In January of 2010, I published a zine about the neighborhood I live in called Oregon Hill Cats, it is a compilation of history, writings, photos and such. Here is the introduction:
I’ve heard many fascinating tales about Oregon Hill, a place where the police wouldn’t come, stories or quips or memories of grand wizards and Pagans, bank robbers, gambling halls, Hollywood haints, tricycle cats, golf cart rooting and racing, gunshots all the time. The characters, Poopie, Dinky, Pork Chop, Skeeter, a few Bubbas, and Apple Butter, their antics usually involved drinking and fighting with an always ample dose of plain ol’ hell raising.
Historic as one of the best examples of a 19th Century working class neighborhood in America, founded after the reconstruction of the Civil War and known up until recently as an unwelcoming redneck neighborhood with confederate “rebel flags” flying in the yards, where at any time you could find Mad Dog screaming at Ricky and pulling himself out of his wheelchair to chase Ricky down the street, or be harassed by “Hill Kids” as you walk by the corner of Laurel and Albemarle. Their roots ran thick in this neighborhood, for many generations Oregon Hill was home to the “Hillers”, the fiery race of human, once referred to as The disciples of Vulcan.
But the history of this neighborhood goes far back. Long before whites, as remnants of Native fishing techniques can be seen in the mighty James from Belle Isle at the bottom of the Hill. Fast forward to Byrd’s founding of Richmond, his descendants and the home of William Byrd III, his villa called Belvidere overlooked the river.
Here we meet some of the first of Oregon Hill’s long legacy of radicals, the Friends. The Jacob House was built in the early 1800s, on Cary Street, at the time very far west and remote. The Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad. The house was moved across the street by VCU and evidence of an actual hiding place on the RR were paved over, one of many atrocious acts committed against Richmond history. Another Friend who lived in the Hill was Samuel Parson Pleasant, who worked as superintendent of the penitentiary across Belvidere Street and worked for prison reform. His home is on Spring Street. Another home of great import is the Miller House, built by and for John Miller. Miller was a free black leader who lived in the neighborhood and employed other free blacks. This area was home to a small community of free blacks prior to the Civil War. Miller’s House has also been moved from Laurel Street to Cherry Street. Each of these houses have historical markers, 3 of the 4 historical markers in Oregon Hill.During the Civil War, shortages of food led to Bread Riots, organized by women of Oregon Hill. After Richmond’s devastation as Capitol of the Confederacy the Hill became the white working class neighborhood that it remained for many years. Serving as home to workers at Tredegar Iron Works and Albemarle Paper Co.
In around 1896, Grace Evelyn Arents moved into 230 South Laurel Street and started the first free library there. She also started St. Andrew’s Institutional School, The William Byrd Community House Library, and the Grace Arents school, now Open High. Grace Arents was a woman of great accomplishments and many firsts in education and public health innovations. She also left the City the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, her legacy in Oregon Hill and Richmond are honored by her Historical Marker on the corner of Idlewood and Cherry.
Another great woman from Oregon Hill was Ida Mae Thompson. In 1913, Thompson began working for the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia which helped women of America win the right to vote.
Oregon Hill stayed that wild, unruly gang of hard working whites wh o looked after themselves until recently. Infiltration—within the last few decades bohemians started moving in. Artists, punks, VCU art professors and college kids. There were many clashes with the Hillers. This recent era is the dynamic, dramatic Oregon Hill that I know and love. The era of renegade art shows, house shows, the Bone Zone, bike culture events such as Slaughterama, free markets. A neighborhood full of surprises, excitement, a community where you know your neighbors and visit porches with them or piss them off when your parties get out of hand. A neighborhood with the Byrd House Market and Fine Food Superette a block from each other. Shabby chic, surrounded by parks, a diversity of residents. It is in the heart of the city and close to everything; a walk to the rope swing, or to downtown, or to the fan. Home to 3 awesome non-profits; the William Byrd Community House, SynerGeo and Books on Wheels. Home to All the Saints Halloween Parade, inspiration for Avail and a song by The Cowboy Junkies, stomping grounds of many a metal band.
The Hill has changed a great deal in the last year, the Hillers are for the most part gone, the corner has been quiet for a while. There is hardly an empty, neglected house. Change has occured but the neighborhood retains its unique charm and remains full of life.
the entire publication can be seen at www.issuu.com/shawnis
cover image above: photograph of Charles Poole Sculpture by Shawn Jones