The Blue Raccoon

Monday, May 04, 2009

My Journey Into Richmond

-- And What I Found There III

Part III

“I have thought it wise to live for the future and not the dead past. While cherishing honorable memory of its glories, I have thought that we should look to the future for life, power and prosperity…”

William Mahone, Readjuster and ornery cuss, 1882

Just a different set of problems…

Come now, and walk alongside an obstreperous travel writer who is researching an extensive feature about Richmond – a different version than the one with which you are familiar.

He—like you—has never been to the Richmond described here-- but he’s applied himself to studying the story, and he receives able guidance by indulgent, patient and hospitable residents.

In this Richmond, people are no less venal and slothful, nor more gracious and industrious, as they are in the city around you now.

They just have a different set of problems.

The subjects of conversations in its boisterous bars and busy cafés are textured by a history quite altered from the one recorded in Virginius Dabney’s book.

Nobody could blame you, though, if you’d like to move there.

The story thus far:
Philip Gotz. a well-known travel writer for print and online media, is taking one of his five-day "What I Found There" excursions to Richmond, Va. He was met upon his arrival at the Admiral Richard E. Byrd International Airport by Tia Chulangong. a representative of the city's tourism office. While riding the airport train to Main Street Station, Tia explains to Gotz about Richmond's development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a zoning provision forbidding high rises in the center city, and the green belts girding the town, which one developer derided as a "noose of weeds and vines." At Gotz's behest, they've stopped to have a drink on the station's Main Street balcony.

(Image credits at end)

3. The Balcony Scene

“So Cap’n Trice mentioned something about restaurants and lounges,” said Gotz as they alighted from the train and stepped onto the platform. But his next thought floated away as he observed the important bustle under the steel supported canopy. Gotz pulled up his recorder, “Main Street station train shed big enough to park a zeppelin.”

The baggage handlers puttering on their whirring lorries, families with maps and questions and making sure everybody was together, a gaggle of seniors and their jaunty capped guide holding up a sign, “Mature & In Motion,” and the European college kids hauling massive backpacks. He stood for a moment and breathed in the sensations.

Electronic klaxons, the slow building whine and chuff of one train backing out and the corresponding announcement, “Now departing from Track Thrrree, the Tidewater Express, bound for Petersburg, Williamsburg a-a-and the Citeee of Ham-pton Roads.”

Other announcements of arrivals and departures echoed overhead and a hanging screen noted in red and green to expect the Washington D.C. high speed express in two minutes.

Tia at some paces ahead turned to see Gotz standing, his big chin raised and eyes closed as if in communion. She let him do his thing, since he was enjoying himself, until he realized how long he’d remained there. He realized this, smiled, and joined her.

The noise of the platforms didn’t allow for speaking but as they passed through the doors into the station house he said, “You ever see It’s A Wonderful Life?”

“Too many times.”

“There’s that great line – and places like this remind me of it, and my whole profession. George Bailey asks Uncle Billy what he thinks the three most exciting sounds in the world are, and Uncle Billy says, ‘Breakfast is served – “

Tia joined, “-- lunch is served, dinner – “

Gotz nodded. “Then George says ,’No, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.’”
Tia asked, “Which do you like the best?”

“’Breakfast is served,’ I think. I’m worthless without my coffee. But speaking of drinking —“

“Which we weren’t.”

“But I’m getting to it,” his eyes swept around the coffered ceilings and gilded columns, the newsstand bristling with colorful enticements, the various fast food come-ons in bright lights. While not as grand as Union Station in Washington, or as self-important as Grand Central, Main Street conveyed the sense of comings, goings and busy schedules to keep.

“Howzabout those restaurants and lounges?”

“We can get something on the terrace; the balcony. Beautiful day for it.”

“I’ll follow you, to the balcony, or even off it.”

Tia indulgently pursed her lips. She said, “That wouldn’t be good for either of us.”

“Depends, depends,” Gotz airily replied.

They strode across the wide marble floor to the arches of the loggia where a young brunette woman in crisp whites at the host stand knew Tia well enough to say, “T! How are you,” and embrace her.

“Audrey Thomas, this is Philip Gotz, the travel writer, and he’s spending five days in Richmond for a piece he’s writing about us.”

Audrey beamed, shook his hand, “Welcome to Richmond! You have the best possible guide.”

“I’m thinking you’re right.”

“So we’re just having a drink,” Tia said and reached into her little purse for round lensed, tortoise-shell sunglasses

They followed Audrey onto the ornate Main Street balcony furnished by café tables and chairs. Buses, taxis, and trams provided a hopping energy accentuated by a lattice of railroad bridges and viaducts that criss-crossing over the street.

The busy rhythm was punctuated by a procession of dormered, step-gabled, third-floor arch windowed, lush-corniced 19th century commercial buildings marching west up the hill toward the business district.

