Saturday, May 30, 2009


Buds, 2005

In the spring of 2005, during a visit to the Courthouse Gallery in Portsmouth, Virginia, I saw a display about two of Portsmouth's neighborhoods, Cradock and Truxton, that had been built just after World War I for workers at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (which is actually in Portsmouth, but is so named to distinguish it from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which is located in New Hampshire).

Truxton was for black workers. It was simple, just houses built close to one another. There were few amenities. Cradock, on the other hand, was for white workers and their families. It was conceived and designed by the same architects who designed the New York Stock Exchange, and had all the amenities workers and their families, many of whom had migrated from Appalachia in search of steady work, might need, including a place where residents could skin and render rabbits. Befitting a place with close ties to the sea, the basic layout of Cradock was in the shape of an anchor. There's a historic marker at the front of the neighborhood that proclaims Cradock to have had America's first strip shopping center.

Between the 1920s and early 1960s, as wars and conflicts kept the shipyard busy and work plentiful, Cradock was a proud working class community. Some young people who grew up there followed their fathers and grandfathers into the shipyard. Others distinguished themselves in the professions, business and the arts.

But the racial segregation that initially defined Cradock eventually gave way to racial integration, a bridge too far for some long-time Cradock residents. The same "white flight" that emptied many inner city neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s also emptied many of Cradock's residences.

By 2005, when I first visited, Cradock was down and out. The majority of its homes and apartments were in very poor condition. Its churches--there were once churches for just about every Protestant denomination--were losing members and, in at least one case, closing. Crime had become such an issue that the police set up a substation right in the middle of the neighborhood. The sincere efforts of a few hardy long-time residents, a small number of sweat equity investors and a growing population of gays, lesbians and Wiccans were having a hard time overcoming the momentum of decades of slum lords, deferred maintenance and general decay.

None of this deterred me. In fact, I hoped that in my exploration of Cradock I might witness the neighborhood's re-birth, inasmuch as Cradock, if restored, would be very much in line with the late 20th Century concept of New Urbanism. Each week for several months I spent afternoons walking the neighborhood, getting to know residents and taking pictures. Most were initially skeptical of me--the first question I typically got from people was, "You ain't a cop, are you?"--and I was careful not to arouse their suspicions any more than a guy with a camera might. During one visit, I encountered Portsmouth's city manager, who was so intrigued by my interest that he tried to sell me Cradock's roof-less and flooded movie theater. Over the weeks I got to know enough of the leaders of Cradock's various circles that my presence was no longer questioned. Things were going so smoothly that I even naively imagined that my photos of Cradock might become my homage to Bruce Davidson's 1960s essay on Harlem.

But the more time I spent in Cradock, the deeper my understanding of the neighborhood's problems became. I wondered, "Why are so many of the young men in this neighborhood not working?" and "Why are so many young people not in school, and why do so many of them, the boys especially, always look drugged up?" As I started asking these questions, some of the more criminally involved members of the community I'd gotten to know were beginning to realize that I was seeing more than they wanted me to see.

As cool spring breezes gave way to hot humid summer temperatures, tempers started to flare in Cradock. Domestic disturbances and racial friction spilled out into the streets. Gun shots typically heard only in the evening started being heard in the daytime, sometimes while I was present.

In late May, one of the neighborhood crime bosses sent a signal to me that I would do well to stop pointing my camera at some of the things going on in Cradock. By this time I had finally pieced together the answers to my questions. The answers weren't pretty, and just knowing them was putting me at personal risk.

The braver photographer would have persevered, perhaps even gone deeper into the criminal life of the neighborhood. I chose to take a break to take care of a personal health issue. When I returned a year later, the neighborhood had declined even further and many of the players I'd met in 2005 were gone. I was too depressed by what I saw to continue the project.

Over the years, many people who live or grew up in Cradock have come upon my Cradock photo essay and written kind notes thanking me for showing what some of their old haunts look like today and telling stories and filling in details about some of the places shown. There continue to be people living in Cradock who are working gallantly to breathe life and health back into the neighborhood. The City of Portsmouth has prepared a redevelopment plan for Cradock, but it seems unlikely that it will ever be implemented.

The full essay can be seen here.


  1. Those photos of Cradock are wonderful. I can well imagine, from your description, that Luanne would have a "hair care" place there. You really captured such a sense of place in these photos.

  2. >>"There's a historic marker at the front of the neighborhood that proclaims Cradock to have had America's first strip shopping center."

    And my Lord, we've been diligently propagating the form ever since, haven't we?!

  3. I came across your blog after doing a Google search on Cradock, the neighborhood I've lived in for the past 12 years. After viewing your photos of Cradock, I'm wondering what your intent was. You mentioned the "white flight" which occurred during the 50's and 60's. Interestingly, a mere 15 years ago, the population in Cradock was less than 15 percent black. As of 2010, it had increased to about 45 percent. I am now inspired to research what liberal dream transpired in City Hall, circa 2000. At any rate, the human subjects of your photo essay on Cradock did not fairly represent the actual population here. You failed to document the roaming gangs of "youth" who delight in shouting nonsense and screaming at each other. A very telling picture would have been of the occasional weave one may find strewn in the middle of the street. Or, perhaps, a photo of some of the rampant gang graffiti, such as what has recently been sprayed on the outside of my fence. Instead, with the exception of 3 photos, you chose to focus on the "white trash" element here, along with the buildings that are boarded up or run down. There are a lot of beautiful homes here. There is a beautiful entryway to the neighborhood; a tree lined street will lead you to the fire department, and what used to be the post office. I still see the charm of the place; it's what we naively focused on when we chose our home in 2001, against the subtle advice of our real estate agent. However, if contributing members of society continue to flee, revitalization is a pipe dream. It's nice that you live comfortably in Virginia Beach, blithely documenting the poor whites and alcoholics in P-town who obviously are the real reason most people of any means refuse to live here. So, I lied. It was mere filler, forgive me. It is actually clear to me what your intent was. You are another proud, blinded, idealistic, card-carrying Liberal. With a capital L. You are well-versed in Diversity and the glorious attributes of Desegregation. You would be pleased to know that Cradock has nearly achieved what people like you call "racial parity." Oh, joy. Yet, you choose to live in VA Beach. I realize that there is no place in the south immune to these issues; but it is quite obvious to everyone who lives in Hampton Roads that Portsmouth is not a desirable area. Your photos essentially lie, because it's not the poor among the caucasians who drive the financially solvent away. I realize that no liberal uses logic or has much insight concerning matters as they are in actuality. You reside in your Utopian lala land, most likely. I have a small challenge for you. Google "knockout game." Google "crime statistics and race." Google " i.q. and race." Google "Booker T. Washington's view of segregation." Every society has its problems. The liberal, "progressive " (aaah the irony kills me) agenda has not merely exacerbated ours, it has completely torn it apart. The continued, unacknowledged racial inequities are but a small part of the problem, obviously. If you take the challenge, do nothing. Just continue to lie to yourself. You'll have a lot of company. I choose anonymity, after venting to my working class heart's content. Cowardly? Perhaps. I am unwilling to suffer any consequences for voicing my opinion publicly. The Thought Police have done their jobs very efficiently. The current generation of a certain class is afraid to even refer to any physical differences between one person and the next. But they will proudly demonize anyone who doesn't share their point of view.