From a reader:
I live near the intersection of 5th St. SW and Dice. There is some question as to what my neighborhood should be called. One realtor tried to market the area north and south of West Main Street as “midtown,” though it hasn’t really caught on.
The city calls the area south of West Main “Fifeville” after the Fife family, who once owned a farm in this area. However, Oak Street resident and self described “old-house-hugging preservationist” Antoinette Roades notes that a portion of what the city calls Fifeville (the part bordered by Ridge Street to the east, Cherry Avenue to the south, 5th St. SW to the west, and West Main Street to the north) was not part of Fife’s farm, but was developed separately in the 1840s and 1850s by Allen Hawkins. An ongoing survey of the architectural history of the neighborhood found that the Hawkins land was once known as “Castle Hill.” I like that name, and it describes the area of “Fifeville” I know best, so I’ll write about Castle Hill and the neighboring blocks. People also refer to the same area as “5th Street” or “5th and Dice.” According to a UVA oral history of the area, Castle Hill was home to prominent African Americans and whites at the turn of the 20th century, until, in 1912, the city resolved that it should be illegal for whites and blacks to live next to each other and “the whites moved away.”
This law was struck down by the Supreme Court a few years later. The forthcoming historical survey should tell us more. More recently, the neighborhood became notorious for drugs, gangs, and crime, especially at the intersection of 5th and Dice, which was the setting and title of a 2004 play at Live Arts about life in an urban ghetto. As late as 2002, run down houses in this area could still be had for a song, and for good reason. My neighbors who lived here during that time say that prostitutes would sit on the steps of abandoned houses and call out to passersby. By the time the play hit the stage, however, things had already begun to change quite a bit. Joe Mallory, an African American man who grew up nearby, had been buying and renovating houses near the intersection with the help of the Piedmont Housing Alliance in 2002.
Mallory’s efforts, along with a police crackdown on prostitution, the success of the Downtown Mall, the growth of the University, low interest rates, etc. drew investors, speculators, and homebuyers in search of value to Castle Hill. I count 24 houses that have been gutted and renovated within one block of 5th and Dice since 2003. Nalle St., 7Th Street, and 7 ½th Street have also seen significant renovation and building activity. Coran Capshaw’s 225 apartment-turned-condo Walker Square Building is the largest new development in this recent wave. It was completed in 2005. On 5th Street, two 6-house “cottage” developments were completed around the same time. They were joined in 2006 by the “5th Street Flats” building, with 12 condos and an architect’s office. Several infill single-family houses are currently under construction along with a small (6 units, I believe) “green development” on Grove St. The neighborhood association has succeeded in stopping (for now) two proposed condo projects, one on Estes Street, near Walker Square and the other at the corner of Ridge and Cherry.
Proximity to the Downtown Mall and the UVA Medical Center (for those of us who work there) is the main attraction of Castle Hill. The neighborhood is about a half-mile walk from the Downtown Mall and about a mile walk from the Rotunda. West Main is increasingly becoming an attraction in its own right. The Main Street Market, a collection of food shops and restaurants, is my favorite spot on West Main, followed closely by the resurrected breakfast-anytime Blue Moon Diner. The Starr Hill Restaurant and Music Hall, L’etoile, and Continental Divide are also nice places to eat. Castle Hill also has quite a few unique, charming, and historical old houses, some of which were built before the Civil War. The negatives of living here are mostly those of living in an old, mixed-income urban neighborhood. The houses are old; the yards tend to be small; parking is scarce; the streets are narrow and sometimes noisy. Closing can also be complicated, especially if the house hasn’t changed hands for a while. I know of several sales that have been delayed months or scrapped altogether because of title issues. Also, unlike Belmont, where gentrification began earlier, most of the houses that come up for sale are in still in need of major renovation, which is hard to swing if you can’t afford to pay rent, mortgage, and construction costs at the same time.
Housing prices here vary quite a bit. At the high end, a renovated old house sold for $385k about a year ago (302 5th St. SW). The new cottages and condos sell for $250 to $350. A rare vacant lot sold in September for $114k (222 5th St SW). Houses in need of complete renovation sell for $100-$200k, depending on size, condition, and potential (414 Dice sold in Feb. 2006 for $125k; 418 Oak sold in Nov. 2006 for $137,500; 716 Nalle sold for $170k in Apr. 2006; 402 Dice, now the gem of the neighborhood, sold for $200k completely gutted in 2005). Nearly all of the gentrification is concentrated in northern part of the neighborhood. Prices go down as you move south.
There is very little that I can add to this excellent depiction of Fifeville. My thanks go out to this Fifeville resident for his time and efforts. Referencing the homes that need renovation – the FHA 203(k) program is excellent and allows for just that.
The City’s Neighborhood newsletter featuring Fifeville is here (pdf).