Old new urbanism


Charlottesville’s Rose Hill neighborhood has a lot to teach us about this town’s history—the good and the bad—and its present status—the good and the bad. Exhibit A: The 81-acre area northwest of downtown is home to one of the loveliest and most well-designed public spaces in Charlottesville—Booker T. Washington Park (designed by nationally-renowned landscape architect Gregg Bleam). Yet it also harbors a regrettable historical marker—the formerly segregated Jackson P. Burley High School (now an Albemarle County middle school). Exhibit B: Rose Hill represents an important center of desegregation, having become home to most of the black teachers headed for posts at newly integrated Charlottesville schools in the 1960s. Yet many of those historic homes are now dilapidated, substandard housing units for some of the city’s poorest residents.

Mom-and-pop businesses you can walk to: A "new" idea that Rose Hill residents have lived with for decades.

Given Rose Hill’s history, it’s perhaps fitting that the neighborhood association president—Gwedette Crummie—is an educator herself. Now an assistant principal at Baker-Butler Elementary School, she began her education career in Richmond, but moved to Charlottesville three years ago to be closer to her sister. She says that moving from a fast-paced metropolitan area to a smaller town has allowed her to "live more of a life than just make a living." And it’s a life that has left her time to become a crusader for a neighborhood that she loves.

Crummie’s inspiration to protect Rose Hill may have come from her digs’ very walls. You see, she lives in the Virnita Court Apartments—the site of another of Rose Hill’s success stories. Virnita, a 1966 brick building on Rose Hill Drive, historically has been one of those popular homes for black teachers as well as other working class residents thanks to the affordable rents charged by the building’s black owner, James N. Fleming. But Virnita’s affordability was close to becoming history itself when Fleming passed away in 2003 and developers began eying the property for renovations and higher rents.

Thanks to the Piedmont Housing Alliance and a Community Development Block Grant, however, Virnita has been renovated but saved from over-priced condo status, with nine of 16 units having been reserved for "low, very low and extremely-low income households"—less than 60 percent of area median income, according to PHA’s website. The remaining seven units, says PHA deputy director of operations Peter Loach, "are just ‘don’t ask, don’t tell:’" People of any income level can live there. "You have a mix of people that creates some good social capital."

The Virnita Court apartments are a Rose Hill success story: Historically serving as housing for African-American professionals, the building just underwent a purchase and renovation meant to keep it affordable.

It is in such mixed company that Crummie says she feels blessed to live. "Everyone is so kind and nice. Every time you get out of your car, you’re waving," she says.

Crummie also says that Rose Hill’s eclectic mix of incomes and ages, with fixed-income, retired folks living alongside younger professionals like herself, is part of its charm and integrity. And it is that integrity that Crummie says she hopes to help protect in the face of expensive new housing and commercial developments that seem destined for the Preston Avenue corridor (designated by city planners as an Entrance Corridor Overlay District), which abuts Rose Hill.

A model for the models

Although Crummie recognizes that there’s still "a deep racial division" in the city, she says folks in Rose Hill "don’t see themselves along racial lines." And income lines seem blurred among the housing options as well, with smaller, older, cottage-style single-family homes existing alongside newer, multi-family rental units as well as with still more upscale, 1950s style ranch houses further north off of Rose Hill Drive. It’s as if the neighborhood’s make-up gives authentic meaning to the term "mixed-use," a phrase that in today’s development parlance suggests multi-story buildings with swanky condos built above pricey boutiques and businesses—in other words, the type of gentrification that would definitely be out of character for Rose Hill, but not out of the realm of possibility, given its prime location.

It’s not all timeworn: Rose Hill also contains the new Madison Place PUD (planned unit development).

And there’s another recent catchphrase with real roots in Rose Hill: "neighborhood model." Creating little villages of residential units within walking distance of commercial businesses and shops that serve the primary needs of those residents may sound like "new urbanism," but Rose Hill epitomized that very thing 30-plus years ago. That’s when George and Ramonde Gardner moved into their 1950s brick rancher on Augusta Street.

The Gardners, both of whom graduated from Burley when it was still a segregated black high school, say they chose to move to the area off Rose Hill Drive in 1974 because it was a safe neighborhood offering a three-bedroom, two-bath house big enough for raising two kids. Probably most importantly, "it was an ideal location" for getting around town and to and from their jobs—his with the U.S. Postal Service, hers at GE.

But best of all, back when the Gardners moved in, the area was host to a slew of mom-and-pop shops that provided all the necessary supplies for a young family—within walking distance. The Gardners fondly recall the sights, sounds and smells of places such as the Monticello Dairy, which provided regular calcium nourishment as well as a popular annual Christmas display for kids, and the Southern Bakery, which Ramonde says, "You could smell a mile away." Even the larger industries on and around Rose Hill Drive and along Preston Avenue seemed more like friendly neighbors back then: The Gardners recall that the Coca-Cola bottling plant on Preston Avenue used to allow residents to watch the conveyor belt bottling operation for fun.

The rub

Unfortunately, there are no Laverne and Shirley moments to be had at Rose Hill’s Coca-Cola plant anymore, and many of those mom-and-pop shops have closed up as industrial-sized businesses have moved in. Worse still, many of those older, cottage style homes have fallen into serious disrepair. That’s the bad news. The good news is there are passionate residents like Gwedette Crummie and long-timers like the Gardners holding the memory of Rose Hill’s rich history and the belief in its potential for remaining a "neighborhood model" in the truest sense.

At a glance

Distance from Downtown: 1.0 mile
Distance from UVA Hospital: 1.5 miles
Elementary School: Greenbrier; Venable
Middle School: Walker; Buford        
High School: Charlottesville
Average price of homes currently on market: $282,450 (includes  Amherst and August Streets)

Source: Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors