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Ron Stallings’ Hippodrome hosted the mayor’s “State of the City” address Feb. 3.
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Maggie Walker’s circa 1903 headquarters is 0owned by developer Ron Stallings.
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In the back of his hair salon, Ernest Waller practices for his band gig.
A pair of gold wire-rim spectacles adds a professorial air to the broad-shouldered man wearing a green British military-style cable sweater and well-worn desert boots as he gives orders to a man breaking down lighting-fixture boxes.
"No!" he scolds, waving his arms toward a pile of boxes that fill the seating area of the restored Hippodrome theater on Second Street in Jackson Ward. "No! What are you doing? Those are glass [and need to be in boxes]."
Ronald Stallings, property developer, entrepreneur and current favored son of Jackson Ward, is deep in his element, though uncharacteristically out of sorts. The man he's chiding, longtime friend and assistant Ernie Shearin, gazes back blankly.
Stallings is on deadline, knee-deep in drywall dust and excited about this latest piece of Jackson Ward history that he's meticulously transforming into what he says will be a centerpiece of Jackson Ward's future.
Stallings is the highest-profile star among a handful of property developers who have made their names repairing the reputation of one of Richmond's most vibrant historic districts. Jackson Ward, if Stallings and his peers have their way, is entering a renaissance.
By itself the "Hipp," as Stallings calls it, is a huge project — a multimillion-dollar, mixed-use behemoth that includes dozens of apartments, a massive upscale restaurant and after-hours nightclub, all anchored by one of Jackson Ward's most prominent and historical features, the resurrected Hippodrome theater. Once a proud ornament of "Two Street," the Hippodrome's art-deco facade and intimate performing space spent almost 40 years teetering toward blight before Stallings finally found the support and cash to do it justice.
But as big as the Hippodrome project may be, it is just the first step toward Stallings' dream: to make whole again the divided body of historic Jackson Ward for the first time in more than 50 years.
Jackson Ward already had fallen on hard times by the mid-1950s, when city and state planners with little regard for black achievement or community used the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike to cut the neighborhood in half like a body undergoing autopsy. For the next half century, that wound never healed, and Jackson Ward was all but given up for dead.
But today Stallings wants to recast the very thing that divided the neighborhood as something that unites.
"You know that river we have south of here?" Stallings asks, pointing vaguely in the direction of the James River. That waterway, of course, was the economic superhighway that built Richmond as a center of commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries. "Well, Interstate 95 and 64, those are the new rivers, and they flow right past our banks."
Considering that ramps deposit highway drivers directly in Jackson Ward — one at Third Street and another at Belvidere — Stallings views the interstate as a driver of commerce that should deposit a wealth of visitors.
That's the future Stallings paints, but there remain many places in Jackson Ward where that vision still takes plenty of imagination to see.
Wandering through Jackson Ward, visitors still see many instead blighted buildings, seedy rental properties and the boarded-up shells of once-proud homes. These places were built by the Ward's German- and Jewish-immigrant founders. Those founders gave way after the Civil War in the waning years of the 19th century to blacks. These new residents were haunted by the still-fresh ghost of slavery, but had ambitions to build their own American dreams.
This new class of black entrepreneurs built it up, concentrating their transformative ambitions along Second Street and to the north into an area then known as Apostle Town for its streets named after saints —St. James, St. Paul and St. Luke. What grew there thrived and spread and, eventually, made history. The Hippodrome echoed to the music of legendary black performers such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, whose legacies have outlasted those of many of their white contemporaries. "Two Street" became known as a center for black culture in the 20th century.
A bit farther north beat the heart of this bustling culture. The St. Luke office building on St. James Street pumped energy and money through the Ward in the early 1900s. There Maggie Walker built both a social and commercial empire rivaled by few other black enterprises —she started a bank, a newspaper and a store. St. Luke was the centerpiece of what became known as the Black Wall Street of the South. It connected to the rest of Jackson Ward through arteries like First, Second and Third streets, like Leigh, Clay, Marshall and the saint-named streets around it.
