Fifteenth Street and the Economics of Race

Provided by the Valentine Musuem of Richmond History

John C. McAuliff

Mapping American History-Assignment #4


Fifteenth Street and the Economics of Race

            A quiet street lay nestled in the bottom of a valley at the center of a city. It had once heard the searing clangs and bangs of industry, breathed deeply the sweet stench of tobacco, and watched as injustice drove enslaved men to build machines of war. The air was never fresh, the nights never silent, and the work never-ending. The street slowly receded into obscurity and eventually housed no inhabitants at all. A street defeated, politicians and contractors started to scavenge the street’s remains. By 1958, little Fifteenth Street, which had seen the rise and fall of slavery and industry on its cobblestones, had become a part of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.

At the center of three of the most profitable economies the American South has ever known—enslaved people, tobacco, and iron—and the home of a train line and later a highway, Fifteenth Street served as a testament to industry and poverty. OnFifteenth Street, the power of the free market invited the lifelong bonds of slavery to a twisted dance that led to the creation of public housing for slavery’s descendents inFairfieldand Whitcomb Courts in 1958 as the Turnpike took over. Afterwards,Fifteenth Streetbegan its descent into obscurity.

The year before the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike was built, Fifteenth Street going north had several large buildings and the Seaboard Air Line Rail Road (SALRR) Company. The Southern Bank and Trust Company had a large warehouse, as did the Producers Co-op Exchange. However, the railroad and the construction of the highway dominated the landscape. Going south toward the canal, Fifteenth had twelve occupants with a few vacant buildings in between. Businesses included representatives from smaller industries like Pizzini Printing and ACME chemicals as well as mainstays like Philip Morris and Co.  Fifteen businesses had open doors on Fifteenth Streetin 1957.[1] Ten years later, the number had shrunk.

In 1966 the Southern Bank and Trust Co was the only company on Fifteenth north of Main Street. The Turnpike, in use for about a decade, had driven business away. To the south, Fifteenth Street was home to twelve businesses. Two large warehouses still owned by Philip Morris stood nearest the canal, and ACME still owned a building between Mainand Cary Streets. A smokehouse next to the Philip Morris tobacco warehouse changed hands over the decade though retained its function. Overall, the number of businesses on Fifteenth Streetbetween 1957 and 1967 dropped by only two, and rested at thirteen.[2]

By 1977, thirteen had become eight, and by 1987 only seven businesses still remained on Fifteenth. The bank on North Fifteenth had become a parking garage and would remain so until the 1990’s. The only resident still on South Fifteenth over three decades was Philip Morris and Co, which still operated two warehouses. The smokehouse had again changed hands to a third and fourth food services company in 1977 and 1987. By 1997, no businesses stood north of Main Street, and only three sat to the south: a café, a building owned by the Virginia Parking Services, and a hot tub manufacturing warehouse.[3]

Over forty years,Fifteenth Streetwent from housing fifteen businesses to a fraction of its former capacity. Naturally, the creation of theMain Streettrain station and Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike disrupted the street and annihilated property values. Yet the deterioration ofFifteenth Streetas an attractive place for businesses really began after the Turnpike was built and did not hit a low point until just before the millennium. One line of questioning wonders: Why did Fifteenth Street really start to fall apart in the second half of the twentieth century? Why not immediately after the Turnpike was built? What other factors may have been at play? The other line of questioning suggests that the demise ofFifteenth Streetwas long delayed given its former home as capital of the American slave trade and its miserable location near the creek which often flooded the street. In effect, the question best asked is: Why didFifteenth Streetfall apart when it did?

The factors which left Fifteenth Street with just three businesses calling it home must have been factors more powerful than a Turnpike. Given the timing, it seems as though economics and race may have actually played a larger role.  In order to find out how, going back to the building of the Turnpike whenFifteenth Streetbegan to slide downhill would be a good start.

