In light of our recent profiles on the rebuilding of New Orleans and the economic impact of the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, we thought it would only be fitting to follow up with a neighborhood revitalization spotlight from our own back yard – Richmond’s Church Hill. After experiencing decades of decline, in recent years, there has been a sweeping wave of entrepreneurship that has breathed new life into the once written off neighborhood. New businesses are opening, people are moving in; Church Hill is now a destination. Here, we explore how this came to pass and take closer look at the neighborhood’s past, present and future.
Located in Richmond’s East End, Church Hill is the oldest neighborhood in the city. The name, Church Hill, is used to describe both the specific historic district and also the larger general area of the East End – including neighborhoods such as Chimborazo, Fairmount and Union Hill. It’s the place where early settlers named Richmond because of its resemblance to a bend in the River at Richmond upon the River Thames in London. Where Patrick Henry gave his nation defining, “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech at St. John’s Church before the American Revolution. For both the city of Richmond and the early stages of forming our national identity, this is where it all began.
As Richmond continued to grow after the American Revolution, so did its tobacco industry, and warehouses and factories were built along the James River to support it. Church Hill provided housing for workers, managers and business owners. However, like many urban neighborhoods during the 1950’s, Church Hill experienced a significant decline. With the introduction of the suburbs and automobile culture, Richmond enterprise began to expand westward – taking businesses, entrepreneurs and the working–middle–class with it. For decades after, the neighborhood slipped into decline. By the 1990s, the turn-of-the-century homes that characterized Church Hill’s architecture became dilapidated and sat vacant.
In many ways, Church Hill’s renaissance began quietly through the plate. There were a handful of restaurants in Church Hill prior to 2011, but this was the year that the neighborhood began to build its reputation as a culinary destination. Self described as an un-traditional celebration of the food of the South, The Roosevelt opened in the summer of 2011 to regional and national acclaim. Less than two months ago, co-owner and chef Lee Gregory was named a James Beard Semifinalist for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region for the second consecutive year.
Following in 2013, Dutch & Co. became another welcomed addition to Church Hill’s culinary landscape. The restaurant’s chefs, Caleb Shriver and Philip Perrow, are currently in the running for Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef award in the Mid-Atlantic region. There are many great restaurants in Richmond – we once described Richmond as the Culinary Capital of the South – and these are two great restaurants that we are thrilled to see receiving national attention.
In addition to great restaurants, there are also great bakeries. Church Hill has light-heartedly become to be referred to as the new baking district because of the trio of bakeries that suddenly opened there – Sub Rosa, WPA Bakery and Proper Pie Co. Proper Pie Co. raised a portion of their funding through an outstanding crowdsourcing campaign. This is a Kickstarter campaign that I had the pleasure of supporting, and one that has been one of my proudest. On any given weekend, visitors can expect to wait in a line that often stretches out of the door. It’s an amazing feeling to see something that I had a hand in funding, even only marginally, take off in such a successful way.
To help put my thoughts together for this post, I met up with Diana, a longtime resident of Church Hill and former colleague before she went on to focus on her vintage furniture resell business, Era Vintage, full time. (We previously featured her on our blog.) Something that Diana mentioned about Church Hill’s community really resonated with me, “Everyone living or working in Church Hill wants to be here for a reason. We all want to be here because we believe in it. It’s a relatively small neighborhood so the entrepreneurs and residents know each other, look out for, and support each other in a positive way.”
When Sub Rosa was forced to close and rebuild because of a fire a little less than a year ago, this strong sense of community couldn’t have been any more reflective. Next-door neighbors, The Roosevelt, hosted a buffet-style family supper with assistance from local chefs and all the proceeds benefited the bakery. An Indiegogo campaign was launched which quickly raised over $16,000. In times of need, it’s always reassuring to see communities come together.
A handful of the businesses we mentioned were recipients of Bon Secours Richmond Health System’s Supporting East End Entrepreneurship Development (SEED) program. Union Market, which doubles as a small grocery store and restaurant, and Urban Set Bride are two SEED recipients that recently opened. We’re expecting a few more to follow throughout the year.
Today, Church Hill is a unique blend of history, mixed in with contemporary life. The buildings’ classic architectural styles, coble stone roads and gas streetlights, create an interesting canvas for the new energy that is present within the neighborhood. To understand the future, we must often look at the past. By returning to its roots and building a strong community a long the way, in Church Hill, the future looks brighter than ever.