Richmond is a river city. Founded at the fall line on the north banks of the James River, its urban development parallels this historically essential alignment. The image of Richmond is primarily east to west (clearly represented in soil, land cover, parcel and structure maps), where its principal attractions lie. This is partly because “Southside” began its life as the sovereign, industrial town of Manchester, but also because of the fundamentally different spatial organization that territory assumes as the river changes direction While its western flank reflects the more affluent “West End,” an awkward pivot divides the southern district into thirds, with the eastern reach dominated by large tobacco, chemical, shipping and manufacturing operations. The massive parcel and structural size of this post-suburban stretch clearly stands out in reference to the rest of the city.
While the post-industrial hamlet of Manchester is finally rebounding after years of decline and vacancy, an odd inverse relationship exists as one travels south. The historic grid is quickly abandoned in favor of logistical alignments of (the James, I-95, CSX, Hwy 1), allowing industrial operations to sprawl out to the scale they now require, yet the residential neighborhoods in between continue to deteriorate. Most housing south of the grid (approximately half way down, in the Bellmeade neighborhood) was developed post-war, but these early suburban dreams are now reaching their material shelf lives, a doughnut between the gentrifying core and contemporary greenfield development. This is everywhere (sub)urban U.S.A.
jefferson davis highway
residence | manchester to madison arms
In the interior of this district lies “Madison Arms,” an 18-acre, rapidly revegetating, “vacant” parcel now under the ownership of the City of Richmond after the site’s long fall from grace. The land once moonlighted as a quarry before being filled in and developed into an apartment complex in the late-sixties, but as is often the case with shoddy construction, these structures were eventually condemned due to lack of maintenance and finally demolished to eliminate liability. Lying fallow between empty tobacco warehouses and deteriorating apartment complexes, the landscape is a mash-up of uncertain fill, decomposing asphalt, and pioneer plants, wrapped by a holey fence and household refuse, and pierced by a riprap floodway.
The intention of the fence is to reduce the maintenance burden, prevent illegal dumping and limit liability, but mainly serves as a unique control to the adjacent vacant apartment lands which have remained in private hands and are (mostly) mown. Through its total lack of maintenance as a development site, Madison Arms has transitioned to urban wilderness: the anti-pastoral. The current state may be sublime — especially in the terrifying sense of the word — begging the question: if to maintain is “to enable a condition to continue in being,” what of Madison Arms do we now maintain?