Federal grant money awarded to Richmond, Virginia will be used to reconnect part of its historically Black and culturally vital Jackson Ward neighborhood.
In the course of transportation history, progress has always come at a cost. To make room for new roads and highways, the government can use its right of eminent domain to take ownership of private property. Entire communities have sometimes been decimated. That was the case in the 1950’s for one of Richmond's most historic Black neighborhoods. Seventy years later, the city is eyeing plans to reconnect what was torn apart by using a federal grant of more than a million dollars. But will this correction be enough?
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GARY FLOWERS: Jackson Ward was initially set apart from the rest of the city. 300 Black-owned businesses, seven Black-owned insurance companies, five Black-owned banks before 1900. Culturally, Jackson Ward was known as the Harlem of the South. And so, the hotels were cultural havens for the Duke Ellington’s, the Ella Fitzgeralds. And so, there was a plethora of restaurants and jazz clubs. It was a very festive time.
PAM HERVEY: In the 1930s, the federal government began a discriminatory practice called redlining, which designated black neighborhoods in major cities across the US as risky investments, thereby denying black residents certain financial services and the ability to gain wealth.
J. MAURICE HOPKINS: Redlining destroyed the whole Jackson Ward community. Everything was in walking distance, and it was a community, not like it is today.
PAM HERVEY: In 1954, the Virginia General Assembly approved the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike through the city of Richmond. 390 acres of public and private land across the city were taken, using the government's legal right of eminent domain, to build what was originally a toll road.
GARY FLOWERS: What is now known is Interstate 95, or as it was called then, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, was deliberately placed in the middle of Black Wall Street, Jackson Ward, when only eight blocks away to the north, was a natural topographical ravine known as the Shockoe Valley.
PAM HERVEY: By the time the Turnpike was finished four years later, more than 7000 residents were displaced, businesses closed and schools demolished. Most significantly in Richmond's Jackson Ward, where the highway split the community in half, and disconnected families from easy access to stores, libraries and banks.
J. MAURICE HOPKINS: If you went to school, and lived on the other side of the Turnpike, you could remain in that school. But if you live on this side, which is north of the Turnpike, you had to transfer from your school and go to another school.
GARY FLOWERS: There is no doubt of the proven injury to Black families in their homes lost their schools loss, their businesses lost their property loss.
PAM HERVEY: According to the Richmond 300. Master Plan for growth, adopted by City Council in 2020. One of the six big moves is to reconnect the city by capping highways in order to re-knit neighborhoods destroyed by the Interstate.
MARITZA PECHIN: So, my office is the Office of Equitable Development and I am the deputy director in charge of the office. We work on implementing the city-wide Master Plan Richmond 300. Secretary Buttigieg came over to Richmond in December of 2021, to see for himself what the highway had done to Jackson Ward and to hear from community members directly about it.
PAM HERVEY: It was during this tour that Buttigieg heard first-hand about the reconnect Jackson Ward project, a proposal to construct a freeway cap from 1st Street to Chamberlayne over the interstate, a project recently awarded 1.35 million of federal funding from the reconnecting communities pilot grant program.
MARITZA PECHIN: There was a lot of different people who are talking about wanting to cap over the highway. And so, the first thing we did was work on a feasibility study. And that was just to understand, like, what's the canvas that we can work in to sketch out a reconnect project. So, we looked at kind of a big broad section from Belvidere to 2nd Street, trying to understand like what within that whole area would be most feasible to cap over and we ended up narrowing it down from first to Chamberlayne/ Brook Road as being the four segments that were most feasible.
PAM HERVEY: Constructing freeway caps in cities across the U.S. after the roads were built is a difficult and costly challenge. Some believe it to be a worthy investment, as it could provide new green spaces or offer community members easier access to jobs, groceries, health care and other services.
DAVID LAMBERT: The Lambert family has been in this area for since 60’s, probably before that, my father is Senator Benjamin Lambert had his optometry practice down here for over 50 plus years is fantastic to see. One, the city is really embracing the change into a new era and to who is a healing process to help keep the healing from the past, going into the future? So, my vision is really just having a thriving like a middle class, African American or minority neighborhood like they have in Atlanta, Georgia, that you can drive through it. And it's like, “Wow, what's this over here, restaurants and housing. If you embrace it and build this group up and the area up, everybody wins.”
MARITZA PECHIN: The community engagement was really robust. And there were a lot of hard conversations. The big thing that was one big theme that community members brought up over and over again, was that the project needed to elevate and expand Black ownership, history and culture. They also talked a lot about reparations to address past harms, and how to ensure that Reconnect Jackson Ward, and another project we're doing the Jackson Ward Community Plan for Redeveloping Gilpin how those benefit Black Americans
PAM HERVEY: According to the feasibility study, the cost of the project could be anywhere from 100 million to 400 million. This Reconnecting Communities grant will go to creating more accurate visual representations of what the freeway cap might look like. And we'll continue the project moving forward.,
MARITZA PECHIN: Like we know the canvas that we can paint within, but now we know we need to start painting and that is where the Reconnect Communities Pilot Program funding will help us to really draw out that vision for the community.
PAM HERVEY: But to some in the Jackson Ward community, moving the project into the future still means the city is overlooking the past.
GARY FLOWERS: An historically bisected section of any city would welcome federal dollars. The question becomes, what would those federal dollars do? And how would they address the past so that we may go into the future together?
J. MAURICE HOPKINS: Jackson Ward will never be the same. It can't be. It's impossible. You can't make this America the way it was.
Virginia received a second “Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program Grant” for the City of Norfolk. Changes are proposed for Interstate 264 which was completed in the seventies. The highway cut through historically black neighborhoods on the waterfront and around Norfolk State University. The city will use now its $1.6 million dollars in federal funding to study best options for reconnecting it’s communities.