RICHMOND -- Family and friends thought the place was a hopeless dump, but Mark Shaw Lindsey looked past the rotting floors and exposed wires and saw a bargain.
For $17,000 it was all his: a ramshackle 19th-century frame house in this city's Church Hill neighborhood, just a few blocks from the church where Patrick Henry made his famous declaration, "Give me liberty or give me death."
Lindsey, a 28-year-old architect, didn't foresee when he moved in five years ago that he and other young renovators would be viewed as a force that neighbor Gladys Perry says has "victimized us and raped us of our rights to preside over our lives and property."
Lindsey and other mostly white urban pioneers want their neighborhood designated as an "Old and Historic District," a status they say is needed to protect its aesthetic integrity. But longtime black residents such as Perry view the district as an unconscionable intrusion -- a device that could eventually force them from their homes.
Similar disputes have played out in recent years in many other cities, including Washington and Alexandria.
In Richmond, as elsewhere, the conflict has a subtext of racial fear and resentment.
The historic district designation for Church Hill, the neighborhood where Gov. L. Douglas Wilder grew up, would give the city's appointed Board of Architectural Review power over any changes to the exterior of homes.
Working-class blacks believe the new status also would raise property prices and taxes, accelerating neighborhood gentrification that some believe already has gone too far.
Richmond's City Council, which itself has had a racial split in recent years, is set to resolve the historic district issue today.
"I've paid my dues; I have bought it," Perry, a widow, said of the home where she has lived for 36 years.
A churchgoer who believes a lady shouldn't reveal her age, Perry said she and her neighbors have a simple plea, "Leave us alone . . . . If you want restrictions for yourself, fine, but don't impose them on me."
City appraisers acknowledge that property has appreciated in Richmond's other historic districts, but gradually.
Rather than pushing out old-timers, Lindsey said, he and other renovators have bought vacant homes, often from slumlords. Rather than inviting onerous regulation, he said, the historic district would curb only the worst violations of the preservationist spirit -- the developer who wants to replace an old home with a cinder-block dwelling or the homeowner whose favorite color is "Day-Glo blue."
For his part, Lindsey has taken a place so pitiful that his mother cried the first time she saw it and turned it into a virtual gallery of urban style: shiny hardwood floors, custom-made cabinets and artwork hanging on the walls.
Less chic, perhaps, is the pistol he keeps in his bedroom. He brandished it most recently from an upstairs window, he said, when a drug dealer shot somebody with an Uzi on the sidewalk out front.
Although crime is a problem, Lindsey concluded, "I wouldn't live anywhere else."
The place where Lindsey and other activists live is adjacent to an already-gentrified portion of Church Hill, which has been a historic district for years. Its centerpiece is St. John's Church, where Henry delivered his revolutionary oration in 1775.
This fight is over a 20-block portion of Church Hill just north of Broad Street, the thoroughfare running through Richmond that traditionally has divided white from black.
This "other Church Hill," as some residents call it, has for 150 years been a working-class district, and its blocks contain nearly 1,000 buildings, one of this city's largest concentrations of pre-Civil War homes. Almost 25 percent are run-down and vacant.
At the center of the Church Hill storm is City Council member Henry L. Marsh III, a former mayor of the city and nationally prominent civil rights activist.
Marsh is a hero to most of the neighborhood's older residents, but many newcomers -- white and black -- said he has deliberately turned what should be a debate over such innocuous issues as wood vs. aluminum siding into a roiling racial contest.
"This all could have been prevented, in my opinion, with some leadership," said Art Burton, 53, who arrived in the neighborhood three years ago and is one of the few blacks publicly supporting the historic district.
Burton thinks Marsh is out of step with the times. "Unless he's going to be more congenial to change," he said, "he's going to have a hard time."
Marsh denies that he has tried to inflame the issue, but he makes no apologies for talking openly about the racial implications of the historic district. "Most of the people who are adversely affected by the district are black, most of the people who are for it are white," said Marsh.
Some of Marsh's constituents believe that blacks should bring race even more into the open. Church Hill's older residents "need to be much more aggressive," said 45-year-old Reggie Malone, who believes that white real estate interests are methodically conspiring to chase blacks from the neighborhood. "There is a plan, and it's long-term," he said.
On the porch of Malone's house, an American flag flies next to a sign declaring, "The historic district will rob us of our homes and our community."
That issue -- conflicting notions of community -- is at the heart of the Church Hill dispute.
The young newcomers have made their mutual fascination with urban homesteading the touchstone of their community. They have pitched in to clean up litter, joined community groups to help fight crime and devoted their weekends to restoring their homes.
"There's a bond among people," Lindsey said, "because we've all renovated and gone through the same despair and elation."
But Dorothy Allen, a silver-haired 69-year-old who used to work as a domestic, thinks the preservationists have it backward. "Living isn't looking at a house," she said. "Living is being free to do what you want to do."
Like many older Church Hill residents, Allen has known Wilder, the nation's first black elected governor, since he was a boy. The Wilder family home is no longer standing, but it sat just outside the boundaries of the proposed historic district.
The governor, whose ownership of dilapidated property on Church Hill became an issue in last fall's campaign, has steered clear of the latest controversy.
After all the discord, Marsh thinks it still may be possible to end Church Hill's dispute amicably by not designating a historic district there for two more years.
After that, the district should be implemented, he said, only if there is financial help to prevent older residents from being squeezed.
"I believe in historic preservation," said Marsh, "but I believe in people more."
For now, the ties between people on Church Hill are growing strained. Before the historic district uproar, said Perry, white newcomers and black old-timers got along well. "On the sidewalk it used to be 'hello' and 'good morning,' but that's gone," she said. "It's not a healthy atmosphere."