Sore Thumbs Don't Make Good Neighbors

By Carroll William Westfall ,

Leigh Street in Richmond, VA, recently got some new houses as this African American community next to downtown reached farther into gentrification. Only close inspection reveals the recent construction of four row houses where a jog in the street allows them to be seen dead on. They fit the neighborhood like the fingers on a hand. 

(Photo 1)

Another house has joined them, looking a bit like a sore thumb, one we can ignore even if it well never politely fit in. It raises the question, how many sore thumbs can a hand stand?

(Photo 2)

(Photo 3)

A residential neighborhood a generation newer on Richmond’s sunrise side features Carolina Avenue running through Barton Heights. Founded as a town in 1896 after the new streetcar line proved its worth (Richmond had the first successful city-wide system), the city annexed it in 1914. Tradesmen and middle-class professionals filled its 50-ft. lots with modest, wooden, single-family residences mixed in with a few multiple-family residences. It is now part of the national Register Highland Park Plaza Historic District.

A mile or so away, a small commercial strip is now celebrating its centenary with a revitalization effort. Joining the hair saloon and quick loan office are a luxury baker and a coffee shop. 

Brookland Park Blvd. (Photo 4)

Brookland Park Blvd. (Photo 5)

After World War II, an African American family moved into Barton Heights, the whites fled, the area was redlined, and public investment, property values, and upkeep declined. Among the very few new things built on Carolina Avenue is a small, brick, minimal, single-story, 1970s house. Scattered about are foreclosures up for auction, but most of the buildings are sound enough. 

1970s Brick House (Photo 6)

The other side of Carolina (Photo 7)

About a year ago a house, minimal in every aspect except size, and poorly sited to boot, was built a block away. [PHOTOS 8, 9 below] A sign of impending renewal, it was joined by another recently on my zip code’s Nextdoor Washington Park website with about 70 participants distributed through several neighborhoods. It pictured a pair of town houses under construction on one of those 50-ft. lots that is kitty-corner from the small brick house. 

Newly built home. (Photo 8)

Poor fit to lot and poorly built. (Photo 9)

New townhouses. (Photo 10)

When I went to take a look I spoke with two young men there. They hoped the neighborhood would find improvement but expressed disdain for their design.

Emboldened, I posted this on the website:

“These are a disgrace to the North Side’s traditions. Would you like to have to see these every day?” I immediately got three thanks. (For later posts the number of thanks is in parentheses.)

Comments began arriving even from far distant in the district.

“Ugh! Not liking them. They are not in keeping with Northside in general.” (2)

“I grew up there. These make me sad for the neighborhood.” (3)

“Ew.” (3)

“another Burger King?” (2)

“How out of place, this is just awful.” (2)

“So glad I am not the only one who thinks these are so out of keeping with our historic neighborhood. This style is very ‘on trend’ now—a poor choice when building a home. These will look outdated in just a few years.” (3)

“This is what we are seeing in the Bottom [a riverfront industrial and warehouse district being made over into apartments] – it’s too modern for these lovely old areas but someone will love them….” (0)

And then from the other side chimed in:

“I kind of like them.” (6)

“I think they are cool homes and will probably sell quickly but they definitely are not in keeping with the original homes in the neighborhood.” (2)

“I love these. Sure they don’t fit with the traditional look of the neighborhood but there are already a ton of houses new and old already in the neighborhood that don’t fit either. I think mixing up the architectural styles could actually be seen as a tribute to the ever changing mixing pot that is the north side; there’s something for everyone.” (11)

“I think they are really beautiful. I would love to look at these houses every day! The people who want to live in modernist home will most likely be active community members. I’m glad our neighborhood was chosen for this type of development.” (8)

Then back the other way: They are nice inside, but “I do agree that they are in no way consistent or even complementary to the surrounding housing. The design is unique and would be more suited [for] a more urban area (but that’s just my opinion).” (3)

Then an “I like them” (3) followed by “Not a fan of these.” (0)

A person with a “degree in historic preservation and architectural history” declared to be a fan of “housing stock from the teens, 20s and 30s” but not of “the ‘plastic’ homes” being built in the area nor of the “low level renovations. … While these may not be to everyone’s test [sic] they are very well built which I support over the ‘thrown up’ homes that will look horrible in 20 years. Good design is good design whether modern or traditional.” (4)

After a report about the developer for whom “new ultramodern construction is his professional preference … I love the dichotomy personally” (1) the conversation lagged, so I wrote, “an obvious visual intrusion into the neighborhood. Architects are taught that architecture is a form of self expression and must be ‘of the time’ rather than taught to see buildings as places that make neighborhoods visually appealing and blocks places that people can love.” (2) But the conversation died.

Carolina St. with new houses. (Photo 11)

New town houses. (Photo 12)

Among these comments were a few declaring that anything newly built is better for the area than boarded up houses. “This is positive change. … I understand what you mean by loving the historic look, and I agree that SOME of the homes are beautiful and would be beautiful if properly renovated. But with renovation still comes [a] price.” (1) A few postings were interspersed offering suggestions about where people with very limited means might find subsidies.

A few houses in the area are listed for sale in the range of $150,000 in a city where the median value of detached houses is $270,085 and median listing price is $215,600. These two are listed at $450,000 each with one comment noting that was too high for the neighborhood.

We can wonder whether their designer, said to be an architect in Texas who also operates a design-build firm in the Washington, D.C. area, has seen more than a plat of the lot. Do the developers, architects and buyers take their eyes off the glossy pictures of latest trends and sales brochures and envisage the place their new building will change for better or worse?

Their century-old neighbors have survived some rough times, but they are ready to provide shelter and support graceful lives in a renewed neighborhood. In urbanism the real value lies not in the individual pieces but in the ensemble where there is both individuality and neighborliness in residents and residences.

Appearance is important. Leigh Street now has four new fingers and a sore thumb. Carolina Avenue’s score is two sore thumbs and one shoddy neighbor. Which one is better able to be a model for the eternal task of renewing neighborhoods where we can live well and long?

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