A nasal spray bottle from 1994 may be among the smallest objects in the Valentine’s compelling new exhibit, “Breathing Places: Parks and Recreation in Richmond.” But the story it tells is relatable to almost anyone who has ever lived through spring here.
This year, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation rated Richmond the worst city in the entire country for spring seasonal allergies. Despite parts of the city – Jackson Ward, Randolph, downtown – lacking a tree canopy, a large percentage of the trees planted in the early to mid-20th century were pollen-producing oaks. To add insult to injury, many 20th-century urban planners were guilty of botanical sexism by planting fast-growing male trees that didn’t litter sidewalks and streets with messy fruit. But they ignored the fact that male trees shed additional pollen, thus contributing to the exacerbation of respiratory symptoms for Richmonders of all ages. Breathing is central to the story here.
The new exhibition provides a deep dive into the design, use and evolution of the city’s myriad parks, recreation areas and natural spaces. Over the past 170 years, access to these green spaces has been denied to some while welcoming others. Opening with a penny-farthing bicycle and a vintage baby carriage, both of which were once used in the city’s parks, the exhibition allows the enlarged image behind the objects to tell the real story: An 1890 photograph depicts the governor’s mansion, in front of which white men ride penny farthings and Black women push carriages holding white babies.
Capitol Square, the city’s first public park, was enclosed by a fence that intended to keep out both animals and Black Richmonders.
“There was a law on the books before the Civil War that stated that Blacks were not allowed in that space unless accompanied by a white child or doing manual labor,” explains Christina Vida, the Valentine’s Elise H. Wright curator of general collections. Although the law came off the books after the war, social practices ensured that whites continued to use the space while Blacks stayed out.
Public spaces were intended to be restorative or, in the 19th century vernacular, salubrious. The name of the Valentine exhibition is drawn from an 1851 recommendation by Richmond’s Committee on Public Squares which counseled the city to secure “breathing places in the midst of the city or convenient to it” for its residents. The problem was that the recommendation affected Black and white residents in different ways. Covenants restricted home ownership to whites and the construction of Interstate 95 reduced the size of predominately Black neighborhoods such as Jackson Ward and Randolph and mixed neighborhoods like Oregon Hill and Bryant Park. Park access for Blacks was limited or nonexistent.
In the 1930s and 1940s, workers for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration constructed new segregated playgrounds in Richmond, completing 13 in white neighborhoods and 11 in Black neighborhoods. After the city’s white population fled to the suburbs, Richmond officially integrated all public parks and facilities, but not until 1968.
It was around the same time, the late 1960s, that the city began investing in community pools in an effort to discourage children from playing in the James River.
“Because of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the pools couldn’t be specifically segregated,” Vida says, “but because of their locations they were still segregated.”
During the same decade, several groups including some local Cub Scout leaders began investing time and effort on the river as part of a movement to establish what became the James River Park System and provide equal access for all.
Over the years, the city’s parks have seen a diversification of uses as they became more than just breathing places, holding events such as concerts, protests, art shows and memorials, including one for the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Monroe Park was once used as the state fairgrounds and for the past decade has been the starting point for All the Saints Theater Company’s annual Halloween parade.
Because our parks and green spaces continue to evolve, the exhibit includes a monitor featuring a slide show of rotating images submitted by the public. Anyone can submit a photograph depicting themselves, friends or family enjoying one of Richmond’s green spaces.
So far at least, none have included a 2021 bottle of nasal spray.
“Breathing Places: Parks and Recreation in Richmond” at the Valentine museum, 1015 E. Clay St. through January. thevalentine.org.