Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Smugly Passionate

I had no idea people were so passionate about Dogtown.

Having been to plenty of the Valentine's Community Conversations, I knew we'd be seeing historic photographs before hearing from longtime residents and experts on the neighborhood. That much I knew.

What I hadn't anticipated was all the discussion (bordering on arguing) about what exactly qualifies as Old Manchester. Many people were not happy to learn that it's only the formerly industrial area that is historically designated as such.

To be specific: east of Commerce and north of Gordon. Plenty of people were unwilling to take that for an answer, despite it being non-negotiable and merely a factor of where the historic designation was assigned.

Interesting side note: 74% of the people in the room did not live in Manchester. As my grandmother used to say, it's really none of their beeswax.

Luckily, many of us accepted the parameters, moved on and really enjoyed seeing wonderful old photographs such as an 1865 panorama of Manchester from downtown.

Imagine my surprise to see that there had once been a fountain at Hull Street and Route 1 and here was an image of genteel-looking women taking water from it.

The picture of the old Ninth Street bridge with a closed sign across it after the new bridge was built resulted in Valentine director Bill Martin sharing a story about how part of the Consolidation agreement annexing Manchester to Richmond required that there be a free pedestrian bridge.

City fathers had apparently forgotten this stipulation until late in the bridge's construction which is why the walkway ended up in the middle of the bridge, an eleventh-hour adjustment.

A picture of the flood of 1985 showed men in boats paddling down Stockton Street. That was the year before I arrived in Richmond and I'd never heard of this flood.

Part of the community conversation process is determining who is in the room and it turned out to be the usual predominantly white, predominantly city dwellers, with slightly more females.

The top reason (30%) people in the room went to Manchester was for the flood wall. Only 14% went for restaurants. That needs to be addressed.

Once we knew who we were, it was time to break into small groups for discussion. Here I totally lucked out because in my group was a music friend, the city planner for Richmond and a woman who'd lived in Dogtown for 65 years.

Her bona fides were acquired through marriage to a Dogtown boy (as she called her first husband), clarifying that meant he'd been raised in Manchester. As a new bride, her mother-in-law told her that when her husband (also a Dogtown boy) had moved her to Dogtown, "I thought people there were awful, but after three months, I was as smug as the rest of them."

This charming woman was now on her third husband (having outlived #1 and #2 - she was already my hero), but she recalled that first Dogtown husband buying a lot in Forest Hill to build them a house, only to discover that the other nine lots on the block had all been purchased by Dogtown boys, too. She still lives there today.

"Dogtown boys are always very loyal to their neighborhood," she said, then summed up, "Folks north of the river had lots of attitude but folks south of the river had a whole other attitude."

From the city's planning director, we heard how impressed he'd been with Manchester when he'd moved here ("I'd move there tomorrow if my wife would") for the strong sense of neighborhood, all the open spaces and because of so much opportunity.

"It's absolutely the next great neighborhood," he proclaimed.

We ran out of time before we had to reconvene with the entire room to share stories. One guy who plans to open a restaurant in Manchester come summer recalled "taking paddlings at the old Maury Elementary School," which is apparently now a home for seniors.

Another woman swore us to secrecy before sharing that Mayo's bridge on the Manchester side is the best place for miles around to catch stripers. Old news, honey.

Our first speaker was researcher Brian from HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Equal) who shared some of his amazing factoids.

In the 2000 census, there had been exactly one (!) person listed as living in Old Manchester.

"Is that person in the room?" he asked hopefully. "All day long, I've been really hoping that person would be here." Alas, it was not to be.

The  big news was that by 2010, a whopping 637 people were living in Old Manchester, a huge change not just for the percentage of increase but because of the great diversity of who'd moved in. That number had probably doubled since then.

It was at this point that some heated discussion about what constituted Manchester erupted again.

Our next speaker, Harry "the Hat" smoothed things over with his theatrical take on how the area came to be dubbed Dogtown (most boy gang names ended in "cat") and how trash-talking southsiders only encouraged more southside loyalty.

Fun fact I learned from Harry: all the main streets - Bainbridge, Hull, Decatur -in Manchester are named after Navy admirals. Who knew?

Kim, our final expert (and a woman, finally!), turned out to be an underling of Mark, the planner in our group, and she'd dug through the Valentine's archives to come up with some terrific images.

A 1913 photograph of Mayo's bridge showed a trolley car whizzing down the center of it and a horse and buggy sedately trotting along beside it.

I was amazed to see photos of Manchester's mansions (long since gone), part of a wealthy community between Semmes and Hull Street built by Irish tobacco traders.

According to a Manchester resident in the audience, one of the houses had been moved to Bon Air, but only after removing the dozens of honeycombs that bees had built in the walls.

One of the most charming shots was of tree-lined Porter Street and the attractive single family homes that lined it. It looked the way I remembered Richmond when I visited my grandmother as a child.

We learned that it was in 1997 when the historic tax credit program began that suddenly Manchester's industrial buildings became wildly desirable. Amazingly, 70 buildings have been renovated in Dogtown since 2001.

"That's an explosion of new buildings because there's so much usable land there," she explained.

Harnessing the brilliance of young minds, she'd brought plans created by an urban studies graduate student from VCU. In it, she'd devised a system of graduated heights for buildings leading to the river so that as many people as possible could benefit from the view.

Another of her brainstorms was the 7th Street Plaza Center (a dreadfully generic name that would be best replaced with an historic name tied to the area), a generous green space park on 7th Street between Porter and Perry. "It's essential that we develop the Porter Street corridor," she said.

Kim made a strong case for the canal being the most under-utilized element of Old Manchester's real estate, something I had never even considered.

But then, I don't have to. I can take advantage of the Valentine's engaging community conversations and meet fascinating people like Betty Ann (and hear about life as a Dogtown bride and tour guide) and Mark (and hear about his hope of seeing windows installed the minute historic tax credits expire to appealingly open up Old Manchester's industrial architecture) and learn more than I could ever come up with on my own.

In the meantime, I'll just keep eating, drinking and experiencing art in Old Manchester as my contribution to revitalization.

Betty Ann seems to think I should keep my eye out for a Dogtown boy along the way. I hear they're incredibly loyal.

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