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Effort seeks to reconnect Jackson Ward across an interstate and racial divide
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Effort seeks to reconnect Jackson Ward across an interstate and racial divide

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Garfield Childs Sr. was raised in the shadow of the St. Luke Building, where Maggie Walker became the first Black woman in America to found and own a bank.

The building still stands in Apostle Town, a grid of streets mostly named for Christian saints that sits on the north side of Jackson Ward, once one of the most economically vibrant African American neighborhoods in the racially segregated South, if not the country.

Childs would become the first person of color to serve on the board of commissioners at the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, help found the Metropolitan Business League, and create a savings and loan bank to help Black-owned businesses.

“When you always walk out the front door and the first thing you see is Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Building, it inspires you to make changes,” said his daughter, Carla Childs, an economic development management analyst for the city of Richmond.

Now, where her father’s home stood on St. James Street, “it’s like an empty space,” Childs said. “It’s just there. It doesn’t connect.”

Richmond is currently considering an opportunity to reconnect Jackson Ward, divided by the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike more than 60 years ago, which paved the way for Interstate 95 and left the streets named for the apostles isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, as well as the economic life of the city.

“It’s next to everything, but it’s not connected to anything,” said Maritza Mercado Pechin, director of the Office of Equitable Development in Richmond’s planning department.

The city proposes to use federal money to plan a different kind of bridge — a block-long deck park — across the interstate to restore the connection between two parts of Jackson Ward that seem worlds apart.

South of I-95, new buildings rise along North First Street in the city’s downtown, while on the other side, the St. Luke Building is one of the few signs of prosperity in an area dominated by Gilpin Court, the oldest public housing development in Richmond.

“What happened on that side of Jackson Ward is very different from what happened on this half,” said Barrett Hardiman, a current member of the housing authority board of commissioners, as he stood at the intersection of North First and Baker streets, near the now-vacant lot where Garfield Childs lived as a child.

The Richmond 300 plan, released late last year, is a blueprint for growth looking to the city’s 300th birthday in 2037. It shows a bridge deck park that would cover I-95 for one block between North First and St. James streets. Congress is poised to act on an infrastructure bill that would include money to help make it happen.

“Jackson Ward and North Jackson Ward feel like two entirely different places, but capping the highway will make them feel as one,” the plan declares.

Meantime, this weekend marks the 33rd year of the 2nd Street Festival, celebrating Jackson Ward’s history and culture. The JXN Project will cap its yearlong celebration of Jackson Ward’s 150th anniversary by virtually unveiling 15 honorary street sign designations paying tribute to luminaries who lived in Jackson Ward, such as civil rights attorney Oliver Hill Sr. and educator Rosa Dixon Bowser.

‘What about us?’

The interstate isn’t the only thing that divides Jackson Ward.

Race and income remain barriers to reconciliation in a portion of the neighborhood that fears it would be devastated again, this time by economic gentrification that could force out residents and landowners — overwhelmingly Black — who could no longer afford to stay there.

“When you put that bridge across, what is that going to do to the people who are there?” asked Wanda Stallings, who renovated the St. Luke Building for apartments last year only to see city tax assessments soar by an average of 230% on the 32 vacant lots that she and her family own in northern Jackson Ward. “The least, the last, the forgotten — they have nowhere to go.”

Her father, the late James Stallings Sr., owned rental property all over Jackson Ward. Her brother, Ron, is a developer who helped revitalize the downtown side of the neighborhood, including the historic Hippodrome Theater on North Second Street. She said she’s “the first Black, female developer in the city of Richmond.”

“What about us?” she asked. “All of us have invested our money, time and energy in Jackson Ward since the late 1960s. We have been here.”

These are questions that 3rd District City Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert also wants answered. The daughter of former state Sen. Benjamin Lambert, she lives in nearby Battery Park, but runs her business, DroneScape Films, in the same building her father erected on North First Street in the mid-1960s for his optometry practice.

Lambert favors redevelopment of northern Jackson Ward and the transformation of Gilpin Court, but not at the expense of the basic needs of people who live there now — affordable housing, job training, a grocery store that doesn’t charge them twice what people pay in more prosperous neighborhoods.

“We have to be real gentle as we approach revitalizing an area where Black people have been disenfranchised,” she said.

