The echo of Vinegar Hill

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There is a scene that begins the third act of William James’ play Vinegar Hill Revisited, in which two sisters, Brenda Ann and Mary Lou, stare down their grief over the death of their mother. They are—or were—inhabitants of Vinegar Hill, a 20-acre tract of land just west of what is now Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, a black neighborhood that was completely destroyed in the 1960s as the shockwaves of Urban Renewal swept across the country.

When James writes the two women’s grief, he does so using the scattershot trajectory that grief often takes, running through his two characters by leaps of association. Their mother has died just as bulldozers and wrecking crews have begun their work.

James turns their grief over to a physical place, one that is, like their mother, gone forever.

"I saw Zion Union as they tore away her bricks," begins a monologue by Mary Lou. "That beautiful Church was like a well-robed Lady, gorgeous. They stripped her naked. We got to see her bared planks. What her bricks had covered for all those years, from 1907 to 1964 was revealed to the world. Then the Wrecking Cranes and the Battering Rams came to rape her! Threw her to the ground and penetrated her! She had stood before them helpless, humble and chaste; and they laid her down to the earth, prostrate and disgraced."


In the mid-1960s, the 20-acre tract of land known as Vinegar Hill was demolished in the name of Urban Renewal, displacing around 600 people. For nearly 10 years, it sat fallow, waiting on its renewal.

In June 10, 1963, William James, not yet 16 years old, stepped off a bus from Fork Union into the station just south of where Vinegar Hill stood, already half gone. If, in his writing, James circles back again and again to the destruction of the community and spiritual heart of Vinegar Hill that was Zion Union Church, perhaps it is because the image of its unceremonial razing will not leave the 59-year-old writer be.

Forty some years later, James and I sit down over coffee at a spot on the Mall. Around us, the random afternoon caffeinator yacks into a cell phone. Another is bent over the lit keys of a laptop. James pulls out page 37 from the manuscript of his newest play and starts to read what he calls "a poem"—Mary Lou’s monologue.


The Zion Union Church was one of the last structures to be demolished. "There were people in the community who knew that what Vinegar Hill represented to the African-American community would not exist anymore," says James.

He fills some words with fire, pumping them up as if with bellows, skipping across others like a flat stone over a pond. What looks to me from across the table like a chuck of text slowly, as if by some sort of glacieral alchemy, starts to breathe with life, the cadence and rhythm of James’ voice walking through the words, opening doors to hidden emotion.

He stops, raises his eyes from the page and settles his gaze on mine.

T.S. Eliot, some years ago, talked about the "objective correlative," the fictional vessel poets must pack with personal emotions to distance themselves from their original emotions. Not to do so, argued Eliot, would be too overwhelming. Freud might call it projecting.

Looking at William James right now, speaking the words of one of his fictional characters, two things become clear. First, though the emotional transfer between James and his creation Mary Lou in some ways is short, Eliot’s objective correlative is alive and well. Second, the pain James felt that day watching Zion Union being smashed up, UVA students waiting to snatch its bricks as souvenirs, has not diminished after 40 years. In fact, James has brought those feelings of outrage and loss—over Zion Union, over Vinegar Hill as a whole—into sharp focus through his work.

Forty years later: a voice

When James shows up at the coffee shop, he’s dressed in a sweater and sport coat against the autumn cold that’s just hit the city. He carries a briefcase, which he sets down to shake my hand, a generous, open pop at the meeting of our palms. In his other hand he holds a stack of manila folders stuffed full of newspaper clippings and photos from the ’60s, the time when the city decided it best to clear what white community leaders saw, or at least said they saw, as a blighted slum.

If Vinegar Hill still has a voice in this new century, 40-some years after its last building came down, that voice belongs to James. He’s written two plays about the Hill, a scholarly and personal essay called "Vinegar Hill Remembered: Eminent Domain, Urban Removal and the Demolition of a People’s Soul" and novels set in the Hill: Living Under the Weight of the Rainbow and Ace Blackman and the Blues He Sings.

But perhaps his most personal work is his roman a clef In the Streets of Vinegar Hill [C-VILLE review], a novel based on James’ own experience arriving in Charlottesville as a teenager. It is a book in the vein of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Its protagonist, Gabe, serves as a stand-in for the young James, and the story chronicles the years immediately before Vinegar Hill was turned into what is now a fading memory in the city.

