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Neighborhoods and History: 2021 Discover Richmond Annual Guide

Neighborhoods and History: 2021 Discover Richmond Annual Guide

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History abounds in the places we live. Here's a look at some notable neighborhoods and communities in the Richmond region.


JACKSON WARD Once called the Black Wall Street and the Harlem of the South, Jackson Ward — just north of the Broad Street downtown retail corridor — was for much of its history an immigrant community. Its ranks included German, Irish and Jewish residents. During the antebellum period, freed Black people began to concentrate in parts of the neighborhood.

Former slaves and freed Blacks built a thriving business community in Jackson Ward after the Civil War, using skills they had plied before emancipation. This explosion of Black entrepreneurship – from banks to entertainment clubs to restaurants – coincided with an era of growing racial isolation that included the enactment of Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” segregation.

The prosperity did not last, though Jackson Ward remained an epicenter of Black culture long after its peak as a financial center. But interstate highway construction during the mid-1950s decimated the neighborhood.

Decay in much of the 20th century gave way to a renaissance that continues now, with the area's African American heritage at the forefront of historic sites and redevelopment.

THE FAN Named for its shape as it spreads west from downtown, the Fan District is one of Richmond's most eclectic neighborhoods. The 85-block area is considered one of America's largest intact stretches of Victorian town houses. It's also home to the main campus of Virginia Commonwealth University as well as the mansions of stately Monument Avenue.

In 1817, a trio of ambitious Richmonders envisioned a new town called Sydney in what was then the city's western outskirts. A credit panic scuttled those plans, but the street layout from the ill-fated town survived and formed the basis of the Fan grid as it exists today.

The area remained a rural enclave until about 1890, when the city’s growing population helped spur westward expansion. After ups and downs, the Fan resurgence gained steam in the 1960s. Today, college students, professionals and retirees alike are drawn to the Fan's vibe: an intoxicating blend of old-Richmond elegance and urbane hipness.

MIDLOTHIAN — The heavily developed Chesterfield County area was once home to one of the nation’s first coal operations, the first railroad in Virginia and the state's first paved road (Midlothian Turnpike).

Midlothian (or Mid-Lothian, as it was once known) traces its history to the 1700s, when coal was discovered nearby. During the Revolutionary War, the mines provided fuel for the Westham Foundry iron works. They later fed the Bellona Arsenal during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and they provided energy to Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.

As excavation expanded, so did logistical needs. To transport the coal out, the first railroad in Virginia (and the second in the nation) was developed and began operating in 1831, taking coal from the mines to the docks in Manchester.

The area got its name in 1856 after it made national news when the mine was flooded and a large pump was used to drain it. Until then, the area had been known as Coalfield Station.

Mining operations ceased in Midlothian in 1923, and it became a sleepy village until suburban growth took hold in the second half of the century.

GLEN ALLEN — Where is it? It's a simple question that draws a diverse set of answers.

Glen Allen is predominantly in Henrico County, but residents in various parts of northern and western Henrico — from Virginia Center Commons to Short Pump — might say they live in Glen Allen. The U.S. Postal Service assigns Glen Allen addresses well into Hanover County. 

Precise geography aside, there's no debate that the heart of traditional Glen Allen courses along Mountain Road, which once was a Native American trail that later linked Richmond to Charlottesville (Thomas Jefferson even passed through). Originally called Mountain Road Crossing when rail service began in 1836, Glen Allen's name shifted to honor a local landowner, Mrs. Benjamin Allen.

Glen Allen was a country railroad town, and a number of its features mark its 19th-century history (including Glen Allen Baptist Church, organized in 1868, and the restored Walkerton Tavern). Virginia Randolph, the legendary African American educator, taught in Glen Allen, and a school is named in her honor.

SHORT PUMP — Located in far western Henrico County, Short Pump is still what it was 100 and 200 years ago: a place to stop and shop.

The area was named for the short-handled water pump at the tavern run by Revolutionary War veteran Robert Hyde Saunders in 1815. The tavern was at the intersection of what is now Old Three Chopt Road and West Broad Street (which was once known as Richmond Turnpike). Travelers between Richmond and Charlottesville would stop at the tavern to water their horses and rest before continuing their journey.