Today, that is long gone. St. Luke is boarded up, surrounded by weeds. The former colossus now stares blankly at the highways streaming past its feet. It looks little better than the blight that surrounds it.
Stallings wants to restore this place to what it once had been. Get the blood flowing again, relink it to the south side of Jackson Ward across the interstate.
The two halves of Jackson Ward have found different destinies. In the southern half of Jackson Ward, gentrification has taken hold. The progress of renewal was egged on in the early 2000s by city tax incentives for house renovations and condo projects such as the Richmond Dairy and the Marshall Street Bakery Apartments.
Stephen Brown owns Commonwealth Construction Co. The company moved to 5212 N. Adams St. from Cary Street about six years ago, when this section of Jackson Ward still reeked of the danger seeping across the interstate from North Jackson Ward and its subsidized Gilpin Court housing project. Now, Brown's at the heart of the gentrification boom that has lifted south Jackson Ward, with a view of new row houses built by Stallings across Leigh Street and booming new restaurants and businesses farther south on Adams.
"I'm satisfied because all my stuff went up in value," says Brown, who is black. He moved to this location in part to improve his prospects earning contracts with the state and nearby Virginia Commonwealth University, which also has played an enormous part in Jackson Ward's resurgence.
Brown credits former VCU president Eugene Trani for much of the facelift. "Trani, that's my boy," Brown says. "If you can get any [property] downtown in Jackson Ward — I figure in the next 10 years, that stuff is going to be sky high. You're going to be sitting on a goldmine."
Trani, through an ambitious building program did more. The growth of the university, one of the largest in the state, brought hundreds of students flowing down Jackson Ward's once-neglected streets.
To the south, too, VCU has brought changes. Broad Street to the west of Belvidere Street, Jackson Ward's west boundary, has become a transformed mecca of chain restaurants and retail. To the east, it's helped spawn a revitalization on Broad Street and into Jackson Ward by encouraging art galleries, shops and restaurants. These businesses now play host to the monthly First Fridays Art Walk events that draw thousands of visitors back into the city from their safe suburban nests.
Jackson Ward's boundaries once stretched well into the city's government district, nearly to the current City Hall and to the Richmond Coliseum. In the late 1990s, that eastern boundary was somewhat truncated by a new topographical feature, the Greater Richmond Convention Center. A massive complex predicted to bring thousands of conventioneers and millions of dollars a year to Richmond when it opened in early 2003, the center has yet to truly lift Jackson Ward, but its potential remains.
It's not just big projects that have been changing Jackson Ward. Small businesses are creeping back in, too.
The rattle and tap of a muffled snare drum rises above the growl of passing traffic at the corner of West Clay and Adams streets. It's midday and Ernest Waller, proud owner and proprieter of E's Exclusive hair salon, is swinging the sticks on his burnt-orange drum kit. His next customer, a local pastor, isn't due for another 45 minutes — plenty of time to catch a bit of practice for his night gig as a jazz drummer with the Smooth Sensations, the house band at Marshall Street Cafe down the block.
"I've been here six years," says Waller, 63, who also is helping bring Jackson Ward back. He boasts a clientele that includes luminaries of Richmond's African-American community like McGuireWoods attorney George Martin. When Waller opened his shop in Jackson Ward, it was with a purpose: "I saw it as an opportunity to be a part of history."
"Jackson Ward is changing but it's got a long way to go," he says. In this, the neighborhood is much like his shop, which is neatly kept with its two chairs, but not yet the regal roost he envisions. "This place was a dump when I came here. I'm not planning to stay here [in this building] — I'm planning to get an elite salon."
It's that upwardly mobile spirit that dominates Jackson Ward these days. Despite a depressed national economy, there isn't much sense that recent economic hard times have slowed Jackson Ward's steady progress forward.
"Just in the six years I've been here, I've seen the change," Waller says, adding that he's pleased with the new tone, tenor — and even color — of the community. "From years ago, Jackson Ward was basically predominantly black. That's not the case now. I've seen the change. That's why I moved in."