For James, though, the memory of Zion Union’s destruction is fresh, raw. As he talks, he punctuates his points with rhetorical questions aimed at me. Zion Union and Vinegar Hill came down 24 years before I was born, up north, in Indiana. I’ve come to James to understand something that, to me, is the province of books and memory.

"Having been taught to respect the church above all, I just could not fathom that," says James over his mostly ignored cup of coffee. "And I stood there on the corner, and the ferocity—it’s probably in my mind—but it just looked furious. And before you know it, it was rubble, man."

James shifts in his seat. "It’s probably in my mind, man." To watch him remember all of this, to see something flash across his face when he talks—frustration, sadness, maybe anger…who can tell for sure what each of us carries?—is like catching a man in an unfettered, private moment. It feels almost an invasion to hear this, and of course there is no way for me not to be an outsider looking in. Then again, it’s probably in my mind.

"Then to watch those students come get their souvenirs…to get a brick from Zion Union. …That stayed with me. When that church was coming down, the noise that those boards made" and here James tears his hands apart and mimics with surprising accuracy the sound of wooden boards breaking under tremendous pressure. "It was like a person screaming, man. And I said to myself, ‘Those people driving the cranes, do they at all see this, hear this, feel this?’"


For James, understanding what happened to Vinegar Hill meanings talking about it openly. "Don’t just blame, but analyze what really happened," he says. "Don’t sensationalize it, and don’t diminish it."

He stops and thinks.

"Probably not," he says. "Probably not. Just another job."

What’s left of the Hill today takes the form of a movie theater and a few signs around the space that now holds a Staples office supply store, its parking lot, a strip mall, a gravel parking lot for city vehicles and a couple of fast-food chains. Demolished in the name of Urban Renewal, the city used federal funds to tear down the entire neighborhood, including many black businesses, and displaced nearly 600 people, the vast majority of them black.

This, the people in power believed, was progress.

James has done extensive research on Vinegar Hill and the process of utterly removing it from the city. In his essay "Vinegar Hill Remembered," he writes:

When I first arrived in Charlottesville, in June of 1963, Vinegar Hill still existed. Some buildings were abandoned, but the twenty-acre tract was still somewhat intact. 158 families—140 of them Black—were the remnant of a neighborhood that had existed since Black people were first allowed to own property in Charlottesville, dating back to before slavery ended.

Like most black communities leveled by Urban Renewal—and they are legion, from the Bronx to Pittsburgh to Boston to Philadelphia—Vinegar Hill was deemed "blighted," a name that finds its roots in disease. Proponents of redevelopment pointed to what they called unsanitary conditions, houses without indoor plumbing or running water.

"When I came to Charlottesville, the people in Vinegar Hill went from—like all parts of America—rich to poor, to doctors of philosophy all the way down to totally illiterate people," says James. "The vast majority of the people living on the Hill were menial workers, people who worked at UVA as janitors, cooks, they worked for rich families as maids. Most were very law-abiding, church-going people."

Was Vinegar Hill blighted?

"No, I don’t think so," he says. "The closest thing to being blighted was the 10-year period when there was nothing there. Vinegar Hill was a low-income area. There was some substandard housing. But see, they were not in the majority. The vast majority who owned houses on Vinegar Hill, they had running water, indoor plumbing."

The city castigated the whole Vinegar Hill area by creating new "building codes" so that most homes and businesses on the Hill would be "classed" as substandard. Thus, people were not being considered any longer. The word "SLUM" was used to discount the Vinegar Hill area, just like the word "NIGGER" had been used to discount the worth of those of African descent. Words like "Blighted Area" and "High-Crime Area" further castigated those living on Vinegar Hill. The people were simply be-labeled "Slum-Dwellers," and all of their rights as Human Beings were ignored and or suspended.

Buscake’s blues

What James saw when he stepped off the bus in Charlottesville and what he witnessed in the next years—the destruction of an entire neighborhood, the removal of nearly 600 people from not only their homes but their social networks, their world—drove him to sit down and try to tell the story of Vinegar Hill, again and again, over and over in novels, plays and essays.