Short Pump's first modern retail experience is recorded by the Henrico County Historical Society in the form of the Short Pump General Store, opened in 1908 by Dabney B. Henley. The store existed in one form or another until 1996, when the building was razed to make room for an expansion of West Broad Street that previewed what has made Short Pump a popular destination: shopping malls.

Short Pump Town Center opened in 2003, and development continues to take hold in West Broad Village and, near the Goochland County line, the GreenGate area.

CHESTER — Anchored by a library and dotted with shops, restaurants, apartments and houses, Chester feels like its own village with its own community spirit. And near the banks of the James River, visitors can dive into the past – about a dozen of Chesterfield County's historic landmarks are in and around Chester.

In southeastern Chesterfield roughly midway between Richmond and Petersburg, Chester was designed in the 1850s as a village at the intersection of two railroads (the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, and the Clover Hill Railroad).

In the Civil War, Union soldiers tore up those tracks in 1864 in an effort to cut off supply lines to Richmond, and R. Garland Dodd Park at Point of Rocks is on the site where Union Gen. Benjamin Butler set up headquarters. Further back in time, Henricus Historical Park, surrounded by the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, commemorates the site where English settlers founded Virginia's second colony more than 400 years ago.

The area was home to the county's first high school, a one-room building constructed in 1906. Its modern-day descendant is named for Sir Thomas Dale, who founded Henricus.

LAKESIDE — A former bike trail, stretching from Broad Street in Richmond to a North Side park built by Lewis Ginter, returned to its roots in 2015 as a route for the UCI Road World Championships.

Dating to the late 1800s, the bike trail in Henrico County is now Lakeside Avenue and home to more than 100 businesses. The cinder trail was used by members of the Lakeside Wheel Club, which opened Nov. 4, 1895, on property owned by Ginter.

For the Ginter Park namesake and tobacco magnate, his late-in-life suburban park development was key to the growth of Lakeside. Just a year before he died, Ginter opened Lakeside Park about 5 miles north of Richmond. The suburban resort had a bowling alley, a cafe with liquor, a casino for dancing parties and an electric streetcar station. The namesake lake is now part of the Jefferson Lakeside Country Club.

Ginter's niece, Grace Arents, eventually purchased the Lakeside Wheel Club's former clubhouse. Her will stipulated that the house and her gardens be developed by the city as a botanical garden honoring her uncle.

BON AIR — Just south of the James River, where Richmond meets Chesterfield County, sits historic Bon Air.

The community began as a Victorian resort village for Richmond's elite in the 1870s, the creation of railroad entrepreneurs and businessmen who envisioned a relaxing place easily reached by train from the city. Its name, meaning "good air," signals how people of the day viewed the hilly terrain as an escape from the industrial city center.

The Bon Air Hotel boasted croquet and lawn tennis courts, archery ranges and a jousting field among its amenities. The area soon became home to railroad executives, war veterans and businessmen. Among them: Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, whose name is on the local Veterans Affairs hospital.

In 1970, part of Bon Air was annexed into the Richmond city limits. Shopping centers and new subdivisions have sprouted in Bon Air in recent decades, but locals have worked to preserve much of the area's character.

MECHANICSVILLE It may be the most recognizable windmill this side of Holland.

Anyone traveling through the village of Mechanicsville in southeastern Hanover County has likely heard about or cited as a landmark the old stone windmill and bank building, constructed in the 1970s at the intersection of the old and new Mechanicsville turnpikes.

Located along the swamp lands of the Chickahominy River, Mechanicsville is said to have earned its name long ago by becoming a refuge for travelers making their way across the marshes and early roads from Henrico County and other points farther south and west.

Despite the residential and commercial growth that has stretched the boundaries of today's Mechanicsville to incorporate a much larger part of Hanover, old Mechanicsville still retains its identity along old Mechanicsville Turnpike.

