Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On The Hill

North 27th, 1973

Looking at this picture, taken on Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hill, I’m reminded more of the late Frank McCourt’s Limerick than I am of Richmond.

During college, I worked part-time as a circulation district manager for an afternoon newspaper. It was a good job for a poor college student. You got $62 a week after taxes, the use of a company car, all the gasoline you could burn, access to the company doctor, and $200 a semester towards your college tuition.

The downside was that this “part-time” job came with a lot of baggage. The hours were much longer than stated. There was a lot of stress. If you were considered “mature,” you were assigned to really tough parts of town where the youth carriers weren’t dependable, paper routes were harder to fill, where you handled a lot of cash, and where, as a result, armed hold-ups weren’t unusual.

You learn a lot of things from a job like this, like how much a newspaper means to some people, how nice some people are and how dishonest, petty and abusive others can be.

I spent a lot of time on Church Hill. It’s one of the oldest parts of Richmond. Once a prominent neighborhood perched on a bluff high above the James River and the tobacco factory district, most of Church Hill had become a slum by the time I was there. A narrow band of gentrified streets on the river side of the hill could not offset the several square miles of misery on the other side. I was never robbed. But there were several attempts and guns were pointed at me more than once.

I also spent a lot of time with the kids who carried papers for me. Some of my carriers had good parents. More than a few, though, had parents, grandparents and other guardians who were abusive in a variety of despicable ways. Those of us who had districts like Church Hill understood that we had an unwritten responsibility, beyond making sure that the papers got delivered and the bills paid, to look out for the kids who didn't have anyone looking out for them. We got to know their teachers and social workers. Some of the kids we let ride around with us all afternoon in our company cars so that they wouldn’t have to go home and get beat up.

Some of these kids eventually made it out. Not all of them. One of the quiet little boys who carried papers for me without a moment's trouble in Highland Park when he was 12 and 13 committed a brutal murder when he was 18. We district managers were not enough to keep some kids out of drugs and alcohol. But every now and then you found a kid who, like Frank McCourt, you knew would make it through a horrid upbringing and get out.


  1. What a good photo from that era. I know that area of Richmond. You do sometimes have to wonder if, in the end, it's some kind of inner fortitude that makes one kid succeed or if it's just sheer luck.

  2. A moving story, even the second time around. You need to give me another tour of Richmond, under more pleasant circumstances than last time.