Back to the future in Richmond, Virginia

Inside the capital of the Commonwealth, three neighborhoods take long looks back and giant steps forward
The view from Libby Hill Park, which inspired Richmond’s name

Photo by Fred Mortion/courtesy of Scenic Virginia

In 1737, English planter William Byrd II climbed a hill in central Virginia and marveled at the scene before him. The wide, blue-green James River curved gently southwest into thick woodlands, reminding him of a view he had seen near London as a child, looking out toward the royal village called Richmond upon Thames. He decided to form a settlement in the area, naming it Richmond.

Today, Libby Hill Park in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood is situated atop that very hill. On mild evenings, it is alive with dog walkers, yoga groups working through poses, and the murmur of visitors FaceTiming with friends from park benches. At the park’s southern overlook, the panoramic views that captivated Byrd in 1737 remain much the same.

History is always close at hand in a colonial city—especially one that’s home to a Thomas Jefferson–designed state capitol and the graves of two other presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler). Still, Richmond works hard to not only showcase its legacy, but also prove it is home to innovative offerings that appeal to modern visitors.

It is in Richmond’s neighborhoods that one can best appreciate this balancing act. Here, we explore three historic districts that continue to break new ground.

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Photo courtesy of Visit Richmond Virginia

Church Hill
Where the city got its start

Richmond’s oldest residential neighborhood gets its name from its most famous landmark, St. John’s Episcopal Church. In 1775, colonial lawyer Patrick Henry urged fellow lawmakers gathered in the church to revolt against British rule, delivering one of the most famous lines in American history: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Jenny L. Cote, award-winning writer of the young adult historical series Epic Order of the Seven, says she feels the past whenever she visits the church. “There’s something about the smell of that 18th-century brick,” she says. “When I walk through that church gate toward the imposing steeple and go into the hall, it has the gravity of history hanging in the air.”

Edgar Allan Poe grew up in Richmond during the early 1800s and later supplemented his meager writing income by reciting “The Raven” and other famous works in the parlors of Church Hill’s wealthy residents. The neighborhood offers a trio of sites paying homage to the horror writer who became one of America’s first bestselling authors.

The Poe Museum

Photo by Larry Bleiberg

The Poe Museum’s collection of personal artifacts, letters, and manuscripts explores the writer’s often-tortured life. Highlights include his childhood bed, his walking stick, and a lock of hair cut after his death. The exhibits are displayed across three historic buildings, all centered around an outdoor garden inspired by the Poe poem, “To One in Paradise.” As visitors wander among flowers mentioned in the poem, they are occasionally startled by the museum’s two resident cats (both black, naturally).

Poe’s mother, an actress who died when he was two, is buried on the edge of the cemetery surrounding St. John’s Church. Across the street from her grave stands the three-story brick home of Sarah Elmira Shelton, Poe’s adolescent sweetheart, who later became his fiancee. (Some scholars believe she was the inspiration for two of the writer’s celebrated works, “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.”) The home still attracts Poe fans eager to see the building the writer visited in September 1849. He had come to say goodbye to his fiancee before leaving town on a business trip; ten days later, he mysteriously died in Baltimore.

Church Hill’s allure isn’t limited to its past. The neighborhood has built a reputation as a culinary destination and houses some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants. Visitors come for plates of Virginia oysters and crispy perch at Alewife, named the South’s best new restaurant in 2020 by Southern Living. Over at James Beard favorite the Roosevelt, Jared Martin—once the private chef of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—turns out crispy lamb belly and rabbit pot pie.

“It’s a historic, charming neighborhood, and now it’s a place for great food,” says Evin Dogu, who, along with her brother, Evrim Dogu, owns Sub Rosa Bakery, a wood-fired bakery nominated for a Beard award in 2020. “You feel like you’ve slipped away to your country home, but it’s five minutes from downtown.”

Kendra Feather, cofounder of the Roosevelt restaurant, says Church Hill is no mere neighborhood. “Church Hill is more like a town on the edge of Richmond. It’s Southern in a way that a lot of Richmond forgot. Folks say ‘hi’ when you pass on the sidewalk, and it’s authentic. Bakeries, parks, playgrounds—we all share these spaces. There are so many layers of history here that it feels almost European.”

The Hippodrome

Photo by Larry Bleiberg

Jackson Ward
Where black business flourished

When Gary Flowers walks the streets of Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, he sees a vibrant past. Looking at a four-story beige-brick building, he thinks of the top-floor office Maggie Walker occupied in the early 1900s, after she became the first Black woman in the nation to charter a bank. Over on North Second Street, he imagines the crowds that filled the Hippodrome theater in the 1930s and ’40s, when entertainers such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald helped Richmond earn the nickname “Harlem of the South.” And on Leigh Street, he describes Black scholars and PhDs coming together during the first half of the 20th century to teach at the former Armstrong High School, Richmond’s first for African Americans.

Black History Museum

Photo courtesy of Visit Richmond Virginia

In its early 20th-century heyday, Jackson Ward was called Black Wall Street, a title it shared with Durham, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. But Flowers thinks the distinction belongs to Richmond. “No shame or shade, but they didn’t have 300 Black businesses. They didn’t have seven Black insurance companies. They didn’t have five Black banks,” says Flowers, a fourth-generation resident whose company, Walking the Ward, leads neighborhood tours.

In 1978, Jackson Ward was designated as a National Historic Landmark District, and this year it celebrates its 150th birthday. One of America’s first Black urban neighborhoods, it is set in a city to which an estimated one in four African Americans can trace their lineage, given Richmond’s history as one of the largest markets for enslaved Africans. Although named for Civil War General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Ward nurtured the first generation of free Blacks.

