The hangout where everybody knew your name. The scrappy minor-league squad giving it their all in tattered uniforms. The supermarket that prepared your holiday dinner rolls for decades. They all live on, if only in our memories — here’s an appreciation of a few Richmond institutions that are no more.
Arthur Ashe, right, greets an opponent. (Photo courtesy Lou Einwick)
The Agony of Defeat
For a city that’s regularly dismissed as a failed professional sports town, Richmond has had no shortage of teams willing to give River City a shot. The 1970s probably represented our pro-sports peak: In addition to twice-yearly NASCAR races that continue to this day, the American Basketball Association’s Virginia Squires brought future hall of famers Dr. J and George “Iceman” Gervin to town before the team’s 1976 demise, while tennis greats like John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe played an indoor tournament here for 19 years until 1984. And who could forget our lengthy string of ice-hockey teams [the Wildcats, the Robins, the Rifles, the Renegades (twice) and the RiverDogs] and indoor-football squads (the Speed, the Bandits, the Revolution and the Raiders)? The latter string has now been extended with the January 2017 arrival of the Richmond Roughriders franchise.
Photo courtesy Historic Richmond Foundation
Businesses That Went Bye-Bye
Many companies, large and small, have come and gone from Richmond’s business landscape over the years, but with a few exceptions (yes, we still miss Ukrop’s supermarkets — even in a world with Wegmans), most of our sadness at the loss of former giants such as Circuit City, LandAmerica, S&K Famous Brands, and Heilig-Meyers Co. stems from the job losses that can mean a drain of cash and brainpower from the region, even as many of these corporations’ former employees have gone on to create enterprises that add to the region in new ways.
When it comes to a defunct company’s legacy, you could argue that BEST products — the catalog showroom retailer that called it quits in 1997 after a 39-year run — has had the greatest impact, given that its success allowed the company’s founders, Sydney and Frances Lewis (who is still with us), to make generous donations of money and, perhaps more importantly, priceless artwork to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gifts that continue to pay cultural dividends to this day.
The Final Deadline
When RVANews announced it was shutting down this past June, the hyperlocal news site joined the ranks of many once-beloved members of Richmond’s media landscape in journalism Valhalla. While some outlets have found themselves swallowed up by a bigger rival (à la the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s 1992 merger with the Richmond News Leader and its 2008 purchase of Richmond.com), other players like ThroTTle, the seminal underground magazine that could; Punchline, the alt-weekly with a sharply developed sense of humor; and the nonprofit arts journal 64 just called it quits. Thankfully, their alumni have continued to make journalistic waves in Richmond and beyond, just as RVAHub has risen from the ashes of RVANews.
Joe Seipel, right, outside the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café (Photo courtesy Joe Seipel)
Gathering Spots Now Gone
The original Village Café at 939 W. Grace St. served as a hangout for artists and the arty, including novelist Tom Robbins, until 1992, when it moved across the street, where the “new” Village continues to bustle. The long-vacant old place is currently undergoing renovations as it prepares for its next incarnation.
Another spot for the artistically inclined, the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, was started by artists and professors James Bradford and Joe Seipel (later dean of VCU’s School of the Arts), both from Wisconsin, and Texan Donna Van Winkle, in 1982. The Tex-Wis evolved, along with its décor of animal heads, license plates and rotating art exhibitions; occasional live music; and its favored Widowmaker Chili, into a beloved Fan institution until last call came on March 14, 1999.
In the 78 years between the Colonial Revival Westhampton Theater’s 1938 premiere and its final screening in 2016, the Libbie and Grove mainstay evolved into a go-to spot for indie-leaning cinema that might never make it to Richmond’s multiplexes.
A Thalhimers window display, highlighting items imported from France (Photo courtesy The Valentine)
The downtown performing arts center needed to go somewhere, and the dormant-since-1992 Thalhimer’s department store was selected for the sacrifice. In its heyday, Thalhimer’s provided a link to the outside world of fashion and art: The display windows were decorated with themes, not just at Christmastime, and from the 1930s into the 1950s, this included Virginia Garden Week, the Richmond Ballet, the 350th Jamestown Festival and the Left Bank of Paris.
A previous attempt to rescue downtown, the enclosed Sixth Street Festival Marketplace, supplanted a corridor of longtime family-run businesses in 1985 to create a retail bridge across Broad Street that was meant to be a physical representation of the social, racial and economic divides the marketplace was trying to cross. Broad Street, now on the upswing, could use that bridge today, but the span was demolished in 2003 by those who helped build it, as if to say the whole thing never existed.
A Terrible Trio
Just to show we’re not completely averse to change, here are a few Richmond institutions we’d happily see disappear from our fair city forever.
- Alongside a host of developers moving the city forward while preserving its past, Richmond has always had its fair share of real estate scam artists, from 1890s developer James Barton, who left piles of debt and lawsuits behind when he disappeared after creating the Barton Heights neighborhood, to currently incarcerated scoundrels such as historic tax credit fraudsters Bill Jefferson and Justin French.
- Amid crumbling school infrastructure and scaled-back city services, the approximately $500,000 annual cost of the security detail for Richmond’s mayor has been a source of much grumbling in recent years, leading City Council to slash protection to a single officer in an amendment to the city’s most recent budget. At press time, Jim Nolan, Mayor Levar Stoney’s director of communications, stated that the administration will strive to maintain a balance between maintaining the mayor’s accessiblity to both City Hall employees and the public while ensuring his safety. “It’s an evolving process,” Nolan says. Residents are less likely to see hulking SUVs ferrying the mayor.
- While he’s at it, the new mayor might also consider looking into the PILOT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, a utilities surcharge that the Richmond Department of Public Utilities pays into the city’s general fund, to the tune of some $27 million in fiscal year 2016. This odd bit of business, in which a public utility pays “taxes” to the city, results in higher rates, essentially functioning as a regressive tax that unfairly burdens city residents who can least afford it. And once Mayor Stoney is done exploring that issue, perhaps he could also examine the meals tax increase that never disappeared after CenterStage was built?