Illustration by Arnel Reynon
"What's this place about?"
Do you recognize that quote? It easily could have been said by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz as she encountered a man made of tin, a talking scarecrow, flying monkeys and a grove full of seriously pissed-off trees.
Perhaps it was said by Agent Dale Cooper as he entered the sleepy town of Twin Peaks in the Pacific Northwest, with its strange secrets, backward-forward talking dwarves, Log Lady and damn fine coffee.
But no, this quote happens to be about Richmond’s very own Shockoe Bottom. And it wasn’t said, but Tweeted, Instagrammed and posted on Facebook by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave, a film chronicling the life of Solomon Northup, who was imprisoned in Goodwin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom.
The tweet was a bit of mystery, but the next week, she followed it up with one that linked to a longer post on Instagram, signaling her desire to be part of the conversation: “Today Shockoe Bottom is a cultural hot spot in RVA: restaurants, clubs, bars, you name it. But yesterday it was the largest slave - trading district in America, only second to New Orleans. This is a place where history coexists with modernity. But there are those who think history belongs only in books … And some who want to preserve our right to see it … Which are you? #SaveShockoe.”
Still, it was the first question — “What’s this place about?” — that made me a bit embarrassed for Richmond, in that it took an outsider to ask it. Because really, it is the question we should have been asking ourselves all along when considering whether to plop a baseball stadium there. This is the question that should be keeping Dwight Jones up at night. How would you answer it?
Richmonder Phil Wilayto gave a wonderful, concise history of the Bottom on Nyong’o’s Facebook post: “Shockoe Bottom is an area in downtown Richmond, Va., that was once the largest slave-trading district in the U.S. north of New Orleans and the epicenter of the domestic slave trade. The majority of Black Americans could likely trace some ancestry there. Through determined struggle, community activists have been able to reclaim the African Burial Ground, one of the oldest municipal cemeteries for Black people in the country, from its former status as a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot. A two-year struggle has, so far, prevented Mayor Dwight Jones and his developer buddies from building a baseball stadium next to the burial ground. For more information, including how you can help, please see www.shockoebottom.blogspot.com.”
But that doesn’t tell the whole story, right?
“It’s about frat bars?”
Some people were a wee bit off the mark:
“It’s a restaurant district. The correct name is Shockoe Slip & they have great restaurants there :) Have you ever been?”
“A funky albeit very storied historic area with eclectic shops, restaurants, luxury hotels and quite the nightlife here.”
Luxury hotels? I guess we are still in The Slip.
And some were way, way, waaaay off:
“It’s in a place very remote,,in kenya,,dats my birth plc.”
OK, so we’ve established what Shockoe Bottom is, sort of, but Miss Nyong’o asked what it’s about. The Wizard of Oz may include a tin man and a scarecrow, but it’s about the struggle between our desire to break away, seeking adventure, and our need to remain in the safety and security of home. Twin Peaks may show us a dead girl wrapped in plastic and owls that are not what they seem and an evil Black Lodge but it’s about … um. I’ll get back to you on that one.
The point is that before Richmond does something irrevocable like place a baseball stadium in the middle of a threatened historic district, it might do well to answer Miss Nyong’o’s question. What is Shockoe Bottom about? Stadium proponents like to talk a lot about families going to Squirrels games and grabbing dinner while they are downtown. Has Shockoe Bottom ever been about families? A lot of people will say it’s about college kids stumbling out of bars late at night and making deposits in doorways and alleys, but can that possibly be all that Shockoe Bottom is about? As a district with some of our richest history, must that be all that Shockoe Bottom is about? Must we preserve it as if in a time capsule with no eye toward commerce?
I’m not going to pretend I have the definitive answer, but it is crucial that we, as a community, come to a clear understanding of what Shockoe Bottom is about before we bury the past so far under home plate that we can never go home again.