Assignment #1: An Investigation of Clay Street
The class tour of Richmond allowed us to experience the city and view it with our own eyes, providing the foundation for our research during the rest of the semester. As a student who has lived in Richmond and is fairly familiar with the area, I was surprised at the vast amount of general information I had not known previously about the city, like the specific locations of neighborhoods and details about the progression of the city’s development. Tyler Potterfield, whose book Nonesuch Place illustrates the physical landscape of Richmond, was an excellent and insightful tour guide who showed us the important focal points of the city, in both the past and the present. Although I was more interested in what he had to say while on Clay Street and my assigned street, Leigh, I found the entire trip to be a fascinating and helpful approach to start thinking about the history of spaces in Richmond.
Of the many places Potterfield talked about on the tour, a few caught my attention. Hollywood Cemetery, Libby Hill, and the canal are all interesting and unique facets of the Richmond landscape; however, I find myself more interested in the city’s roadways, which link such landmarks. Broad Street in particular interests me due to its long history, as well as its close proximity to Leigh Street. Although our tour took us onto a short stretch of Leigh Street, I learned more from our movement down Clay Street, which runs in-between (and parallel to) Broad and Leigh Streets. As Clay and Leigh must have shared many parts of their respective histories and communities, the one site of the tour that intrigued me the most was Clay Street.
One facet of Clay Street that I found of interest was its diverse demographic history. Potterfield mentioned that Clay Street, in the Jackson Ward neighborhood, was the home of immigrant groups, particularly German immigrants. He also said that African American businesses flourished on one section of Clay Street. Due to the presence of the Black History Museum at the intersection of Clay and 1st Streets, the area must have a certain level of significance for African American history within the city. I am curious as to what attracted both African Americans and foreign immigrants to this street, in this part of town; was Jackson Ward the only space available for them? Also, I am intrigued as to how these two socially marginalized groups interacted. Did they cooperate or feud when neighborhood problems presented themselves? In his book The Transformation of Virginia, Rhys Isaac discusses the idea of African “cultural grammar” that lasted through generations of slavery, allowing for expressive styles from past generations to survive for centuries. I am interested in how the African-American “cultural grammar” played out in Richmond, especially on Clay Street, in such close range to “Little Germany.”
Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia (Williamsburg, Virginia: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 70.
The physical terrain and location of Clay Street, both of which are major factors in its history, also raise questions. Clay, running alongside Broad, is a link to the north and south sides of Richmond, although Broad accomplished this linkage to a larger degree. One could imagine that residents of one end of the street lived very different lives from residents at the other end. Today, the land on and around Clay Street is used for residential, business, and industrial purposes. Did such variety exist in the early years of the street’s history? As Potterfield mentioned in the tour as well as in Nonesuch Place, the Civil War drastically affected the entire landscape of Richmond, so I wonder whether any of Clay Street’s buildings burned down, or whether any spaces were temporarily converted for military use. As for more recent history, I believe that the creation of Interstate 95 must have had a large impact on the surrounding areas. Did the nearby Interstate dramatically diminish the quality of life for the people living on Clay, which is about two blocks from I-95?
A majority, if not all, of the questions I raise about Clay Street apply to Leigh Street as well. I am sure that the two streets went through many of the same changes, but I am interested in seeing how the histories of the streets could possibly deviate, given their proximity. As I begin my research into Leigh Street, I will continue to think extensively about the tour, as it inspired me to look at the city of Richmond in a new way, and with a more analytical lens.
Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia. Williamsburg, Virginia: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Potterfield, Tyler. Nonesuch Place. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2009.