CHURCH HILL Church Hill is the oldest neighborhood in Richmond and bears the view that inspired the city's name. Today, it continues its re-emergence as one of the city's leading neighborhoods with renewed development, restaurants and community engagement.

The bend in the James River visible from Libby Hill Park on 29th Street reminded Richmond's founder, William Byrd II, of Richmond upon Thames in England. Soon after, the parish that became known as St. John's Episcopal Church was built between 24th and 25th streets. Patrick Henry gave his famous "Liberty of Death" speech there in 1775.

During the Civil War, the area was home to the largest military hospital at the time, Chimborazo. Though none of the original hospital is standing, the land is now a 30-acre park with a medical museum as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, as well as a playground and a dog park.

ETTRICK Bordering Petersburg and Colonial Heights, the village of Ettrick, which sits on the Appomattox River, is a quiet corner of Chesterfield County with a notable college.

Ettrick was founded in the 1700s by Scottish merchant Neil Buchanan — he named his plantation home Ettrick Banks, apparently in honor of the town of Ettrick in Selkirk County, Scotland, according to a history from the Chesterfield Planning Department.

Not long after Ettrick was founded, industries thriving in Petersburg began to cross the Appomattox into Chesterfield near Ettrick. The migration started with a flour inspection station on Fleet’s Hill, the site of what is now Virginia State University.

For much of its history, Ettrick was known for its silk and cotton mills.

ASHLAND — A Hanover County town where historic landmarks and quaint shops merge with college students and track-side restaurants, Ashland bills itself as "the center of the universe."

The railroad town dates to the 1840s and was developed as a mineral springs resort; it later was named Ashland after Hanover native Henry Clay’s estate in Kentucky.

With the relocation of Randolph-Macon College to Ashland in 1868, the town evolved into a small college town. The construction of U.S. Route 1, and later Interstate 95, further shaped the town's character and development.

CARVER Located just north of the Monroe Park Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, Carver was first settled in the mid-19th century by Jewish and German tradespeople. It was known as Sheep Hill because of its proximity to slaughterhouses.

The Jewish and German workers gave way to a close-knit African American neighborhood by the early 1900s. The neighborhood and its West Leigh Street elementary school eventually took the Carver name in honor of African American botanist and inventor George Washington Carver.

Today, VCU students, hipsters and young families have gravitated toward town houses and former commercial sites that now house apartments and lofts. Maggie Walker Governor's School is an Art Deco high school built in 1936.

OREGON HILL — Founded in earnest during the post-Civil War industrial ramp-up of Reconstruction, the blue-collar Oregon Hill neighborhood owes its moniker to its distance west from the foundries and factories where its people once worked.

The rows of homes built to house ironworkers and their families replaced an estate founded in 1758 by William Byrd III that overlooked the James River and Belle Isle.

The hill is home to a compact grid of mostly residential properties bounded in part by Belvidere Street to the east and Hollywood Cemetery to the west. The neighborhood is dotted with historical markers paying tribute to some of its famous former residents and activists, including Grace Arents, a philanthropist and nurse known as the angel of Oregon Hill.

A placard also marks the spot on Spring Street where the founder of the Mechanicsville Turnpike, Samuel Pleasants Parsons, once lived. He was a Quaker and progressive superintendent of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which once loomed across Belvidere from the neighborhood.

MUSEUM DISTRICT — This is the type of community that inspired the new urbanism movement. Apartments, town houses, storefronts, parks and, of course, museums define the area that stretches east-west from Arthur Ashe Boulevard to Interstate 195 and north-south from roughly West Broad to Cary streets.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture along Arthur Ashe Boulevard inspired the district's name. Walkability and bikeability are hallmarks, as are neighborly connections and civic events – such as the annual Mother's Day House and Garden Tour. Along Belmont Street, the character can change from residential to business from block to block.

In 1860, one of the early residents of the area, Channing Robinson, built the Robinson House. His 36 acres were transformed in 1885 into Robert E. Lee Camp No. 1 for Civil War veterans. The Confederate Memorial Chapel on Grove Avenue is one of the surviving buildings.

