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The Provocateur

2004 Richmonder of the Year Jennie Knapp Dotts.


Today Dotts is starting at the Richmond Hill historic monastery in Church Hill, where she's meeting with two key members of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission — the Rev. Ben Campbell, pastoral director of Richmond Hill, and City Councilwoman Delores McQuinn. They're planning to discuss what to do with the Emily Winfree slave cottage, which is sitting on a trailer in Shockoe Bottom.

Another emergency meeting is set for 2 p.m. with the Loving family. Dotts is trying to convince them not to demolish one of their buildings that recently burned. Earlier that morning, Dotts received an e-mail from an attorney with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The lawyer is interested in coming to Richmond to meet with Dotts about ACORN's efforts to save several buildings downtown, including the West Hospital on the medical campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Dotts can't wait to tell her colleagues about the lawyer's request, a potential turning point in ACORN's rumpus with the state. She lets out a high-pitched, celebratory yelp. "Things just happen," Dotts says excitedly. "It's like that every day — it really drives you crazy."

The suddenly hectic morning seems to sum up an erratic year that put Dotts at the forefront of Richmond's biggest preservation battles. The year was full of them. Often, Dotts played the lightning rod, the straw that stirred the debate over Richmond's future.

When a band of business owners proposed building a ballpark for the Braves in Shockoe Bottom, Dotts led the opposition against it. She locked horns with VCU President Eugene P. Trani over the university's plans to tear down MCV's West Hospital and the A.D. Williams Clinic. And it was Dotts who essentially handed former Mayor Rudy McCollum his political platform of preservation in his election campaign against former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

In a town full of quiet dissent, Dotts is the advocate with a bullhorn. She challenges Richmond's most powerful business and political leaders, forcing those used to getting their way to pause and take notice. Until this year, Richmond seemed to sorely lack such debate, particularly when it came to downtown development. But in 2004, Dotts squared off with the Jim Ukrops, Gene Tranis and Doug Wilders — and demanded a seat at the table. Shunning the typical gadfly shrill that so often defines government activists, Dotts' well-polished, intellectual approach to preservation and economic development strikes a contrast. Agree or disagree with Dotts, the point is this: It's the debate that matters.

Jennie Knapp Dotts proves you can be a Richmond activist — and get heard. She is Style Weekly's Richmonder of the Year for 2004.

Dotts, 53, has been pushing Richmond's buttons for years. Both she and her twin sister, Jeanne Bridgforth, made an unsuccessful run for a seat on City Council in 1998. Before that she was an animal-rights activist, working closely with the SPCA and Save Our Shelters, which she co-founded with her sister and others in 1996. Their efforts to shine a harsh light on the city's animal shelter resulted in a radical turnaround there.

From 1993 to 1998, Dotts served as director of public relations and development for the Historic Richmond Foundation, a more genteel preservationist group.

Dotts joined ACORN as its executive director in 2000. But in the last year, she has risen to a different level. She has challenged more powerful, well-heeled Richmonders at every turn. So much so that her sister — Dotts and Bridgforth talk five or six times a day — has come to answer the phone with a bit of trepidation, wondering what idea Dotts has come up with next. "Every time I pick up the phone, I say, 'Oh, no, what an angle!'" Bridgforth says.

For instance, VCU's plans to demolish the West Hospital (arguably one of Richmond's most architecturally significant art deco buildings with its intricate brickwork and Mayan-like ziggurat) along with the A.D. Williams building on Marshall Street and Cabaniss Hall on Broad Street. The plan to demolish these buildings for a new hospital has been on the books for years, but it came up for an official vote in the summer. In mid-August, VCU's Trani put the plan on the agenda as part of the university's official master plan — something Dotts and other preservationists vehemently oppose.

Dotts sprang into action. She managed to get the issue on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the weeks prior to the meeting, in Style Weekly, and on local newscasts. It was to no avail. The state had passed off on the demolition plans years ago, and Trani's impassioned plea to move forward, "saving lives not bricks," led VCU's Board of Visitors to approve the master plan during its Aug. 12 meeting. Dotts and about a dozen other preservationists affiliated with ACORN were prohibited from speaking.

