By A. B. Westrick
After the depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, for the first time in a long time, people had money to spend on themselves and their families. Many used that money to buy a car. Soon the streets of America grew crowded and traffic jams were frequent.
Richmond’s city planners decided to build a new highway and call it the “Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike,” but for more than ten years, they couldn’t agree on where to put it. Eventually Virginia’s legislators established the Turnpike Authority and gave it the power to choose the route.
Where did the Authority decide to run the turnpike? Straight through Jackson Ward, a mostly African-American neighborhood north of Richmond’s downtown. The new road would curve around historic Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, then curve again and head south toward Petersburg. Construction began in late-1956 and the turnpike (now known as I-95) opened in the summer of 1958.
Today, if you tour Shockoe Hill Cemetery on the north side of Jackson Ward, and if you look down North Third Street, you will see cars and trucks speeding along I-95, two blocks away. Few if any people live in that two-block stretch between the cemetery and the highway. Many lots are vacant and the houses that remain are boarded-up. When I toured the cemetery, our guide pointed down North Third Street and said, “That used to be a close-knit residential community. It was an easy walk to shops and theaters, but now you have to use the First Street overpass.”
I peered at the boarded-up houses and imagined what the neighborhood might have looked like before the highway went through. Where might children have stood to watch the excavators and bulldozers that took down trees and houses? What if I’d lived there and my house was not slated for demolition but all of my friends’ houses were? How would I have felt if my friends moved away and my family didn’t?
Early-on, people thought that sending the turnpike through Jackson Ward meant 400 families would have to move out of the way. That number grew to 1,000, and by the time the highway was finished, the estimate was that 1,900 Richmond families had been displaced.
I combined the destruction of Jackson Ward with the presence of historic Shockoe Hill Cemetery and imagined two boys living on North Third Street during the road construction period. The result was “Bounce Back.”