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Five Miles on the Pike

A stretch of U.S. Route 1 has become a starting point for some, an ending place for others.


"South of Richmond U.S. 1 is lined with tourist cabins, garages, and lunchrooms swathed in neon lights that at night convert the road as far as Petersburg into a glittering midway." So reads a federal Works Projects Administration guide to Virginia published in Depression-era 1940.

Along that "glittering midway" was the Chimney Corner Motel, located halfway between Richmond and Petersburg. Its vertical neon sign attempted to entice travelers off the highway to check in and perhaps roast some weenies or hamburgers over the front lawn's brick grill before turning in.

Today this motel-turned-trailer-park sees different visitors. On late afternoons, its grassy vale becomes a soccer field, the grounds enlivened with Spanish-speaking Mexican, Honduran or Salvadoran AcmigrAcs. If a hooker occasionally saunters down the drive, burly Don Smith, 62, who's been co-owner of the Chimney Corner for eight years, shoos her away.

For the past decade, the motels and trailer parks along this stretch of U.S. Route 1 in Chesterfield County, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway, have become like Ellis Island, a starting point for folks beginning a new life.

Smith, who formerly taught English to Cambodians in Roanoke, has watched the evolution.

"I've had Bosnians and Haitians live here, and more recently, Mexicans and Central Americans — particularly single men from Central America," Smith says. "They don't complain. As tenants they are some of the best: They go to work, they get their money, they pay their rent."

But there are no rent payments coming in on a recent Friday afternoon. Smith stands in the Chimney Corner's asphalt parking lot and isn't smiling as he surveys his deserted 5-acre domain. The brick motel's nine units, their front doors crowned by tidy white porches, are abandoned. Nearby, 16 empty mobile homes sit atop their foundations like beached whales. Last August, when Tropical Storm Gaston savaged the area and caused adjacent Kingsland Creek to overflow, the Chimney Corner and some 80 residents were hit hard.

"The water came up in an hour; this was the highest it'd ever been," Smith says grimly. He then adds paternally, "I worried that maybe someone had been washed down the creek, but everybody was accounted for.

"A couple of days after the flood," he says, "some Chesterfield officials showed up, condemned the motel and trailers, and wouldn't let anybody back in. They began marking off areas and said, 'We're going to bring a bulldozer and start tearing this down.'"

Smith's intense blue eyes narrow and his neck, already leathery from years of too much sun, becomes flush at the recollection. " I told them: 'These are structurally sound. You can't tear us down.'"

He says he's been fighting them ever since.

Pluck and resiliency have long been keys to survival along this hardscrabble highway.

Some call it U.S. 1. Others, Jeff Davis. But locals know it simply as the Pike. It links Richmond and Petersburg, but U.S. 1 actually extends from Maine to Miami (if you're not in a hurry). After its completion in the 1920s its four lanes here handled heavy traffic from both out-of-state and local vehicles. That was before the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike/Interstate 95 opened slightly to the east on a parallel route in July 1958.

"I've been up and down this pike since the '50s," says Jim Hudson, 74, a native of Littleton, N.C., and a 30-year resident of Flippo trailer park on the Pike. "Before 95 was built, it sometimes took two hours to drive from Richmond to Petersburg. Two lanes in each direction were bumper-to-bumper."

Hudson, a retired construction worker who specialized in concrete, proudly lists major projects he worked on: the Virginia World War II Memorial, Richmond Coliseum and the Philip Morris manufacturing plant. "This was a good place to live for my work," he says. "It is ten miles from Richmond, ten miles from Petersburg and ten miles from Hopewell."

Although I-95 diminished the Pike's tourist-based economy, it left the considerable architectural and cultural remains of a classic highway strip. Instead of catering to travelers passing through, these aging motels, restaurants and trailer parks were finding a new audience. By the '70s and '80s, the location and the price of a room or trailer space were attractive to blue-collar, temporary or seasonal employees who worked at DuPont, in construction or at the numerous tobacco operations nearby.

What wasn't in the future of this narrow, 25-mile swath of highway was suburban growth. Because it was well-established for industrial and commercial use, it wasn't ripe for major residential development. And its expansion was limited further by its location along the western, often marshy course of the James River, which in some places is just half a mile east of the highway.