Tia sat Gotz facing west and that allowed her to point out sites while she did not drink from her chardonnay. He sampled a Richmond brew, Legend porter.

They tapped glass together, “To you, and welcome,” she said, and he replied, “And here’s to the startling qualities of Richmond guides.”

“I’d feel better if I didn’t think you said that to everyone.”

“But you’re wrong,” he said, and tried the beer, nodded, and drank more. “If this is any indication, Tia, it’s going to be a great visit.”

He peered over her shoulder toward 15th Street. Red signs and arrows indicated the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. “Ah, so here it is,” he said. “Been reading about Eddie’s foray into journalism.”

Tia, one hand under her chin, turned, “Yes, that’s the Southern Literary Messenger building,” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “His first real writing job.”

“We’re going there –“

“Um, tomorrow, later in the day. So, what you’re seeing here,” she swept her lithe arm across the storefronts and peaked and corniced rooftops, “are some of the most historic places in Richmond. And they’re still here, which considering all that’s happened, and all that could’ve happened, kind of a small miracle. For example, a lot of what you’re seeing here was supposed to be demolished for the interstate.”

Gotz nodded. “But you Richmonders got all up in arms.”

Biiig time,” Tia said, widening her eyes. “Marches on the Capitol here, convoys of protestors to D.C., the Governor making his declaration,” and she squinted to recall the words, as though some pledge taken in an elementary classroom. “‘The roads will not run through Richmond, nor any of our cities where the people are opposed.’ And the Congressional delegation protesting how the Interstate Highways Commission was just handed money without going through an allocation process. It was big, nasty, loud and long.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Knew you’d say that. But, anyway, it wasn’t but so much fun because Virginia lost millions and millions of dollars in government money – punishment -- not just for the highways; but the actions here inspired cities nationwide to follow Richmond, and places fought to keep the highways from knocking down their central city neighborhoods.”

“Bunch of troublemakers, is what you are.”

“Thank you! We make our best effort. Anyway, behind you can just see the Riverwalk which really starts here," she turned and pointed toward a high arched stone bridge festooned by iron lamps. A promenade walkway connected to the bridge. A streetcar rolling over it reminded Gotz of that ancient Toonerville Trolley comic strip.

"That's Shockoe Creek, which until the 1920s flooded every spring, but we started our water control project in 1923, and it became the River Walk. That runs directly to the river, and between it and the Flood Wall, they really saved this neighborhood. A regional arts project created that mural of the historic riverside.”

“Ah, yes. Sort of fools your eye for a minute. It’s like a stage backdrop.”

“Beyond that, is the real James River Kanawha Canal – “

“Where I’ll be taking a slow boat.”

“That’s right. Tuesday I’m putting you on the slow boat to Tuckahoe.”

“Looking forward to it.”

“You’ll be getting aboard at the Gallego Plaza – the canal boat offices are at Eighth Street. I’ll show you where it’s at on your way up to the Jefferson. Two blocks over, behind us, is the 17th Street Market, the oldest farmers market in the country, and behind that is the National Museum of Bondage and Liberation—we’re going there day after tomorrow—and it’s built over Lumpkin’s Jail -- holding pens for the slave markets-- and what’s interesting is that around the corners the floor is clear, so you can see the foundations and other things they found below the surface, the black cemetery across the street is part of the museum, and there’s some exhibits, too, in the St. Charles Hotel building which is next door.”

“Tia, be honest with me. Do people actually go to a slavery museum?”

“Yes, they honestly do, and more and more of them.”

“Not something you do on a light-hearted whim.”

“Yeah. I mean, of course, it’s a serious place.”

“One would hope.”

“We’ll see it; the scope of it is not just the 400 years —but the abolitionists and attempts to gain freedom, as individuals, or through group action – “

“We’re talking Nat Turner, right?”

“And Touissant L’Overture in Haiti. And Gabriel Prosser, too,” Tia added. “And John Brown.”

“Serious place, for sure, ” Gotz said and drank.

“But it’s about slavery here, elsewhere, past and current worldwide, and how people have fought for their freedom. Before the Civil War, here, the slave markets were all around where we’re sitting. Then the big fire destroyed almost this entire district.”

“How Wagnerian.”

“Most of what you see was built just after the war.”

“But now Shockoe is where all the fleshpots and iniquity are at?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“You really need the opium dens.”

“Richmond’s progressive about many things, but I don’t think that’s one of them.”


“Not legal in Virginia.”

“Amazing. You have casino gambling and horse racing, but no opium dens or brothels,” and Gotz performed a profound disappointment. “This is turning into a very boring story.”

“Would you want to live next to an opium den or a brothel?”

“You live around here?”

“Yup; actually just past Shockoe," she squinted her left eye and pointed over Gotz's shoulder.

