1 of 3
Lee Downey, the city’s economic development director Photo by Sarah Walor
2 of 3
A market scene from the early 1920s Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History
3 of 3
Current market vendor Tim Christian Photo by James Dickinson
The chirp of a car alarm startles a clutch of finches scuffling over a discarded bread crust in the mid-morning shade of the looming green metal canopy of 17th Street Farmers' Market. The birds skitter across the pavement to hide beneath one of the dozen or so parked cars that most week days sit in the middle of empty stalls in what is the city's oldest public gathering space.
The past decade has been a notable low point for 17th Street. It's been a period marked by a ravaging flood and a rapid succession of market managers hired by the city. The market's distinctive metal canopy today is like a lid trapping the air of uncertainty over the market's future, and it's a lid that city planners plan to remove.
On Oct. 2, the city released its long-awaited request for proposal, seeking plans to "reposition the existing architecture and configuration" into an "open urban square that better relates" to the neighborhood. "The money is in the budget and the mayor is committed to it," says David Napier, a caterer and president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association. "He likes the neighborhood."
Jones eats lunch regularly at Arcadia, a recently opened restaurant that took the place of Cafe Gutenberg, says Napier. And he chuckles a bit at stories of Jones' occasional appearances — with his entourage — at Salsa Thursday events at Havana 59.
"It's going to be a game changer down here," Napier says, sweating in the October humidity beneath one of the awnings he wants removed.
But even as anticipation grows about the planned improvements, uncertainty over the viability of the more than 200-year-old market to which 17th Street is inexorably linked seems unlikely to dissipate easily, say some former vendors.
"I think the history of it is very dark," proffers Lisa Taranto, founder of the popular Tricycle Gardens community gardening program, who shops regularly at Byrd House Market even though her house in Church Hill is a short hike away from 17th Street. She largely avoids the closer market because of "bad juju."
Patricia Stansbury, who grows produce at her Epic Gardens farm in Chesterfield and sells it at various area markets, nods at the notion of unsettling vibes at 17th Street, making it a difficult place to resurrect as a community gathering place like the Tuesday afternoon Byrd House Market in Oregon Hill. "Someone said it's because it was a slave market," Stansbury says of 17th Street, where she once vended.
Though 17th Street was never the site of a designated slave market, it certainly was close. Lumpkin's Jail, recently excavated a block away, was among dozens of slave-related businesses that surrounded the city's marketplace in the mid-1800s. In the city's formative years, criminals took their punishment at 17th and Franklin streets, on humiliating public display in "the cage."
By contrast, the Byrd House Market carries no such historical baggage.
On a recent sunny Tuesday, kids clump around a table in the stippled shade of a wide-canopied mulberry tree on this once-desolate back lot of the William Byrd House, learning about gardens and healthy eating while their parents shop. With no walls or metal awnings, this open-air space populated by busy market booths bears little resemblance to 17th Street.
Byrd House and a dozen or so similarly bustling farmers markets have popped up region-wide since the mid-2000s and now represent the picturesque ideal. This market bustles weekly with shoppers who profess a love both of local produce and community interaction.
It's markets like this one that are the inheritors of what Kathy Emerson tried to foster at 17th Street when she took over as market manager there in the late 1990s. Her tenure ended in 2004, but in those six years, she recharged the battery of the market by making it a destination for events like Qué Pasa and the Brunswick Stew Festival. She used those events to attract Richmonders back to the long semi-dormant marketplace, but says that there's little use in trying to recapture the success she had a decade ago.
"It would be ridiculous for that place to be a farmers market," says Emerson, who moved to California. "It would be like bringing back carbon paper. Richmond has plenty of markets now."
George Bolos, 17th Street's current market manager, says that capturing a bit of the Byrd House magic — creating a space inviting to community events — is at the heart of the latest plan to revitalize the market.
"We're struggling," Bolos says, frank about the Saturday and Sunday market days, which since Tropical Storm Gaston in 2004 have increasingly moved toward craft bazaars and away from local produce. "We can get back to our roots, but it's going to take some work."
Emerson is not alone among market observers who believe it may not be worth the effort of trying to rebuild the farmers market, as city leaders essentially signed a do-not-resuscitate order for the market. "I don't know if we need it now, honestly," Taranto says, content to blend back into the crowd of Byrd House Market attendees wending among the two dozen vendor tents.
