Not long after Kathy Emerson took over the 17th Street Farmer's Market in 1998, she decided simple marketing wouldn't be enough.
So she and an accomplice donned papier-mA›chAc tomato costumes left over from the summer's Hot Tomato Beauty Pageant — complete with potted vine headpieces — hopped on a bus and headed for City Hall.
“It was so dorky you wouldn't believe,” she says. “I was in my 50s at the time. We could not even sit down on the bus.”
After nearly 40 years of wearing funny costumes and a lot of hard work, Emerson, 61, is heading west and resettling in Los Angeles where her daughter lives.
A consummate entrepreneur, Emerson's real estate choices have often been predictive of city trends. She lived in Church Hill before it became a destination for young professionals. She resurrected the market in Shockoe Bottom — and later opened the first coffee shop nearby — before it was a focus of citywide cheerleading.
She lived in a condo in Manchester's Plant Zero with her two frisky Chihuahuas, Eeka and Tato, before politicians and artists regularly crossed the river for events. Her most recent project, the Quirk Gallery and gift shop, which she collaborated on with Katie Ukrop, has grown into a popular anchor in the Broad Street gallery boomlet.
She's best known, however, for resurrecting 17th Street.
“What she did with the market during her period there was really remarkable,” says long-time collaborator Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center. “She brought so much creative energy.”
Not that she has been all peaches and cream all of the time. Impatient with too much talk and not enough action, Emerson has at times grown frustrated with the pace of change in this town.
She declines to offer too much parting advice, however.
“All … I hear is gosh ‘we’re just on the edge,'” she says. “I would love to see Richmond step from the idea stage into the reality stage and I'm just not sure when that's going to happen.”