"When I first heard there were 600 people there," says James, "30 businesses—and I still haven’t dealt with the 18 white families—I said, ‘Wait a minute, man. Why did that end so quickly?’ There had been a Vinegar Hill from the 1800s until 1958. Why all of the sudden then?"

"Wait a minute, this isn’t just progress," says James. "It’s answering those questions: When, where, who and why?"

Eminent Domain always follows a certain clearly identifiable path. The first phase is Castigation. Here the local government declares loudly that an area is a "Slum" or an "Economically Blighted" area. The area is then Condemned. Local government decides that the "Condemned Property" should, or must be Confiscated. The previous owners of the taken property are forced to accept what local government considers The Fair Market Value for their said property. The money the previous landowners actually collect may be far less than the land is truly worth. The prior occupants of the above property, or properties, are forced to move off their land and are given a pittance for moving expenses. It is the same for businesses as it is for residents. The residential homes and buildings once housing businesses are razed to the ground, or Demolished, by local government.

A few days after we met for coffee, James and I step out on the Downtown Mall, heading west. The Omni Hotel looms in front of us. Standing at the tip of the triangle of land that was the Hill, the Omni was just one of a number of buildings like the Federal Courthouse beside it that sprung up after the area was cleared.

We walk, and James talks about the reaction he gets to his work, some negative. People don’t like the subject of Vinegar Hill to be brought up. A jogger plugged into her headphones bops past us, alone in her foot-long-stride world.

"It’s sort of like a nightmare that they want to be over," James says. "They want to feel like it’s over, it happened and we need to move on. But I’m saying that we’re going to do the same thing, or have the same thing happen again, if we don’t talk about it. If we don’t come to some understanding, if we don’t seek solutions."

I’m trying to imagine the land in front of me without the Omni; I can’t. The building is so ingrained into my sense of place, folding itself over the rolling land. So I ask James if he can show me where Tonsler’s Pool Hall stood. One of James’ first hangouts, it pops out in his novel In the Streets of Vinegar Hill as a catalyst to much of the novel’s action.

He walks us down around the back side of the Omni, just a little north of the outdoor patio. Its tables are empty this early in the afternoon. To our right, a couple of hotel employees sit at a picnic table, enjoying a smoke break. As best as James can remember, we’re standing on Tonsler’s site, decades removed.

"All the down dudes hung out at the pool hall," he says, and his characteristic smile grows wider. "Pool sharks. The guy in the book, Buscake Conner, was one of the top dogs. The guy I called Red was an actual guy. He beat Buscake out of some money. Out-hustled him. He made him think he was a country bumpkin."

James portrayed Buscake in Streets as Bobcat, the leader of a violent group of teenagers that Gabe falls in with after they save him from a beating at the bus station. Themes of violence, and the effect of violence on its victims, run throughout the novel. In it, violence begets violence. The three kids that James portrays in Streets were based on people he called "bad element," the people who befriended him first when he hit town.

"They were street guys who hung out at Tonsler’s Pool Hall," James had said over coffee. "Their idea about life was messed up. Bobcat believed that, basically, because his history and heritage had been taken away, he had a right to take what he wanted. The main part I got out of [Vinegar Hill] was that black folks’ reaction to what was happening to them, even though they didn’t do this in the presence of white folks…"

And here, James broke off. We sat at the table, a 60-year-old black writer trying to explain something to me, a 29-year-old white hack who’d never heard of Vinegar Hill until six months ago.

"Scott," he says, "let’s see how I can put this in a way you can understand."

And here is our problem. Can I understand any of this? We are here together, each with the best intentions, but is there a way to truly communicate what Vinegar Hill was, and more importantly, what it meant to the people who made it home? And if there is, is there a way that I can begin to understand?

"Scott, you hate yourself," he says by way of example. "The way you express that hatred is that you pick someone else that’s the same as you are, and you project on him. And when you’re hitting that guy with all your might and busting his face up"—he smacks his fist into his palm—"and stomping him, you project. And that’s what I saw when I first came to town. It was called being a bad dude. It was called being good with your hands. It was called being a thumpin’ MF.

"But what it really was is ‘I hate who I am. I hate the skin I’m in, and I can’t do anything about it. But I can do something to you.’"

With this, James points directly at my chest.

