Fifteenth Street and the Economics of Race

Fifteenth Street and the Economics of Race

By John C. McAuliff

            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. On Fifteenth 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 descendants in Fairfield and Whitcomb Courts in 1958 as the Turnpike took over. Afterward, Fifteenth Street began 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 Street in 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 Main and 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 Street between 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 corporation 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 Street went from housing fifteen businesses to a fraction of its former capacity. Naturally, the creation of the Main Street train station and Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike disrupted the street and decimated property values. Yet the deterioration of Fifteenth Street as an attractive place for businesses really began after the Turnpike was built and did not hit a low point until just before the millennium. 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, why the delay? In effect, the question best asked is: Why did Fifteenth Street fall apart when it did?

The factors which left Fifteenth Street with just three businesses calling it home must have been factors more powerful than just a Turnpike since the decline accelerated twenty years after the Turnpike was built. 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 when Fifteenth Street began 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 throughout Richmond. To pacify the opponents of the plan, the city created public housing and schools in Whitcomb and Fairfield 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 Fairfield and Whitcomb Court’s each housed 447 African American families.[5] The debate in Richmond separated the city economically and racially, and can serve to partially 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 Richmonders meant vanishing cash flow. How this trend affected Fifteenth Street is not clear, but looking at the revitalization of the area this year does reveal a trend.

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 of Fifteenth Street and 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. Thanks to revitalization efforts, new housing, and new signs clearly marking the former slave trading district, Fifteenth Street could occupy a central role in a future “Historic District” in Richmond.

The gradual decline of Fifteenth Street in 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. Whether or not the correlation is equivalent to causation on Fifteenth Street is unclear. The answer to why Fifteenth Street declined severely twenty years after the turnpike was built is still unclear, but a closer look at what types of companies left in what year could provide a reason why.

The first businesses to leave Fifteenth Street after the Turnpike was built were food service industries. Three food stores moved out within a decade. The significance of the movement could be that Fifteenth became a shadowy, dirty place not fit for food production after the Turnpike moved in. Within ten years, major industries including an oil company, ACME science production, and a sound equipment company had moved away as well. Each company was a large scale manufacturing firm. The next type of businesses to leave were small manufacturing businesses like family owned printing companies, air conditioning services, and camper manufacturers. The departure of these businesses really marked the jump in the speed of Fifteenth Street’s decline, and within ten years virtually everything had left.

Breaking down the data of what types of businesses left Fifteenth Street when revealed no further connections to the suburbanization of the white consumer class, but shows an interesting pattern. Food services departed, followed by large manufacturers, followed by small manufacturers. If anything useful can be gleaned from this data, it could be that Fifteenth Street depended heavily on the presence of small manufacturing businesses, but the correlation found between the decline and revitalization of Fifteenth Street and whites seems not to be caused by the movement of the white consumer class.

[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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