The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike took thirty-three months to build and opened finally on June 30th, 1958. The Governor of Virginia came to cut the ribbon, and the people of Virginia piled on to the highway and created a 30,000 car traffic jam. The story that was not told that day was that over seven hundred buildings stood where the Turnpike’s massive legs took root. The homes were all destroyed, almost as many as when Richmond burned in 1865. The Turnpike blocked thirty streets and passed over another twenty. Many families were displaced, but nearly 1,000 of those were African American.[4]

According to an editorial run by The Richmond News Leader in 1955, 40% of the African American families displaced were of middle income, and 60% were “lower.” It was the fear, the editors wrote, of the groups in opposition to the Turnpike that African Americans would move into the white neighborhoods of Barton Heights and North Side. The debate raged on throughoutRichmond. To pacify the opponents of the plan, the city created public housing and schools in Whitcomb andFairfield Court’s, where the displaced families would move. In effect, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike would serve not just as a mode of transportation but as the Richmond-Petersburg Dam designed to keep African Americans out of the high property value neighborhoods dominated by white Americans.

The plan worked, and Fairfieldand Whitcomb Court’s each housed 447 African American families.[5] The debate in Richmond separated the city economically and racially, and can serve to explain why businesses left Fifteenth Street after the Turnpike was built. The debate over the Turnpike shed light on race relations in Richmond, and equated African Americans with poverty and White Americans with money. As the Turnpike sectioned off African American Richmond from the rest of the city, the racial and economic divide took on a physical form. Those with cars could use the Turnpike to work in the city and live in the Suburbs. Those with cars were white, for the most part. The divide between white and black broadened as white Americans moved out, but the city justified it by citing the “congestion” of the city. “Congestion,” however, served as a euphemism for poverty and violence. [6]

As white families with resources moved out of the city to escape the “congestion,” they took their wealth with them. According to a Federal Housing Administration report, real estate agents took great pains to insure that the suburbs remained as white as possible, indicating that there was money to be made.[7] Real estate agents were not the only businesspeople who recognized that the disappearance of white Richmonder’s meant vanishing cash flow. It is arguable that the merchants ofFifteenth Street recognized this trend as well, and left the city in order to save their businesses.

The theory that the slow departure of business owners from Fifteenth Street in pursuit of the white owned wealth to the suburbs and away from the African American poverty is supported by the current state of Fifteenth Street. In 2011, the sounds of construction can be heard once again on South Fifteenth, and several shops, including a frame store, a strip club, and a restaurant have moved in. This restoration ofFifteenth Streetand the Shockhoe Bottom area at large does not coincide with the return of young white Americans to the city coincidentally. With white twenty-somethings and even families returning to the city, they bring wealth back with them. Their wealth creates opportunity for business. Shortly, Fifteenth Street will be graced with the first housing, apartment style condominiums, since 1911 on the block once renovations are finished on an old brick warehouse.

The gradual decline ofFifteenth Streetin the twentieth century and its renewal in the twenty first seems to correspond well with the coming and going of white Americans to the city. The theory answers all of the questions posed earlier.Richmondwas a city with a white majority during all the years up until the second half of the twentieth century, which explains whyFifteenth Street, an undesirable place to work, still got business. The theory includes how the Turnpike facilitated the decline, why Fifteenth Street fell apart when it did, and why it is on the mend.

That said, the theory poses another question: why does the decline move slowly over the first two decades and at twice the speed during the next two? One answer is that the Turnpike, rather than precipitating white flight actually put it off for a while by creating a physical separation within the city. Another alternative is that the end of the Civil Rights movement and the beginning of the more violent Black Panthers nationwide attention accelerated white flight during the later two decades.

[1] “Fifteenth Street” Richmond City Directory 1957. Richmond. Print.

[2] “Fifteenth Street” Richmond City Directory 1967. Richmond. Print.

[3] “Fifteenth Street” Richmond City Directory 1977, 1987, 1997. Richmond. Print.

[4] Editorial Board. “Behind the Turnpike Opposition-Editorial.” The Richmond News Leader 27 Sept. 1955: 12. Print.

[5] M, John. “Public Housing In Richmond.” The Church Hill People’s News. RVA News Network, 23 Aug. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2011.

[6] Kuswa, Kevin D. “SUBURBIFICATION, SEGREGATION, AND THE CONSOLIDATION OF THE HIGHWAY MACHINE.” The Journal of Law in Society (Winter, 2002): 31-64. Print.

[7] Kuswa, Suburbification

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