20th Century Sense of Place on Duval Street

Cristina Meehan

FYS Paper: Third Essay Duval Street

A Sense of Place


      Places are defined by their sense of place. Sense of place is the subjective attachment of a person to a familiar place. This subjective experience of place is termed by Professor Yi-fu Tuan from the University of Wisconsin, Madison as “the affective bond between people and place.” This bond is studied in two ways, cultural geography focuses “on place as a social construct, detailing the power struggles over who gets to define its meaning as humanistic geography emphasizes the subjective experience of place.”[1] The research done within Mapping American History, a first-year-seminar at University of Richmond, displayed the dynamic, and elusive concept of sense of place within the cities street of Richmond, VA. The class was able to trace the history, which showed that each year, city residents transformed Richmond’s streets and made their sense of place a reality on that street.  Duval Street proved to be a key street for to study power that a population of a cities sense of place can have to transform that street. On Duval Street the power struggle over defining its “sense of place” in the twenty-first century was won by the white elite population, which resulted in a dismantled and subjugated atmosphere on Duval Street.

        This transformative white elite population is discussed by Marie-Tyler McGraw’s in a1945 chapter of her book “The Falls” entitled, “Tollbooths and the Costs of Change”: “the city’s civic elite were white businessmen and lawyers who anticipated no change in Richmond’s racial codes and assumed those activities good for all the city’s residents…they had no political alliances with Richmond’s black middle class and knew little of black expectations” (179).[2] The whites’ subjective “sense of Duval Street” contributes to the ultimate transformation of the street. Yet, the Duval Street neighborhood demographics showed the population was predominantly black.  However, the whites were the ones who had the power to influence the Duval Street landscape. The transformation of Duval Street by the white’s subjective “sense of place” is seen in objective actions this population of Richmond took that drastically transformed the street: redlining surveys and the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike.

To understand the changes on Duval Street and how the whites’ sense of place dismantled the neighborhood and transformed it to benefit their progress, there must be a discussion of Duval Street prior to the mid-twenty first century. To define the “sense of place” that once influenced Duval Street, there are two key individuals who illustrate the history of the earlier known Duval Street, John Mitchell and Maggie Walker. Both of these individuals lived in the Jackson Ward area and were political, social, and inspirational icons of achievement and success within this black neighborhood in the beginning of the twenty first century (1890s-1930s). John Mitchell, long time editor of the Richmond Daily Planet, ambitiously explored economic endeavors such as Mechanics Savings Bank and running for governor in 1921. His intentions with the Daily Planet were to “run pandering to no class, yield obedience to no clique, but declare for human rights and the enunciation of these principle, which will make the world our field and man-kind our brothers.” [3]  The energy, determination, and integrity of this motto display the strength of the black moral within the Jackson Ward area and the optimistic, vivacious spirit about their hopes and equality.

Similarly, Maggie Walker reinforced the “sense of place” of this strong black community being the first woman to become president of a local bank. This achievement alone displayed the vivacious supportive energy within this neighborhood in the early 1900s when national history made by this young black women from Jackson Ward.[4] The sense of place that these historical black citizens created all but disappeared from the Duval Street black neighborhood following their deaths in 1929 and 1934, respectively.  At this time in history, the HOLC home surveys, Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, became a standard and led to the rise of Redlining.

“Redlining” was a governmental process which frequently discriminated against black inner city neighborhoods and “reflecting the racist tradition of the United States, the Federal Housing Administration was extraordinarily concerned with ‘inharmonious racial or nationality groups.’ Specifically, “Redlining” was a process of denying, or increasing the cost of services such as banking, insurance, access to jobs, access to health care, or even access to supermarkets to residents in certain, often racially determined geographic areas.  It feared that an entire area could lose its investment value if rigid white-black separation was not maintained.” [5]

This practice of “Redlining” significantly contributed to the whites dismantling of Duval Street. In the 1930s, home loan assessments became the determining factor for the value and connotation of certain neighborhoods.  These assessments determined which neighborhoods and homeowners were eligible and economically fit to receive funding for their home loans. Duval Street got the lowest rating, as a D-rate neighborhood, which was the designated category for all the black neighborhoods of Richmond.  The whites had the power and influence within the city to subjugate Duval Street to their sense of place. This power was seen in the way they were able to conduct these surveys on the neighborhood and publically publish the ratings. The whites were slowly fitting the landscape of Duval Street to their subjective schema of the neighborhood.

The HOLC surveys display an even deeper-rooted white subjectivity of Duval Street’s landscape, with racist, bias, and blatantly altered criteria for evaluating the home surveys. The surveys posted on the Digital Scholarship Lab’s website show “the assessment surveys convey the prime importance of race in determining the neighborhood grades. On the assessment surveys, “negro” functions as a synecdoche conveying all that was needed to know about an area and its inhabitants. For instance, for item “5A Inhabitants Type” on the assessments, surveyors were asked “What is the general type of occupation- business men, skilled mechanics laborers etc. these instructions were followed for A, B, and C neighborhoods, however, African-American D neighborhoods did not have specified occupations or trades, they were instead listed as ‘negro’ which is closely linked to their status as laborers commanded by whites.”[6] Even proximity to black neighborhoods decreased a neighborhoods value. The low value that Duval Street houses were given were a product of the white’s subjective perspective of the neighborhood.

Ultimately, the low neighborhood  rating was not a simple letter on a survey sheet and it began  to seep through the landscape of Duval Street. Duval Street’s strong community during the era of Maggie Walker and John Mitchell was starting to fade. This allowed the whites to transform Duval Street from a road blocking their progress to the first street disrupted for the construction of a new highway in the city. The white elites’ emotions towards the landscape of Duval Street had grown into a vision to demolish many houses for the sake of progress and construction.