Still, Dotts got the word out. And she was only just beginning. She and her staff began combing through thousands of state documents, contacting lawmakers and making pleas to mayoral candidates for public support (McCollum bit the hardest). Now ACORN is mobilizing for a possible legal challenge to VCU's plan. Dotts also has garnered attention from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has encouraged ACORN to nominate the MCV buildings, along with the Museum of the Confederacy and the former Richmond and Murphy hotels near the State Capitol, to the Trust's national list of 11 Most Endangered Buildings. At the very least, the Trust appears willing to take an official stance on the buildings, adding considerable firepower to the debate, Dotts says.

"It's hard to know what's going to work until you try it," she says.

Indeed, Dotts will try just about anything to carry ACORN's message to the masses. In April, the Richmond Braves and a group of business owners calling themselves the Richmond Ballpark Initiative held their first press conference to unveil plans for a 7,500-seat ballpark development in Shockoe Bottom. But months before, Dotts had managed to organize a resistance campaign that started in Church Hill. The groundswell of opposition eventually forced the RBI and the Braves to put the plans on hold.

There were many variables in that debate. But few framed the issue more succinctly than ACORN's leader: Not only did the residents oppose the park, she insisted, but Shockoe Bottom, part of the fastest-growing residential community in the city, didn't need a publicly subsidized economic boost.

"This personality type is pretty rare," says Selden Richardson, a staff historian of architectural history with ACORN. "She makes these things happen through pure persuasion and pure enthusiasm."

It's that relentless, unyielding willpower that forced Melinda Skinner, one of the co-founders of ACORN, to aggressively pursue Dotts for its directorship four years ago.

"We all had it in our souls, but we needed somebody more professionally marketing [ACORN]," says Skinner, who had worked with Dotts at the Historic Richmond Foundation in the 1990s. "I was so impressed with her because when she cares about something, she throws her whole self into it. … A lot of people talk, but there are not that many people who will actually do it."

Skinner and David Herring, the group's director of properties and programs, took Dotts to lunch. At first, Dotts was reluctant. But after some begging and pleading, Skinner says, they convinced her to take the reins.

In the beginning, Skinner recalls of ACORN's early days, "we started giving out free workshops." Then they fell into advocacy, she says, because no one else was doing it. "It seemed like the preservationist community had gotten pretty quiet about things."

With Dotts at the helm, they started combing the community for old, blighted houses with rehab potential and then marketing those houses to potential buyers. The theory is simple: Rehab blighted buildings and property values go up, crime goes down, and the neighborhood becomes more attractive for new investment.

"What we are promoting at ACORN is the rebirth of neighborhoods, the elimination of blight," Dotts says. "I think that the economic interests will take care of itself if we rebuild the city from the bottom up. It doesn't take a lot of money. You don't have to spend millions of dollars to save a city. Improve the quality of life for the people in the city, and the spillover — we're already seeing it."

Building Commissioner Claude Cooper sees it. He deals directly with ACORN perhaps more than anyone else. As commissioner, Cooper's job to ensure that buildings are up to code and not a public hazard often puts him at the other end of the preservation spectrum. Often, his job is to tear buildings down.

"There are clearly times when we get into each other's way," Cooper says. "I think [ACORN and Dotts] perform a very useful service. But that said, we do feel that they get into the process when the building is beyond hope."

Still, Cooper understands the inherent conflict, and sometimes the two groups end up working together. Often the owners of blighted buildings become interested in talking to ACORN only after the building commissioner "begins breathing down their necks."

But despite the adversarial role, Cooper sees ACORN as a necessary voice. "I think you need advocates for several different approaches," he says. "If we are going to bring the city back, we are going to need everybody."

ACORN's work appears to be taking hold.