" remind me. This is one of those revitalized neighborhoods."

"H'mmm. Yes. Well, it'd gone through a few, I guess, cycles," she twirled a hand in the air. "So, it was a working and middle-class neighborhood, whites, immigrants, and by the mid-20th century more African-Americans. But the community pulled together, got historic status and urban redevelopment money, a levee along the river, and now it's a really great, I think, I mean I live there," and she allowed a smile punctuated by dimples. "A mixture of all kinds of people."

"Pricey, though?"

“Depends. But the city is right out your front door. Some people say it's too far away from downtown, and the fun, but we got our own cafes and restaurants, galleries and movie theater. Plus, I tell people this because it’s true, I haven’t owned a car since high school. I just don’t need one here. My money goes to other things than oil changes and insurance.”

“A very public relations response –“

“Well, that's my job. And, speaking of which: Mr Gotz –“


“Well, the office informed me,” she breathed in and pushed a strand of errant hair behind one ear. “Your former wife is here this weekend.”

Gotz pushed out his lower lip and raised his shoulders.

“We’re adults. It’s a big town. Which former wife, by the way?”

“Ah, Jennifer Royce.”

“Book tour I bet.”

“She’s reading at Cokesbury tomorrow.”

“Good for her!”

“She’s staying at the Jefferson, too.”

Gotz blinked, then chuckled.

“Well, long as we’re not in an elevator and the power goes out, we should be fine. Tia, don’t look so anxious.”

“It was a booking confusion and I’m really really sorry.”

For a moment, Tia’s sharp professionalism popped like a bad cable television connection. Gotz shrugged.

“Really, it’s fine. I mean, you didn’t do it. Did you?”

“Ah. Like I say, it was a scheduling error.”

“That wasn’t an answer.”

“Somebody at the office fouled up.”

“You mean fucked up.”

Tia sipped her chardonnay.

His brow furrowed and he raised his nose. “H’m,” he said. “Somebody’s smoking the world’s largest cigar.”

“ That’s the tobacco across the river. There’s several factories here. Not as many as years ago.”

“This is the city tobacco built, huh?”

“At first, flour and textiles, then tobacco, yes,” Tia began, happy to speak of history less emotionally freighted than ex-wives. “We can thank Lewis Ginter for that, whose company invented the cigarette rolling machine and he formed American Tobacco here, then the U.S. government split it up and several of the smaller firms kept headquarters in Richmond. By the 1940s, we produced about 85 percent of the tobacco products consumed in the United States.”

“Tobacco put the ‘rich’ in Rich-mond, is what they say, right? ‘Cigarette City.’”

“And other not-so-nice names.”

“Like, for example, what I’ve heard, Carcinogenville, Big C-Town…”

“Because of health considerations, and changes in the national economy, many of those plants closed or moved,” Tia explained. “They’ve been turned into apartments and lofts. But, when the wind blows the right way, you can still smell tobacco.” She turned toward Main Street and added, “I don’t smoke, but I like the smell.”

About the images and notes: Exterior of Main Street Station, with balcony arches, from Interior version of balcony arches from the Archer Pelican blog.
Interior of unfortunately empty Main Street Station, and from Kim Schmidt.
And Shockoe from the balcony,
perpetual I've tried finding interior images online of the wondrously restored building showing people and movement -- to no avail.

Some of the most depressing images I've ever seen of Richmond history is that of the concrete support stanchions for the so-called "Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike" marching into Shockoe like Imperial Walkers, and almost crushing Main Street Station. The before and after images of this cultural atrocity, shown stark and large at the Valentine Richmond History Center's
exhibit Battle for the City: the Politics of Race 1950s-1970s, were enough to provoke in me a physical, nauseated sensation.

The Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike was an extension of I-95. Despite two public referendums denouncing the plan for the highway's course, the then-powerful Main Street business and private club coalition nudged their collaborators in the General Assembly to form a special "authority" to create the turnpike. Thus, blunt-minded engineers drew an unforgiving line through the mid-section of the city, direct through Shockoe, Union Hill and Jackson Ward, for the most part occupied by poor blacks, or consisting of residential housing considered substandard and not worth saving. More structures were destroyed by this hamfisted solution than by the Evacuation Fire of 1865.

A similar methodology caused the creation of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority to oversee the Downtown Expressway that forever lanced the city and was not just stupid engineering and policy -- designed to bring suburbanites into the city -- but bad feng shui. Richmond was cut off from its riverfront by lanes of asphalt and an important section of the James River Kanawha Canal obliterated.

Scott M. Kozel provides a valuable, detailed and, to my view, pro-road builder history of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike and Downtown Expressway at his
Roads To The Future site. The image below is from that site; note Main Street Station at lower left. In the Richmond that Phil Gotz is visting, the "spaghetti works" doesn't exist. That Richmond has a different perspective on automobiles and their proper place.

