Waterfront Wars: Development, Conservation, and Cultural Memory on the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, 1865¿1981

Boeschenstein, Eleanor, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Putalik, Erin, Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia

Eleanor M. Boeschenstein
“Waterfront Wars: Land Use, Conservation, and Race on the Banks of the South Fork Rivanna River, 1865–1981”
Master of Architectural History with a Historic Preservation Certificate, December 2022
Department of Architectural History, School of Architecture, University of Virginia

This thesis unpacks a contentious episode involving a development debate and ensuing racial tensions that unfolded between 1974–1981 in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia. In 1973, a local Black real estate developer named James Fleming inherited land which had formerly been part of the historic River View Farm situated adjacent to the city and county’s primary water supply at the South Fork Rivanna River. The next year Fleming proposed a high-density housing development on his parcel. He called it “Evergreen” and announced he planned to market the residences to African American families affected by the local urban housing shortage. The vitriol of the public debate that followed over the possibility of Evergreen’s development made headlines for the next five years.
Fleming inherited his parcel from Mary Carr Greer, a career educator and community leader in the local African American community. Mary Greer’s father, Hugh Carr, had been enslaved prior to the Civil War and established River View Farm during Reconstruction, eventually amassing one of the largest Black-owned farms in the county. Carr’s farm was located near the heart of the old village of Hydraulic Mills, the center of local Black agricultural life after the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. As happened elsewhere, however, this tight-knit community began dispersing during the mid-twentieth century in response to combined forces of racial terror, the Great Depression, and World War II. As African Americans moved away from Hydraulic Mills, suburbanization in Albemarle County was increasing as were the numbers of wealthy urbanites relocating to the area, drawn by the Jeffersonian image it projected as a landscape of Anglophone country estates and horse farms, all of which erased the history of plantations. The racial demographics of Hydraulic Mills subsequently shifted and the Black working landscape was gradually subsumed by a largely white-owned, exurban landscape of hobby farms.
The evolution of the Hydraulic Mills cultural landscape was also shaped by the construction, at the confluence of Ivy Creek and the south fork of the Rivanna River, of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir in 1966 to meet the city and county’s growing water supply needs. By the time Fleming proposed Evergreen, the suburbanization of the county upstream within the watershed negatively impacted the water quality of the reservoir. As a result, local concern about eutrophication was growing. In dialogue with the maturation of the modern American environmental movement marked by the Wilderness Act of 1966 and the celebration of the first Earth Day in April of 1970, enthusiasm for unchecked growth in Albemarle County was also waning as rural land was disappearing under suburban sprawl. Slow- and no-growth advocates were gaining traction in Albemarle County and in localities across the country. This set the stage for a contentious public debate that pitted slow-growth, conservation, historic preservation, and environmental interests against Fleming, who characterized this resistance as part of entrenched legacies of racism in land use policy and the environmental movement.
This project uses the Ivy Creek Foundation’s archives, among other primary and secondary sources, to tell the story of Evergreen while integrating environmental history, civil rights history, and historic preservation history to place the story into a broader context of land use, real estate, civic infrastructure, and displacement, thus complicating the narrative about the transformation of the property into a nature preserve. Using a cultural landscape approach to understand the contested significance of the site today, I understand the story as one with no clear moral or ethical protagonists or antagonists. Thus, in this project I attempt to examine the proverbial murky middle to unpack what happened in the story, but also what may have been the systemic, institutional, and historic factors converging at this time and place to inform the conflict and influence its eventual outcome.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
African Americans, Conservation, Historic Preservation, Dams, Reservoirs, Real estate, Environmentalism, Land use discrimination
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