In front of the Sub Rosa bakery in Church Hill on a Saturday morning, I ease onto a cold, metal, red cafe chair while jockeying pastry and hot coffee. A line of casually dressed patrons snakes out the door, across the small terrace and onto the brick city sidewalk.
Scanning the five-point intersection where North 25th and M streets cross, and where Jefferson Avenue ends, my gaze meets the Roosevelt across the street, another wildly popular eatery. It’s painted a deep shade of red and has black shutters.
I recall how a friend, Zach Macias, once told me that when he first approached this corner when applying for a job at the Roosevelt, he was struck by the evocative building and its bold, vintage graphics painted on one side, thinking, “I hope this is the place.”
Although I lived on Church Hill for 12 years back in the day, it’s been a while since I focused on this particular irregular intersection. Neat, attractively restored Italianate houses and those of brick, even more antique, line 25th Street.
The Manning Funeral Home, a colonial revival structure, anchors one corner handsomely, its classical front entrance, quoins and windows even dignifying the gas station turned law offices across the street, covered in 1950s PermaStone. And the scale of the nearby public community services building, while decidedly more modern as designed by the Glave Newman Anderson firm, fits in nicely with its neighbors.
But what establishes cohesiveness in this area is something I never would have predicted: the recently installed traffic roundabout. These traffic “calmers” are the darling of traffic engineers and city planners, especially along Jefferson and Floyd avenues. And while the jury is still out, as far as I am concerned they work here magnificently.
True, there can be considerable traffic, including constant GRTC Transit Co. buses, but the concrete curbing, cobblestone paving and adjacent, densely landscaped planting beds slow things down to a horse and buggy slog — not inappropriate for a neighborhood whose building stock predates the automobile. Where there was pavement, there are now evergreens and flowers.
Sitting and sipping while automobiles and buses navigate the intersection, and pedestrians come and go, I realize that a mixed-use, user-friendly neighborhood, to which many city dwellers aspire, has been accomplished. Of course, this is in part because of the dramatic pace at which residential restoration and new house construction continues in north Church Hill. But bottom line, where two-way traffic once made North 25th Street a throughway, traffic engineering has established a sweet destination.
Sitting in the cool of the morning, I’m also aware that this intersection reveals gentrification at its most dramatic. Interspersed among the new and fashionably restored homes are dwellings that house the old-timers. Some have asbestos siding, others could use a coat of paint and many haven’t switched out chain-link for white picket fencing. The contrasts are stark between the Banana Republic aesthetic and the attire of the occasional panhandler, if you choose to notice.
I also think of housing conditions a few blocks away. I think of how the Richmond School Board, with cruel theatrical flair, recently threatened to close Armstrong High School citing budget constraints. I think of how Lillie Estes, a mayoral candidate and public housing resident, reportedly said at a recent debate: “I cannot believe that with the redevelopment going on in the East End … you are going to shut down a high school.” Virginia Commonwealth University’s student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times, also reported her saying, “Richmond does not work for all its citizens and we need to fix that.”
But for Richmond and its schools to prosper, the tax base must grow. This means more homes must be restored and built to provide solid housing to allow more families to move here. Gentrification will probably continue: It need not be a tainted word. Indeed, many of the buildings at 25th, M and Jefferson would have surrendered to the termites if they hadn’t been injected with new life. The number of disfiguring vacant lots in North Church Hill is a constant reminder that this vicinity was once going downhill fast.
Interestingly, Historic Richmond is sponsoring a juried architectural competition, open to all, for townhouse designs on hypothetical urban lots. If so much residential building stock hadn’t been lost here because of neglect and decay in our city’s old neighborhoods, especially in the East End, there’d be no reason for such a design contest.
As we relinquish our table at Sub Rosa and stroll onto Jefferson Street, a neatly dressed woman waiting at the bus stop asks, “How much is a cup of coffee there?”
Did she have enough cash, or was she making an informal economic survey as to how much the old neighborhood had changed? S