On a Saturday morning in early November, about 30 people gathered near an opening in the chain link fence at the back of Tonsler Park.
Carmelita Wood, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, used a machete to slash a ribbon of yellow “caution” tape blocking the entrance. With a swing of the blade, Wood marked the official opening of the Fifeville Trail.
The trail, which totals less than a mile, runs from Greenstone Apartments on Prospect Avenue to 7 ½ Street SW, with links to the back of Tonsler Park and 5th Street SW.
The paths are a community-devised, community-led effort to increase pedestrian safety and connectivity in the area, said Sarah Malpass, secretary of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association who worked closely with Wood on the project.
And while the Fifeville Trail is new in name, its paths — and its story — were first forged generations ago.
By the time Dorenda Dickerson Johnson’s family moved into one of the three houses on Prospect Avenue (then called 7 ½ St.) in 1969, paths through the woods behind Tonsler Park were well-worn. She and her younger brother frequently walked a trail to Forest Hills Park, and her mother regularly walked the trail to Estes IGA Foodliner grocery store on Cherry Avenue. Her father sometimes walked it as a shortcut to his job at UVA Hospital, where he led the operating room’s housekeeping staff.
For pedestrians, the footpaths were shorter and faster than city streets and sidewalks, Johnson said.
The way I look at it — and I don’t want to sound mean, I’m glad they’ve done something — is, in all actuality, it’s part of gentrification.—Dorenda Johnson, 53-year Prospect Avenue resident
These paths saw even more foot traffic in the 1970s, as duplexes popped up on Prospect and the newly-cleared Orangedale Avenue behind it. Around the same time, the 200-unit Oak Ridge Gardens apartment complex, now called Greenstone of Fifth, was built on Prospect.
For a while, the neighborhood filled with mostly young, white professionals. But these were just “starter homes” for them, said Johnson. As they started “living good,” they moved out, and throughout the 1980s, property management companies bought up the houses as investment properties, letting them fall into disrepair and renting them out for cheap.
People used the trails less throughout the 1980s, “when the drugs and the crack and all of that infiltrated the poor neighborhoods, especially Black neighborhoods, all over the country,” including Johnson’s own.
“Things started getting really tough down there in the woods on that trail. Somebody was killed. It was just not a safe place,” said Johnson.
The property owner in the 1980s closed off the trail entrance at Prospect Avenue. The city put up a chain link fence at the back of Tonsler Park. After that, most folks stopped using the trails, though a few cut holes in the fence and used them anyway. Weeds, vines, snapped tree branches and random trash soon covered the paths that once guided neighborhood residents through daily life.
That’s how it was until a couple years ago, when the Fifeville Neighborhood Association got to work restoring the trail.
The idea came from a neighborhood survey that asked residents what they liked and didn’t like about their neighborhood, and what could be done to improve it.
A number of longtime residents mentioned using the old paths in their surveys, but that they were “taken away,” and were missed, said Malpass.
Folks wanted it back not just for convenience, but for safety: People said they don’t feel safe walking the sidewalks along Fifth Street, one of the city’s most dangerous roads, especially with children in tow.
The neighborhood association wanted to give it back to them, but first, it had to find out if that was possible. All of the property behind Tonsler Park and the Salvation Army store on Cherry, the land sandwiched between 5th and 7 1/2 Streets and between Prospect and Cherry Avenues, is owned by Woodard Properties.
They asked Keith Woodard for permission to build the trails. He said yes.
“We helped with the trail project because its function of connecting the neighborhood was a clear need that would help solve,” said Anthony Woodard, Keith’s son and Woodard Properties CEO. “It was really a no-brainer. We have a piece of land that we’re not currently using, and the neighborhood needs it, so, let’s let them use it.”
Over the next two years, Fifeville residents of all ages contributed to all aspects of the trail creation, from envisioning to clearing to mulch-laying. With markers and computer paper, neighborhood kids drew pictures of cleared paths lined with tall, leafy trees, flowers, benches, and trash cans. One drew a snack bar. Another drew a fishing pond.
Neighborhood association president and longtime Fifeville resident Wood led the clearing of the mess of overgrown weeds, shrubs and vines, machete in hand.
