News & Features » Cover Story

Here Comes the Neighborhood

Problems and progress in Shockoe Bottom.



After midnight, a steady chatter cuts through the thick air that blankets Shockoe Bottom, occasionally pierced by a drunken yelp or the flash of blue lights. The mood is tinged with a tipsy despair as patrons stream along dimly lighted Main Street, mindful of its uneasy integration.

On a Friday night in late July, under a blue moon, there are blacks and whites, hip-hoppers and college freshmen, rednecks and fiftysomething yuppies. They move quickly, sometimes nervously, down the sidewalk.

They know the violence this place can harbor.

"Sometimes, it's a little scary," says Megan Colson, a 20-year-old psychology major at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I've heard about stuff. You try to find somewhere to park, and it's too dark. There are bums and stuff asking for money."

She and her twin sister, Jennifer, are destined for Tiki Bob's with a few friends. Standing at the corner of 18th and Main, they stand out like dandelions in cracked asphalt, their preppy innocence at odds with the Alley Katz metalheads and the baggy-clothed urbanites at After Six.

Since January, nine people have been shot in three separate incidents in the Bottom. But the streets seem under control tonight. Police are out in force, and the crowd has thinned. Ten Richmond Police officers are on duty, with 10 more working off-duty security detail for various restaurants. Officers have blocked off side streets to prevent cruising, a recurring problem, and there are no gangsta-rap concerts drawing potentially violent concert-goers.

The Bottom is calm for a Friday, says Police Lt. Wendell W. Miracle, driving down Cary Street.

"I've seen a decrease [in crime] since the shooting," says Miracle, referring to the June 14 incident in the parking lot between Buffalo Wild Wings and the Canal Club, between 17th and Dock streets, where five people were struck by gunfire shortly after the nightclub emptied at 2 a.m., following its Sunday night reggae session. The shooting spawned outrage in the Shockoe business community.

Police have since increased manpower in the Bottom on weekends, and the River District Alliance, a 9-month-old group of area restaurant owners and developers, is putting increased pressure on club owners who are attracting more violent crowds.

Tonight, the new initiatives seem to be working.

Then it happens. At about 12:20 a.m., an ambulance whizzes down Main Street. A man has been stabbed in a bar fight at Wildcats, suffering deep wounds to the abdomen. It's a bloody scene, and police shut down the club for the night. A fight had broken out between two men over a girl just as local punk-rock band Caesura set up to play.

Within minutes, police have the scene secured, an assailant in custody and the victim in stable-but-critical condition at VCU Medical Center.

The patrons are shaken up, standing among the cobblestones in front of the Farmers' Market, recalling the incident. An emotional Chad England, his eyes swelling with rage, says he thought it was just a fistfight, but when the victim raised up and screamed, he knew differently.

"He stood up and just started squirting blood," says England, the 26-year-old lead singer of Caesura, adding that his band has played at Wildcats three times before. "This place is peaceful," he says. "We never have shit like this."

Suddenly, Shockoe Bottom is under an intense microscope. The valley where Richmond began is finally turning the corner on a transformation that's been in the works for more than 25 years. With thousands of new apartments, national retail chains, talk of a new baseball stadium and a spanking new Main Street Station open for passenger rail, the Bottom is generating excitement it hasn't experienced since the early 1900s, when it was the center of the U.S. tobacco trade.

Yet the recent spate of crime is among the most violent the area has ever seen. A man opens fire when a pizza joint runs out of pizza. Five are shot under the spaghetti works. A man is stabbed at Wildcats. The violence has deadened business in the area, some say, often crippling independent restaurateurs who operate week to week.

With the recent influx of new residents in the last six years — according to the most recent U.S. Census, the Bottom is the fastest growing residential area in the city — businesses in the Bottom are still figuring out the market. To this end, shootings and stabbings are an unexpected obstacle.

"Our sales have certainly suffered over the last four months," says Bill Chapman, a downtown developer and general manager of Tonic, a tony martini bar that opened in June 2003, targeting professionals between the ages of 25 and 45. "It's tough to get that crowd to come downtown right now."

Chapman, who opened his restaurant a few months before the Euro-cool CafAc Gutenberg, says his outlook on the Bottom is changing. "It looked like there was some real momentum," he says, "but the violence that we have seen has stunted growth."

Uncertainty has cast a pall over the Bottom for more than a century. As the city ebbed and flowed through difficult and prosperous times, so too did the Bottom, its buildings a wild array of architecture that represents all facets of Richmond history. In the last 50 years, the area lost its industrial roots. And starting in the 1970s, Shockoe Bottom became more of a Bohemian gathering place than an industrial corridor, as tobacco moved out and specialty food manufacturers relocated to the more spacious suburbs.

