Project R4

Brent Finnegan -- March 1st, 2008

I seldom use the term “must read.” In fact, I’ve never used it here before. But anyone interested in learning about one of the biggest skeletons in Harrisonburg’s closet must read Lauren McKinney’s story about Project R4, originally published in the October 2000 issue of eightyone. This is the first time it’s been available online.

This month’s issue is an update on past stories.

20 Responses to “Project R4”

  1. Emmy says:

    I had Lauren McKinney (assuming its the same one) as a professor in college. Looking forward to reading this.

  2. Barb says:

    I read this when it was originally published back in 2000. There have been many memorable stories in eightone, but none has stuck with me more than this one.

  3. John says:

    What a double blast from the past. I registered this domain years ago for Lauren McKinney when she was inspired by cvillenews, but we never actually got anything up on it. Glad to see that it is being used for its intended purpose.

  4. finnegan says:

    Wait, you registered after seeing

    So did I. Yours must have expired before I registered it in 2006.


  5. Lauren McKinney says:

    Thanks so much for posting the article. And yes, Emmy, I taught at EMU from 1995-2001. Currently I’m in a Creative Nonfiction MFA program, writing a food memoir, and raising two boys.

    I really just stumbled onto this story. I couldn’t have done it without Jennifer Vickers, who lived on Broad St. at the time and who introduced me to the people I interviewed. (She lives near Charlottesville now.) Please read the PDF version with the photos, though, as they are very poignant.

    I don’t know if Bob Sullivan is still around, but someone should take a look at his scrapbook from the era. It’s memorable for the photos and also for his own commentary. His comments show a lot of the attitudes of the time, which he was a little embarrassed about when I talked to him. But what a valuable trove it is. I remembered being amazed at how proud Harrisonburg was of that parking garage when it was new!

    “Finnegan,” it’s great that you’ve set up this site. Harrisonburg needs all the independent news commentary it can get. What a strange and contradictory place it is, although not without a certain compelling charm.

  6. Tim says:

    Sends a shiver down the spine then back up.
    Thank god the Auto Zone has had such a possitive effect on our community.

  7. Emmy says:

    Wow! I know that a lot would have changed over the years anyway, but I wonder what the city would be like if this had never happened. I’d have to guess that people wouldn’t think this is such a boring town because we might have a lot more life if it hadn’t been sucked out of its residents. This story is very representative of why people don’t always “get over it” and why apologizing for those who came before us is always a good idea. I can’t imagine what this must have felt like.

  8. The lady that Lauren mentions, Jennifer Vickers, was a good customer of mine when she was living in Harrisonburg. I reproduced many old pictures like this for her. I will always remember her fondly. I also remember when her mother died and Jennifer was devastated, as we all would be. I often wondered what happened to her. If you read this post Lauren, please give her my best. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have Jennifer come and speak sometime about her stories. I would be so interested to hear them.

  9. JGFitzgerald says:

    In 1990 or so, a string of shops along Liberty Street was torn down to build the jail. They included a sandwich shop, an antique store, and the Olde Virginia Ham Cafe. They were “blighted.” The more things change.

  10. Emmy says:

    I remember the Olde Virginia Ham Cafe, I miss that place.

  11. JNafziger says:

    Two things on that story. First, I was a reporter at the News-Record (working for JGFitzgerald) for about four years ending in 1995. There is no story I’ve heard of since that I more wish I’d have known about when I was a reporter. It was completely fascinating and explained so much about the city–and I’d lived there for almost 20 years before I went to work for the paper. And as much as I was glad to know it, that feeling of getting badly scooped in your own backyard, which happens from time to time when you work for a daily newspaper, just about kills you. (I like to think I partially returned the favor to the DN-R by writing about the indictment of the four Kurdish men, in eightyone, more than 10 years later.)

    Second, I was teaching a sixth-grade Sunday school class at Community Mennonite Church a couple years ago, and figured that for one lesson, we’d do a walking tour of downtown Harrisonburg–motivated by something I don’t recall now, having to do with knowing your own town. Anyway, we talked about Thomas Harrison’s original grave being right under our church, the changing of German Street to Liberty Street (or Freedom Fries?) during a world war, the jail displacing a bunch of businesses, went to the Hardesty-Higgins House, and ended up on the northeast corner of Court Square, where I produced from my coat the eightyone with Lauren’s great story in it. However, my dramatic exposition was temporarily postponed by the gaping mouths of the students, who were looking at the cover of the magazine while I was looking at the story inside. Apparently, one of the other features in that issue was “How to talk to your kids about sex,” and they were worried that that’s what I was about to do. Which I was not.

    But, it’s great that story is now easily available. It is extremely important knowledge for anyone that lives here.

  12. JNafziger,

    The “how to talk to your kids about sex” feature was in October 2004 — in that issue we (eightyone) reprinted Lauren McKinney’s original October 2000 piece about Project R4. The requests for the original October 2000 piece have never let up, which is why we reprinted it in ’04 and then finally (OK, about 7.5 years late) put it on our site. The most recent request came from someone teaching adult literacy.

