Column – Grace Street deserves better from town leaders

Published 4:52 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Pedestrians who use Grace Street sidewalks in the future will certainly be pleased to walk on even pavement now that the town has patched the broken and buckled sections of concrete that have made that street a walking minefield for years.

That said, the Grace Street sidewalks should still be an embarrassment to a town that prides itself in its Historic District.

Looking at the patchwork repairs along Grace Street recently, I was reminded of one of my favorite country songs, by one of my favorite artists — Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” Using bits of rags, her mother had made her a coat, “sewin’ every piece with love.”

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Well, Grace Street’s sidewalks are certainly a patchwork, but they were patched on the cheap with a fear of lawsuits by fallen pedestrians rather than with love.

Grace Street has been the neglected stepchild of the Historic District for decades, and repairing the sidewalks to make them safe and durable, while certainly important, ensures they will remain unsightly for a long time to come.

There were hopes that when the Virginia Department of Transportation rebuilt Grace Street (which, in a brilliant move, they plan to do while the Cypress Creek Bridge is partially closed this summer) the state would rebuild curb and gutters along the street and maybe help the town replace the sidewalks. VDOT won’t.

Town Manager Michael Stallings said the town also talked with Dominion and Verizon about the possibility of underground utilities along that street and determined the millions it would cost to bury them was prohibitive.

Thus, the town ended up patching the sidewalks.

Smithfield needs to do better by Grace Street. The homes on the street, most of them dating from the early 20th century, but several much older, form a unique and beautiful section of the town’s Historic District. Everything from cottages to federal mansions share frontage along Grace, and the street is a popular destination for visitors as well as local walkers.

The street has a new generation of homeowners, many of them young, some with children, a welcome addition to the town. These owners are taking pride in the neighborhood. Their houses and their yards are immaculate, a tribute to enthusiastic hard work and pride of community. These town residents work hard to participate in district activities. They decorate extensively for Christmas and their contribution to the town’s popular public Halloween celebration is legendary.

Smithfield’s neglect of Grace Street has to be something of a sore spot for these residents and should be as well for people beyond Grace who value and take pride in the Historic District.

Burying utilities will probably never occur on Grace Street, unless utilities eventually find it good business to do so. At this point, utilities seem disinterested at best, and would just as soon not be bothered by the difficulties of burying their infrastructure. And the fees they charge to do so seems to be proof of that. Nevertheless, there are things that can be done to mitigate utility ugliness to some degree.  

The biggest opportunity for Grace Street improvement, though, is sidewalks and plantings. Smithfield should engage the street’s residents directly to talk about what can — and what cannot — be done. Invite those residents to help develop a plan for their own street, just as the residents of Church Street were asked to do before that beautification work was finalized. 

Whether the Luter plan now before the town is approved as it has been presented is anybody’s guess, but something is going to happen to the Pierceville property, and its development will make Grace Street an even more significant part of the district than it is today. 

Grace Street beautification has been ignored for too long. It’s time for the Smithfield Town Council to acknowledge, through its actions, this important segment of the Historic District.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is