A forthcoming addition to the Downtown Mall will commemorate Vinegar Hill, the historically African-American neighborhood that saw displacement of 158 families when city residents voted to develop the land in the 1960s. Officially called Vinegar Hill Park, this chunk of real estate between the Omni hotel and Main Street Arena will house $15,000 worth of interpretive signage, such as informational kiosks.
“The important thing about this site is its location,” says Mary Jo Scala, the city’s preservation and design planner. “It’s near where [Lawrence] Halprin envisioned this homage to Vinegar Hill, and it’s near where a lot of West Main Street’s African-American businesses were located.”
Halprin, a renowned landscape architect, began designing the Downtown Mall in the early 1970s, but he left room for a “park” that was never built to remember the lost neighborhood.
“The whole mall is a park, in a sense,” Scala says. “It’s an urban park. It doesn’t necessarily have to have trees or playground equipment or whatever you traditionally think of as a park. I think urban parks are kind of a place of respite where you can sit and enjoy yourself.”
Halprin’s drawing of the park shows trees and a water feature, Scala says. “That’s certainly possible for the future,” she adds. “That’s the beauty of this site.”
Within the next six months, Scala says you’ll be seeing wayfinding signage for Vinegar Hill Park on the mall.
Asked if this is the type of commemoration the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces has advocated for, commission chair Don Gathers says, “That and much more. We would like something specific and highly visible located at the entrance to the park or plaza—whatever they intend to call it—and also something throughout the Downtown Mall to direct people that way.”
The current marker memorializing Vinegar Hill, which will stay in place, isn’t cutting it on its own, Gathers says.
“It came to be known because it was behind one of those huge black planters and on the opposite side of it was a large city trash can bolted to the ground,” he says. “Unless you were looking for it, you never would have known it was there.”
While the city has since removed the planter and the trash can, Gathers says the marker still sits eight to 10 inches off the ground and is barely visible to the public.
Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, says the park—as the Historic Resources Committee described it—will honor more than the displaced families and the black population, but also the idea that Vinegar Hill was once a center of commerce in Charlottesville.
“It wasn’t just black people who used the commerce on Vinegar Hall,” she says. “Inge’s store was the place in Charlottesville where anyone could go to buy fish. …It holds a significant history that is associated with the development of our community.”
And there’s also room for more seating at the park, but, according to Scala, the Board of Architectural Review and Parks & Recreation have squabbled about what constitutes a Halprin-approved bench on the mall. (Which, if you ask the BAR, the backless benches in front of City Hall apparently aren’t).
In the past, the city has removed benches on the mall because of an alleged “behavior problem” by those using them, which the homeless people who camp on them have taken as a personal attack.