Opinion & Blogs » Back Page

The Big Idea

It's not so much whether a gargantuan project is good for us. The salient question is: Why can't the region's governments think small?


Before a know-it-all intones "but look at Carytown," think again. Cary Street was largely boarded-up storefronts in 1974, when Compleat Gourmet opened and a miracle began to happen in spite of our government. We urbanites supported this even as others scoffed and said "Cary Street is a ghost town." Eventually, regional shoppers trickled in until, every Saturday, parking is as rare as an empty retail space.

Thirty years later, rising rents are gradually transforming Carytown's delightful mix of trendy and funky into something akin to Old Town Alexandria or King Street in Charleston. I fear that we'll soon have a quaint version of the upscale shopping found at Short Pump. It won't be Carytown anymore.

Well, by God, I will always have Plan 9 Records when the time comes to slap another Ramones sticker on my truck. And I'll still catch Pere Ubu playing its own soundtrack to a Roger Corman film at the Byrd. Or will I? The logic of local capitalism, and more ominously, a think-big philosophy, makes me queasy. It's not so much whether a gargantuan project such as a downtown stadium is good for us. The salient question is: Why can't the region's governments think small?

At a City Council meeting one night, I listened as deaf ears were turned to the director of the Shockoe Arts Center. His proposal was simple: find space on that lovely new canal walk for his galleries, about to lose their lease to condos coming to their tobacco factory. You know the rest: Center closes. Galleries scatter, with some moving to Petersburg. Canal remains pretty but underused. In no way should that disparage the great work done by our current galleries, including the organizers and artists involved in First Fridays. They are doing the best they can in a political climate that seems hell-bent on letting no good example of entrepreneurship go unpunished.

We have many highly visible arts and culture heroes in this town: symphony, ballet, opera, my university's Modlin Center, the Virginia Museum. Sometimes big is good: The alliance of businesses and governments bringing the National Folk Festival to the banks of the James showed that we can get past our famous "can't do" attitude.

The large organizations and annual events will not, by themselves, attract the critical mass of citizens who made Cary Street come back from the dead. What could is a cultural scene that happens every day on a smaller scale and usually under the radar of our leaders and media. Consider the Flicker film festival, local dance companies such as Ground Zero, book signings and readings sponsored by Kelly Justice at Fountain or by Black Swan, Chop Suey, and Café Gutenberg. Page Wilson helps artists from the expanding world of Americana music by putting their work on the air and promoting live gigs. We finally have a cool low-power alternative station in WRIR. The James River Writers sponsors an annual festival with big literary names in attendance, and now plans events all year to make Richmond a writer's city.

If you didn't make this short list, my apologies. Your name or organization should be there; small chance that you are getting the encouragement you want from government.

City leaders could help by working with property owners and landlords to keep rents from skyrocketing along with property assessments. Richmond could budget a lot more for a marketing campaign that attracts tourists and wary suburbanites to in-town venues. Until we resolve some of these issues, Richmond will remain a place that ignores its creative class, at best. And we'll keep putting up with the next Big Idea destined to flop hard enough to make a big hole. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com


Add a comment