    And come on, if a DN-R reporter had wanted to tell the Project R4 story with the space and care that eightyone gave it thanks to Lauren and Jennifer Vickers, would top brass (not you, JGFitzgerald, but tip-top brass) have ever allowed it?

    I do remember one bad reaction to the piece. A downtown Staunton (not Hburg, but Staunton) merchant, who prides himself on his store looking just like it did in Victorian days, told one of our ad reps that Lauren’s story was too “devisive” and eightyone shouldn’t run such pieces. (Sigh …)

  13. By “devisive” I meant “divisive.” Sorry about that.

  14. JNafziger says:


    You’re right–it was the reprint. And you’re also right–it could not be reprinted too many times.

    As for the top brass back in the day, JGFitzgerald may have a better idea because he actually had to talk to them, but I suspect a reporter could have worked on it for a while without their having any idea a) that someone was working on it, or b) knowing what it meant until they saw it in the paper one day. It was a different cast of characters in those offices then, with a different set of quirks.

  15. JGFitzgerald says:

    I’ve asked the same question about whether the DNR would have printed the piece. No conclusion. A lot of it would have depended on who was the last person to talk to the person who had the last word, if he was involved. More likely we could have slipped it by, and more’s the pity that we would have had to.

  16. Tim says:

    It’s sad that history isn’t written by the partakers, or the observers, but by the editors.

  17. linz says:

    It’s amazing how I could have grown up here and never known about this until this article. It must have really been kept on the d/l to have been practically erased from our city’s history in such a short period of time. With the exception of Kline’s most of the businesses in that part of town have been practically dead for at least 20 years and it’s mostly made up of empty parking lots. How sad. It makes a lot more sense to rip down big empty commercial space today than peoples’ homes 40 years ago.

    My only beef with the article – what’s up with the weird tangent toward the poultry business in the last few paragraphs? It’s not based on fact and really doesn’t jive with the rest of the article and therefore provides a pretty weak ending to an otherwise great expose. Poultry companies pay their hourly works a heck of a lot more per hour than Wal-Mart and significantly more than just about every other hourly job around.

  18. Bryan says:

    I’ve known Emmit Lee throughout my time in Harrisonburg going back to the age of five. He has always been a solid representation to me of the strong sense of community that I often felt growing up there. I saw him last weekend when I was visiting and he still remembered my name (as opposed to the brother that, some say, looks just like me). We talked briefly about family, recent news, my size when we first met as demonstrated by his hand. I’m shocked that I’d never heard anything about R-4 before. It is distressing to know that such an integral part of the community was lost in one of H’burg’s many short-sighted and poorly executed decisions. I never forget my encounters with Emmit and others like him who cannot pass up an opportunity to stop and catch up. These moments are so telling of that strong awareness of community and identity that H’burg struggles to maintain and redefine over the years. I have a great deal of respect for the regulars here and those elsewhere who are taking an active role in the future of the city to ensure that a sense of community is maintained in all the craziness of unchecked growth and development.

  19. Brian Atkins says:

    Lets be clear here, this article is nothing but a piece of trashy liberal yellow journalism. Completely misleading. I’m sure written by a kid who doesn’t remember the 70’s muchless the 50’s.

    Was the project the right thing to do? Maybe yes, maybe no. However trying to spin this as some racist action is sickening. It was not. I remember the area well, you state some houses were in good repair which I’m sure is true. However, 80% of those houses would be condemed today. The vast majority of those houses when built were nothing more than pole buildings, never designed to be permanent housing. They were falling down and almost none had power, indoor plumbing or septic. Many had no windows and were serious fire hazards. The roads were unfit for cars and there were lean to shacks propped up with logs on Black’s Run. There were also white people who lost property too. The story at the time was people couldn’t believe how much money the people recieved for what was basically worthless property.

    The city simply did what any city does when it gets grants for redevelopment. That area was the worst of the worst and they used the money to definetly better the city. No different than what the city does everyday. No different than what it is doing with the Ericson Ave project today. This exact same thing is happening all over Detroit and many cities today. No good comes from neighborhoods where half the houses are vacant and 3/4th of them falling down. Thats not racist, it’s reality. The author of this story seriously needs to educate herself.

    What the story leaves out is that The HRHA developed the entire north east side of town with well build, low income homes using grant money where most of that population settled. I am almost never an advocate of eminent domain but from a city planning and social standpoint, including the black community, it was probably the single best development action in the city’s history. Sad story but that neighborhood HAD to be rebuilt. Want to tell a truly sad story? Lets talk about the hundreds of white families that had their land STOLEN from them, not purchased to expand the forest in the county. Harrisonburg would never be what it is today with what looked like a hobo shanty town 4 blocks from the court house.

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