Sixth Street Marketplace opens Sept. 19, 1985. Photographer: Wallace Huey Clark, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine
The possible mayoral run by Venture Richmond’s executive director Jack Berry could play right into an old tension in Richmond: that between the black community and white business interests.
Berry heads the organization that pushed – and pushed hard – for Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ baseball-stadium anchored development in Shockoe Bottom, where the city once ran its slave markets and which many call hallowed ground.
That plan died in the face of underestimated opposition. That Venture Richmond supported it in the first place bears a look into its historic substrate to examine, like geologic layers, its earliest incarnation in the mid-‘80s when Richmond was reeling from the collapse of center city retail and a dwindling tax base. Venture Richmond traces its lineage directly to a downtown promotion organization called Downtown Presents. In that sense, Berry is the spiritual inheritor of Downtown Presents’ Nina Abady, who, more than anyone, wanted to bring people of all colors, shapes and sizes into downtown Richmond for the betterment of everyone.
Abady grew up in the segregated cities of Selma, Alabama and Macon, Georgia. She earned degrees in philosophy and sociology from Goucher College and Pittsburgh University. She married into Richmond, and, after her husband’s 1965 death, she became a single mother of three. She taught at Richmond Professional Institute/Virginia Commonwealth University before moving to Virginia Union University as an assistant professor of sociology. At the time, she was the single white staff member. Her great spirit and energy couldn’t be contained in a classroom. From 1973 to 1977, she raised $7.5 million for the university.
Abady also led a three-year fundraising drive to stave off the demolition and renovate the 1928 Loew’s Theater “movie palace” as the Virginia Center for the Performing Arts. It became the Carpenter Center and is now the Carpenter Theatre of CenterStage.
Abady ran Downtown Presents for the last 13 years of her life. She recognized music as a key — as well as free admission – to uniting, even if only temporarily, the city’s varied social groups in one place in the name of sheer enjoyment. The Second Street Festival, Easter On Parade, Friday Cheers, the now elapsed Big Gig and June Jubilee all sprung from Abady’s desire for unity. To that end, she also supported Richmond Renaissance, a public-private partnership of black and white business leaders, and its construction of a bridge over Broad Street as part of the ill-fated Sixth Street Marketplace.
The span, completed in 1985, was intended as both a physical structure and a symbol of union between the perceived white and black sides of Broad Street. In 2003, though, when the walkway began to make sense due to the proliferation of galleries and restaurants, it was demolished. That year, too, Downtown Presents became City Celebrations. By 2006, there were at least three other downtown promotion and development groups. All coalesced to become Venture Richmond. The nonprofit agency of business and community leaders describes its mission as partnering with the city “to enhance the vitality of the community, particularly downtown, through economic development, marketing, promotion, advocacy and events.” It’s supported by corporate contributions, special assessments and city contracts.
Venture Richmond sponsors wonderful events that would’ve pleased Abady, including the Richmond Folk Festival. The success of that and other events necessitated the construction of new bridges — these across the river. One could say that these new bridges symbolize the new Richmond, the one that is celebrating itself, coming into its own.
All that good spirit, that history of seeking unity, was challenged by Venture Richmond’s active support for the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, where the city’s slave market history still has not been properly, even adequately, memorialized. Add to that Venture Richmond’s push for the amphitheater at Tredegar Green, an effort that was divisive and seemed to some neighbors as a forced solution.
If Berry decides to run, he will need to revive the spirit of Abady, and, like all the candidates, offer a blueprint for city-wide solutions.