Jean McDaniel has lived in Church Hill since the 70s. Back then, the East End of Richmond was a much different place than the neighborhood we’re all lucky to live in today. This next installment of “Stories From The Hill” is a trip. Hope you enjoy!
By Jean McDaniel
The above photograph is of my house taken in 1978 which was the year I bought it. I looked at it with a flashlight because it was boarded up and very dark inside. Still I could see that it was structurally sound, came with a double lot and was on the small side. Note that all three of these houses were unoccupied. Two of them still had an outhouse attached to the back wall.
I bought this house and began my life as a weekend renovator.
My job at the time required traveling all week so I basically lived and worked in the house on Saturday and Sunday. I had no experience in this but I relied on common sense. The first order of business was cleaning out the debris of years of being occupied by pigeons. I ran out all the birds and closed any points of entrance, or so I thought.
A few days later when I returned there was a broken window upstairs. My new neighbor, Ms. Hattie, told me that pigeons had repeatedly flown into the window (until it broke) to get back in. I called in a pest controller and a Mr. Eggsbaum (I am not making up this name) came and said he could take care of the problem in 24 hrs. He told me that once pigeons establish a roost, they will not give it up! I paid him and said GREAT! I should have asked more questions, I was hauling out dead birds for the next two weeks…in July! More about pigeons later.
My new neighbors liked to watch me work. I would later learn that Miss Hattie ran a nip joint and her next door neighbor ran a house of many night time visitors. These two liked me and I liked them and we looked out for each other.
I managed to get a bathroom (of sorts) and one room to live in while I worked on the rest of the house. Building inspectors became my best friend. They would tell me how to do things and meet code and I valued their advice. The neighborhood at this time had a lot of renovators and they helped each other out with advice, loaning tools and when necessary muscle power.
One day that will live in my mind forever
I am going to share one day that will live in my mind forever and is indicative of a day in the life of a Church Hill renovator/gentrifier. I lived in this house for three years with no heat and no air condition. Many romances started in September/October between those that had heat and those that did not. By this time, I was traveling less and came home one day to hear noises upstairs. I ran upstairs ready for combat and there they were, in the middle of my bed (and they had been there a long time): two pigeons. This was August so I had left the upstairs windows open.
I ran them out and went downstairs grumbling about having to go to the laundromat (I only had one set of sheets) when there right in front of my eyes was the biggest bee I had ever seen. I grabbed a potholder and the lid to the blender, caught it, threw it in the microwave and turned it on high. The lid to the blender caught on fire, the microwave caught on fire, so I called the fire department. Three huge trucks came flying around the corner, at least 12 men went in the house and came out seconds later. They all had a good laugh at my expense. However, I did learn that old black rubber blender lids are highly toxic when burning!
Since I had no kitchen yet and the microwave was my only means of cooking, I set about cleaning up the melted mess. I went out to throw away the black, stinky blob when I saw a bone on the sidewalk. It looked like a human bone to me, so I called the police.
A police officer came and put the bone in an evidence bag, put the evidence bag in his trunk and came in the house to take his report. Unfortunately, before I could warn him, he backed into a stack of doors which fell over and knocked him out, so I called the police back. Within seconds there were police everywhere with guns drawn, crouching down, running into the house. Being a relatively law-abiding person, I found this extremely frightening. The “officer down” came to and they all had a good laugh at my expense.
This was the day I took up drinking.
It turned out that the bone was human. I bought expando window screens the next day. This was not the worst day of my life as a renovator/gentrifier and I have been here since 1978.