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North Side Blues

Merchants on Brookland Park Boulevard have been waiting five years for a renaissance that never came.

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"Vacant. Vacant. Vacant.”

Reginald Epps, one-time real estate magnate of Brookland Park Boulevard, surveys the ruins of his empire.

“Vandalism,” Epps says, pointing at the busted windows of two empty commercial buildings.

The salon that used to be across the street is gone. Brookland Park Tattoo is gone; the business moved to Chamberlayne Avenue. The halal deli, Black Diamond Records, Sooky's Unique Gifts/Bait & Tackle Shop: gone. And with them have gone many local business owners' hopes of building a thriving commercial corridor here on the city's North Side.

Five years ago the future of Brookland Park Boulevard looked rosy. A group of Virginia Commonwealth University graduate students had just presented a study that said the area could “achieve a full reawakening” by reducing crime, nurturing neighborhood businesses and marketing itself as a regional beauty and barber shop destination. The city applauded the plan, VCU professor John Accordino says.

At the same time, Epps was busy renovating his newly bought properties with the help of city-funded reimbursements. One was Club Serenity, a no-booze nightclub that Epps, a former addict, created as a gathering place for people in recovery. Epps worked with local business owners to set up a merchants' association. There was a block party.

“Then foof! That was it,” Epps says.

One by one, new businesses closed their doors. Epps recently lost several of his properties to foreclosure, and the storefronts remain shuttered. People used to call him the mayor of Brookland Park Boulevard, he says: “Now I feel like the butt of the joke.”

The bad economy isn't the only reason the area is suffering, Epps and other merchants say. They point to the city's failure to invest in infrastructure and, more importantly, to curb the crime that makes some people afraid to shop here.

Five years after the VCU study, the only recommended improvement the city carried out was cutting down the overgrown sidewalk trees. New trees never were planted. The suggested wider sidewalks, raised crosswalks, additional parking and community park have yet to appear.

Epps blames Councilman Chris Hilbert, who's represented the district since 2004. “Look at this corridor,” Epps says. “What is he doing?” Across the street, an old Hilbert campaign sign is posted in a barred and empty store window. Epps thinks the city needs to invest $1 million, at least, in safety and infrastructure improvements that would make Brookland Park Boulevard an attractive place to do business.

Hilbert blames the administration of former mayor L. Douglas Wilder for failing to carry out promised renovations, even when money was available in the budget. “It has been frustrating,” Hilbert says. “There's no question about that.”

Mayor Dwight Jones is sincere about wanting to help the corridor, Hilbert says, but progress is slow. Gas line repairs soon will be completed and parts of the street repaved. A budgeted $200,000 plan for new street lighting is working its way through city bureaucracy. “We're in the queue,” Hilbert says.

Merchants are sick of waiting in line. “Old soup,” barber Tommie Reavis says of the revitalization plans. For decades Reavis has watched the neighborhood from his cactus-lined shop window, and he's heard it all too many times before. The real problem is that the police have failed to fight crime, he says.

“You know what they're doing,” Reavis says of the young men who congregate on the corner. “Not selling cookies. Not having a prayer meeting.” Officer David Taylor has been patrolling the neighborhood on foot for a year, but Reavis says it hasn't helped.  Why can't police get tough and start arresting people for loitering? he asks.

Hilbert says he's asked police to step up their patrols, and they're aware of the problem: “They indicate to me that they are doing what they can legally.”

Brookland Park Boulevard was a bustling commercial corridor in the 1950s and '60s, with popular bakeries, restaurants, a theater and a nightclub. And today, despite the many vacant buildings, several businesses still do a thriving trade.

On Saturdays, the area's many beauty and barber shops are packed. Soul food restaurant Sam's Kitchen is doing well, Epps says, as is his brother's newly opened restaurant, River City Seafood. The cheerful yellow Michaela's Bakery, which opened in 2005, sells six-layer cakes and strawberry shortcakes wholesale. Owner Michael Hatcher wishes the city would think of some way to bring more customers in — something historic, he says, or a tourist attraction. Another longtime business owner, florist Sylvia Richardson, says loiterers are the biggest deterrent to business. She says she doesn't feel comfortable even walking to the convenience store across the street.

The one thing on which the merchants agree is that Brookland Park Boulevard has potential. Car traffic is plentiful, because the boulevard connects the city's North Side and East End, and the area is served by two bus lines. The street has some architectural gems, such as an old theater and an ornate bank building. Richmond Community High School, a school for the gifted, moved onto the boulevard in 2009. Young people are buying up houses in nearby neighborhoods.

“This corridor, I think has amazing potential,” Hilbert says.

But right now that's all it has.

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