“We literally walked behind her as she hacked her way through,” said Peter Krebs, community and advocacy manager for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “We already knew back then that the project would succeed because she was brave and determined,” he added.
Together, neighbors decided on lights for safety, and that it would be a pedestrian trail, so that older and younger residents wouldn’t have to worry about bikes speeding by. Volunteers with neighborhood organizations like Abundant Life Ministries and the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, as well as a local Boy Scout Troop, put in hours of volunteer time throughout the process.
Funding came from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation’s Heal Charlottesville Fund and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s Get Outdoors grant. The Piedmont Environmental Council and the Rivanna Trails Foundation pitched in with advice and organization assistance, and the City of Charlottesville’s Parks and Recreation department helped by clearing and preparing an official trail entrance at the back of Tonsler Park.
The Fifeville Trail opened unofficially over the summer, and neighborhood association secretary Malpass sees people using it. For the most part, it resembles the visions people had of the trail, though there’s no snack bar or fishing pond as some of the kids hoped.
Despite its proximity to noisy car traffic on Fifth Street and Cherry Avenue, the trail is quiet enough to hear the breeze in the trees and the gentle bubbling of the creek. There’s a constant soundtrack of birds chirping, squirrels hopping from branch to branch, and sticks snapping beneath one’s feet.
There are remnants of city and neighborhood history scattered throughout the trail, including an automobile bridge from the early 20th century, when 5th Street ran through what is now Tonsler Park, and of the long-gone brickyard over near 7 ½ Street. Less visible is its history, though Malpass hopes more community members will come to know that as well, whether it’s through signage or events.
“The restoration of the trail speaks to a much larger history in the United States of lack of investment and sometimes direct takings from the Black community, of places and spaces that have been central to community life,” said Malpass. “It holds a lot of meaning in that space in terms of bringing back something that was taken away.”
Dorenda Johnson, who has now lived on Prospect Avenue for 53 years, supported the restoration of the paths she walked in her youth. But she’s skeptical.
“The way I look at it — and I don’t want to sound mean, I’m glad they’ve done something — is, in all actuality, it’s part of gentrification,” she said. Her neighborhood is changing once again. Suddenly, landlords are trying to fix up the homes they neglected for years and renting them at prices longtime residents can’t afford. Lower-income, mostly Black, folks are moving out, and they’re being replaced by young, mostly white, professionals and their families.
Johnson can’t help but think of the timing of it all. She wonders why the trail cleanup project wasn’t done years ago, to keep it safe and functional for neighbors throughout the crack epidemic and in the years immediately after, when people living on Prospect and Orangedale suffered from the area’s bad reputation.
She also wonders about the future of the trail system, since it’s on privately-owned property.
Woodard Properties has promised to maintain the connectivity function of the trail if — or more likely, when — development happens. That could mean keeping the trail, or creating a sidewalk system or roads.
Johnson struggles to envision the Fifeville Trail functioning today as it did years ago. She predicts that the newer residents in the neighborhood will be the ones using it most often.
“This trail, this trail, this trail. I want it to succeed. I want people to be happy, and to be safe, when they use that trail. It should be for everybody,” Johnson said. Then she lowered her voice and asked, enunciating every word: “But is it really going to be?”
So far, Malpass has seen evidence that it will. With the ongoing city school bus driver shortage, some families use the trail as a safer shortcut to Buford Middle School. She’s seen some of her neighbors cutting up through the trail via Tonsler Park, grocery bangs in hand. She’s seen people walking their dogs, “or taking the time to just sit and soak in all the beauty that’s back in the space.”
“There are so many ways in which having that connection enhances life in the community. People get where they need to go, in a safe way, and they get to do it in a space that’s beautiful,” said Malpass.
Recently, Malpass ran into a neighbor she hadn’t seen in a while, a young woman who had wanted the trail system she’d heard about from her elders, for her own generation. As a child, she and her friends ignored the “no trespassing signs” to play in the creek behind Prospect.
Malpass was excited to share the news that the trail connection was open once again.
But the young woman already knew. She walks on it every day to and from work.