But the gold that Jackson Ward's new leaders wait to mine is held back by what's across the divide of the highway. To get there, all you have to do is cross the First Street Bridge into North Jackson Ward.
Gilpin Court, a maze of barracks-style, utilitarian apartments that provide Orwellian shelter to more than 3,000 people, is a desolate place in mid-January. Its reputation as one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods is reinforced by clusters of young men who stand on corners casting wary, narrowed eyes at strangers who venture across the I-64 overpass into this 68-year-old remnant of a failed social experiment.
The wide overpass that carries First Street into Gilpin Court looks down on the flowing river of interstate traffic. That bridge is the atrophied umbilical cord strung between South Jackson Ward and the stark, Soviet-style architecture of what once was known as Apostle Hill.
This is the other face of Jackson Ward, where hope runs out amid streets named for saints, where some of the city's poorest struggle to live inside a half-ring of cemeteries. The place has a feeling of abandonment. Occasionally, pedestrians shuffle from one cinderblock building to the next.
Charles Clark, 36, used to be one of those shuffling figures. Despite Gilpin's well-earned reputation as a hopeless place, Clark recalls the undaunted spirit of many residents. "It was loud, like a block party," he says of nights there. Despite the sense of despair Gilpin imparts to outsiders, he says the warmth and friendliness of neighbors still managed to break through the conditions of the city's largest housing project.
"It was a warm feeling," he says, pausing to thrust his hands in the pockets of his tight designer jeans. Still, he acknowledges, "There was a lot of shooting, too."
Clark left Gilpin behind. A stylist and image consultant at Celebrity Weaves on Leigh Street, he's a tall, flamboyant man in pointy-toed cowboy boots and tastefully chosen silver jewelry. His hair is meticulously styled into a nouveau pompadour.
"They couldn't hold me back in there, or understand me," he says. He speaks with the earnestness of someone whose success came only with determination. A pained look crosses his features as he thinks about his former neighbors.
"It's supposed to give you a head start in life," he says of the social programs built into the residency requirements by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which operates Gilpin. "It's supposed to get you to the next best thing. It's not supposed to be a lifestyle thing — but they change it into a lifestyle."
There are plans to end the Gilpin Court experiment. The RRHA has plans for a $500 million redevelopment of the area, relinking it across the interstate with the rest of Jackson Ward, and creating as many as 2,000 new housing units — only about a quarter of which would be subsidized housing.
Gilpin Court — the entire project —is expected to take until 2022. Next year the plan will begin in earnest with the appointment of a master developer and a group that will figure out the financing required to demolish Gilpin.
That first active part of the process, given two years in the RRHA's current plan, also will include figuring out just what to do with the hundreds of families that live in Gilpin — no small task considering the void in public housing options that Gilpin's demolition may create. But regardless of the timeline, RRHA promises one thing: No residents will be without a home.
These plans clearly would reinvent the neighborhood the way Stallings envisions. But Stallings doesn't want to wait for the RRHA. He says the area can't afford to wait for a quasi-governmental body that moves at the speed of bureaucracy.
In 2003, Stallings prepared and presented to Richmond officials what he called the First Step Demonstration Project. It was an ambitious plan to replace at least some of that Soviet-style architecture with a quasi-socialist-style, mixed-use development project that would rely on community buy in. The idea was that the project would use the residents' most valuable asset — themselves —to transform North Jackson Ward. Where a neighborhood had atrophied, been split in two and died, Stallings envisioned a community in which every neighbor owned a part of everything.
While RRHA moves ahead with its glacial timeline, Stallings wants to leap forward. "We would take the lead," he says of his First Step plan. "We'd do a social-enterprise project that on top of it would have 250 housing units, at first for some of the people who need to be relocated. ... I see my version of Costco, of Subway, a bakery, a barbershop," he continues, "but it's not owned by any one person — it's a cooperative, a social enterprise."
If it sounds far-fetched, Stallings remains convinced that the venture would thrive: "These social enterprises are nothing new — they're around the world. You are an owner of a portion of the building, your portion of the deal. Would you tear up your own property? No." He references the successful Wilson Historic District in Dallas.
