Victoria Quinn, a 45-year-old traveling nurse, has what can generously be called a controversial viewpoint: “Short Pump has no soul,” she declares.
First hitting town two years ago, Quinn — who worked for 10 years as a registered nurse in the Air Force — now works stateside at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center and the University of Virginia Medical Center.
“When I first moved to Richmond from D.C., I lived in corporate housing arranged by my employer,” Quinn says. “It was one of those big development projects around a golf course in the far West End.”
But before long, she reconsidered: “When I decided that I was going to stay in Richmond longer, I found myself looking downtown.” Quinn, who followed a map that she obtained on a whim from the American Civil War Center, found herself in Chimborazo Park.
She searched no further.
“It was the first and only place I looked,” she says. “When I went to turn my key in and tell the apartment manager in Short Pump that I was moving downtown, he basically gave me that look, and then said that I’d be back.”
Quinn just laughed.
So, How’s It Going?
With the development of warehouse lofts in Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill and the renovation of other older Richmond neighborhoods in recent years, both the young and old took the plunge and moved downtown. But have they found what they were seeking?
“There’s this vitality to the city now,” says 24-year-old Jonathan Koves, who lives in Shockoe Slip. “Downtown has an alluring charm and character — there’s an appeal to the aesthetic sense, but also for the sake of convenience.”
And several residents are taking ownership of their new neighborhoods, most strikingly in Shockoe Bottom. Heather Truong, 27, moved from Church Hill to 18th and Main streets. She promptly formed the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association with other residents.
“Even before [Tropical Storm] Gaston, people kind of forgot about the Bottom,” she says. “They got used to seeing a little bit of mess here and a little bit of a mess there. But now [that] we’re building so many great condos, apartments, businesses, and restaurants, people are now moving in from other states, even other countries. And they love it here.”
Truong says she wants to capitalize on this momentum with clean-up projects and a crime prevention committee.
The group, now 30 strong, meets regularly to discuss the neighborhood’s next moves. Already their efforts are paying off; Mayor L. Douglas Wilder joined neighbors for a 45-block cleanup this summer.
By late summer, though, the energized group was faced with a major challenge: flooding from August’s localized thunderstorm, packing 3 inches of rainfall into a little more than an hour.
Although news reports have indicated friction between Wilder and City Council, Truong says that the city’s top brass are listening — as evidenced by a town-hall meeting held in the neighborhood and the emergency declaration.
“Everybody came out,” she says. “We all felt very informed of what was going on, and how it will be improved.”
If Shockoe Bottom is becoming a more settled neighborhood, Manchester is still pioneer country. Across the Mayo Bridge sits Cheek-Neal Warehouse 201, where 25-year-old Jennifer Sidleck moved a few months ago, after receiving her graduate degree from Penn State.
Like Victoria Quinn, Sidleck lived west of the city. After exploring several options downtown, she decided on a revamped loft with a grand view of the James River, a move that also brought her much closer to work. Plus, she notes, “I also have easy access to the entrance of the Flood Wall walk, great trails and a chance to exercise.”
As for area crime, Sidleck says, “I actually feel safer now than when I was living in the West End.”
A quick scan of reported crimes in various downtown neighborhoods in the month of August shows fluctuation in incidents, depending on the area. Shockoe Bottom is one of the busier districts for police, with 29 incidents reported. They include a robbery and two aggravated assaults, but most offenses are minor, such as hit-and-runs involving vehicle damage. Historic Manchester, however, had only four reported crimes in the same period, including two suspicious situations or persons and one theft. In the middle are Church Hill, with 18 incidents, Shockoe Slip with 10 and Chimborazo with seven.
But serious crime remains present in some areas of downtown. Richmond’s First Precinct, which covers Church Hill, Shockoe Slip, Union Hill and other neighborhoods, saw 17 homicides from Jan. 1 through the end of August.
Nonetheless, Charmaine Curtis of the Richmond Police Department’s public affairs unit notes that “overall downtown is a very safe area. We’ve seen a 22 percent reduction in crime from a year ago.”
Curtis attributes much of the police’s success to a recent reshuffling and community enforcement, a method in which teams of 25 to 30 officers are assigned to various geographic sectors. This has allowed officers to get to know the new residents, and hear their needs and concerns.
“One problem that was occurring, for example, a few months ago was theft from automobiles,” she explains. “Well, people were leaving their iPods, laptops and CDs out in the open — and not locking their cars.” The sector lieutenant quickly blanketed the neighborhood with crime prevention flyers, curbing the outbreak.
A Little Patience
Although she describes herself as a downtown proponent, Quinn says the area is not without its share of challenges.
“I’ve lived literally all over the world,” she says, “and downtown in my opinion only has about a two-year shelf life.” Coming up on her second year in Church Hill, Quinn says that the proximity to entertainment and restaurants contributes to the area’s initial appeal, but the region needs a movie theater and retail shopping.
“People will eventually move away if they don’t have the things that will sustain them,” she says.
And that’s what Quinn plans to do. Though she will keep her Church Hill property, she will be leaving Richmond soon for a job in San Antonio, Texas.
Leonard Bayer of the Goodstein Development Corporation, which is building the $175 million, 25-story Centennial Towers in the 500 block of East Main Street, recommends patience. “A rebirth doesn’t happen overnight.”
And residents say there’s a lot of collateral beauty along the way.
“It’s like a little family,” Truong says. “You’re here for a week or two and you learn peoples’ faces and get to know everybody... It’s a nice, small-town feeling with big city amenities.”