degree. Forty-six percent of adults between 21 and 64 have disabilities. Eighty-one percent don’t own a vehicle.

The neighborhood is one of the oldest in Richmond, and by the mid-1800s, it was populated by many Germans and Jews. By the Civil War, African-Americans were moving into the area. Today, it’s 97 percent black.

Gilpin Court was named to honor Charles Sidney Gilpin, an actor who was born in the 200 block of Charity Street and was acclaimed on Broadway in the 1920s for playing the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.”

It was once called “Apostle Town” because of its streets, named St. Paul, St. James, St. Luke, St. Peter and St. John.

Gilpin Court was opened in 1943 to replace previously decrepit housing and, in a parallel to today’s concern for downtown development, improve surrounding conditions.

“We are, in our first slum clearance project, fortifying and reinforcing the mid-town business section of Richmond,” William Meacham, chairman of the Richmond Housing Authority, said in 1941, according to the Times-Dispatch.

“The experience in other cities has convinced us that our housing project is correlated with city planning, since it is contributing to the development of a section of the city near the area in which the proposed civic center is to be located. …” he continued. “The transformation of the slums into areas which will contribute to the culture of the city is our goal.”

Amid the relentless “garden-style” apartment buildings in Gilpin Court, there is little or no landscaping. A 200-unit high-rise building, Frederic A. Fay Towers, provides senior housing.

The Cemeteries

Shockoe and Hebrew cemeteries are sprawling landscapes separated from other parts of North Jackson Ward by high brick walls and metal fences. Both of these historic burial grounds open onto Hospital Street near the northern boundary of the neighborhood.

In 1820 the city of Richmond enclosed 4 acres of Shockoe Cemetery for “white inhabitants of the city.” St. John’s churchyard on Church Hill, the city’s oldest cemetery, was filling up.

In 1825 Shockoe Cemetery was expanded and today occupies 12.5 acres. It’s the resting place of many prominent Richmonders, including Chief Justice John Marshall and William Foushee, the city’s first mayor. Abolitionist and Church Hill resident Elizabeth Van Lew is buried at a site marked by a large granite boulder given by admirers from Massachusetts.

Yet according to a city cemetery official, there have been only two burials in Shockoe Cemetery during the past quarter-century.

There is a fascinating diversity of funerary art among the tombstones. Many of the stone markers are broken, lying on the ground or stacked up. This seems to be because of age, weather and falling trees and branches rather than vandalism. The roadways need repaving.

Hebrew Cemetery is located in the 300 block of Hospital Street and is maintained by Congregation Beth Ahabah. Most of its monuments are in excellent condition.

One special feature is a plot where a number of Confederate soldiers are buried. This is thought to be the only Jewish military cemetery outside of Israel. A picturesque fence composed of rifles and crossed sabers is one of the most spectacular examples of cast ironwork in the city.

Across Hospital Street from the old cemetery is an annex to Hebrew Cemetery. Its headstones read like a who’s who of Richmond’s 19th- and 20th-century business giants, including Thalhimers of the department stores, Morton Marks of the office-furniture operation, Schwarzschild of the banking and jewelry companies, and Sydney Lewis, co-founder of the Best Products catalog showroom retailer.

The Baker Street Corridor

The smallest of the four distinct ecologies of North Jackson Ward is the Baker street corridor. This eight-block stretch, which runs along the southern edge of the neighborhood, probably is what the entire area would have looked like if Gilpin Court had never been built.

It’s characterized mostly by empty lots, but there are a few old and deserted houses (not without charm despite their condition) — some with their insides blown out and roofless. There are only 34 individual houses in the neighborhood, and most of them are located near Baker Street. Two or three of them are well-maintained and have flower beds planted with seasonal flowers.

Last week on the mild, late afternoon of Halloween, there was considerable activity along and near Baker Street. Two privately owned convenience stores received steady foot traffic. At 4 p.m. a dozen or so men sat in their cars and trucks or stood on the sidewalks near S&R Food Store. Most of them clutched and drank 40-ounce beers in brown bags. None of them wanted to give their names, but they were a jovial bunch. Many of them said they don’t live in North Jackson Ward now, but once called it home.

It’s changed, they all agreed. The area has an obvious emotional pull on them, and they say they congregate here regularly.

At the western end of Baker Street, near the corner of First and Federal streets across from Gilpin Court, six or eight middle school students romp in a grassy field and toss a football cheerfully. Occasionally, a few older men join in.

Observing the activity from across the street are some 30 men, women and children of various ages, milling about in front of a row of two-story apartments. It’s a congenial scene of neighbors enjoying warm weather, the end of the workday, and anticipating Halloween.

Early the next evening, there is the killing here on East Federal Street. Fewer people venture outside. S

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