Church Hill is seeing a rebirth, says Dotts, much like the Fan experienced in the 1970s and '80s. With a little push and historic tax abatements, parts of the city are in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Union Hill, Church Hill and Jackson Ward, in particular, have tapped into a growing demographic of young professionals and families who don't want to live in cookie-cutter suburban boxes.

It's a message Dotts will share with anyone — in fact, it's a message she can't not share. James S. Ukrop, chairman of Ukrop's Super Markets, has always been a supporter of ACORN's efforts, Dotts says. But when he met with ACORN to win support for a new baseball stadium in the Bottom in the spring of 2004, she told him just that: Rebuild the communities, and the economic development will follow.

"I just don't think that communities are created in corporate boardrooms," she says. "I think they are created at the grassroots level."

Dotts didn't convince Ukrop to change his mind about the ballpark, but the attention she garnered from the grocery magnate speaks to her increasing success in the court of public opinion. She strongly believes that preservation is a social issue — that tending to the small signs of a neighborhood's decline can stave off larger social problems; in essence, the broken-window theory — and she has succeeded in selling her belief that saving history has a direct economic benefit. She has an eloquent speaking style, and she understands how to communicate with reporters — how to sell her story.

"These older neighborhoods and buildings really give us a sense of who we were and where we are going," Dotts says. "It's the glue that holds us together."

While supporters praise her backbone and her almost spiritual belief in saving old buildings, Dotts' critics often see it as tunnel vision. If Dotts seems likes she's always on message, it's because she is. Some say this unbridled enthusiasm can lead Dotts and ACORN to go on the defensive prematurely. This was perhaps the biggest criticism of the charge Dotts led to block the Bottom ballpark.

With the Bottom dismantled by Tropical Storm Gaston, some say a new baseball stadium, and subsequent development around it, might be exactly what the Bottom needs to jumpstart economic development in the area. Even Kathy Emerson, the longtime Bottom entrepreneur and former manager of the 17th Street Farmer's Market, says a baseball stadium makes a lot of sense.

"I believe in preserving history," Emerson says. "I don't believe that history and moving ahead cannot work hand in hand. They are not mutually exclusive."

Emerson respects Dotts and appreciates her work with ACORN, she says, but worries that ACORN's response to the ballpark proposal was premature. A potential economic jolt such as a new $58 million ballpark, she says, needs a fair hearing.

"Her approach is very different, and I respect that," Emerson says. "But I don't always agree with Jennie. I think sometimes there can be a knee-jerk reaction."

Some worry that Dotts, in her relentless drive to gain publicity for ACORN, has made some critical missteps recently. John Moeser, an urban studies professor at VCU and longtime supporter of ACORN, says Dotts' very public alignment with former mayor McCollum during last year's mayoral race smacked of naiveté.

"I think it was unfortunate that ACORN … identified itself with a mayoral candidate who was not going to win this election, and now has to someway reestablish a relationship with the person who did win the election," Moeser says. "ACORN really does need, for its work to be carried on, to work very closely with the city."

Moeser worries that Wilder may now view ACORN and Dotts with "some suspicion," which could ultimately create roadblocks for the group.

True to form, Dotts says ACORN never publicly supported one candidate over the other, but simply made an effort to embrace anyone who supported their mission. McCollum, she says, is one of a small number of politicians "who really gets it, who really understands about building communities from the bottom up.

"I'll support anyone who supports what we want for the community. It doesn't really matter who the candidate is," she says. "I have to believe that [Wilder] is after the same things that we are after. He wants a better city. He wants a safer city. He wants better schools. He wants to reduce crime. … I think that he'll see that we can work together really well. We've got to. We don't have any choice."

Dotts is a showman at heart — and, some say, a publicity hound. A former literary manager, she worked in Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s as a deBarbieri Dramaturgy Fellow for the Shakespeare Theatre, and she loves the arts. (Dotts met her husband, Walter Dotts, while working in Washington. They married in May 2004.) She is also a former dance and theater critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly, and has a flair for the dramatic. She has an image to match — high cheekbones and unblemished, porcelain skin. She's a gym rat who works out every day — she prefers the weight room — and dresses impeccably.

