Photo alum’s project working to preserve Carver history

VCU alum Steven Casanova began a community garden that features portraits of Carver neighborhood residents in 2012 in an effort to better preserve the locality’s history. PHOTO BY JULIE TRIPP

Sophia Belletti
Staff writer

VCU alum Steven Casanova began a community garden that features portraits of Carver neighborhood residents in 2012 in an effort to better preserve the locality’s history. PHOTO BY JULIE TRIPP
VCU alum Steven Casanova began a community garden that features portraits of Carver neighborhood residents in 2012 in an effort to better preserve the locality’s history. PHOTO BY JULIE TRIPP

Gentrification can be seen all throughout Richmond, but a VCU graduate is working to keep his neighborhood’s history alive.

At the intersection of West Leigh and Kinney Street in the Carver neighborhood sits a small garden full of fruits, vegetables and flowers. VCU alum Steven Casanova heavily renovated it and added his own artistic flair after he noticed its poor condition.

The community put the garden together in 2007 but it was in poor shape. Often, only a few plots would sell, and many weren’t being well-maintained. This year was the first time in several years every plot sold.

Casanova is a recent graduate of VCU Arts who moved into Carver his sophomore year of college and passed the garden every day walking to and from campus. It wasn’t until recently that Casanova learned to appreciate the gardening culture his mother was involved in. He bought a plot in 2012 hoping to breathe some life into the bed.

“When I got to (VCU) I was like, ‘Let me try to grow some stuff,’” Casanova said. “Most of the stuff I try to grow is for food rather than beauty.”

Early this spring, he saw an opportunity to restore the history of the Carver community through two of his passions: photography and gardening. The Virginia Beach native began hanging pictures of various residents on the outside fence of the garden.

“I found this was a great intersection between the college kids and the residents that live in the neighborhood, and I would see them both,” Casanova said. “This is a busy intersection and it’s a great platform for trying to say something. The pictures are (of) friends that I met that have been here for 50 or 60 years, one lady as much as 87 years.”

The Carver community started to feel more like home to the VCU grad as he met and formed relationships with the locals. Casanova felt that beginning this project was a form of calling for respect for the original residents.

“The pictures I am putting up are pictures depicting what it was like before it was gentrified,” Casanova said. “Not to shame anyone that’s benefiting from the gentrification, but rather to show those people to respect who was here. I got so much of a family feel, how it used to be. I wanted to make sort of a family tree.”

For Casanova, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Carver community is the history behind it. As a historically black neighborhood, Carver has existed through times of extreme racial tensions in Richmond.

“There’s a ton of history you will only get by talking to these (residents), not by me researching,” Casanova said.

The photos have made an impact on different residents’ lives on several occasions. Casanova said he sees his project bringing people together all the time and restoring kindness amongst others.

Another special moment for Casanova was when he finally convinced an older women to allow him to photograph her. It was an emotional experience when the woman saw her portrait for the first time, strung up in the garden.

“She cried,” Casanova said. “She was so happy. The problem she had was the photographers she grew up with, where photographers would come into the neighborhood and find children playing in the mud and photograph them and then display it as, ‘Look how dirty they are.’ She’s very used to manipulative photographers who are out with their own agenda. I wanted to show her in a pretty light.”

The current photoset on display is Casanova’s first complete set. He said he plans to hang new pictures and show other portraits in the months to come.

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