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"Downtown Richmond Memories," a new nostalgic documentary

Memories Need Lessons

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In the spirit of full disclosure, I've always loved downtown. When my grandmother motored up for visits from Blackstone, she made sure her grandchildren joined her at Miller & Rhoads Tea Room. I can still taste the Missouri Club sandwiches. As members of a downtown church, my siblings and I were frequently downtown for church activities: Skipping Sunday school, I discovered the charms of the city's hills, alleyways and faded hotel lobbies. Later, I'd date at the Loew's.

I was therefore excited to view "Downtown Richmond Memories," a new nostalgic documentary produced by PBS affiliate, WCVE. It premieres March 8.

Watching the hour-long program, hosted by longtime radio personality Harvey Hudson, is like flipping through an old photo album. During the first half, in interviews and some evocative home movies, the show visits Hull Street when it was a shopping and entertainment Mecca. Old-timers discuss Church Hill, especially the popular weekend pickup football games. Riding streetcars and city buses is quickly established as Richmond's unifying force, allowing rapid and inexpensive links between neighborhoods.

When the scene shifts to downtown, we are treated to some fresh archival photographs of crowded sidewalks and creative window displays. The drug stores, five and dimes, and especially the Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers department stores are described in almost reverential detail.

If white Richmonders sank into a cult of "The Lost Cause" for decades after the Confederacy, "Downtown Richmond Memories" seems to capture similar, long-term public mourning over the demise of the department stores. The effect is cloying and even disturbing.

It's time to move on, folks. There's nothing wrong with sappy Hallmark cards, but this production is one Valentine too many. With its considerable resources and the wealth of historians in our midst, why can't WCVE produce something that sheds some light on why downtown failed, why the community can't seem to get its act together, why civic leadership is so lame, why we remain so racially polarized?

If we could learn from the past, these memories would at least be bittersweet. Despite attempts to show that downtown was a melting pot, the stronger indirect message in "Downtown Richmond Memories" is that things were glorious when the races were segregated. The lack of critical thinking in this documentary makes this hour hackneyed and ultimately

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