Common lore is that the 17th Street Farmers' Market property deed requires it to be a farmers market. While old city deeds, as well as a 1779 act of the Virginia General Assembly, do speak to the requirement that the area remain a "common" for public use, nothing seems to legally tie the city to guaranteeing the sale of fresh produce.
And nothing about the free market economy has suggested the need for one in recent years. Bolos says that 90 percent of the market's revenues come from weekend festival events, such as the recent Italian Street Festival or the Autumn Bottom Brews. Autumn Bottom, scheduled for Nov. 4, marks what likely will be the final festival held at 17th Street before whatever renovation plans eventually are approved.
In spite of the economic reliance on festivals, Lee Downey, Richmond's economic development director, says city officials remain hopeful that whatever proposal goes forward will include a fresh produce market of some sort.
"Seventeenth Street needs to continue to be a market," says Downey from his office in the nearby Main Street Station. He stresses the importance of "the history of 17th Street Farmers' Market, and keeping the history," which also reflects the mayor's initiative to provide healthy food options to areas of the city long underserved by grocery stores.
"We feel like providing that ability or option for people to reach fresh produce … providing that access is important," says Downey.
And Napier says he plans, when the renovations of 17th Street are done, to ensure that three produce vendors, whose stalls have been here for 50 years or more, will continue to have a home regardless. Napier plans a deli in the basement of his building, the former city YMCA that more recently was his City Bar restaurant, and says he will build a permanent awning for their stalls at the entrance to his deli.
Also rumored, Napier says, is the possibility that part of the train shed renovations at Main Street Station will be reserved as a permanent indoor farmers market location: "That'd be great — it would open up the possibility again for fresh fish and fresh meats."
Whether it results in a farmers market or not, Richmond officials remain confident that this latest reboot effort finally will open 17th Street to a more natural traffic flow, restoring a welcoming green space, returning the surrounding roads to two-way traffic, fixing lingering parking and access issues, lifting the green-metal veil that's choked it, and perhaps, at last, releasing some of the spirits of an unpleasant past that have haunted the area.
Agreeing with Napier's confidence in Mayor Jones' commitment, Downey says the city's strategy for reaching its objectives will not lack follow-through. In a city infamous for building expensive projects that are touted as the silver-bullet solutions for revitalizing downtown, 17th Street's revival cannot happen in a vacuum, Downey says.
"One thing I think we're doing really well in Richmond right now is looking at everything in how it connects to the next piece," says Downey. "I think in the past, too many things have been done in a silo," he says. "Now we're very aware of how one thing interacts with the next."
Ideas like these excite Emerson, who says that when she took on the market in 1998, she immediately began lobbying to remove the awnings and restore the green space.
She calls the awning "never functional," even if it was attractive. "Razing it at this point is brilliant. Maybe having WiFi and an extension of the restaurants, that makes it a lot more pedestrian and inviting."
The city's plan to create an enhanced space is ambitious, and Downey predicts it won't be long before the public sees 17th Street and the entire area around Main Street Station transform into a tourism and transportation hub for the city.
As early as January, Downey says, work will begin on the long-discussed $29 million renovation of Main Street Station and the attached train shed that runs nearly to Broad Street, with crews tearing off the corrugated metal siding on the shed, restoring it to the open platform it once was. When it's done, the platform will be enclosed again, but this time in glass.
Perhaps more important is a $2.5 million project — mostly funded by Metropolitan Planning Organization money — that will change traffic patterns. As crews tear into the train shed, they will also demolish the massive doors on the shed's first floor that once served as entryway to an ill-fated mall two decades ago. When they're done, Franklin Street, which now dead ends in Main Street Station's west parking lot, will continue straight through with a decorative brick or paver surface.
Downey says plans are to eventually extend Franklin to 14th Street.
With the lower level of the massive train shed bisected, Downey says, the space on the south side of the building is envisioned as "the visitor center for Richmond — and hopefully for the state." Talking about the thousands of cars passing Main Street Station every hour on I-95, and with exit 74 off the highway available to drop visitors almost directly in the station's parking lot, Downey's eyes light up at the possibilities.
