The Privileges We Abused.

From the window of the bus I felt like a spectator in a foreign land. The uniform brick buildings and rigid partitioning of the streets reminded me of a jail. Each public housing unit was a jail cell and seemed to elicit the message that they were containing “just another black family”. This description might seem extreme, yet these were the feelings I experienced viewing the Church Hill public housing units from my coach bus seat during the University Day tour of Richmond.   My perceptions of the Church Hill public housing units were largely channeled by the inevitable contrast of the Church Hill area to the area surrounding the University of Richmond campus. When I got back to campus I reviewed Potterfield’s references to the Church Hill area and found in the afterword an argument that started to explain to me why the Church Hill area feels like a lifeless prison.  The 1946 Master Plan embodied the idea that “you must destroy an old city to make a modern city,” therefore, neighborhoods like Church Hill suffered from widespread demolition. Eras in Richmond’s history, such as the Master Plan of 1946, led Potterfield to conclude his book with the quote “what would not some cities give for the privileges that we have thus abused?”[1]

What were the historical decisions that abused the privilege of designing Church Hill? Church Hill is a predominantly black and has the highest concentration of public housing units after New York City.[2] The neighborhoods are structured as a dry grid system of streets that monotonously define the feel of the area. Sharp ninety-degree angles and endless square orientations give the Church Hill area its institutional, stark, stagnant atmosphere. Although we were unable to get off the bus as we passed the Church Hill public housing units, I watched the people.  Many adults sat on front porches staring out in the street as if they were waiting for something to happen. Yet this ‘something’ would never come and they stayed fixed on their gaze out over the street, unmotivated by the knowledge that what they expected would never come.  I sensed the extreme poverty in the area.  A poverty that locked its residents into a hopeless cage of street grids and endless square brink buildings, not allowing them to escape.   Is this hopeless state of the Church Hill neighborhood a consequence of abusive and shortsighted decisions or is the poverty of this area an inevitable reality of the diversity of any urban infrastructure.

The Church Hill neighborhood was developed with the goal of providing the African-American population of Richmond just enough amenities so that they wouldn’t have a riot. The historical racial divide of Richmond formed and fueled the decision making in the Church Hill area and due to these decisions this area developed in a manner that displayed no redeeming landscape qualities. [3] Throughout his book, Potterfield mentions Church Hill, but never uses it as an example of a “beautiful landscape” of the city.

However, could the design of this neighborhood have ever transcended the constraints of the reality of Church Hill’s economic desolation? Born into poverty it is hard to see a future brighter than the de-energizing, desolate environment of neighborhoods such as Church Hill.   But was there something the first designers of the structure of the city of Richmond could have done to prevent this dangerous cycle. One of the last images I took from my tour of the Church Hill neighborhood was a five-year-old girl riding her tricycle completely alone down a sidewalk weaving between the line of brick housing buildings, passing under clothes lines, maneuvering around trashcans and moving towards an unknown destination. What was the fate of this girl? Would she escape the vicious cycle of poverty? Will current politicians in the city of Richmond make the right choices to prevent the ongoing desolation of the public housing area of Church Hill?  When we look back twenty years from now what will we say about what we did as active citizens to make a difference in the lives of people who need our help, like the citizens of Church Hill?

 

Cristina Meehan


[1] T. Tyler Potterfield, Nonesuch Place (Charleston: History Press, 2009),  131.

[3] Joshua Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

 

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