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People-Powered Placemaking and Storytelling that Change Our Communities for the Better

March 14, 2022 | People-Powered Placemaking and Storytelling that Change Our Communities for the Better | By: Kyle Meyer, Program Administrator for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development 

A view of the sunset from Libby Hill Park in Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy of Visit Richmond.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Virginia Main Street (VMS) program is incredibly excited to co-host the 2022 Main Street Now Conference alongside Main Street America in Richmond, Virginia, May 16-18. Get to know our state, host city, and Main Street communities through this special blog series! Conference registration is open here, and early bird rates end today, March 14 at 11:59pm CT! Check out the conference website and follow conference Facebook and Twitter accounts for the latest updates.

What a moving experience to explore these significant, local stories— ones that highlight Virginia’s community-led initiatives to ensure public spaces, arts, and storytelling are in service to all members of the community and tell a fuller American story. Some are about tangible, enriched places and others are intangible, innovative storytelling of a past hidden in plain sight or a future that has yet to be told. Either way, these projects foster and elevate the shared history and contributions by African-Americans, as part of the fabric of Virginia history and our collective American history. 

Inspiring Placemaking

T.C. Walker Mural, Gloucester Village, courtesy of The Cook Foundation

On Gloucester Main Street, a mural honors and celebrates the life and legacy of one of Gloucester County’s most notable historical figures. Commissioned in 2019, the Main Street Preservation Trust and Cook Foundation honors the man widely known as Virginia’s “Black Governor,” Thomas Calhoun (T.C.) Walker. 

Born a slave before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Walker grew up to become the first African-American to practice law in Gloucester County. In his life, he served as a passionate teacher, lawyer, and government official. Notably, President Roosevelt appointed Walker as the advisor and consultant of Negro Affairs for the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration, and it was this appointment that earned him the nickname “Black Governor” of Virginia. 
Painted by Michael Rosato, the highly detailed work of art raises awareness, encourages pride in the community, and recognizes the remarkable journey of Walker’s life that serves as a tremendous example of determination and accomplishment. 
LOVEOrangeVirginia (LOVE) collaborated with the Orange County African-American Historical Society (OCAAHS) to conceive a park that illuminates the history of the Town of Orange’s former African-American commercial district, as well as commemorate the contributions of local African-Americans. The Virginia Main Street Program and Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors provided grants to support the project.

For nearly 100 years the site of the project comprised an African American residential neighborhood and successful business district, which contributed greatly to the economic success of the town. In the mid 1900’s, this area was disrupted by the construction of a bypass to accommodate freight trucks, cutting the town in half, displacing families, and forcing Black-owned businesses to close and move.

Once completed, the park will be an accessible gathering spot for residents and visitors to learn and reflect on lessons of the past, as well as possibilities for the future. The design features a meandering pathway, comfort amenities, and a series of three interpretive panels with QR codes linked to online stories. The park will be activated by informal poetry jams, buskers, storytellers, and the town’s annual Juneteenth celebration. Apropos, in 2022 a groundbreaking occurred on Valentine’s Day and just a few months later a ribbon cutting is planned for the Juneteenth state and federal holiday.
See these projects first-hand by registering for Main Street Now Conference Mobile Tours! Check out Gloucester on Monday, May 16 from 8am – 2pm, and tour Orange on Sunday, May 15 from 8am – 4pm.

Compelling Storytelling Experiences

Left: Civil Rights Walking Tour Sidewalk Stamp, courtesy of Robert Moton Museum. Center: Historic Civil Rights Protest Photo, Farmville 1963, courtesy of Robert Russa Moton Museum. Right: Historic Civil Rights Protest Photo, Farmville 1963, courtesy of Robert Russa Moton Museum