The most notable—the aforementioned banker Maggie L. Walker—is honored by a National Park Service site that preserves her Italianate-style mansion. Peruse the art nouveau lamps and delicate Asian ceramics that graced the entrance parlor, where she entertained some of the most important Black leaders of her day. Born in 1864, Walker was a Jeff Bezos of her era. Along with a bank and an insurance company, she also ran a newspaper and a department store where black-skinned mannequins displayed the latest fashions. In 1904, a half century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Walker led a two-year boycott of the city’s segregated streetcars, eventually putting them out of business. Later, she ran for statewide office.

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Photo by Larry Bleiberg

Down the block from Walker’s home, the ornate Leigh Street Armory served the city’s Black militia in the 1890s. Now, its crenellated brick towers and turrets are home to Richmond’s Black History Museum, which chronicles a 400-year struggle for equality.

Jackson Ward was also known for its nightlife. Most of it centered on Second Street, known as the Deuce, where musicians such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson drew crowds. A renowned tap dancer and the nation’s highest-paid Black entertainer during the first half of the 20th century, Robinson used his many talents to break racial barriers, starring in some of the first mixed-race Broadway shows and with young star Shirley Temple as Hollywood’s first interracial dance duo. The city remembers its native son with a statue in the heart of the neighborhood—Richmond’s first to honor a Black man.

Robinson died in 1949, just before the newly constructed Interstate 95 tore through the middle of the neighborhood, rendering a near-death blow to the community. More than a half century later, the area is only now beginning to recover.

Leading the way is Mama J’s Kitchen. A semifinalist for a James Beard Award in 2019, it’s praised for fresh Southern dishes like fried chicken, catfish nuggets, crab cakes, candied yams, and lemon cake. It’s all served in a contemporary, white-tablecloth dining room with a pressed-tin ceiling and bar.

Lester Johnson co-owns Mama J’s with his mother, Velma Johnson, a former Richmond deputy sheriff. He says that while their soul food is reason enough to visit Jackson Ward, the neighborhood offers something more important: “To immerse yourself in the history of the South, the history of Virginia, you’ve got to touch base in Jackson Ward,” he says. “A lot of what’s going on right now is making sure that the complete story is told. And if you want the complete story,” he says, motioning to the buildings around him, “this is part of it.”

According to Enjoli Moon, co-creator of the JXN Project (a group dedicated to unearthing the under-told stories of Black Richmond), Jackson Ward is a neighborhood every visitor must explore. “In many ways, Jackson Ward is the birthplace of Black entrepreneurship and Black autonomy. . . . There’s a ton of energy running through Jackson Ward, and you can’t really understand Richmond and respect your time in the city unless you take some time to connect with it.”

Carytown at sunset

Photo courtesy of Visit Richmond Virginia

Richmond’s mile of style

At World of Mirth toy store, a three-foot-tall lava lamp in the window lures curious shoppers inside to explore. Across the street at Lex’s, racks of storybook bridal gowns entice brides-to-be. Down the block, Can Can Brasserie is a charming cafe dining with authentic French bouillabaisse on the menu.

You can find almost anything along Carytown’s nine-block Cary Street. In a world of bland cookie-cutter stores and corporate restaurants offering the same merchandise and menus coast to coast, the neighborhood’s surprising artery presents an alternative. Open any door on the street, and you can expect to find the unexpected: retail with originality.

“We have a ‘shop-local’ vibe in the city,” says Thea Brown, owner of World of Mirth, which sells “I Support Human Rights” onesies, kick-croquet sets, and pug-shaped playing cards. “You’re going to find things you can’t find anywhere else.”

Chop Suey Books

Photo courtesy of Visit Richmond Virginia

It has been that way for nearly a century. In 1928, Cary Street welcomed the Byrd Theatre, a glamorous movie palace boasting a Mighty Wurlitzer organ still in use today. The street soon added Cary Court Park and Shop Center, one of the nation’s first strip malls. On the center’s 25th anniversary in 1963, president Cora B. Gow vowed to eschew homogeny in favor of independent offerings: “We have too much competition to let our standards down. . . . We have specialty shops here, one of a kind.”

The surrounding blocks have filled up with equally distinctive boutiques and businesses. Among them: Babe’s, one of the city’s oldest lesbian bars, boasting a sand volleyball course in the back. A block away, Plan 9 Records has peddled used vinyl since 1981. Chop Suey Books offers new and used volumes and specializes in Richmond-focused titles. And For the Love of Chocolate sells thousands of sweets, from Leonidas Belgian truffles to bags of Cadbury Crunchie Bits.

Surrounded by residential areas, Carytown feels like a local secret. Tom Rosman, who runs a commercial real estate business, stops by Sugar & Twine coffee shop nearly every morning for the pastries and atmosphere. “I’ve been coming here for years,” he says. “You can feel the energy. It’s palpable.”

Guadalupe Ramírez-Blevins traces her Carytown tenure to 1994, when she sold Central American handicrafts from a table during the shopping district’s popular Watermelon Festival. She looked across the street to a storefront and vowed that one day she’d open a business there. Five years later, she did. Her shop, AlterNatives, specializes in biodegradable clothes and accessories, including linens, organic cottons, and repurposed upholstery handbags made by a co-op of widows from the Guatemalan highlands.

She says Carytown reminds her of the small village near the Guatemala-Mexico border where she grew up. Her mother was a baker, her dad carved tombstones, and her grandmother was a moonshiner who ran a bar. “It’s a place where every family owned its own business and we all supported each other,” she says. “It’s like that here.” ¡

Stan McCulloch, co-owner of Carytown’s Mongrel gift shop, says the neighborhood’s vibrant shops and restaurants draw equally vibrant crowds. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 65 or 18—the area attracts customers interested in things that are new and different. When you get a critical mass of that kind of people, you get a real sense of vitality.”

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Southbound.