These days the city of Richmond is quickly becoming synonymous with two colors - black and gold.
Virginia Commonwealth University, or VCU, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on July 1. How did this school with two campuses and the motto “Make it Real” come to be?
John Kneebone, the chair of VCU’s history department, is writing a book on how VCU has changed since the year 1968. In it, he vividly recounts the school’s genesis. He says that during the mid-60s, Ronald Nelson, the president of the Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), had a vision for an urban university in the heart of Richmond.
After RPI and The Medical College of Virginia (MCV) merged, “white flight” hollowed out some residential areas within Richmond’s inner city. These unprecedented events paved the way for a renaissance period, leading to the growth and expansion of VCU’s campus.
Kneebone says VCU’s growth and expansion was halted due to an unforeseen roadblock.
“The Wayne Commission’s recommendation for the location of a campus in the city of Richmond said that VCU would spread all the way south to the James River. They didn’t even mention that there was an existing neighborhood called Oregon Hill to the south,” said Kneebone.
This decision created a stalemate between the Oregon Hill neighborhood and VCU. At the epicenter of this community resistance stood Charles Pool, an Oregon Hill resident since 1976, who vividly remembers this encroachment.
“This all started with me in 1979,” said Pool. “I was walking over [to] VCU and looked in the library, and they had a master plan displayed that actually showed where my art studio was - demolished with a building on it. That’s the first I’d heard about it.”
Pool is an active member of this historically white working-class neighborhood’s civic association and home improvement council. One of Oregon Hill’s treasures is “The Jacob House." It’s a historic house built in 1817 by Quaker Abolitionist George Winston.
Pool says the community is proud they were able to save dozens of homes, like The Jacob House, from being bought and torn down by VCU. However, Oregon Hill has lost a lot of residents over the last 40 years. But, as VCU prepares to unveil its new master plan, Pool grows increasingly nervous.
“VCU has a memorandum of understanding with the country of Cuba, and yet they have not been willing to have a memorandum of understanding with Oregon Hill—[A] community right adjacent to them—and we find that extraordinary.”
The effects of VCU’s expansion efforts is not exclusive to Oregon Hill. About one-mile north of Oregon Hill lies VCU’s newest campus-community addition—The Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA). John Moeser, a retired Professor of Urban Planning at VCU for 30 years, lauded the new addition to Richmond’s Arts District.
“Where we are right now is [the location of] one of the most dramatic additions to the physical plan of the university. We are at the brand new Center for Contemporary Art (ICA). The architecture itself is really quite remarkable.”
This three-story, cutting-edge zinc edifice with crystal clear glass windows opened a few months ago. The ICA sits on the corner of West Broad Street and Belvidere—where the university and city intersect.
Moeser says when he thinks about the stark changes in Richmond’s landscape, he points to VCU’s hesitance to moving west, into “The Fan”, an affluent community in the area. And instead deciding to develop just north of campus, in a historically black community.
“North of a major thoroughfare—Broad Street—there was a very significant African-American neighborhood,” said Moeser. “It was fairly low-income. Today, that neighborhood is largely gone. VCU had a tremendous impact on that neighborhood.”
It was called the Carver Community, named after the African-American scientist George Washington Carver. The “tremendous impact” that Moser is alluding to is the development of the Siegel Center, VCU’s basketball arena, built nearly 20 years ago.
New structures brought new people, new money and even new attractions to Carver. Apartment complexes, accommodating off-campus students, were built a few years after the Siegel Center opened and VCU’s newly built basketball practice facility opened for business in 2015.
Michael Paul Williams can attest to this. He’s a columnist for The Richmond Times-Dispatch and a Richmond native. He described the “new pulse” and buzz in the Carver neighborhood while at the Monument Avenue 10K. It’s a race that starts at the Siegel Center.
“I remember maybe a decade ago being at the starting line with a buddy who had left Richmond for a couple decades. He looked around in amazement and said ‘Oh my gosh! VCU is the college that ate Richmond!'”
Williams says VCU gets things built, gets things done and spurs economic growth. He praises the Arts District created by VCU and the city, calling it an “immense positive” for city residents.
He believes VCU can do so much more saying “What I have often lamented is that VCU has not played the sort of role I would like to see in the revitalization of Richmond’s soul.”
What Williams is directly referring to is the university’s ability to mitigate the city’s concentrated poverty, public education woes and health disparities. Despite the criticisms, Williams remains hopeful that his city can continue to transform and close existing gaps across Richmond.
“I don’t have rose colored-glasses looking back at Richmond’s past because Richmond’s always had issues - and maybe it always will… But I’m heartened to see that we’re working - at least working - on some of those issues.”