Where the Sidewalk Ends
Published on January 2nd, 2020 by Molly Brind'Amour
Not so very long ago, Benjamin Wilkins watched the battle smoke of the Civil War from his cupola on Taylor’s Hill. After that, an order of nuns shielded themselves from the public in a monastery on the same hill, praying that the city’s war wounds would heal. Today, the battle on Taylor’s Hill is fought between man and nature.
The famous hill is something of a fixture in Richmond. According to the Richmond Hill Community, it’s the highest hill in Richmond, originally a Native American prayer spot called Tsenacomoco. In the years preceding the Civil War, the block on the hill at East Grace Street was owned privately by Richmond’s upper class, like Wilkins, according to the Historic Richmond Foundation in the book The Church Hill Old and Historic Districts.
When the smoke cleared in 1866, the area was sold to the Order of the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, who established a cloistered monastery to pray for the fate of Richmond. It was around 1900, according to Richmond Hill, that the Sisters received the wall that snakes around the top of the hill, as well as when the Sisters gave the hillside that now forms Taylor’s Hill Park to the City.
When the nuns moved to Hanover in the 1980s, the property was purchased by its current occupant, Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center. But while Richmond Hill continues on with the monastery’s original mission of praying for the community, the park languishes.
That’s where Trish Bernal comes in. A resident of Richmond for over 20 years and of the surrounding area for 40 years, Trish got involved with the park almost three years ago with a request to the City of Richmond for a city park sign for Taylor’s Hill Park.
The signs alone were victories — getting the signs created took over a year. According to Trish, a series of misunderstandings, caused in part by personnel changes in the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, led to another year long delay before the signs were installed.
Friends of Taylor’s Hill Park operates as a Partner group under the Enrichmond Foundation umbrella.
“Becoming an Enrichmond Partner has enabled me to increase the visibility of the park through their website,” Trish explained.
“Also, being a Partner provides our group with charitable status which makes it easier to raise the needed funds for our projects,” she added. “I believe that the City was more responsive to the Friends of Taylor’s Hill Park requests for assistance than if I had made the request as an individual.”
Trish, who works for MCV and lives right next to the park, has dedicated time not only to fixing up the park, but to reading and researching the park’s history, diving deep into the Valentine Museum’s archives for old photographs.
She and the other Friends of Taylor’s Hill members were motivated in part by the beautification efforts that took place in nearby Libby Hill Park for the UCI World Championship in 2015. Libby Hill Park received a fixed sidewalk and the installation of permanent signs, all in the name of cycling.
If Libby Hill could get some love, thought the Friends, then why not Taylor’s Hill, too?
Starting from Scratch
The curb snaking around the hill was completely overgrown, according to Trish. Trish and her neighbors started clearing and cutting back mulberries the spring before they formed their Friends of Taylor’s Hill Park group, quickly realizing that the work needing to be done was beyond their capacity.
“These last couple of years are the worst it’s been,” notes Trish, while meandering along the overrun dirt path that leads up the hill.
According to Trish, budget cuts for city maintenance mean that Taylor’s Hill Park is only mowed once a year — and then, only part of the hill is mowed.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects is knowing how beautiful the space used to be. The Valentine’s image archives show photographs, taken in the 1950s, of a lovely, well-tended hillside crowned by a sturdy brick wall, with evenly spaced trees shading a neat, tidy path.
Today’s Taylor’s Hill Park is almost unrecognizable. The brick wall is covered with graffiti and creeping vines. The hillside itself, once smooth, green grass, varies from sparse, dead-looking brown areas to spots completely overtaken by invading weedy plants and trees.
The once-shady dirt path along the wall on the 21st Street side is whittled to a thin track by creeping grass. And the curb and paved walkway going up the hill along the Franklin Street Side, so orderly and well-maintained in the 1950s photographs, has been overtaken by grass.
Advocacy in Action
According to Trish, Friends of Taylor’s Hill Park recently successfully advocated for Parks and Recreation to widen and regrade the dirt path. Asking Public Works to repair the overgrown, broken paved path will be the next step for the group.
But in order to make progress on some of the fixes she has in mind, Trish knows she needs to convince the neighbors that Taylor’s Hill is a real park.
At the time of my visit in September, Taylor’s Hill Park didn’t even show up on Google Maps. Today, a Google search can get you directions to the park. And the signs, at least, are a step in the right direction.
Not so long ago, she points out, people used to come here to see the fireworks — after all, according to Richmond Hill, the spot is the highest hill in the city.
With frequent new construction in Shockoe Bottom, it’s safe to say that today’s view from the Park’s western edge, Grace Street Overlook, is a far cry from what it was when the Civil War raged on. Such a change is visible on the overlook’s marker, which includes a historical photo by civil war photographer Mathew Brady.
Additionally, at Grace Street Overlook, the view to the west is partially impeded by overgrown, hardy ailanthus, as well as other invasive plants that get carried by the wind to take root all along the hillside.
“It would be a fabulous view,” Trish explained, if more was cut back.
In positive news for Trish, a local arborist recently offered a discount and removed the invasive trees from the overlook’s garden, which was created in memory of neighbor Larry Parker in 2011.
Preserving and Problem Solving
These fixes are really a team effort. The community at Richmond Hill, which has a maintenance department, has also helped with cleanup efforts, removing weeds and a fallen tree from the dirt path that winds up to the overlook.
Another fix the park needs is the removal of graffiti, which covers the old brick Monte Maria wall, even underneath the vines.
“All of a sudden, everyone’s been graffiting,” Trish says.
According to Trish, it’s a recent problem, within the last year. Though the wall is not technically park property, instead belonging to Richmond Hill, its appearance does affect the park ambiance. Trish explained that, according to Richmond Hill, removing the graffiti would cost about $5,000.
“With the help of the Church Hill Association of RVA, Richmond Hill recently raised the needed funds for removal,” Trish added.
Adding a silicon coating so that further graffiti can be power-washed off would only add to the expense.
According to Trish, the Friends of Taylor’s Hill Park group is working with Richmond Hill to explore other potential vandalism-prevention methods, like the coating.
To get a handle on the park’s issues, Trish stops people walking by, to ask their opinions, though she feels some fixes — like cleaning debris out of gutters — are obvious.
The Park Takes Shape
Right now, the big push for Friends of Taylor’s Hill is getting trash cans and dog waste cleanup stations out to the park, which they have already requested from the City. Hopefully, the waste stations will be in place by the end of the year.
“Some of the young people I’ve talked to with their dogs are real excited about the idea,” she explains. According to Trish, Taylor’s Hill is a heavily used dog walking park.
Another way the Friends group figures out what to work on next is through historic photographs. The Valentine’s photos, in black and white and color, show a very different Taylor’s Hill — evidence of how terrific the place could look one day.
Trish is currently on the hunt for historic photographs of benches on the hillside, which could show the City and the public that those are an option today, too.
Ultimately, in the battle against nature and vandalism being fought in Taylor’s Hill Park, patience is a virtue, whether it means being persistent in advocating for improvements or having the endurance to search for long-forgotten photographs.
“You have to have a lot of patience, which I’m developing in my old age,” says Trish, laughing.
Visit and Learn More
Taylor’s Hill Park is located at the intersection of N 21st Street and E Franklin Street.
Learn more and donate to Friends of Taylor’s Hill Park on our website.