A new exhibit at the Valentine Richmond History Center explores the changing identity of Church Hill, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. As Catherine Komp reports for Virginia Currents, the exhibit was created through a unique collaboration between students, residents, artists and educators.
Made in Church Hill brought together dozens of people to document the experiences of long-time residents.
Montage: I was raised right around that corner and I remember when they built the theater there...I carried newspapers all around here, in this block, my barber was across the street...If you’re neighbor had a loaf of bread, then you had a slice of bread. It always was a tight knit community.
The exhibit combines large photographic portraits with oral histories and sound design by artist Vaughn Garland. Residents recall street cars, ice wagons and hearing chimes from neighborhood churches each Sunday. They also discuss segregation, civil rights protests, continuing inequalities and gentrification.
Montage: All my black neighbors are gone, I mean there’s some...It’s hard for me to imagine that we have Union Market and Alamo and Sub Rosa bakery...The future hope is that all of the different cultures can learn to enjoy and appreciate the history which is Church Hill and share it on an equal basis.
Made in Church Hill is part of the Valentine’s efforts to foster discussion and to feature exhibits that are shaped by communities themselves. The collaborative effort started last Fall with VCU students learning about portrait photography and socially-engaged art exhibits from the Anderson Gallery’s Traci Garland and Michael Lease:
Michael Lease: A big part of teaching this past semester has been to talk about how do you find people to collaborative with. When you find those people how do you navigate through the relationship of asking them to be a part of your project.
At the same time, University of Richmond Professors Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera were teaching a small group of students about capturing oral histories.
Patricia Herrera: I see our role as kind of relationship builders, community builders in some ways because I think along the entire semester the task at hand was how do we cultivate relationships, how do we sustain relationships so that people can trust us and people can share their stories with us, so a lot of the learning process was how do you connect with people on a human level.
Both classes also worked with high school students from Church Hill Academy or CHAT, gathering their stories, learning about the neighborhood and teaching them photographic and oral history techniques.
Dominique Muñoz: This exhibit was not just put together by a couple (adult) photographers, but by students both in high school and in undergrad.
Along with his classmates, VCU senior Dominique Muñoz mentored CHAT students and shot all the large portraits in the exhibit.
Muñoz: Having that collaboration and showing that it was community engagement and not more of an intrusion onto this community, but more integration and involvement and an invitation in a way and I think that’s really important.
Alan Corbett: For me the biggest part of collaboration was with CHAT students.
Sixty-nine-year-old Alan Corbett was auditing the University of Richmond class and paired with 16-year-old Atysheyona Nash.
Atysheyona Nash: Sometimes I’d be saying, I don’t want to do this, I’m going to give up or I don’t know how to do this and we’d have a pep talk and he’d encourage me, saying you can do it...He’s a good partner.
Corbett: We were, most of us, were white, we’re talking about black students, for me, you’re talking about somebody who’s 50 years my junior and yet for some reason we were able to get together almost immediately and communicate and collaborate together. And it was a wonderful experience and I’m going to treasure this for the rest of my life.
Church Hill Academy Principal Skip Long welcomed the opportunity for his students to collaborate with both universities and the Valentine. He sees the project as an avenue to discuss difficult topics like gentrification and racism.
Long: And so even as we look back through the ‘60s or as we’re moving forward, I’m somewhat disappointed because to some degree we haven’t come very far and yet at same time I’m excited that young people seem to want to take the mantle and move this issue of race and power and justice forward, in a correct way. So for me it was painful to hear the stories of many of my neighbors on their porches and yet then to see the landscape what’s going on today, if I were to close my eyes it could be the 60s, it could be 2015. My hope is as we’re moving forward, and as these types of collaboratives come together, it begins to shape a different Commonwealth, it begins to shape a different city of Richmond and beyond.
This microcosm of civic engagement, across ages, races and backgrounds is what organizers hope continues on a broader scale. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Valentine held one of their ongoing “Community Conversations” and is hosting a spoken word performance by Church Hill Academy students in April. University of Richmond’s Patricia Herrera says the exhibit is just the beginning.
Herrera: It’s really an opportunity for people to make more connections, to have conversations about what’s happening and hopefully that’s going to keep the ball rolling. Laura and I are for next two years are going to be working on Church Hill and continue to conduct oral histories and work with U of R students to document their stories and create a play about Church Hill and in Church Hill, so hopefully this is going to get people excited about really sharing their story and their experiences in Church Hill.
Made in Church Hill continues at the Valentine through June 28th. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.