Vinegar Hill History Researched, Distilled, Mapped

Vinegar HillA UVA project has virtually recreated Vinegar Hill in its heyday, the university writes in a press release. (If you’re not from here: Vinegar Hill was a large, mostly black neighborhood around the McIntire/Main intersection that was demolished by the city for “urban renewal.” The city relocated people from their own homes into public housing.) Undergraduates researched archival records to look at who owned property, when and how it changed hands, what it was appraised for, where people went after they lost their homes, and lots of similar information, combining it all into a series of visualizations fronted by a website called The Vinegar Hill Project. I’ve spent a while exploring this website, and it’s just a treasure trove of data, veritable infoporn for local history buffs. Set aside an hour to pore over this site.

It’s a shame that the historical society is too stuffy to do this kind of thing. They prohibited their last executive director from blogging.

20 thoughts on “Vinegar Hill History Researched, Distilled, Mapped”

  1. “Infoporn”…that’s a new one. Thought you might have made it up, but I see it’s out there as…information that serves no purpose and consumes valuable space in your head. Something new every day.

  2. Gad but I remember it all. The pool hall, the barber, one hangout after another, the rat-infested neighborhoods where every third house would have been condemned and boarded up if health department rules mattered.

    Yours groovy drove a Yellow cab for awhile and often responded to radio dispatches for cars at “10th and Page, Trailways, downtown” which usually meant a Vinegar Hill fare with no tip.

    In those days it cost 60 cents to take a cab from Page St. to UVa to get to your job as one of scores of women who cleaned student’s dorm rooms every weekday, and for a little remembrance, also made the bed. 60 cents was an hour’s wage then.

    The generation of socialist wool gatherers who arose later in Charlottesville have shown themselves unable to grasp what reality was in those days, and what resources existed to improve it. Their cups runneth over with mis-informed opinions.

    The two great contributions of LBJ’s era were improving race relations and eradicating some of the country’s urban blight.

  3. thanks for finding this – i love cvillenews! your website keeps me in the know about really interesting things(like this)as well as the news that i may have missed online from daily progress or read the hook. thanks again!

  4. Waldo, thanks so much for posting this amazing resource. I found the aerial timeline to be particularly illustrative. I’ve only lived here 26 years, so was never able to see an extant Vinegar Hill.

    The photos from those days do remind me a bit of circa 2009 Hogwaller. It’s also a neighborhood looked down on by others, but it’s affordable housing and it’s theirs. Sadly, I think something similar will happen to the trailer park pretty soon.

  5. Hmmm, eradicating blight…and replacing it with Cabrini Green-type complexes, which were veritable wonderlands. You know, arguably, forcibly removing people from their homes and plopping them down in complexes that simply looked tidier on the outside may have just worsened the social problems that middle-class politicians thought they were solving. They thought the problem was houses that were more rundown and yards that were messier than they themselves preferred. But arguably communities were healthier before the bulldozers came along than after.

  6. “Little Maybelle,” I don’t think that there’s any question that parts of Vinegar Hill were in truly awful shape, hardly fit for human habitation. Folks who don’t know that should know it, rather than romanticizing it. But I also don’t think that there’s any question that the solution—bulldozing the whole of the black community—was out of scale, enormously harmful, and far too blunt of a tool for the problems at hand.

  7. There’s no denying that these complexes looked very sterile and have done little to increase the self-esteem and sense of community of their residents.

    It’s my hope that the CRHA will consider mimicking surrounding neighborhoods when redeveloping their properties so that there’s more integration within the community. When the poor are stuffed into enclaves that look markedly different than their surroundings, that’s a form of segregation. I think we can all agree that segregation is a bad thing.

  8. I would not want to be thought of as romanticizing areas of “blight.” And I don’t know nearly as much about urban planning as I wish I did. But what little I know of that period of urban renewal makes me think that there a lot of ham-fisted efforts to make things better. And it seems like a primary assumption was that if you just (forcibly) replaced the seeming chaos and disorder of a so-called slum area with structures that were orderly, gleaming, regularized, and rational in layout and appearance, that would be most of the battle. But this approach, it seems to me, overlooked the important connections and relations that were built into those chaotic/disordered communities — connections and relations that arguably were disrupted when families were shifted into these isolated residential islands.