The neighborhood, once referred to as West of the Boulevard, was recognized as a National Historic District in 1993. It has one of Richmond's most significant collections of early 20th-century architecture and includes nearly two dozen properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

NORTH RICHMOND Among the diverse collection of neighborhoods is Ginter Park, the realized dream of 19th-century tobacco magnate Lewis Ginter. He bought hundreds of acres of farmland in what was then Henrico County to build a community said to be inspired by his visit to Melbourne, Australia, where he saw gentlemen retire to their country homes after toiling in the cities.

Today, Ginter Park and the neighborhoods of North Richmond — among them Bellevue, Laburnum Park, Highland Park, Barton Heights, Rosedale, Sherwood Forest and Battery Park – provide a wide variety of architectural styles in quiet settings just north of downtown.

The area’s south edge is defined by Virginia Union University and its landmark Belgian Friendship Building tower. To the north stands the clock tower of Union Theological Seminary and its quadrangle of red brick buildings.

SHOCKOE Richmond arguably began in the Shockoes, and traces of the city's whole history can be found within the boundaries of Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom.

Captain John Smith and English explorer Christopher Newport first arrived in Richmond in 1607 and are said to have landed here just 10 days after coming ashore in Jamestown. The pair found a bustling Native American trading post in Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom. Thanks to their proximity to the James River, both Shockoes would become the commercial center of the city and would stay such through most of the 19th century, focused on the trade of goods, including tobacco.

Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom were once one continuous neighborhood simply called Shockoe — a moniker derived from "Shacquohocan," the Native American name for the creek that once ran through the area and its large, flat stones. The distinctions were added to differentiate the roles the areas played in the city — "slip" for the part of the neighborhood that served as a boat slip, "bottom" for the lowest point in the city.

Today, the Shockoe area features restaurants, stores, entertainment venues and residential development in former tobacco warehouses and riverfront buildings.

EASTERN HENRICO The last bastion of rural life in an increasingly built-up Henrico County, Varina is a land of flat fields and big river bends. Just miles from downtown, a visitor can feel far from everything – but not history.

In the Civil War, Confederate defenses protecting Richmond ran through the area. Much of the scenic Virginia Capital Trail runs through Varina, and the county operates several parks in the area, including Dorey Park. Osborne Landing offers a tranquil riverside setting and an opportunity to fish for the big catfish found in the James below the falls.

Sandston and Highland Springs are small towns along either side of Interstate 64 in eastern Henrico, and both pride themselves on their pace of life and tight-knit sense of community.

Sandston, anchored by Williamsburg Road and Richmond International Airport, dates to the end of World War I, when the federal government sold the property it hastily acquired for a gunpowder packing site. Oliver J. Sands, the head of an investment company, bought the nearly 600 acres of land, buildings and more than 200 houses. The village was later renamed Sandston in his honor.

Hang a left at Nine Mile Road after driving through Sandston on Williamsburg Road, and you hit Highland Springs. The name comes from the at least nine natural springs on the highest point between Richmond and the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1800s.

SOUTH RICHMOND The merger of Richmond and the independent city of Manchester in 1910 began a 60-year evolution of South Richmond, a sprawling and scenic expanse that now is the crossroads for outdoor recreation along the falls of the James River.

Woodland Heights, a streetcar suburb, began to emerge at the turn of the previous century on land on both sides of an electric trolley line down what is now Semmes Avenue. Marketed as "the suburb beautiful," Woodland Heights towers 190 feet above the James and adjoins Forest Hill Park, originally the antebellum Boscobel plantation.

The park had been purchased by the Richmond and Manchester Railway Co. in 1890 and developed as an amusement park. In 1934, the park was given to Richmond and was transformed by the stonework of the Roosevelt-era National Recovery Administration.

Today, Forest Hill Park is a hub of recreation and social life for surrounding neighborhoods. The construction of Riverside Drive, a scenic byway along the hills above the James, further knitted together the Woodland Heights, Forest Hill, Westover Hills and other neighborhoods.

And old Manchester, where it all began, is now the site of significant redevelopment.

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