Two grand gentlemen passed away in March. Each was a force in shaping positive cultural and community values following the formation of Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968. With the merger that year of Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia, the nearby districts of Carver, the Fan District, Oregon Hill and Randolph were challenged by the potential for the fledgling mega-university to overwhelm the environs of the Monroe Park campus and adjacent neighborhoods.
Preddy Drew Ray Sr., 69, died March 14. This tireless and inventive affordable housing and jobs opportunity advocate was a student at VCU in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He sensed the university juggernaut would physically overrun economically struggling, mostly black districts, if no one spoke truth to power. In 1971 he formed a nonprofit organization, the Task Force for Historic Preservation of the Minority Community, to keep gentrification in check and explore ways to save old and historic housing stock from the bulldozer. He also advocated passionately to protect other neighborhoods in the city that were underrepresented politically, misunderstood socially, or were downright ignored. On Church Hill, he co-founded the North of Broad Youth Group, which created one of the city’s first community gardens. He was a founding board member of the Black History Museum in 1981. Among his day jobs were substance abuse counselor and employment training counselor.
Ray was as big physically as were his ideas for social and economic justice. The former Armstrong High School football player cut an impressive figure whenever he appeared at public hearings and community meetings. You could sense political, housing, business, development and university honchos sink into their seats as he approached the podium. They knew he would not be swayed.
Ephraim “Ed” Steinberg, who died March 22 at 99, made many of his entrepreneurial and creative marks on and near the university’s Monroe Park campus. The Thomas Jefferson High School graduate, University of Richmond chemistry alumnus and United States Navy veteran owned a laundry and laundromat once at West Grace and Harrison streets, where the Village Cafe now stands. For a time he sponsored art shows there featuring student work. In 1968 he opened a fashionable clothing shop next door, A Sunny Day in the Fan. The late fashion icon and Virginia native Perry Ellis and local businessman Jerry Ospin, where his silent partners.
“Ed had hip stuff, like what kids in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district were wearing,” says Betty Stacy, a former librarian at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and longtime local cultural observer, who shopped there frequently: “VCU students liked it, but it was too far out for many women in the West End.”
In 1986, then in his 60s, Steinberg received a fine arts degree from VCU. He became an accomplished printmaker and taught the craft at the university and at other venues. He also loved to dance. When the Tobacco Company reopened a few months ago after a fire, a friend says he was not surprised to see Steinberg — in his late 90s — and his longtime companion, Jena Sager, on the dance floor. Says Abby Moore: “They were really cutting the rug.”