Due to the series of unfortunate rail and transit policy botches and bollixes
Richmond's great stations, Main and Broad Street, were stranded in the mid-1970s after Amtrak chose to move from its urban stations into suburban "Amshacks" to theoretically accommodate suburban commuters (a mistake realized too late). Both Richmond stations suffered the indignities of abandonment and neglect. Main Street resisted floods, fire and the vagaries of municipal governance. Both came within an ace of demolition. The domed, John Russell Pope-designed Broad Street received rehabilitation as the Science Museum of Virginia, but spur tracks remained, allowing the now defunct American Oriental Express to pull in there twice a year.

Main Street is caught in a perpetual "multi-phase" rail redevelopment plan, due to the nation's false economy and historic wretched priorities of transit planning that champions wasteful highways over passenger rail. This is why for several decades the long-needed straightening out of the
mess at the Acca Yards remains unaccomplished, and the upgrading of rail leading between the Staples Mill suburban station and downtown goes uncompleted.The country, not to put to fine point on it, is screwed up big time regarding efficient, safe and aesthetic transit.

The Southern Literary Messenger building is from The building was torn down just prior to World War I when 15th street was supposed to undergo widening; the war intervened and the street expansion never occurred. Richmond lost yet another one of the actual physical spaces known by Poe. The preservationists who rescued the Old Stone House, today the Poe museum, acquired the bricks and used some of them to construct the wall surrounding the rear garden and construct the pergola. The Messenger site, and that of the next door Allan tobacco offices, is now in part occupied by Club Velvet.

Tia's residence in Fulton may throw some readers; in our Richmond, there's Fulton Hill, but "Fulton Bottom" (never called that by those living there -- the "bottom" designation was a class-based pejorative), was allowed to be ripped up and torn down by the city (and a few neighborhood Quislings) during the early 1970s for "urban renewal." Supported and allowed to exist, Fulton would've perhaps provided a funky alternative to other pricier neighborhoods, as a mixture of Church Hill and Oregon Hill, an architectural mixture of brick single family residences and townhouses, churches and stores, and old frame buildings, too.
The image row houses along Denny Street come from
Richmond Then And

Further description of Fulton in the current Richmond's timeline, from a back-issue article of mine

" In the late 1960s, Fulton had 3,000 residents in some 836 buildings spread across 330 acres. The neighborhood counted seven churches, one of which, Rising Mount Zion Baptist, was more than a century old. Fulton was restaurants, stores and schools, and at least one small movie theater, The Lennox, at 514 Louisiana St.

In 1930, Fulton boasted a 30 percent home-ownership rate that was, according to urban-studies writer Chris Silver, substantially higher than those of other working-class communities.

During the 1940s, home ownership actually increased because families of limited means could afford to own. A number of those houses didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.

The character of Fulton shifted due to layoffs at the C & O railroad when it switched from coal to diesel and unemployment from the closure of the nearby Richmond Cedar Works in 1957. White families left. Rental properties proliferated, but they weren’t properly maintained. City inspectors seldom visited Fulton, and housing codes weren’t enforced. Poor blacks displaced from neighborhood obliterations in Navy Hill and along North 17th Street arrived in Fulton because they had few places to go. Break-ins and robbery, nearly unknown in Fulton, proliferated after 1961, and heroin arrived in the community’s streets in about 1964.

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was in such dire shape in the mid-1960s that [artist Don] Crow remembers his foot smashing through a floorboard during Mass one Sunday. Fulton itself slipped through the cracks of planning and oversight. Still, neighborhood leaders, as Silver writes, “rejected the slum stereotype and sought through political mobilization to resist” massive demolitions.

Scott O. Davis, in his book The World of Patience Gromes: The Making and Unmaking of a Black Community, a memoir of his time as a social worker there, records nip joints and bootleggers with alcoholism and the domestic squabbles they produced, the gamblers, pool sharks, hoodlums and a rising tide of despair. Richmond’s officials couldn’t figure how to solve Fulton’s problems except, ultimately, to get rid of Fulton altogether."

Given the dramatic shifts in urban planning and policy in the Richmond where Tia lives and Phil Gotz is visiting, it's unlikely Fulton would've turned into empty green fields lately filling in with vinyl-sided tract housing, The flight of both white and black middle class into the cul-de-sac archipelago hinged on first, integration and second, the collapse of the public schools deprived of tax dollars to operate and maintain them.

. But this alternate Richmond's situation is different -- as we shall see.

Finally, Methodist-based Cokesbury books, still a presence in the Richmond region,
occupied an entire downtown building and I often visited the racks and aisles there when I wore a younger man's clothes on a thinner frame. The main floor on Grace and 4th was a regular, secular store with an excellent selection, and in this Richmond, it's still there.

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