Gary Flowers, a fourth-generation resident of Jackson Ward, sees the plan as a replay of past efforts to give residents, “mainly Black and brown people, a one-way ticket out of their beloved communities for the sake of other people coming in and commercial development.”

“We’ve seen this movie before in the Black community — and it doesn’t end well,” said Flowers, a radio show host who conducts walking tours of Jackson Ward.

John Moeser, professor emeritus of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has led a long effort to heal the scars that urban planners, engineers and politicians left on Black communities in Richmond.

“The last thing I want to see is gentrification,” Moeser said Friday.

“The Black community has got to be absolutely essential in planning this and developing the project, if it were to go forward, on their terms and their terms only.”

‘There has to be something’

Billy McMullen Jr. heard the stories from his father about when the earth-moving equipment came through Jackson Ward behind his family home on Duval Street to clear a path for the highway.

His father, Billy Sr., remembers hearing the rumble as he sat on his mother’s lap. He described the smell of burning houses.

“They had like a front-row seat to it,” said McMullen, 41, a former NFL wide receiver whose family was rooted in Jackson Ward and, later, Gilpin Court.

McMullen heard the story of how it happened from Moeser, who has spent more than 50 years documenting the corrosive effects of racism on Richmond and its once-cohesive Black neighborhoods.

“It hurt me to my heart that it was the decisions of a few who destroyed the lives of a lot,” McMullen said.

As a descendant of people who lived in Jackson Ward when the highway came through, he is part of the effort to reconnect the neighborhood and make amends to the people who live there.

“There has to be something that can right a wrong,” he said.

The idea of capping a portion of I-95 through Jackson Ward has been taking shape for a decade in conversations between Moeser and Andrew Moore, a Richmond architect who also has studied urban highway design and its effect on communities. It arose from a question a VCU graduate student posed after a class discussion of what had happened in Jackson Ward.

“He asked, ‘How could planning play a role in undoing what planning had done earlier?’ ” Moeser recalled.

More than two years ago, their conversations expanded to include Leighton Powell, executive director of Scenic Virginia and a past president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association, and McMullen, a star wide receiver at Henrico High School and the University of Virginia before his NFL career.

Moore, a principal at Glavé & Holmes Architecture, knew about successful projects to cap and build on top of urban highways in such cities as Boston, Dallas and Columbus, Ohio. Moeser seized on the concept as a form of reparations for the damage done to Jackson Ward by the construction of a highway that destroyed over 900 homes and displaced thousands of Black residents.

‘A reconciliation project’

“It was always viewed as a way to bridge the past and heal the scars that planners and engineers had created long ago,” Moeser said.

Powell, who has lived in Jackson Ward on the south side of the interstate for almost 20 years, said the economic recovery plan proposed by President Joe Biden has given the city an ideal opportunity to do something about that wrong.

“It really is a reconciliation project,” she said. “It’s not for gentrification. It’s for equity.”

Biden had proposed $25 billion in the American Jobs Plan he proposed six months ago “to redress historic inequities” in rebuilding the country’s transportation systems, but the compromise the Senate passed on Aug. 10 includes just $1 billion for the initiative.

The bill is still pending a vote in the House of Representatives, where Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th, hopes to ultimately push the total to $15 billion.

“We view this as a starting point,” McEachin said the day before the final Senate vote.

But even with a smaller pot of federal money, Richmond could pay for a feasibility study, estimated to cost $1 million, to consider options for reconnecting the neighborhood across the interstate.

“Let’s figure out the range of possibilities,” said Pechin, a deputy director in the city planning department. Those possibilities include a park, buildings and public art on top of a cap built across the interstate, as well as improved road access to a neighborhood that is surrounded by highways but still hard to reach.

“Part of why it’s so isolated is it’s just so hard to even get to,” said Carla Childs, who grew up in Richmond’s North Side but often visited family in Jackson Ward.

Getting into the neighborhood from downtown relies on one-way streets and awkward intersections at North First and Fifth streets — across bridges previously named for Confederate generals — or from Chamberlayne Parkway through Gilpin Court.

“Adding another street connection over the highway will make it easier to get to North Jackson Ward from Downtown by walking, biking, bus, or car,” the Richmond 300 plan states.

Ultimately, the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is responsible for administering the interstate system, would have to manage the project.

“We’re definitely interested in exploring the concept with the city,” said Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. “What do folks exactly want it to be?”

