History and the Bulldozer: Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom

I know, I live in DC, but I’m a Richmond belle at heart so I’m going to use the opportunity to trumpet the cause of preservation while defending my beloved hometown from the cudgel of short-term political idiocy.

Why is it that all mayors are beloved of the idea of stadiums? (with the exception of Atlanta’s Kasim Reed, who told the Braves where they could put it) Richmond spent nearly $11 million dollars last year on a state-of-the-art facility for the Washington Redskins to use as a training camp- taking money from city schools and a badly needed new city jail. What vast rewards has the city reaped from this endeavor? A vague, unsubstantiated $8.5 million increase in “leisure visitor spending” based on a 100,000-visitor per summer attendance. Of course, the actual attendance for summer 2013 was more like 54,000.

So after this most recent um, hiccup, can anyone explain to me why it sounds like a good idea to demolish a vast swath of Richmond’s most historic neighborhood for a new, $80 million baseball stadium? The Richmond Braves actually lost money every year they were in Richmond, and the absurdly-named Flying Squirrels (fyi, there are no flying squirrels north of the Great Dismal Swamp and certainly none in Richmond) have thus far failed to impress. Baseball is wonderful, and local hometown teams are critical to the structure of the leagues because they give players opportunities to develop or recover, generate grassroots support, and give the sport great exposure. But with an average attendance of 6,000 people per game, why do we need a 12,000-seat (or larger) stadium? Especially if the notoriously fickle teams have the option to leave for east-bejesus-Gwinnett-County-Georgia any time they get in a snit and leave the city holding the bill?

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Shockoe Bottom is the oldest area of Richmond, the heart of the eighteenth century shipping industry and the site of one of the largest slave markets in the country. The site of “Lumpkin’s Jail”, a notorious stable for holding slaves prior to auction, was discovered by archaeologists in the parking lot of Main Street Station during digs from 2003-2009. It was in Richmond’s smoking waterside districts after the city fell in 1865 that Abraham Lincoln, staggered by the devastation, famously said “Let them up easy, boys. Let them up easy.” Nearby on Church Hill Patrick Henry shrieked defiance to the rafters of Old St John’s Church in 1775; “Give me liberty or give me death!”

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In this photo, you can see the tiled roof of the 1901 Main Street Station, the stuccoed side of an early 19th-century home, Italianate row houses, railroads that connected the South to the world, and the oldest farmer’s market in the United States on 17th Street. (And a terrible, 1990’s apartment building in the background. Vistas on the James forsooth). What you can’t see are the cobbled streets, the lantern-lit homes of sea captains and tobacco buyers, and the charmingly bohemian community with their community gardens, Montessori schools, and barbecue-joints-in-a-tent that have brought this area back from the brink.

This is what Mayor Jones thinks ought to be there, destroying everything that’s wonderful about the Bottom to build hotels, apartments, a giant-ass ballpark, and oh, yes, a very quaint little museum about the history of slavery. How very nice that three hundred years of history gets condensed into that.

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The question of destroying a historic district for hotels and crap aside (Savannah! Charleston! Annapolis! Rise up and defend your sister city!), can anyone tell me how exactly the city fathers in all their wisdom propose to get the touristy masses there? Baltimore has a downtown stadium, but also both a subway and a streetcar system. New York City, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. all have these helpful infrastructures as well. Richmond has… the bus. At least the current stadium, the Diamond, has acres of parking and is located in a heavily industrial (not residential) area off the Boulevard on the west side of the city.

As it stands, Richmond has already spent $23,000 of taxpayer money to ‘study’ the issue and is about to approve $50,000 more. The mayor is forging ahead (gee, wonder if some of those developers contributed to his war chest), despite howls of protest from city residents and a five-page come-to-jesus-letter from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that detailed why a ballpark in the Bottom would destroy what makes Richmond wonderful.

Two separate companies are engaged to determine whether building a ballpark there would even be feasible. One, the usually reputable Dutton + Associates, will be examining the impact on historic fabric, which is especially critical because the project may involve federal funds or federally-guaranteed loans. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that any impact on historic fabric must be documented and mitigated; mitigation, or even the lengthy review process, may be more of a financial burden or a PR disaster than the mayor’s office can handle. The other, Greeley and Hansen, are the city’s contractors for stormwater management and will be determining whether, oh, haha, wait, the site is even buildable because it’s on a riverbank between two massive hills that floods every few years. That’s why is called The Bottom.

To sum up: Richmond wants to spend $360 million dollars to revitalize Shockoe Bottom, $80 million of which will go to build a stadium that no one can get to and floods all the time. Meanwhile, great swaths of Richmond’s history, architecture, and culture will be destroyed and the communities of Shockoe and Church Hill will be forced out in favor of mythical tourists that still… can’t actually get there.

Please, Richmond, take a lesson from Jackson Ward and the Bank District. Bulldozing your history only results in concrete canyons, neighborhood destruction, and rampant poverty. Embrace Charleston, Savannah, Annapolis, even Baltimore and Philadelphia, where they have at least tried to maintain the parts of their city that will only get more wonderful over time. Historic districts draw tourists because they’re rare and lovely. Ballparks are all too common and all too quickly obsolete.

Go watch Twelve Years a Slave or Lincoln or AMC’s new series Turn, all filmed in or about Richmond. Because if this project goes forward, the only way to understand Richmond’s history will not be by experiencing it where it happened, but by watching it in a movie. A poor substitute.

 

 

PS- check out this generally reasonable and historically sensitive alternative to the ballpark, put out by opponents to the mayor’s plan. Also, a charmingly snarky response to the idea of cutting funding from schools to pay for the stadium- love Style Weekly!

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2 responses to “History and the Bulldozer: Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom

  1. Pingback: History and the Bulldozer 2: Richmond’s Jackson Ward | PreservationArchitect·

  2. I left my heart in Richmond after one enchanted year in that splendid city, back in the late 1980s. Thanks for sounding a clarion call against this horrifying plan to annihilate Shockoe Bottom — may it be turned back before it’s too late!

    Like

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