This vision of a community co-owned by its residents in Jackson Ward has, like the Hippodrome deal, been long delayed while waiting for financing. First Step was inspired by Maggie Walker and St. Luke. "St. Luke is the cornerstone of it," he adds. He points to the ideals behind the Independent Order of St. Luke, a charitable group to which Walker belonged, and on which she based much of her success. "Maggie Walker had the idea for it, and that's the tool kit for the country."
It's certainly no small help — and no small bit of symbolism — that Stallings owns the St. Luke building and much of the block surrounding it.
Some people are worried that ambitious plans like Stallings' and RRHA's will backfire. Responsibility is key to whatever development takes place in North Jackson Ward, says Kimberly Gray. She lives in the Ward, as did her father and grandparents. Her father, Earl Gray, played the Hippodrome many times, leading his Earl Gray Orchestra as backing band for the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Her family was an integral part of another part of the Ward's history as members of the first all-black Catholic congregation in the South.
Like her parents and grandparents, she has taken a leadership role here, having won a seat on Richmond School Board in 2008, partly by mobilizing voters in the usually politically uninspired Gilpin Court.
She says she's less concerned with what redevelopment looks like than what the future looks like to its current residents.
She worries that redevelopment of North Jackson Ward could do as much damage to the fabric of black society there as the highway did in the 1950s. "I think it definitely needs redevelopment and growth," she explains, "but improvement doesn't mean displacing poor people of color."
Gray's concerns aren't shared by everyone. Ideas like Stallings' appeal to Curtis "C.J." Conyers. Conyers lives in Highland Springs, but like Gray, his family's blood flowed through the Ward in its heyday. His parents and grandparents grew up in the neighborhood. His grandmother attended the segregated Armstrong High, and now works in the same building as the head of guidance at the Richmond Public Schools-run Adult Career Development Center. "I look at Jackson Ward as a rollercoaster," he says. "I'm 25, but my grandparents tell me Jackson Ward was the place. You had restaurants, businesses, a theater. Then Jackson Ward fell off."
Now, like that rollercoaster, Conyers says, he believes this place is on its way back up.
He points to the dancing statue of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, one of Jackson Ward's famous sons.
"These people are the founders of Jackson Ward — they're gone, but I think they still want Jackson Ward to be what it was," Conyers says. He sees hope in the work of developers who are slowly gentrifying. To Conyers, gentrification isn't a word weighed down with the racial connotations it might have had for his parents or grandparents. "I feel like stuff like that is going to bring the neighborhood back up."
He singles out Croaker's Spot, which closed at Second and Leigh streets when it fell into serious arrears on state taxes a few years ago, as a sign of what could be. Croaker's was a black-owned business that opened in 2001. It was a glimmer of the old Jackson Ward of legend, when two doors down at the Hippodrome, black patrons might have come to listen to Chitlin Circuit performers.
"I felt like when [Croaker's Spot] was here, they were bringing back a lot of soul to the neighborhood," Conyers says. He suggests that in coming years, some of that returning soul may need to come with whites moving into the neighborhood along with blacks. "I figure it like this: Change is always good. And I think they come here to be a part of the history."
Stallings is feeding on this new energy that is neither black nor white — an energy that comes from the reflected glow of VCU and the convention center, of entrepreneurs like Waller and of young black and white professionals who are slowly renovating the stately old homes.
Stallings sees the Hippodrome as a testament to the vision of his late father, James Stallings. The elder Stallings, known to his critics as a penny-pinching landlord and to his champions as a social reformer, once ran the building as a theater, showing cheap movies for kids in the historic building. He owned many buildings in the neighborhood and rented them as cheap housing.
Whatever others think of James Stallings, Tom Robinson, another longtime Jackson Ward booster, redeveloper, real estate agent and former resident, remembers him fondly.
"We were real buddies. He would stop by virtually every day," says Robinson, who once lived in the old Richmond Fire Station 5, which is now operated as Gallery 5 art gallery by his daughter, Amanda Robinson.
