I was surprised to come across the feature on Lester Blackiston. I met Lester years ago, and sadly had not thought about him for years.
We met when I was asked by Mike Gold of the Historic Richmond Foundation to assemble for purchase five adjacent buildings at North 18th and East Franklin streets. The buildings were originally constructed in the late 1800s as a New Orleans-styled hotel. At the time I was a real estate agent, and had one of the buildings listed for sale. The foundation wanted to acquire the buildings, have them renovated, and hopefully spark a revitalization of the historic neighborhood.
Lester was all that was described in your feature, but it would be a shame if he was not also remembered for other things as well. Following the early 1970s flooding of Shockoe Bottom, Lester, along with others, began to purchase property in the neighborhood. Some saw the future for the Bottom as being razed for new high-rise construction. Some, like Lester, looked for the renovation of the old buildings and the development of an arts-based community.
Yes, Lester was a charmer, and he charmed the foundation into backing his efforts to renovate the five buildings. As it turned out, Lester was strong on vision, but not so strong on managing a redevelopment project. Historic Richmond eventually took over the project, and saw to its completion.
Revitalization of old and historic neighborhoods wasn’t new to Richmond. Church Hill and the Fan preceded Shockoe Bottom. But the Bottom was the first commercial neighborhood in Richmond to be redeveloped into a mixed-use community. Lester went on to renovate smaller buildings, and to become the unofficial mayor of the Bottom. His efforts, together with those of Robert “Butch” Ball, Larry Shifflett, David White, Ken Farino, Robbie Ellison, Ruben Peacock, the late William “Bill” Abeloff, as well as others I fail to remember, led the to the construction of the Richmond Flood Wall, and the preservation and revitalization of Shockoe Bottom.
The success of those efforts has spread to other commercial districts of the city. Such adaptive reuse and revitalization can be seen in the city’s central business district, old Manchester and Scott’s Addition. The success of these efforts has had a profound impact on the city.
It is entertaining to remember the colorful and erratic Lester, but his contribution to Richmond should not be forgotten.
Nicholas G. Morris