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Know Your City: Richmond’s first suburbs

The “streetcar suburbs” that changed the River City city forever

A postcard of Richmond's lakeside park

Lakeside Park is nestled among the Northside’s historic streetcar suburbs.

Photo via VCU Libraries Digital Collections

Ever wondered how historic neighborhoods like Ginter Park and Barton Heights started cropping up around the River City? The answer involves public transportation, mixed-use zoning, and one famous tobacco magnate.

The world’s first successful electric streetcar system opened in Richmond in 1888, designed by Frank Sprague. When it opened it covered 12 miles of service, though it would eventually expand to an impressive 82 miles. These commuter trolleys — and the affordable flat rate they charged to patrons — would completely change the way cities were zoned. Now, citizens could live miles away from a city center and still easily come and go without spending the whole day walking.

RICtoday_BroadStreet_TrolleySystem

The streetcar system, as seen on a 20th century postcard.

Photo via VCU Libraries Digital Collections

As the trolley became more popular, some Richmonders began to see new opportunities for development. Lewis Ginter, who popularized the mass-produced cigarette, bought a swath of land just north of town and began to develop neighborhoods around the streetcar lines. These neighborhoods would become Ginter Park, Bellevue, Barton Heights, Highland Park, Laburnum Park, and Sherwood Park.

Streetcar suburbs were built around a mixed-use development strategy, where houses would be within immediate walking distance of stores, multifamily homes, and trolley stations to take them into the city. They were laid out in a loose grid of wide, green yards and streets lined with trees.

A view of a Richmond neighborhood street with orange and yellow leaves on the trees.

Even now, 100+ years later, Northside neighborhoods like Ginter Park are among Richmond’s most beautiful.

Photo by @ginter.park

Though copies of Richmond’s streetcar suburbs soon started cropping up in cities around the country, it would only be a few decades before motorcars became the norm and the electric trolley system would fall by the wayside. The neighborhoods they enabled, however, remain some of Richmond’s most scenic and historic places to take a stroll.

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