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Reconnect Jackson Ward aims to make residents whole again

A sign says "Jackson Ward: National Landmark District."
Before being cut in half by Interstate 95, the Jackson Ward neighborhood earned cultural comparisons to Harlem and financial comparisons to Wall Street. (Photos: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

From a gazebo in Jackson Ward’s Abner Clay Park, the neighborhood’s history is in view: The Ebenezer Baptist Church built in 1858, the former Armstrong High School and the Black History Museum. Tours often go through the neighborhood to highlight its notable past and present.  

“The goal for today, though, is a prayer vigil,” said Cliff Chambliss. 

He and about 30 others are about to march from the park to a men’s club that will host the vigil. It’s fall, but warm enough that the cicadas are buzzing — until being drowned out by the white noise of Interstate 95. 

“You see here, Interstate 95, exactly where homes were demolished, families were displaced, communities were broken up, businesses destroyed,” Chambliss told the group. “This is the cause that we are behind. This is the reason that we are doing what we're doing here … to bring awareness to that.” 

In 1954, the Virginia General Assembly created a highway authority, and in 1958 a highway that split the neighborhood in half opened. Now, about 150,000 cars drive along that portion of I-95 on an average day, according to data from the Virginia Department of Transportation.    

Jackson Ward is still a center of Black life and business in Richmond. But before the freeway cut through it, Jackson Ward was one of the most important Black neighborhoods in the country. It earned cultural comparisons to Harlem and financial comparisons to Wall Street. The design choice cut off the northern portion of the neighborhood, which today has twice the unemployment, and household incomes one-third of those south of the freeway.  

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg came to Jackson Ward in December last year to talk about how infrastructure can cause inequality. Then in June, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, focusing on infrastructure projects in neighborhoods where people of color lived and still live.   

Buttigieg called the pilot program “the first of its kind” and said that it would help cities and towns address the consequences of past choices — but would also look to connect communities. 

“We're extremely excited about this program, because it is really the first time that Congress has given us funds to stitch together communities that were torn apart from infrastructure decisions in the past,” said Carlos Monje, DOT’s under secretary of transportation for policy. “What we've known for a long time here is that the good ideas are going to be very different from place to place, and they're going to come from local communities, and not from Washington.”  

Thursday was the deadline to apply for the first grants in the $1-billion pilot program that will span five years. Cities, tribal nations and other entities can apply for funding through planning grants or for money to build already planned projects. The Inflation Reduction Act also includes $3 billion for similar “Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants.” 

Richmond’s exploring putting a cap over the interstate in Jackson Ward, which could include a park and pedestrian connections, according to a draft of its feasibility study posted online. A cap, depending on its size and features, could cost between $100 and $300 million. 

Richmond has applied for a $1.69 million planning grant to determine the final form of the highway cap. The city’s draft feasibility study listed four sections — between existing bridges on 1st Street and Chamberlayne Parkway — that could support a cap. 

Forcing out families

At the march in Richmond, the group called for reparations to be a key part of Richmond’s proposal.  

“If you're going to reconnect Jackson Ward, the wrong was more than just the highway coming through: It’s all that happened because that highway came through,” said Janis Allen, board president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association. 

Allen and her family — along with what’s estimated to be 10% of the city’s Black population at the time — were forced to move from the neighborhood because of the highway.

Kia Player’s family also had to move from the nearby Navy Hill neighborhood, which was also torn down to make way for the highway.  

“We always heard about 904 — that’s what they called it,” said Player, referring to her great-grandparents home at 904 Turpin St. 

Player’s great-grandparents and their 13 children lived in that wood-frame house. But it also hosted many other people.  

“My family went to First African Baptist Church. After church, everyone would come over from church and eat dinner. My grandmother sold fried chicken and butter rolls,” said Player, recalling an account from her relative who lived in the home. “People are always coming and going in the house. He said they never had locks on the door.” 

After receiving notice from the city that they had to move, her relatives moved furniture from the home on a Friday. When they returned the next day, the house had been torn down with some of their possessions still inside, Player said.  

The family still has a pack of sewing needles that one of Player’s aunts said was pulled from the rubble.  

The family estimated the home’s value was about $10,000 at the time. But Player said they received a check for $4,000, from the Medical College of Virginia. Today the site is home to VCU’s medical-school student center.  

“It’s not just about the land that was lost, but the communities that were broken up and how it separated families from one another … . [H]ow it caused a loss in people being able to build generational wealth,” Player said. “The opportunity that these families had that was taken away. There's no way to give that back.” 

The family moved to Church Hill, putting the $4,000 down on a home on Chimborazo Boulevard and getting a mortgage for another $2,000. They lost contact with some of their friends and neighbors they were close with, Player said. Her grandmother moved to New York. 

Beyond reparations, community members told the city about other concerns that they had through a community engagement process and meetings in the neighborhood. The most prominent issue, other than reparations, was concern that the project would displace people who were able to stay.  

“Right now, we know there's gentrification happening in Jackson Ward,” said Kathryn Howell, a professor of urban planning at VCU. “That creation of connection is going to make the highway a much smaller barrier [to gentrification] than it used to be.” 

Howell said she likes that the infrastructure bill included funding for transportation, bike lanes and transit. But she said those spending priorities weren’t backed up with affordable housing funding.  

“We know from decades of research, frankly, that transit projects really tend to facilitate gentrification,” she said. “Park projects facilitate gentrification.” 

The area north on I-95 is currently home to one of the city’s largest — and oldest — public housing neighborhoods, Gilpin Court.  Public housing in Gilpin Court is “part of the equation” with the Reconnecting Jackson Ward plan, said Maritza Pechin, the city’s deputy director of equitable development. Pechin noted that the city is planning to replace the public housing complex with a mixed-use neighborhood with homeownership opportunities in the area. The project would include one-for-one replacement of subsidized units, as is required by federal policy.  

I-95 has contributed to residents in the northern section of Jackson Ward, often referred to as Gilpin, having less access to businesses and services than the area south of the interstate.  

"We're kind of thinking about, OK, how do we bring that back to the northern part of Jackson Ward, as we think about the total redevelopment of the public housing,” Pechin said 

The draft feasibility study published on the city website also mentions “transition areas,” which could host new mixed-use development. 

Richmond’s city planners are paying a lot more attention to equity concerns in recent years: Backlash has sunk two major development projects. The Reconnect Jackson Ward website said the connection “will not compensate for wrongdoings of past.” But the project team wants “to make sure Black history, culture and arts are celebrated and supported through this project.”  

Pechin said she understands that Black residents need to be a part of the decision-making process. 

“If you were to create more space on top of the highway, who would own it, who would manage it, who would fundraise to create it?” she said in a September briefing to the city planning commission. “Those are all things that we don't have answers to yet, but we want to kind of dig more into.” 

In a recent interview, Pechin said the planning grant the city is applying for would help clarify the reconnection’s form.  

“The Reconnect Communities project is a transportation project. It’s trying to solve a transportation problem. Transportation projects bring up lots of other issues: housing, economic development, sustainability [and] repairing for past harms,” she said. “It's not necessarily that that transportation project will solve every single one of those issues, but they are important to lift up and bring to attention.” 

The federal Department of Transportation said grant recipients will be announced early next year, depending on the number of applicants. 

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
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