Since then, the area hasn't lived up to the commercial vision planners drew up for the area. The 17th Street Farmers' Market has experienced limited success attracting open-air food vendors since its re-branding in the mid-1980s. The Farmers' Market has its moments in the warmer months, but it has never materialized as a daily marketplace.

"I remember on 18th Street, which was the wholesale seafood section, there were big barrels of fish and crabs ... sitting in the street," recalls Morton B. Gulak, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at VCU and co-author of the Shockoe Bottom Revitalization Plan, completed in the early 1980s.

"What kinds of businesses could fill these old buildings? The push was for much more mixed use," Gulak says. "For example, if we could get canning and pickling operations, it could be a nice complement to the area."

Those plans in the early 1980s missed the mark. And it's easy to see why. In the late 1970s, the city was still growing commercially, even if residents were beginning to move out into the suburban counties. At the time, building on the Bottom's history as a center for commerce and trade seemed a logical extension.

Gulak's team envisioned a commercial node with new manufacturing businesses, with its proximity to Interstate 95 and museums that would lure tourists interested in Richmond history.

An outpost built by settlers in 1679 along the James River, Shockoe Bottom predates the city. In 1737, Captain William Byrd II established the town of Richmond, which stretched from what is now 17th Street to 25th Street along Main. Shockoe Creek ran below 17th (originally First Street) where Main Street Station now sits. The creek provided easy access for boats to load and unload all kinds of goods, from tobacco to flour to iron. And after the state capital moved to Richmond in 1780, Shockoe Bottom became a hotbed of commercial activity, as American industrialists established iron foundries, paper mills, tanneries and tobacco plants in the area.

The history is rich, and it's still evolving. After the vibrant tobacco business began to move out of the Bottom in the 1960s, the area never regained its footing as an industrial center. Two devastating floods in 1969 and 1972 forced more than half of the blue-collar retail shops, places like shoe stores and clothing boutiques, to close. The Bottom became a nowhere land that lacked an identity. It became known more for its abandoned, beautiful buildings, a gritty section of the city that first attracted musicians and artists, with a smattering of art galleries, in the 1970s. From this emerged a few restaurants, specialty shops and bars.

Jeffrey Ruggles remembers the place as if it were yesterday. He moved into a house on 17th Street — where the Kitchen Table is located — in 1975, and he bought Main Street Grill in 1985. A fixture since the 1950s, the Grill, which opened for night business in 1976, ushered into the Bottom its first taste of public nightlife. Until then there were a few small, private, mostly black nightclubs, but not much else. Ruggles, now an associate curator at the Virginia Historical Society, sold Main Street Grill to the owners of CafAc Gutenberg in 2003. The only constant in the Bottom, he says, has been its diversity — and penchant for restaurant turnover.

The current nightclub scene began in earnest in 1987, Ruggles recalls, about a month after the Bottom's last significant flood temporarily knocked out Main Street Grill and a few others, leaving the Bottom in a restaurant void for few weeks that April.

During the blackout, at 1718 East Main St., Michael J. Dealto and R. Alan Evans — Dealto now owns Buddy's Place in the Fan — opened the Bird in Hand with a 60-foot marble bar, a dance floor and seating capacity for 220. For a short time it was one of two or three restaurants open in the Bottom, and it took off. Out of nowhere the Bird in Hand, named after an old pawn shop that occupied the building, attracted huge, college-aged crowds on the weekends, with people often lined up around the corner to get in.

"It was a turning point," Ruggles says. Soon after, other nightclubs opened hoping to piggyback on the Bird in Hand's success. Developers such as Kenneth Farino invested heavily in the area, creating restaurants as well as apartments.

By the early 1990s, the area was alive with restaurants and scattered apartment dwellers, recalls Lulie Larus, who purchased the building at 18th and Franklin streets in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the first floor was home to newcomer Bottom's Up Pizza, and Larus had six apartments rented upstairs. (Today, the first floor is occupied by Awful Arthur's.) She recalls how the area was full of great restaurants such as None Such Place and the Island Grill in the early 1990s. Sometimes the music got a bit loud, but there were no shootings or stabbings.

"It got really popular down here — and fun," says Larus, a lively, silver-haired 76-year-old still fond of leaning out of her second-floor window to holler at neighbors. "I love city living. I love urban living."

The party wouldn't last, however. As the bars and restaurants grew, so too did the nightlife, and the crowds got rowdier. After the floodwall was built in 1994, more people began investing in the area, bringing more bars and activity. The city, says Larus, refused to step in and take control of the situation. It paid no attention.