Housing authority

The project also would depend heavily on the housing authority, which has applied for a federal Choice Neighborhoods planning grant to transform Gilpin Court into a mixed-income community and reincorporate it into Jackson Ward.

“We have been a part of essentially trapping people in that neighborhood for generations,” said Hardiman, the authority board of commissioners member.

But the initiative also faces skepticism in the Black community, in part because of the housing authority’s history.

“The level of mistrust folks have with RRHA, that’s a big hurdle to overcome,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond.

Bourne formerly represented northern Jackson Ward on the city School Board for the 3rd District, which I-95 separates from the rest of the neighborhood in the 2nd District.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Bourne said. “It would provide more opportunities for a neighborhood that has been short of opportunities for generations.”

Some, such as Jackson Ward developer Ron Stallings, question the value of spending money to study a project that may not be necessary to revitalize the neighborhood cut off.

“If it is a catalyst that will move forward the revitalization of Jackson Ward, thumbs up,” Stallings said. “But is it necessary? I think not.”

‘Making the sinner feel good?’

Carmen Foster is a Richmond native who moved from Jackson Ward to Byrd Park with her family shortly before the turnpike was built. She’s skeptical both about turning public housing into mixed-income developments and capping the interstate as a form of reparations to the Black community harmed by the highway’s construction.

“Is this about making the sinner feel good?” said Foster, a public historian and leadership coach. “I question whether or not those who have been sinned against see this as a real step toward reparations. Or is it the veneer of reparations?”

For the initiative to succeed, its supporters agree that it must be led by the community, not imposed on it.

“It’s important that we engage with folks who live and work in the community on a daily basis,” McEachin said.

Moore, the architect who helped develop the idea, said concern about gentrification of North Jackson Ward is “a very legitimate issue.”

“The economic development piece, whatever comes out of this, must directly benefit and involve the community,” he said, adding that the initiative won’t work unless the neighborhood itself takes ownership of the project.

“Without that, it’s sort of going to be an empty gesture,” Moore said.

McMullen said he’s convinced that the project offers the people of northern Jackson Ward an opportunity for a fair share of the wealth it would generate.

“It’s about the people over there and the generations that came from those people,” he said. “And I’m one of them.”

Nostalgia, or amends?

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church stands on the precipice of a highway that almost destroyed it.

The church, founded by famed Black minister John Jasper in 1867, moved to Duval Street in Jackson Ward in 1869. Construction of the turnpike almost forced the church to move the building, which dates to 1887, or see it demolished.

The building was saved after engineers tweaked the route around its back side.

“I call it a hiccup,” said Benjamin Ross, the church historian, who was baptized there in 1962, four years after the turnpike opened.

“The church’s history is what saved it,” Ross said.

But construction of the highway through Jackson Ward took a heavy toll on Sixth Mount Zion and other Black churches in the neighborhood. Some moved away, and others saw their congregations shrink because members had been forced to move.

“Many of the churches in Jackson Ward suffered a lot when the highway came through,” Ross said.

After construction of the turnpike, a footbridge extended from the back of Sixth Mount Zion to northern Jackson Ward, where Gilpin Court had opened in 1943 as the city’s first public housing development.

“I think the bridge was put there to allow people who lived on the other side to get over to the church,” said Ross, who recalled that the footbridge was removed after it became a target for vandals and mischief.

Now, many people in Gilpin Court attend Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church on First Street, he said. “We’re on the other side the highway. There’s the disconnect.”

As Jackson Ward has changed, so has the congregation at Sixth Mount Zion, where the Rev. Tyrone Nelson estimates that 10% to 15% of its members live more than a mile away and commute to services, as he does from his home in Varina.

“The roots are deep, but people don’t live here like they used to,” said Nelson, a member of the Henrico County Board of Supervisors who grew up in Byrd Park and attended Richmond public schools.

“It was one continuous community,” he said. “The highway divided it. There are the haves and the have-nots here. You see what you got.”

Reconnecting the neighborhood across the interstate won’t bring back Jackson Ward to what it once was, Ross said. “I think we have a nostalgic hope for something that, in my opinion, is not going to happen, not in our lifetimes.”

But that’s not the point, McEachin said.

“Those who say you can’t bring old Jackson Ward back are absolutely correct,” he said, “but we can make amends for past wrongs.”

One other thing, Jackson Ward preservationist Leighton Powell said: “We’re going to give Sixth Mount Zion its backyard back.”



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