Occupy Richmond has moved on, but for two weeks last month its makeshift settlement gave Kanawha Plaza, for some 40 years one of Richmond’s most underpopulated and unloved public spaces, its 15 minutes of fame.
Aside from New York’s financial district itself, there were probably few venues among the 500 Occupy demonstrations and encampments worldwide better situated symbolically than Kanawha Plaza to send a message of disquietude with corporate influence and governmental failings directly to power brokers. The city-block-sized plaza, bounded by Byrd, Canal, Eighth and Ninth streets downtown, is surrounded by high-rise buildings, many of which display corporate logos high on their exterior walls. These behemoths include Bank of America, Wells Fargo, SunTrust and BB&T, as well as MeadWestvaco. In addition to law firms Williams Mullen and McGuire Woods, there’s Dominon Resources, the energy megalith. And while there’s no illuminated sign, the sleek and metallically shimmering Federal Reserve Bank, directly across Byrd on Kanawha Plaza’s south side, is the tallest and grandest tower of all.
But in the wee hours of Sunday, Oct. 30, city and state police moved in and dispersed the makeshift community. Bulldozers squashed the encampment, reducing it to a trash heap. A few demonstrators were arrested and most moved on in search of another staging area. Unmoved by the chaos, the illuminated logos shone on in the darkness.
Until populated by Occupy Richmond, Kanawha Plaza had seldom been embraced for either spontaneous or planned civic gatherings. Other local parks and spaces have played host to community gatherings and political rallies. Monroe Park, with its proximity to Virginia Commonwealth University, has long been a rallying spot: During the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam protests were held regularly and such luminaries as activist Gloria Steinem campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment here.
For more formal rallies, political campaigns often choose Capitol Square for the gravitas Thomas Jefferson’s iconic statehouse lends to candidates’ messages. President Gerald Ford closed his unsuccessful election bid with a rally at the foot of the equestrian Washington monument there with Republican Gov. John Dalton looking on. Some years later, Bill Clinton was so hoarse from campaigning that Hillary delivered his speech from a specially built platform near the governor’s mansion, then occupied by L. Douglas Wilder.
Other public places have had their close-ups recently in the public life of the city. The 17th Street Farmers’ Market was the setting for Tim Kaine’s final get-out-the-vote rally on the eve of his election for governor.
And then there are public spaces where events just, well, happen. One Saturday in May each year, the otherwise dormant Festival Park, a misnomer if ever there was one, lives up to its optimistic name when thousands of family and friends swarm around the Richmond Coliseum to embrace their berobed graduates at VCU’s commencement.
And on election night in 2008, when Barack Obama’s election was assured, thousands flocked into West Broad Street from the Fan, Carver and Jackson Ward and began marching eastward. Their numbers increasing, they approached Old City Hall, the granite-clad, Gothic office building with its handsome facade and lighted clock tower. The celebrants bypassed City Hall, the nondescript, waffle-iron-looking box nearby. Old City Hall looked important enough architecturally to warrant its being the final backdrop of their delirious demonstration.
Kanawha Plaza, built in 1973 just a few years after Richmond’s clunky City Hall, has similarly been disdained architecturally. True, a summer music series, Fridays at Sunset, has long been presented there and for the last three years the tea party has held tax-day rallies at the park. Mostly, though, it’s been a haven for homeless people who find shelter amid the park’s brutalistic, concrete nooks and crannies. The place has never had a natural constituency.
There are reasons. There’s no natural pedestrian traffic flow. In the early 1970s when the Federal Reserve Bank announced it would build a world-class structure near the James River (development of Brown’s Island was still a pipe dream) it stipulated that the city must construct a bridge in the form of a park that would straddle the Downtown Expressway and create pedestrian linkage to the financial district.
The distinguished Boston design firm of Sasaki Dawson and DeMay was selected as landscape architect. And although its design was strong and has aged well, the park is isolated. Trouble is, the Fed is a self-contained armed camp behind a spiked fence. The north side of Kanawha Plaza faces the rear of the Dominion building, which is elevated one story higher. Making matters worse, there’s no access to the park from Eighth and Ninth streets. The most successful feature of the plaza is the zigguratlike cascading fountain near the intersection of Ninth and Canal (a spot, incidentally, that one Occupy Richmond participant staked out early and held onto as his perch).
Then there’s the fung shui of the place. Yes it’s liberally landscaped, including indigenous plant materials and sizable magnolias, but there’s something creepy about tree roots whose growth is stunted by the concrete roof of an expressway tunnel underneath.
So the no man’s land of Kanawha Plaza was a void waiting for something like Occupy Richmond. But although the demonstrators weren’t disrupting anything, city officials decided enough was enough. At least Kanawha Plaza had finally found, albeit briefly, a place in Richmond history.
What will Occupy Richmond colonize next? It’s hard to tell. But a few evenings ago, during the First Fridays Art Walk on Broad Street, a posse of folks strode through the crowded sidewalks carrying a large hand-painted sign. It read, “Occupy Everything.” S
Edwin Slipek is senior contributing editor and architecture critic for Style Weekly.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style.