Although the trailer parks and motels provided affordable housing for transient and permanent residents by the 1970s, some of the motels also sheltered a host of societal ills — prostitution and drug-dealing topping the list. As a longtime Richmonder observed some years ago, "On the Pike, five dollars will buy you anything you want, and a few things you don't."

But stretches of the Pike have undergone dramatic change, driven by the opening of Chippenham Parkway and Interstate 288. The two parkways slice across U.S. 1, providing major cross-axes the Pike never enjoyed and linking it with other parts of the region. Near the entry- and exit-ramps of these arteries, dozens of old structures were demolished and replaced by such ubiquitous national chain stores as Food Lion, OfficeMax, AutoZone and Wawa. Chesterfield has also created a developer-friendly enterprise zone along the Pike. So the strip between 288 and Route 10 (Iron Bridge Road) looks increasingly like Anywhere, U.S.A.

Farther north, though, the five-mile length of the Pike from 288 to Chippenham is a different story. It's like moving through a time warp with change coming slowly (one exception is Winchester Green, a perky new neighborhood under development by Richmond Better Housing Coalition, built to replace the shabby Park Lee apartments). There seem to be invisible borders cutting this stretch off from growth.

"It was taboo for developers to go north of Route 10," says Tom Jacobson, director of revitalization for Chesterfield County, because of its decline and uncertain future. "And we didn't have any urban design standards to attract developers."

A number of older motels still operate along this five-mile corridor. Their names evoke hospitality, history or fantasy — Stratford, Martha Kay, White House and Snow White — as well as Chimney Corner. But guests now are most likely to be seasonal construction or landscape workers from south of the border, not families en route to Florida's SeaWorld.

"There are some really interesting buildings, especially the old motels along this auto-oriented part of Jeff Davis," says Chesterfield County's Jacobson. "Our stretch is not as dramatic as some, like the vestiges you see along Route 66. Those buildings even appear in [history and coffee table] books now. The buildings along Jeff Davis were always scattered, so you don't have a small-town fabric. But at the county, we've talked about the auto culture and what it means. We've asked ourselves: What about this part of our history? We've considered making this a historic district, using historic tax credits for rehabilitation. But we haven't been successful in getting that past the Board of Supervisors. It is not a high priority."

Nevertheless, Jacobson says one roadside landmark that is on the save list is part of the dilapidated and deserted Moore's Cottages complex, 12101 Jeff Davis Highway, just south of 288. This impressive assemblage of head houses and red brick cabins is set amid a grove of towering oak trees. The former restaurant — visually lively with staccato-like siding of red brick, stone and art moderne glass block — operated as Sylvester's until it closed late last year. Jacobson says that while the cottages will be demolished soon to make room for a new restaurant and hotel, "We at least talked to the owner about saving Sylvester's, and he is willing to do so."

Brian Sheppard, who is semiretired, manages Bellwood Mobile Homes, where he lives with his wife, Lucy. He says that he's stricter than the former manager. "We've tightened up the systems," he says. "They used to let anybody in, but now we do a credit check." After all, he says, "You've got to watch who you let in."

Sheppard talks above the din of Saturday morning cartoons on TV, standing in the combination kitchen, living room and dining room of his home. Family photographs hang over the sofa. "People have had some rough luck," Sheppard says. "But if you keep your property cleaned up, you don't have any problem."

His wife says she prefers trailer living because her former home in Richmond held bad memories. Some years ago her first husband was murdered in front of her and their children by the irate husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

Like many young people, the younger Latino residents at Bellwood like to party outdoors and sometimes get loud, Brian Sheppard says. "And we had some of them killing goats up here," he adds. "This lady thought she heard a baby crying, and she called the law. It was Mexicans killing goats to barbecue them. And about nine months ago, one of those goats got loose. It was something."

Aging trailer parks, the old motels and a plethora of small automotive businesses and Latino restaurants now characterize the frontage of this section of the Pike. While Jacobson says the trailer parks and motels contribute to the inventory of affordable housing in Chesterfield County, he's not sentimental about them. He says the county has evaluated each of its trailer parks and that while overall they were deemed satisfactory, "A handful are too crowded and they don't offer good living conditions.

"Trailers offer some of the worst housing in the metropolitan area," he says, citing the Shady Hill Trailer Park on the Pike as one that is problematic. Efforts to close some of the parks were fiercely resisted recently by owners and residents, so the county is using strict code enforcement to ensure upkeep.