So she seems strangely out of place rummaging through old buildings in Union Hill, inspecting properties and giving impromptu tours of blighted houses and buildings. But her serious, well-polished demeanor isn't an act, her family and friends say. Growing up during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, her sister Jeanne Bridgforth says the two became hooked on politics and "serious issues" at a very early age.

Bridgforth recalls the time her father drove the family to a farm in Henrico County to pick blackberries. The twins, probably 8 or 9, refused to participate, Bridgforth says. It was an election year, and they both demanded that their father take along the television so they could watch the national political convention. She thinks it was a Republican convention. Their mother was horrified.

"I remember sitting on a bale of hay and we were watching [the convention]," Bridgforth says, laughing. "We all felt that connection to the bigger issues at a very early age."

Dotts describes her childhood growing up in a "big, wonderful house" in Westhampton as "idyllic." Her father, Joe Markow, was a florist who operated a shop downtown (the family sold the business, but Markow Florist remains a Richmond staple). Dotts was one of seven children. "I just think of the windows open and the doors always swinging and somebody coming and going and lots of excitement," she recalls.

She inherited her father's love for old buildings. Every Sunday, Dotts says, he would pile the kids into the car and tour Richmond's old houses. The first book she ever read was "Houses of Old Richmond," by Mary Wingfield Scott.

She would picture the house filled with people, the original inhabitants, like an imaginary dollhouse. She recalls sounding out the words underneath the pictures and asking her parents what the word "demolished" meant.

She opens the book, which always sits nearby in her Shockoe Slip office, and demonstrates. "Buh-ilt in 1810. Duh-maul-ished, 1935. I'd ask my mother, 'What does "demolished" mean?'" Dotts says, pausing for effect. "'You mean it's not there anymore?'"

Stepping out of her BMW in front of the Richmond Hill monastery, Dotts is on full throttle this December morning. Time is of the essence. Work on the Winfree slave cottage — which will sit in a parking lot in Shockoe Bottom near the site of the former slave pen, Lumpkins' Jail — begins in early 2005. Her group wants to begin rehabilitating the cottage soon. Rumor has it the ballpark proposal isn't dead, just on hold until sometime after Wilder takes office.

The Rev. Ben Campbell, casually dressed in a wool shirt and boots, greets Dotts downstairs and offers a quick tour of recent renovations to the monastery. Campbell softens the atmosphere, the edge of the morning. They visit the worship hall, the cafeteria and eventually work their way up a twisting stairwell that's difficult to navigate. It's easy to get lost in the monastery, says Campbell, which is the point.

The monastery was designed "to purposely disorient the members so that they would settle down into something else," Campbell explains, with Dotts following closely behind.

Delores McQuinn doesn't make it to the meeting, but Dotts and her colleague David Herring meet with Campbell nonetheless. Quickly, their conversation turns to the importance of the cottage and how Richmond has for too long neglected its slave history. There is no mention of the ballpark, but between them, there seems to be an understanding that this is more important: helping Richmond come to grips with its painful history, with its immense role in the slave trade. Campbell doesn't know the story of the cottage, he tells Dotts, who goes on to explain that the small house was built for Emily Winfree, a slave who was the love interest of plantation owner David Winfree.

Winfree built the house and gave Emily 100 acres of farmland in Chesterfield County, giving her a stature that most slaves never knew. The cottage was going to be torn down, but two years ago ACORN, with help from former City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, rescued the building.

Campbell is amazed. He loves the story. How nicely it will fit with the story of Lumpkins' Jail, he says, which eventually became the Freedmen's School, the predecessor to Virginia Union University. "I love the story of redemption," he says.

Campbell breaks up the meeting. Duty calls. The noon prayers are about to start. Dotts thanks Campbell for supporting their plans for the cottage — and has a final request.

"Will you pray for this plan?" Dotts asks as she grabs her purse.

"Of course," Campbell promises. S