He talks of a free flow and a sense of openness, linking not only the train station and the market, but also nearby Kanawha Canal, the nearly completed Capital Trail bike path to Williamsburg, and the James River, which is slated for a major facelift as part of the city's ambitious Riverfront Plan.
Downey downplays renewed talk of a Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium, saying the city is moving forward with the loose assumption that any new facility will remain on the Boulevard.
The centerpiece of Shockoe, Downey says, will be the 17th Street market. Its precise future is yet uncertain, as the city prepares to take proposals from firms to transform the ideas incorporated into the city's Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy plan.
Whatever proposal is accepted, Downey says, it will aim to transform 17th Street from "just a farmers market as it exists today to a more flexible urban market."
"I can't say what it will look like because that's part of this whole practice," he says, acknowledging the possibility — even the probability — that the current green metal canopy will be removed along with the pavement. "We hear a lot of people say we need more open space, we need more community space in the Bottom … Perhaps if we do it right, restaurants could put their chairs and tables out on it."
Matthew Tlusty, executive chef of Arcadia Restaurant, on the southeast corner of the market, has seen big ideas come and go in Richmond since he arrived from New York City in 1998. He's not ready to lay any big bets on this latest plan to revitalize Shockoe.
"I've had so many reasons to leave Richmond, so many reasons to be disappointed," Tlusty says. "But I believe. I believe that this can be an amazing city — this should be an amazing city."
And Tlusty likes what he hears, including removing the market awnings and the big talk of thinking about 17th Street within the context of a larger effort to make Shockoe, Broad Street and the Kanawha Canal work together.
But success, he says, will rely as much on infrastructure investment as on the success of convincing businesses that this time it's for real.
"I think there needs to be a little more polish down here," he says, pointing out his window to a hodgepodge of dilapidated storefronts, occupied by often-problematic nightclubs that don't exactly attract a vibrant retail or high-end restaurant scene. "What would be nice is if we attracted some more big businesses, like a Pottery Barn, would be great down here."
The bigger the ideas, the better, says Karen Atkinson, president of GrowRVA, which operates the South of the James Farmers Market. That market is arguably the city's most successful post-17th Street market, drawing more than 4,000 people each week to Forest Hill Park.
"The problem with 17th Street is vendors lost faith because of the inconsistency in the way it was run, in traffic, in customers that weren't coming," says Atkinson, suggesting the city should focus less on fresh vegetables and more on a fresh approach to exhibiting the market's historical significance. "It needs to be linked back to the historical piece of it — like Williamsburg does theirs."
Williamsburg's farmers market, held in the middle of Merchant's Square on Duke of Gloucester Street — the commercial hub of the city's historic tourism district — serves as both a fresh produce market and as a craft and arts market. But it also, with no small nod to its location, integrates the town's ever-present history lesson into the experience. Atkinson thinks Richmond, as the state's permanent capital and the site of history that includes everything from the birth of the Bill of Rights to both the roots and the end of slavery, could well have one up on Williamsburg in presenting interpretive programs as part of its market.
Current market manager Bolos agrees: "The Bottom is historical, and we need to package it and brand it," he says, suggesting that once renovations are complete, his role as farmers market manager likely will be ceded to an outside organization with expertise in market operations.
However, if city leaders are set on rebuilding a credible local produce market, Atkinson suggests they should get the heck out of the way.
"It has in the past had the support of the direct community around it — but the city has always been the roadblock in allowing it to move forward or grow into anything bigger," she says. "It lacks in credibility — we don't grow oranges in Virginia. Bottom line, it needs to have incentive for vendors to come back and be there."
Echoing vendor and customer doubts from Richmond's other markets, Atkinson also wonders whether there's any point in pushing to create a true, self-sustaining farmers market at 17th Street anymore. "Now with the success of all of the other farmers markets that have grown in Richmond in the past four years, it's going to take a lot of energy, time effort and enthusiasm to regrow downtown and 17th Street."
Downey does not disagree that it will take time and a lot of work re-educating the public about 17th Street, even after all the planned infrastructure improvements. But he remains resolute in the current administration's commitment to reinvigorating 17th Street Farmers' Market.
Emerson was famous for her resolute dedication to transforming 17th Street, too.
"The one thing that exhausted me was we were always on the brink," she says. "The potential is there ... It's time. Richmond has to go rogue."