A look into the past: Garrett Street before urban renewal

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Many people think of urban renewal in Charlottesville as mainly affecting the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, but just a few blocks away, homes along Garrett Street and the surrounding area were also changed forever.

Before urban renewal, Garrett Street was a working-class neighborhood with mostly African-American and other minority residents who created businesses where they could walk to work every day.

Mary Carey grew up on Diggs Street. It is about where Monticello Avenue is now, which runs parallel to Garrett Street. Most of the streets are different today, but when she closes her eyes, she can see it all right in front of her.

"All of that down there is different now because they had a winery down there,” recalled Carey. “They had a coal storage building down there. Crescent Halls, where that's standing at now, that was my street, Diggs Street."

Carey and her two sons were among the first families to move into Garrett Square, now known as Friendship Court, when it was built in 1978. Carey said years before that though, she had not even heard the words "urban renewal" until she was about 14 years old in 1961.

She calls it "urban removal" because of the removal of families and businesses like the Allen's Store.

"Mr. Allen had everything up in there,” said Carey. “He had everything up in there."

Allen's Store was a grocery store opened by Kenneth and Dorothy Allen on the corner of Garrett Street and Sixth Street Southeast in 1944. It was around for 30 years before being forced to relocate. Carey remembers running to the store with a dollar in hand for her mom.

"Mr. Allen fed the neighborhood,” said Carey. “If we were hungry, he would say, 'Well okay well you go ahead on take this right now, but I'm going to tell you when you get some money, you need to come back in and pay me now.’ And people would do it."

Another landmark Carey remembers was the infamous Marguerite's house. It was a brothel frequented by wealthy white city leaders and University of Virginia students.

Carey said the house was just across from her uncle's home. She said it used to be a couple hundred feet away from where the Norcross Station Apartments are across from Friendship Court today. Her uncle would tell her how Ms. Marguerite’s girls would come in through the back door.

"In the evening time, it was time for them to do their business,” said Carey. “They get up in the window. My uncle used to put his hand over my eyes, and say, 'You can't see that.'"

She said Ms. Marguerite's house was the last house she remembers to be torn down in the process of urban renewal. When it was knocked down in 1972, it was rumored that money stored in the walls of the home rained down like confetti. Carey said she remembers people digging in the rubble for the money.

"Somebody hollered, 'They done knocked Ms. Marguerite's house down and it's a gold mine down there,'” said Carey. “And folks went down there, digging in the ground. They were pulling out mason jar full of money."

Eugene Williams is 91 years old. Growing up, he lived on Dice Street a couple blocks over from Garrett Street, with no indoor plumbing like most of the homes down there.

"From Main Street to Lankford Avenue, not one black person lived in any of the houses,” said Williams. “There was no effort from any of the whites to be concerned about any of the blacks who lived on the side streets."

He said when they were searching for a new home during urban renewal, moving to a new part of Charlottesville was hard.

"In the deeds of some of the white people's property, it was written that negros were not to be allowed to buy their homes,” said Williams.

Not everyone was able to find a new place. Carey said the neighborhood that existed decades ago is unfortunately gone forever.

"When I was growing up, it was close-knit, everybody knew everybody,” said Carey. “This doesn't have the home town feel anymore."

For even more history on what the Garrett area was like before urban renewal, go to Charlottesville Tomorrow and check out "The Reimagining of Friendship Court" piece by Jordy Yager. CBS19 will also have more to follow looking into Friendship Court’s history.

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