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A photo exhibit at the Valentine Museum shows the evolution of Jackson Ward.

A Wealth of Memories


Despite perennial yammering that it's the next great thing, Jackson Ward is the incredible shrinking neighborhood. The shrinkage has occurred gradually, but persistently, during the past 50 years, beginning with construction of Interstate 95, then land clearance for the Coliseum, the Richmond Center and the Biotechnology Center. Now, major expansion of the convention center has nibbled away at the delicate edges and wiped out sizable chunks of this densely built, mostly residential urban district bounded by Broad Street, I-95/64, Third Street and Belvidere. What remains of this historic neighborhood with its deep links to Richmond's black community is valuable because of its incredible architectural quality and consistency. The delicate tracery of the cast-iron and wooden front porches is often compared favorably to that of buildings in New Orleans' French Quarter. And while many of its longtime families have retreated to the suburbs, rich memories are kept alive by such institutions, places and events as the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the Bojangles statue and the annual Second Street Festival. Perhaps more important to the life of the faded neighborhood are anchoring congregations and a new generation of homeowners who are painstakingly restoring the richly textured buildings. This dual face — persistent change and architectural richness — is captured in an exhibit of photographs at the Valentine Museum. In "Jackson Ward: A City within a City," guest curator Laura Carr has combed the Valentine's considerable archives and selected 45 photographs that depict either Jackson Ward's architecture or its social history. We see buildings that have long been removed from the scene — such as the 1793 Skipwith House, with its distinctive, gambrel (hip) roof, that once stood on Duval Street. Photographs of such institutions as the Booker T. Washington School, the former Armstrong High School on Leigh Street, True Reformer's Bank or Maggie L. Walker's own St. Luke's Building remind us of the parallel institutional systems that bolstered black educational and economic growth while maintaining racial segregation. The exhibit also presents images of neighborhood churches such as Sharon Baptist Church (formerly Clay Street Baptist) and Third Street Bethel A.M.E. Additionally, there are photos of businesses: an interior of the Eggleston Hotel grill and a shot of the Slaughter's hostelry at Clay and Second streets. The exhibit hangs in the Stern Gallery, a multipurpose space on the museum's ground floor. The land-locked museum, with limited exhibition space, is obviously (and wisely) using every available space to show things. While the Stern doubles as a conference room, it is a viable spot to display selections from the Valentine's collection of 1.5 million photographs. The presentation of the mostly black-and-white prints is straightforward. Curator Carr's introduction panel and labels are crisply written. But it would have been helpful had a map of Jackson Ward been included: With the neighborhood's boundaries ever shifting, and the museum attracting many out-of-towners, it shouldn't be presumed that museum patrons will know the ward's perimeters. Also, there are no photographs of the recent Richmond convention center expansion. Not only is the mammoth scale of the construction dramatic, including pictures of this phase would have brought the exhibit up-to-the-minute. But with the first phase of the expanded convention center slated to open this spring and the planned visitors center there opening directly onto Jackson Ward, this a timely exhibition. Such shows remind us that it's never too soon to record changing scenery. With the rapid development along, say, U.S. Route 250 near Short Pump or along U.S. 360 near Mechanicsville, is anyone photographing the fast-disappearing vernacular buildings of the formerly rural landscape? Twenty-five or 50 years from now, historians will be looking for the evidence of these altered

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