But Robinson also recalls that the city didn't look favorably on the elder Stallings efforts to do business there.
"He would show me all the fines and summonses from the city," Robinson says. "He got picked on by the city all the time because he had so much junk properties. But Jackson Ward at the time, it was junk. He would go in and make the place livable and charge people $50 or $100 a month."
Such business practices may not have impressed city leaders, but from Robinson's perspective, Stallings was offering a necessary service. "Obviously you weren't going to get Windsor Farms moving in, but he was trying to give people a place to live — and make a buck, too," Robinson says. "He was constantly paying thousands of dollars in fines. He said, ‘Tom, I don't know what to do, I can't afford to put money into properties in Jackson Ward when nobody wants to move into Jackson Ward. I'm trying to put a roof over the heads of people who can't afford anything else.' "
One of those establishments was Clay House. The way Ron Stallings tells it, the elder Stallings "took care of upwards of 50 to 100 people a night" at what was a rooming house.
By 1988, what Ron Stallings still sees as his father's visionary approach to providing housing to the near-homeless finally fell before the combined pressures of city leaders, VCU and the precursor organization to what is today Virginia Supportive Housing. Today, New Clay House is in the same facility, doing essentially the same thing, but doing it through a nonprofit model.
"Our goal is to keep people in housing so they don't return to homelessness," says Alice Tousignant, director of Virginia Supportive Housing. The organization rents New Clay House's 47 units on a sliding scale, providing security and support services to residents.
The elder Stallings died in 1999, still vilified by some for his business practices and cheap housing. But Robinson says that reputation should be revisited. "I'm sure he wasn't pure as the driven snow," Robinson adds. "But he did so much good in the neighborhood."
That included bequeathing to his children dozens of historic properties that they now hope to leverage toward Jackson Ward's rebirth. This is the way the younger Stallings received his birthright, and his vision.
Stallings energetically maneuvers a gray plastic grocery cart down the lighting aisle of the Broad Street Lowe's Home Improvement Center on a cold December morning. There's a lightness in his stride and a gleam in his eye. He grabs lighting fixtures and tosses them into the cart.
Outside, he loads wall sconces into the hatchback trunk of his dark-colored Porsche SUV. A swirling snow has begun to settle on the windows, but Stallings doesn't seem to notice. These cheap lighting fixtures aren't destined to be permanently affixed to the walls of the Hippodrome, he explains. But they'll do for the week or so he needs them, just long enough to get city inspectors in to sign off on the building's occupancy permit.
"Ideally, we should be shooting for that certificate of occupancy by Monday," Stallings says.
The project, with its $10 million working budget, was done on an ambitious schedule. Stallings and his partners, Blue Note Entertainment Group, secured a bank loan in October 2009, but didn't start putting hammer to nail until February 2010.
"Everything you see has happened in 10 months," Stallings said during a tour of the nearly completed theater in December. December was supposed to be when the place opened, but Stallings now says he's shooting for spring. "Look at how long the Carpenter Center took," he says, "and I didn't have their budget."
The project includes the historic theater, a 29-unit apartment condo project behind it, and the adjacent Taylor mansion, which will serve as an upscale restaurant with attached casual dining bar. A smaller entertainment venue to be called the Speak Easy is planned for the rear.
Stallings took some city help — about $600,000 was announced for the project by Mayor Dwight C. Jones shortly after he took office in 2009 — but he says that money served primarily as seed money to secure a bank loan. "The deal is, if your city isn't interested enough to participate in something as important as the revitalization of Second Street, what bank would lend to you?" Stallings asks rhetorically. Equally important, $3 million in tax credits proved key to financing the deal, Stallings says. The attached apartment complex, Stallings says, will serve as sufficient income stream to pay back the bank note.
Stallings doesn't see his collective approach to neighborhood revitalization in any way as at odds with his — or his father's — work in the community.
"Long ago, I stopped being a developer and became a community developer," he says. "I can hardly sleep at night. There's so much to do."