Sometimes within the trailer parks themselves there are culture clashes between longtime residents and more recent arrivals, especially younger people from other countries.

About a mile from Bellwood Mobile Homes, in Flippo Trailer Park at 10200 Jeff Davis, postal carrier Ray Gallagher is making his Saturday rounds. He's delivered the mail in this 23237 zone for two years, gaining both an overview of and appreciation for the Pike's economic, ethnic and social fluidity.

"You're probably not going to find many nationalities that are not represented in this area," Gallagher says. "There are people from eight or nine Latino countries, Vietnam and Cambodia and others."

As he talks, he slips the Saturday mail into dozens of white mailboxes arranged neatly near the entrance to the trailer park. A small American flag adorns each box.

At Flippo, like many other places along the Pike, the stars and stripes are displayed by American-born and immigrants alike. The flag appears in living-room windows, on vehicles and flying from poles.

A petite Mexican woman carrying an infant and clutching two young children strolls up the driveway to retrieve her mail. She is wary of cars that periodically whip into the complex from the highway. Clearly not interested in speaking, she shyly retreats down the lane to her home.

"The Latinos are very industrious, very nice people, and they will have a major advantage over many Anglos," Gallagher says. "The United States is the fourth largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world, and the Latinos are fluently bilingual. Native-born Americans don't seem interested."

Gallagher says he appreciates not only the residents, but where many of them live. "Trailer parks provide a realistic opportunity for those starting out," he says. "Kids right out of high school can rent or buy a trailer while they get themselves established. Some stay for a few months, some for a few years. I've known people who lived in trailers and then bought single-family houses on this same route.

"Starter homes are priced in the low $100,000s," he says, "So anyone in the Richmond community who gets too much of an attitude about trailer parks is denying people a place to start."

It's pay day on a Friday night in April. Every Naugahyde-upholstered booth in the immaculate and sparsely furnished back dining room of Pupuseria Dona Mercedes, a Salvadoran restaurant at 7519 Jefferson Davis Highway, is filled with chattering customers. There are young married couples, tables filled with laborers, and parents with young children. Most are Latino. A holographic version of Leonardo's "The Last Supper" hangs near the kitchen door.

Mercedes Gamez, a slim, attractive middle-aged woman, is the proprietress. She stays in constant motion as she reigns over the sprawling grill and six-burner range while two other women keep pace with takeout customers at the cash register.

Dona Mercedes is typical of a number of businesses on the Pike that took the buildings of popular former restaurants and made them destinations with a Latino vibe. (It once housed The Farmhouse, a ribs and barbecue landmark restaurant.)

For Gamez, opening her restaurant last April was the logical next step for her love of cooking and her evolving business. Speaking in Spanish, she says she was born in San Migual, El Salvador, and eventually moved to Houston. After a divorce, she and her son moved to Richmond, where there was a growing Latino population. For 10 years, she cooked Salvadoran food in her home and sold it to friends and acquaintances. Success led her to her current location.

She is a blur, slapping tortillas on the sizzling grill while serving orders of bisteck Salvadoreno (a featured dish with large chunks of steak mixed with chopped and steamed red and green peppers, and onions). Next up is pollo a la plancha (chicken and sautAced mixed vegetables).

Although the Pike has been in limbo for half a century since I-95 made it quasi-obsolete, it seems to have found a new purpose. Its transient nature has made it a sympathetic and fruitful spot for foreigners to get their footing in a new country.

Not far up the Pike near the Bellwood Flea Market, another cook in a much more modest kitchen is contemplating expanding her business. For three months Maria Fiores, a native of Mexico, has operated El Taconazo (The Big Taco) from a 6-by-8-foot trailer. It has an opening with a sliding serving window. On this particular weekend afternoon, two assistants share the tight cooking quarters. Fiores' business is mostly takeout, but she's erected a tent out front with translucent netting and seating for six customers.

"The county wants me to make many changes and improvements," she says in perfect English and with a resigned shrug. "But no problem. Hopefully in a few weeks, we'll be moving to the old Stuffy's down the road." Her face is partially blocked behind the small service window, and the kitchen lighting is dim. But Fiores flashes a radiant, confident smile that says it all: The Big Taco is going to get bigger. S

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