Supported by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VHF), the Farmville Civil Rights Walking Tour represents a collaboration between the Robert Russa Moton Museum, Farmville Downtown Partnership (FDP) and Longwood University to guide residents and visitors along a two-mile route that highlights significant sites and cultural attractions. Over the 17 stops, the tour encourages visitors to explore shops and cultural attractions as they engage with its fascinating past. Sidewalks along each stop are stenciled with the tour’s logo.
Standing on Main Street, facing south toward the Moton Museum, pedestrians may not realize that they are standing where over 450 students staged a walkout at the Robert R. Moton High School, protesting the inadequate and overcrowded facilities African-Americans faced. The struggle for educational equality in Prince Edward County remains widely visible throughout the tour and participants can walk in the footsteps of these students that sparked a 13-year legal fight that expanded equality of all Americans, while also gaining more knowledge about prominent African-American leaders, historic buildings, monuments and the larger civil rights movements in Farmville, Virginia.
During the peak of the pandemic to attract visitors downtown, Danville’s River District Association (RDA) created socially distant activities through guided smartphone-based apptivities via Distrx. Through the app the public can explore the River District’s new digital visitors guide, learning more about small businesses, promotions, events and compelling stories of Danville’s past. The RDA worked with local partners to develop a series of self-guided walking tours, among them the Civil Rights and Union Bottom tour.
Narrated by local historian Karice Luck-Brimmer of Our History Matters, the tour celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement of Danville's historical African American business district. Visitors learn about North Union Street, recognized as a mecca of Black-owned business during the era of legal segregation. The story of North Union doesn’t end there, with recently completed city-led streetscape improvements, rehabilitation of two commercial properties made possible by a developer-RDA partnership and Partners in Preservation Grant and the opening of four new businesses through RDA’s Dream Launch.  
Hear about this project and similar efforts from Danville River District Association Executive Director Diane Schwartz, as well as Amanda Elliott, (Main Street America), Gumaro Escarcega (Oceanside Main Street), and Gabriel Martin (City of Coachella) in the Main Street Now session “Telling your Story – Community and Cultural Preservation.” These Main Street leaders will share how they have used their community’s history and culture to build some of their most notable programs. Join them on Tues., May 17 from 1:45 -3pm.

Stories Hidden in Plain Site

While currently accounting for a fraction of storytelling experiences consumed by viewers, Virtual Reality (VR) technology will be an important tool to watch for virtual tourism in the future. In January 2021, a team of three friends in Richmond launched a pilot project, called Hidden in Plain Site (HiPS), after seeing a void in storytelling that could bring to life historic sites whose context was compromised by demolition and urban renewal.

The team collaborated with the Black History Museum of Virginia, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to explore VR as a tool for encouraging empathy by overlaying historic photographs of “hidden places” at the crux of Richmond, Virginia’s black history. This technique is especially powerful for touring sites that had been cleared for development and left vacant. As the project progressed, parking lots were places that were regularly associated with stories and truths that evoked the most pain.
The HiPS pilot was self-funded and has allowed the team to lay out a repeatable process for partnership development and producing compelling content. They are now looking for more places and partners with stories to tell and to grow the project wider, achieving greater social impact. 

The HiPS narrator ends the self-guided tour with a view of the former Robert E. Lee monument site on Monument Avenue, saying:

“The black history of Richmond exists all around our city, no matter what monuments stand. The ones with the most pain are
 the most hidden, the most buried. We drive by them. We walk over them. And in some cases, we even park on them. But if we squint, if we remember we can change our paths and our patterns, change how we see the city as we commute through it, with help, we can revere and we can learn from that which is hidden in plain sight.”
In 2020, the national spotlight was on Richmond in the wake of the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Subsequent demonstrations and public and civic leader discourse directed the removal of the remaining Confederate monuments along the avenue. So what now?  A community-led effort is growing to source and conceive a new vision. Reimagining Monument Avenue will continue to engage the community in a conversation with the goal of building a broad coalition of residents, activists, business and civic leaders, protesters, community organizers, institutions — everyone willing — to add perspective, lend their voice or simply listen. This is a story in progress.
Main Street Now attendees: be sure to register for the Monument Avenue Mobile Tour on Weds., May 18 from 10am -3:30pm to take in these sights in-person.
These are powerful examples of how people-powered placemaking and storytelling can change our communities for the better. What are your local stories waiting to be told?
If you’re interested in learning more about the role Main Street programs play in ensuring that public spaces and signifiers of collective memory are reflective of and in service to all members of the community, check out dozens of sessions at the Main Street Now Conference that revolve around the theme of Community Preservation and Expression. Check out the conference schedule here and look for the “Community Preservation and Expression” tag to find these sessions. Register here.

Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development 

About the Author

Kyle Meyer is a Program Administrator for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), specifically working with the Virginia Main Street (VMS) program. Kyle grew up in the Richmond region, has an avid taste for music and art, and enjoys outdoor, recreational pursuits and adventure travel with his wife and two kids.