As a result of the low value bestowed on the Duval Street neighborhood as a result of “Redlining,” the city dictated that the Duval Street neighborhood be demolished for the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike. “City officials envisioned using its newly acquired power of eminent domain for slum clearance rather than revitalization of existing neighborhoods…Jackson Ward was the preeminent target of highway designs, which sheared, tucked, cut, and divided the historic black neighborhood” (194). City officials’ sense of Duval Street obliterated the black community chopping up Jackson Ward with the construction of the turnpike through their power aided by eminent domain. Duval Street was among the first street targeted by the construction of the Turnpike. In second photograph from the Valentine Museum the initial signs of the disruption on Duval Street due to the construction is shown as the title of the image on March 27th 1957 is entitled “First Toll Road Steel in City.” [7] Additionally in a Richmond Times Dispatch there was a report on the first visible groundbreakings of construction of the Turnpike on Duval and 3rd Street[8].  The black population of Duval Street barely had any representation or a choice in this process. Public housing was offered to those who fell under the eminent domain. Often public housing was the last resort for many displaced families but they agreed with the little power they had over their situation. [9]

The affect of this construction is shown through the collection of photographs from the Valentine Museum. The three pictures from the Valentine Museum depict the change on Duval Street due to the construction of the Turnpike. The houses that once lined the street in the first picture are instantly wiped from the Duval Street community in the second picture taken after construction of the Turnpike[10]. The Turnpike strongly affected Duval Street’s landscape because its path cut straight through the heart of this predominantly black neighborhood. [11]  The turnpike not only split Duval Street in two but also directly parallels the entire street, drastically changing the dynamic of the neighborhood with a large thoroughfare above its houses[12]. From the macro affect of the turnpike on the neighborhood the micro view comes in the third photograph. This photo shows how its construction affected individual lives, homes, and families on Duval Street. The strong confidence, power, and hope of the early of the 1900s displayed by Maggie Walker and John Mitchell no longer defined the Duval Street landscape. The demolished house juxtaposed with the next-door neighbor’s house still intact represents a metaphor in which the community had been transformed into the elite whites’ sense of Duval Street.

The situation on Duval Street in the mid 1900s is a testament to the threat of misused power on defining a landscape. The black population on Duval Street did not have the power to apply their “sense of place” to the street that they lived on. The objective actions made by the elite whites of the city articulately embodied the white elite’s view of Duval Street. Even on titles of the Valentine Museum photos, including “Tour of a Blighted Area,” the emotional detachment and purely business-oriented “sense of place” that the elite whites held for Duval Street is exemplified. When power is mixed with a business-oriented and racist “sense of place,” a landscape is extremely vulnerable to dismantle. The reality of subjective senses of place is the fact that individuals who don’t necessarily inhabit a street in a city can have the power to influence its landscape to fit their schema of the area and transform the day-to-day life of the individuals that live on that street.

[1] Halttunen, Karen. “Groundwork: American Studies in Place- Presidential Address to the American Studies Association.” Page 3,7. Project Muse 58, no. 1 (November 2005): 1-15. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/aq/summary/v058/58.1halttunen.html.

[2] Tyler-McGraw, Marie. “At the Falls: Richmond, VA and Its People” Page 179. The University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Chapter: “Tollbooths and the Cost of Change.”

[3] Library of Virginia. John Mitchell, Jr. The Public Life. http://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/mitchell/michlife.htm.

[4] Bois, Danuta. Distinguished Women of Past and Present: Maggie Lena Walker. 1998 http://www.distinguishedwomen.com/biographies/walker-ml.html.

[5] Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Page 208. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[6] Nelson, Robert K, Kathleen Smith, Scott Nesbit, Nate Ayers, and John V Moeser.
Redling Richmond. http://americanpast.richmond.edu/holc/pages/intro.

[7] Appendix Photograph 2

[8] Richmond Times Dispatch. “First Signs of Construction on the Richmond Petersburg
Turnpike.” September 28, 1956.

[9] Tyler-McGraw, Marie. “At the Falls: Richmond, VA and Its People” Page 182. The University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Chapter: “Tollbooths and the Cost of Change.”

[10] Appendix Photograph 1 and 2.

[11] Sanford, James K. Richmond: Her Triumphs Tragedies and Growth. Page 212. Richmond, VA: Metropolitan Richmond Chamber of Commerce, 1975.

[12] Appendix Photograph 4



Photograph Number 1:

Valentine History Center, s.v. “Tour of Blighted Area”  http://collections.richmondhistorycenter.com/info.php?s=duval+street&type=all&t=objects

This Photography was taken in the mid 1900s and was part of a collection of photographed all named with the similar phrase: blighted area These was probably a description from surveyors of the area that published the picture in the Richmond Newspapers Inc.

Photograph Number 2:

Valentine History Center, s.v. “First Toll Road Steel in City,”  http://collections.richmondhistorycenter.com/info.php?s=duval+street&type=all&t=objects

This Photography was taken on March 27th 1957: Richmond Newspapers Inc.

Photograph Number 3:

Valentine History Center, s.v. “Houses Give Way to Highways”http://collections.richmondhistorycenter.com/info.php?s=duval+street&type=all&t=objects

This photograph was taken by Rosso, Charles G on October 15, 1965 documenting the continued neighborhood destruction that came as a result of the expansion of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike

Photograph Number 4:

Look at in browser-not able to post a direct link from Google maps-zoom in on Duval Street and the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike

http://maps.google.com/maps?oe=utf-8&client=firefoxaq=richmond+petersburg+turnpike&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear= RichmondPetersburg+Turnpike,+Virginia&gl=us&ll=37.546806,-77.435117&spn=0.01048,0.022724&z=16&pw=2

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