History and the Bulldozer 2: Richmond’s Jackson Ward

Putting down the sword of sagacity and picking up the lens of history- let’s examine why urban clearances in the name of progress often don’t have their intended effect. Richmond ballparkers, please read on…


In regards to the previous article about the picturesquely-named neighborhood of DC called Swampoodle, cities often have clear social and economic strata that contribute to neighborhood formation.

For American cities formed between 1700-1850, the best, most expensive neighborhoods were often on the best land, which is to say the highest land with the best drainage. The people that live in expensive neighborhoods help to create the lower social classes of domestics, service workers, and labor-intensive industries either by direct or indirect employment.

Less-expensive neighborhoods were located based on two important factors: land price and access. Until the early 20th century and the advent of streetcars, most lower-class workers were constrained to live within a three-mile radius of their place of work (or the reverse). Land price was directly affected by proximity to industry, elevation, proximity to water, and access to main transportation routes. In Richmond, that narrowed the parameters for lower-income neighborhoods to just a few areas, including the flats east of the river landings called Fulton, the swampy Shockoe Creek valley, and the low-lying southern riverbanks in Richmond’s sister city of Manchester.

Only later in the 19th and 20th centuries did new patterns of settlement start organizing neighborhoods along industrial, ethnic, and political lines instead of geographical ones.


[Virginia Historical Society]

After the Civil War, Richmond rebuilt its shattered economy and equally shattered city with industry. Railroads, shipping, and manufacturing all took off and Richmond, like Atlanta and Birmingham, became an attractive city for thousands of workers. (For a picturesque history of these changes read C. Vann Woodward’s 1951 opus, Origins of the New South)

The worker pool after the Civil War was largely composed of ex-slaves and European immigrants. In an interesting demographic quirk, American whites – no matter how poor- were statistically more likely to stay in rural areas and work in agriculture. Richmond’s population boomed in the 1870’s and 1880’s and new neighborhoods to house these workers coalesced on the perimeters of Richmond’s older, established white sections.

These newer neighborhoods formed the nexus of the New South middle class and the architecture reflects the status of the owners. The new neighborhoods like Oregon Hill, Union Hill, and Jackson Ward generally contain densely packed brick or frame Italianate rowhouses, of modest size with simple plans, plain materials, and mass-produced machine-made details such as cornice modillions and porch trim. More  expensive but still middle-class homes might be larger, with cast iron porch elements, larger windows, and raised basements.


[Typical upper middle-class, post-Civil War streetscape in Richmond (possibly East Clay St)- courtesy Morgan Riley.]

Reconstruction ended around the time of the Centennial election in 1876, and many historians recognize this as the turning point for race relations in many Southern cities. Southern Democrats emerged as a dominant political force and nostalgia for the ‘antebellum’ years became an important cultural phenomenon.

The idea of educated, empowered blacks was anathema to many whites of the period and whites worked on many levels to restore a fictional ‘order’ through segregation and laws intended to make success more difficult for Southern blacks. This had the interesting effect not of curtailing black success, but concentrating it within specific neighborhoods. Also, ethnic lines tended to blur during this time as former immigrant groups such as Germans and Irish identified with whites (this had a lot to do with very practical us-vs.-them economics).

In Richmond, working-class neighborhoods became increasingly divided along racial lines between 1876-1905. Jackson Ward in particular became the nexus of Richmond’s black community, featuring black theaters, banks, newspapers, and schools. Famous residents included Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, Jr, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and later Oliver Hill. The name “Jackson Ward” was used to describe the community because in Richmond a ward was used to describe a voting district, and Jackson Ward residents tended to vote in a unified (if isolated) bloc.

Geographically, Jackson Ward was east and north of the established white neighborhoods along Main Street, Franklin Street, and Grace Streets, separated from them by Broad Street’s commercial corridor.  The land was well off the riverbanks, but in immediate walking distance of most downtown businesses and the industries closer to the river. Importantly, white residents of Richmond also began moving further out of the city as middle class neighborhoods took shape around the older city districts. Ginter Park, Bryan Park, Byrd Park, and Barton Heights all became desirable areas, lending a particular racial quality to the city beautiful movement’s ideas of “healthful environments”.

Economic downturns in the first half of the 20th century hit working-class neighborhoods hard, and white Democrats’ ironclad control of Richmond politics solidified. The Civil Rights movement beginning in the late 1940’s hardened racial and ideological divides, and the political machine of Harry Flood Byrd organized white resistance to desegregation. (Support racial discrimination, take bribes, and make your state a Supreme Court punching bag…thirty years later we’ll forget all that, call you a great legislator, and name a school after you)

Byrd doubtless saw great political advantage in the Highways Act of 1944, and did a lot to steer the path of Interstate 95, one of the three original north-south arteries, through (note: through, not around) Richmond. The subsequent Federal Highway Act of 1956 created the first limited-access highways- what we recognize today as interstates.

“This type of road promotes safety, saves travel time, reduces the strain on
drivers, and aids the economic development of the area.” 

With development couched in the language of progress, dissenting voices could not be heard. Economic development! Investment in change! Modernization will make Richmond a Tier-1 City! Oops, sorry, getting my bombastic political blather confused.

Now, not to oversimplify (cue the historians who will doubtless write me dissertations on the details- by all means, do!), but basically this is how it went:

1. The (white) political establishment says aha! Lots of money for a new infrastructure development. No one wants to stop progress and the future!

2. The pesky (black) political fringe is making lots of noise and directly opposes the policies of the establishment.

3. The (black) political fringe has a lot of support in one particular geographical area, an area that is a thorn in the sides of the establishment.

4. That area (Jackson Ward) is older, somewhat economically disadvantaged, and is conveniently located in contiguous area.

5. Do as the emperors did, do as the despots do! Divide, suppress, conquer! And bulldoze an interstate directly through it.


[Library of Virginia]

Problem solved. Jackson Ward was isolated and the spirit of the community broken. It quickly became one of Richmond’s most run-down neighborhoods; no one wanted to live next to the interstate, jobs moved out of the area to the booming suburbs, and access to jobs was made easier by automobiles. To be fair, a lot of Richmond inner-city neighborhoods declined in the mid-late 20th century, but none were so dramatically set on that path as Jackson Ward (with the possible exception of Fulton, another heavily black neighborhood which was bulldozed in the name of urban renewal around 1970- with no interstate for an excuse, majority politicians ran an extensive, skillful anti-slum publicity campaign).


So now, does anyone want to go back and take a look at why Dwight Jones and other majority Richmond politicians are so eager to build a ballpark in Shockoe? Think about it. Political opposition and location. Why Shockoe? Why not anywhere else? Think really hard…maybe it’s not actually a question of where and why, but who.

And based on historical example, did major development in the name of ‘progress’ really work out well for Jackson Ward?



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