    As in, they were treating a symptom, not a cause.

    Anyway, I’m mostly interested in the general topic because my mother grew up in Chicago in Back of the Yards.

  9. Play the video interview, it’s the best part. Click the “Appraisals” tag and look for the movie clapboard icon (black & white thing) in the upper right side, near one of the blue airplanes.

    The neighborhood pictures show much less blight than I expected. Many fine houses. A few dirt lanes with unpainted rowhouses, but those are not the norm.

    In the late 1970s growing up here I used to hear this little canard: “Charlottesville has the highest percentage of houses without indoor plumbing in the state.” Questionable factoids like that had probably been passed around by white property interests who wanted to clear the hill for so long that they had become ingrained. I do not doubt V. Hill was called all kinds of things. But look at the pictures and listen to the video interview. He gets it right. Rich whites wanted valuable downtown land, and who knows what else, and so destroyed the center of the black community.

  10. “Their cups runneth over with mis-informed opinions.”

    More more more!!!!

    You know who you are, and who isn’t.

  11. Thanks for the video guidance, colfer! The UI on this website is, unfortunately, just terrible. Making the whole thing a Flash app was a big mistake. Good thing the content is so compelling. :)

  12. If you click on the “Fourth Street” tab and then check on Show the Af. Am. areas, you’ll see yellow areas. That’s where blacks lived in the city at the time. The area of Vinegar Hill is that small creamy yellow part in the middle right. You can move the graphic around with the cursor to get a more complete picture. I’m getting the impression that some feel that the entire black community was bulldozed.
    Around the same time, the Garrett/Sixth area was razed which contained quite a few white families.

  13. I found it interesting clicking on the structures on the Appraisals tab and bringing up the pictures on Williams Street.

  14. What I am missing is the loss to black-owned businesses. I can guess from the maps and the aerials that there were quite a few businesses fronting Main, 4th, and Preston, and possibly some barns and garages on Williams and Commerce Sts.. Sure, this was not the entirety of black neighborhoods in Cville, but was it an economic center that was in close proximity to Cville city center and UVa? Did the relocation plan accommodate businesses in any way?

    I’m also inferring that the apparent discrepancy between the appraisal map and the 4th St map in black housing is the phone records. It truly does seem to be the poorest area in town, maybe not even having Ma Bell.

  15. The appraisals map is incomplete. Among others, Settle Tire that was on the corner of 4th and Preston, a car dealership, and a fruit and vegetable stand are missing just from my immediate memory. Also, none of the buildings that were where the Ice Rink is now are not acknowledged. However, I think there’s a good representative sampling of the businesses depicted. Most were located along the periphery, Preston, 4th and W. Main. If you click on the buildings along those streets, you’ll get a picture (sometimes erroneously it appears) and whether it was balck owned.

  16. I’m confused by the aerial timeline. It begins at 1954. But the photo that corresponds to this time must be from well before then, because Lane High School isn’t there. Wasn’t Lane built in 1940?

    Maybe I’m not doing it right …

  17. Maybe the first image is older than 1954. The news summary says that the referendum for the Housing Authority occurred in 1954, but there aren’t details about the photos. I also noticed that Jefferson School appeared sometime between the first and second aerial photos.

  18. I just think it’s a bit misleading, and what happened with Vinegar Hill doesn’t need any embellishment. The timeline implies all the changes you see from the first photo to the last happened in a shorter time period than it really did.

    Again, that doesn’t diminish what happened to those who know the history. But it just strikes me as careless.

  19. @FlyingRoadstar – I haven’t been able to look at the whole site closely, but yes, the aerial timeline is way off…they show quite a few things not changing until rather suddenly in ’67 – things which had changed before then. They don’t have the bricked in mall in ’76 (when it opened…I well remember being there).

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