Oregon Hill

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Oregon Hill in Richmond, Virginia 2012/Josephine Ensign

Health and Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s: When I was growing up on the outskirts of Richmond, I was taught to avoid the area of town where I would work at The Richmond Street Center . The neighborhood it was located in–Oregon Hill–was rumored to be as white, racist, in-bred, impoverished, and violent as an isolated Appalachian West Virginia hollow.

The residents of Oregon Hill were called hillbillies. Most were Scotch-Irish, descended from British bond servants who had moved to the area during Reconstruction to work at the Tredegar Ironworks and Albemarle Paper Company, both located along the James River. Darwin, in his introduction to the Origin of the Species, made reference to these settlers, called Crackers, who he said selectively bred black hogs because they were more resistant to disease than were white hogs—echoes of one of the many Southern justifications for slavery. At first Oregon Hill was a squatter’s community, with people living on the land illegally. Then the settlers built cheap houses resembling coal-mining housing units.

Oregon Hill was a Richmond neighborhood that was easy to avoid: it was physically cut off from most of the city by the four-lane Downtown Expressway toll road. Urban planners, controlled by Richmond’s white elite, catered to business interests in the downtown core. A city report from the 1930s targeted Oregon Hill for demolition, stating it contained the largest concentration of Richmond’s cases of child and adult delinquency and disease. The nearby traditionally black neighborhood of Jackson Ward (of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson fame) had also been slated for demolition for similar reasons. Both neighborhoods were seen as sources of moral contamination spreading like infection or mold through the city, sapping its vitality, keeping Richmond from becoming a leader in the New South. So the city built the Downtown Expressway in the 1970s, placing it through the worst slums–or ‘urban decay’– displacing thousands of impoverished blacks and whites, moving them to low-income housing projects.  The Expressway was designed to form a physical barrier protecting the affluent white West End neighborhoods, and providing their residents a safe passage to downtown jobs and industries along the river.

By the 1980s when I worked in the area, the iron and paper mill industries along the river near Oregon Hill were closed, and the only remaining neighborhood industry was the State Penitentiary (unless you included the nearby Monroe Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University as an industry). Built in 1800 on the crest of the hill overlooking the James River, the State Pen stood behind a tall cinder block wall topped with shiny loops of barbed wire. It was an imposing fortress of grey concrete, almost windowless buildings.

Some of my patients lived in the heart of Oregon Hill. By then, I was no longer afraid to walk through the neighborhood. Of course, it helped that I had the correct skin color to walk freely there. But I had discovered it was a nice place to retreat to on lunch breaks. In contrast with the Street Center’s chaos, noise, and pungent smell of cigarette smoke combined with unwashed bodies, Oregon Hill’s quiet, tree-shaded brick sidewalks were a welcome relief. There were rows of two-story wood houses with fading paint, sagging front porches, and Confederate flags draped across the windows as curtains. Some of the more rundown houses were rental units for VCU college students or the all-white 1980s bands (including the Cowboy Junkies with their melancholy song ‘Oregon Hill’). You could tell these houses by the piles of empty beer cans in the front yards, along with fraying upholstered couches and seats from old cars on the front porches. There was little traffic except on Albemarle Street leading to the entrance of Hollywood Cemetery, which contained a 90-foot stone pyramid monument (built by prisoners) that was surrounded by the graves of Confederate soldiers.

A few years after I stopped working at the Street Center, the Ethyl Corporation bought a large swath of Oregon Hill. Ethyl Corporation is a large Richmond-based chemical additives company, best known for developing leaded gasoline, and for fighting the ban on leaded gasoline after exposure was linked to brain damage in children. Ethyl is the legacy of the merger of Albemarle Paper Company and Tredegar Iron Works. Ethyl tore down many of the Oregon Hill houses and built high-end townhouses overlooking the river. Ethyl Corporation successfully lobbied the state to relocate the State Penitentiary outside of Richmond, bought the land where the State Pen had stood for over a century, tore it down, and built a large high-security chemical additives research lab in its place. Currently, the only traces of the State Penitentiary are the three large green oxidized cupolas from the main building. They were transferred down the hill, and stand together on a grassy knoll near the river, on the site of the Tredegar American Civil War Museum. Some of my patients had lived in the crumbling remains of the Tredegar Iron Works before it was renovated into this museum.

Next door to the Ethyl Corporation building now stands the Virginia Housing Development Authority, a quasi-government state mortgage finance company to encourage home ownership. They also lend to private investors who are building multi-dwelling units. Does anyone in Richmond find this ironic? Does anyone in Richmond realize that housing policy is health policy? Richmond, like most metropolitan areas in the South, continues to have defacto racial and socioeconomic segregation, which makes it almost impossible for poor (or homeless) people to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’

**Resources:

  • Take a look at the fascinating map and accompanying data from a recent national study of intergenerational economic mobility indicating that higher economic mobility is correlated with: 1) metro areas where poor families are more dispersed around mixed-income areas, 2) more two-parent households, 3) better public elementary and high schools, and 4) more civic engagement. “In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters” by David Leonhardt, NYT 7-22-13.
  • Christopher Silver’s Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race (Knoxville:U of Tennessee Press), 1984.
  • ‘Urban blight’ is a prime example of Donald Schon’s important concept of ‘generative metaphor’: that the stories we tell and the metaphors we use to describe social ‘problems’ end up framing and directing social policy interventions (including interventions to deal with homelessness). He encouraged us to be aware of implicit and explicit metaphors used to describe ‘reality’–and to critically reflect upon them.

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