"It just got louder and louder, and wilder and wilder," she says: "A theme park for young drunks and a training ground for young thugs."

Kathy Emerson remembers sitting in her office at the Farmers' Market and feeling sand on her computer keyboard one morning a few years ago. She soon discovered it wasn't sand, but residue from a a gunshot that had pierced the window of her office and struck the wall. During the weekend another rowdy crowd had spilled out from the Kave Bar and Grill, a hip-hop party spot, into the parking lot behind her office. Someone fired a gun.

Emerson, manager of the Farmers' Market from May 1998 to March 2004, is credited with breathing new life into the area, boosting its profile by luring more vendors to the open-air market and drawing more traffic to the Bottom on weekends. By the time she left in March to open the Plant Zero CafAc in Manchester, the market was drawing 150,000 visitors a year. She was known for strapping on an outrageous tomato-themed costume and traipsing around town, sometimes through City Hall, to drum up support for the Tomato Festival, the market's signature event.

But some say the efforts of Emerson, and others, have been constantly dogged by the actions of a handful of bar owners who host rowdy concerts that draw large, unruly crowds. If it wasn't at the Kave, it was somewhere else.

"It's always been at one place or another," Emerson says.

In the nightclub business, it's well known that today's popular hip-hop artists are simply big moneymakers because they draw more people who spend more money. And they sell out in just about every city. Some say Richmond hasn't done a good enough job keeping operators who host such shows in compliance with the law, while others say as long as there's money to be made, the trend will continue.

The city, Larus says, hasn't done much of anything. It's live and let live. Some of it could be controlled, or prevented, she says, but no one at City Hall seems to care.

Larus remembers fighting, and winning, a battle with the city after it granted a liquor license to a topless bar operator who wanted to open on 18th Street in the mid-1990s. She and a group of nearby business owners sued Richmond and eventually the state, and they won. But she can't understand why she had to fight so hard for the city to simply enforce ordinances already in place.

For years, Larus says, the city has been more interested in collecting the taxes generated from alcohol sales than making the Bottom safe. "They made a decision of let it rip down here," she says. "It was hands-off by the police."

Others say it's not as simple as pushing out club operators who carry urban music. Ken Jacobs, owner of the Canal Club, says because of the large crowd he attracted for Sunday night reggae, his business was unfairly blamed for the shooting in early June in a nearby parking lot. With metal detectors at the door, and a total of eight off-duty police officers working that night, he can't understand how people think the shooter came from his establishment. The shooter, he says, wasn't at the Canal Club.

"I cannot believe that somebody would walk out of the Canal Club, see eight policeman and go to the car and get a gun," he says. "We are the victims here."

Regardless of who's to blame, things are certainly changing. Jacobs stopped hosting hip-hop concerts about six months ago, he says, at the urging of officials from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and he discontinued the Sunday night reggae to allay similar concerns.

"The trouble still exists whether the Canal Club is here or not," he says.

But unlike the mid-1990s, when the problem shifted from one place to the next, the ABC and the city are now working together with the business community.

The ABC oversees the liquor licenses of 31 businesses in Shockoe Bottom, including 29 clubs and restaurants and two convenience stores.

"Licensees can set the tone for an area," says Allen T. Slonaker, special agent of ABC's law enforcement operations, whose beat is Shockoe Bottom. "They determine the crowd that shows up. How they handle that crowd determines how it acts and reacts."

After the recent shooting spree, local developers and restaurateurs got together and hatched a plan. "By 2005, we want it to be completely safe in Shockoe Bottom," says Erika Gay, executive director of the River District Alliance and a key organizer of the effort.

About a month and a half ago, Councilman Manoli Loupassi jump-started a public safety committee to look at how to deal with the recent surge in crime.

For the first time, it was agreed that the city would significantly increase its police presence and do a better job of lighting the streets. Since April, Richmond Police, in coordination with local business owners and the ABC, have been targeting the problem areas and addressing issues such as lighting. In the last two weeks, 10 lights have been erected in the Bottom, including at the dark, crime-heavy underpass between 17th and Dock streets.

"This is a huge issue for the city," Loupassi explains. "Improved lighting is the first step. We need to improve the sidewalks. We need to have a greater police presence and get some of those cameras down there when they [become available]. It's a hot topic because the elected political leadership has seen it as an issue."

Why now? Loupassi doesn't know why such simple improvements haven't come sooner. Some speculate that all the new investment in the area — from more than $50 million in improvements to the train station to the massive apartment contruction during the last six years — has upped the ante. Earlier this year, the proposal for a new $58 million baseball stadium project for the Richmond Braves, behind the Farmers' Market, sparked an intense debate about what kind of development is needed in the Bottom, and how that development could affect the delicate history of the area. The debate, which is ongoing, has brought incredible attention to the area.

