Center of the City No More

Decades ago, newcomers to the Richmond area from the northern states faced an unexpected challenge, abundant friendliness!  Walking anywhere but especially through the streets of downtown, strangers passing by seemed to go out of their way to make eye contact and say good morning or simply hello.   For those from the “cold shoulder” north this was a bit of a shock. But once one made the adjustment, realizing there was nothing to fear, this new reality was something to look forward to as you went about your business in town.  Friendliness seemed to abound from virtually everyone, even those with whom you had the most incidental contact. 

In recent years, the friendly encounters have significantly diminished.  As the community has grown, including many relocating from the “frigid” north, the impulse to resist this wonderful part of southern culture also grew.  A contributing factor is certainly the outward signs of growing political polarization emanating from society in the form of mere distrust to short-fused anger. Regardless, many locals persist in their effusive friendliness, only to be increasingly ignored thus impacting their motivation somewhat.  Friendly encounters do still happen, especially if you make a pronounced effort to appear interested in an exchange of pleasantries.

City from Shockoe Bottom

Also in recent times, the popularity of many new restaurants (driven by a widely held perception of quality cuisine and good service) has brought the city national attention as a “foodie town”.  This accompanied an equally widely held perception of the city as friendly place to visit with a rich history and reasonable cost.

The very beginning of this upward trend appeared to emanate from the area near city center called Shockoe Bottom.  Shockoe Bottom’s trendy restaurants, pubs, cigar bars and night clubs, with the accompanying surge in equally trendy microbreweries and distilleries, became a night life destination in town.  This led to younger generations seeing downtown as a place to work, play and live.  Until…every week there appeared to be a Shockoe Bottom late night shooting, causing many to scratch Shockoe Bottom off their list of nightlife destinations. 

But certainly, there are other parts of the city with surging urbanism, among them Scott’s Addition, Manchester, those adjacent to VCU and even the resurgence of the area known as “the Fan”.  These areas, among others, bristle with new restaurants and night life opportunity. The combination of the Shockoe Bottom crime issues and the surge of areas more in the periphery of the city, gives the appearance as though these new areas of interest with restaurants, new residential options, and innovative places to locate a business, are moving away from the city center.   As if the centrifugal forces of violence and decay were hurtling these new options outward. 

Not in the “burbs” of course but it appears efforts to specifically revitalized downtown have continued to fail.  Since the city’s attempted downtown Marketplace fiasco in the late eighties, efforts over the past thirty years to bring new interest in visiting downtown has been a roller coaster ride. Combine these previous failures with current issues of the decline of the area surrounding the coliseum, and the decline of coliseum itself, along with the failed attempt to locate a new minor league baseball park in Shockoe Bottom, leaves one with little hope. Add to the mix the Shockoe Bottom violence and the dilapidated condition of the city roads and infrastructure, all are contributing to the perception of incompetent city government who get some things right and too many things wrong.

The only glue holding downtown together is the presence of Virginia state government.  But state government’s effect is largely one of weekday, daylight hours.  Another indicator of downtown decay was the recent pull out of a major, premium, Shockoe-located restaurant in the form of Morton’s Steakhouse, illustrating a trend that is not positive for the city center as a nighttime destination.

Now, as BLM protesters, unfortunately associated with rioting, arson, and looting, take possession of the city center after dark, any desire by those who came into the city for dining and entertainment may be gone for good.   As a further consequence, the outward reputation of the community as a safe place to live, work and raise a family is now significantly tarnished. 

Regardless of how you view what has happened and why, this violence is proverbial “poison in the water” for this city.  Will Fortune 1000 businesses locate here?  Will the ones that are here find a reason to move?  Will the conversion of old downtown office buildings into apartment towers continue?  Will developers, who could have brought the means for conversion of derelict areas of downtown real estate into vibrant, attractive destinations, bring new proposals to city government?  This appears now much less likely.

And this is not just poison for the city proper but for the entire metro-area.  Fear is growing that these sorts of disturbances will find their way to the surrounding counties.  These counties make up more than two thirds of the metro-area population.  Prospective buyers, developers and businesses may look elsewhere to bring their buying power and jobs.  Fewer jobs, fewer residents lead to a smaller tax base and spiraling decline that has very painfully affected many other communities.

How sad that this could be the beginning of a period of decline for this community.  With the ocean and the mountains less than two hours away, not to mention the James River running right through town, Williamsburg less than an hour away, and the nation’s capital just two hours to the north, Richmond is well positioned as an attractive location for business and family.  If you also consider the relatively low cost of living, quality schools (with the exception of many schools in the city proper) and the temperate climate, it aggregates to an extremely attractive picture.  But that is not what the world is seeing and hearing about this community today.  They are seeing lawlessness, rioting, arson, looting, three police chiefs in less than 30 days, as well as inept, ineffective city and state leadership.

For all of those who love this community for many of the previously mentioned attributes, this is the first time many have spoken openly about leaving it.  Is this the beginning of the end of a great resurgent period for this community?

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