Eventually, James quit his job as a janitor at UVA, went to Job Corp, earned degrees from Piedmont Virginia Community College and Virginia State University—including a master’s—and has done graduate work at UVA. Still, he stands at the foot of the Omni and points to buildings and community institutions long past—the Blue Diamond Café where the Water Street bus stop is now, Inges Grocery, now home to West Main Street Restaurant, and in a way, James never left the city that Charlottesville used to be. By coming back to it in his writing, circling his subject, he won’t let himself leave. Some things, though they may not exist anymore, are too important.

"Everything good about Vinegar Hill"

I want to see where Zion Union stood. The way James has described it, I imagine it as a sort of social anchor, the gravity of a neighborhood, a pillar that had to be destroyed if the city wanted to completely erase the Hill. James walks down around the north side of the Omni, and we end up in the parking garage, right next to a column with the graffiti "SURE" tagged on it.

It’s a parking garage, meaning it’s industrial, empty save for rows of parked cars and utterly without meaning. And as James begins to talk about Zion Union, I write down the types of cars he’s standing next to, a cream colored Prius, and Mercedes station wagon.

"It was everything good about Vinegar Hill," says James. "It was its soul. It was a small place, but there was so much life within that place."

For some reason, as he’s talking, it’s hard for me not to feel malice toward these cars, as if they somehow represent the people who precipitated the Zion Union’s destruction simply by sitting on this spot. It not only seems irreverent; the fact that these people pulled into these spaces today wholly ignorant of what this land meant to so many strikes me as the utmost disrespect.

Young people were very interested in church. It was a place of worship, but was more a nice place for them to socialize. Thus, Zion Union became a center for social and political interaction for all of Vinegar Hill. This is how the whole neighborhood became so close-knit. They looked out for one-another’s welfare, and for the safety of all the neighborhood children. Parents would often correct each other’s children, and this was greatly appreciated.

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, in her book Root Shock, gives name to the uprooting of a group of people from their environment. Using three cities’ demolition of black neighborhoods under the sweep of Urban Renewal, she defines root shock as "the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem." She draws distinct parallels with physical shock, the sudden loss of massive amounts of bodily fluids.

As James and I cross Ridge/McIntire Street in front of the Omni and walk into another parking lot, this one in front of Staples, James talks about how, after the Hill’s razing, the land sat fallow for 10 years. It’s something out of a perverse Grail legend, a 20-acre tract waiting on some Fisher King who never comes. 

Our conversation turns to Westhaven, the public housing project where many of the people from Vinegar Hill ended up. The talk now is about the city bulldozing it and building mixed-income houses in its place. Progress, proponents call it, the same proponents who point to the substandard housing, the need to integrate.

When I brought "the" Westhaven redevelopment up with James over coffee, he looked over his glasses at me and said, "Does that sound familiar, Scott?" This time, the question wasn’t just rhetorical. It was loaded, and James’s eyes crinkled as he smiled.

Now, as we stand on the side of Fourth Street, the back end of Vinegar Hill proper, James says, "You’re not going to change things by razing slums. You’re going to move the slums from Vinegar Hill to Prospect Avenue to Westhaven. And then when you raze those, you’re going to move the project out into Albemarle County, but you’re not going to change anything."

When James speaks, his words are artfully chosen and driven by the evident emotion that fuels all of his work. He makes it a point to address you directly, by name. We’re still at Fourth Street, the street that Gabe, Bobcat and two others ran down after a fight at the bus station. When James wrote that book, he says he tried to strip away anything that got in the way of raw feelings.

"I said, let me see if I can put the raw emotions on paper," says James. "Nothing else. Let’s strip all the beauty, all of it. It’s like taking a person and taking off all his clothes. This is what it was really like."

It soon becomes clear that our walk is wrapping up. But as James looks around, his expression changes and he says, "No, no. I made a mistake."

"Zion Union," he walks over to his left, looking at the Omni, the back toward the parking lot in front of Staples. "Zion Union wasn’t over there. It was here. Right here. That’s right," James says as he points to the middle of the parking lot, almost the center of the 20-acre tract. "It was here. My mistake."

James is pointing in the direction of a greenish, compact car with a faint but 3′ scratch down its side, a two-door that sits in the same spot of this lot every day, 9 years old and still fitted with its Indiana tags. William James is pointing to my car.