But it all started with the residential boom.

Perhaps the biggest turning point came in 1998, when Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises purchased seven tobacco warehouses along Tobacco Row and began converting them into upscale, loft apartments. Within a few years, the company spent $150 million converting three of the old warehouses, developing a CVS and a grocery store in the 2300 block of Main Street. The company's investment sparked a wave of other projects by local developers, bringing hundreds of millions in new investment to the area and attracting thousands of new residents.

David J. Levey, executive vice president of Forest City, says the company couldn't resist the opportunity to buy so many great buildings in such close proximity. Typically, it's next to impossible for big, deep-pocketed developers to find such a critical mass of buildings as sound as the tobacco warehouses. Aided with the incentive of historic tax credits, it was a no-brainer.

"You don't find a series of large historic buildings that are well-maintained and are in a good area. This is really unique," Levey says. "We wanted to buy an entire place, not just a building."

Forest City is only half done. The company has four more warehouses to outfit — it's beginning the fourth, the Lucky Strike building, next spring — and this fall expects to begin building its first condos, 12 townhouses on Main Street, which are expected to sell for between $260,000 and $370,000. Also, a new national restaurant chain will join Bookbinders on Tobacco Row, he says, although he can't say who just yet.

When it's all done, Forest City will have invested more than $300 million in the Bottom, Levey says.

That new investment, says Gulak, the VCU professor, is the surest sign that Shockoe Bottom will soon stabilize. In five years, the bullets and stabbings should be a distant memory, along with its notorious retail turnover.

"It's normal that restaurants will go in and out of business. That's the way it is," Gulak says. "Neighborhoods don't develop overnight."

Twenty-five years, Gulak says, is about how long it takes for a revitalization to take place, and the Bottom's is almost complete. The nightclub district? With all the new investment, Gulak says, expect a commercial gentrification of sorts. In due time, the unruly operators won't be able to afford the place.

Ironically, the ABC's Slonaker points out, common interest has provoked all kinds of splinter groups — those who envision the Bottom to be a hotbed of clubs; those who want it to be another Georgetown; those who want it to be a sparkling array of upscale cafes; those who want it to be another Carytown.

The Bottom will likely become more of an extension of Shockoe Slip, Gulak says, with specialty retail shops and fancier restaurants. You can already see it happening with new Bottom restaurants such as the Kitchen Table, Bookbinders and Julep's New Southern Cuisine, which cater to an upscale clientele.

"In five years, the new Tobacco Row buildings will be finished. It's going to be very different," Gulak says. "There will be less crime."

Still, when the nightlife takes over on Friday nights, it's hard to see the future. The Bottom still feels like an old, rundown bar district with bad lighting. A stench that's part sewage and tobacco fills the streets, and the upscale apartment buildings are hidden in the darkness.

For the first time in three years, 48-year-old Angelo Giabos and his wife, Vanessa, have ventured into the Bottom after eating out at Bottom's Up Pizza. Standing at the corner of 18th and Franklin streets, staring into the night, they seem lost.

"I used to come here a long time ago," Angelo says. "But there's too much trouble. They stole my car one time."

Tonight, he and his wife stepped out to see the scene. "We came to see what is going on, but there is nothing," he says disappointedly.

Around the corner at After Six in the 1700 block of Main, which attracts a more urban, mostly black crowd, there are three bouncers at the door.

After 13 years in the business, Manuel McNeil, a towering, 43-year-old bouncer, has seen it all. He once watched a 120-pound man slap a sheriff's deputy, he says, laughing — a big mistake. There will always be somebody with an edge, who's had too much to drink, who starts trouble. It can happen anywhere, anytime.

A few short steps away, the stabbing at Wildcats hammers the point home. The perpetrator — people on the street say he's a regular hothead, a guitarist for a local band — stabs the victim several times before fleeing the scene. It was an isolated incident, police say, and Wildcats isn't known for rowdiness.

Those assurances, however, do little to dull the enormity of the situation in the minutes and hours afterward. Victoria MacLean, the owner of the bar, is in tears. She's owned Wildcats since March 20, she says, and was in the kitchen when the stabbing took place. "I'm just devastated," she says, standing outside the restaurant.

Afterward, Lt. Miracle wonders what could have been done differently. How do you stop a guy from violently attacking someone else in a bar that's not crowded, has no reputation for violence and usually has a sheriff's deputy stationed at the door?

"I don't know if tougher ordinances will help, or if it's more on us," he says. "It's going to take a combination of everybody working together." S

Brandon Walters contributed to this report.

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment