Around the turn of this century, it seemed that the once-vibrant streets immediately west of the state Capitol couldn’t get any grungier. Boarded-up storefront windows flanked litter-strewn sidewalks. Some longtime businesses clung to life, but many of the retail stalwarts had shuttered. Restaurants were few. The 6th Street Marketplace had been dying almost since it opened in the 1980s.
Slowly, the downtown zone began to transform. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, boutique hotels, niche businesses and new apartments began to proliferate. The stretch of Broad and surrounding streets became the Arts District, known for its many galleries. First Friday Art Walks started. Granted, not all blocks saw a resuscitation. But overall, the area enjoyed a resurgence. People returned downtown after sundown.
But now many of those businesses have darkened storefronts, some covered by plywood as a result of violence that erupted last weekend. The mayhem spread across downtown Richmond during protests over police brutality against African Americans following the unspeakable death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. His death set off a wave of protests across the country.
What a year it’s been. First COVID-19 struck as winter turned into spring, upending our economy. The unemployment rate soared. Then as the city was beginning to emerge from the pandemic and businesses were preparing to reopen, the rioting struck. Numerous stores saw windows smashed, merchandise stolen and plans waylaid.
Change swept through the city last week as protesters took to the streets daily to call for criminal justice reform and an end to systemic racism. Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the imminent removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, the towering symbol of Lost Cause iconography. Richmond City Council is poised to take action on removing the other Confederate monuments on the famed boulevard this summer.
But the city also must remember to extend a hand to local businesses hurt by looting. Some businesses owners reported neighbors and other volunteers working together to clean up the broken glass and trash last weekend, aided by those who joined the protests and were dismayed by the damage.
“Because we believe in the neighborhood, we want to be part of the revitalization of Broad Street,” said Paul Trible III, the co-founder and CEO of Ledbury at 315 W. Broad St. Last Saturday night, looters threw bricks through the front windows and took hundreds of the store’s high-end men’s shirts, in addition to furniture and mannequins. He plans to reopen later this month.
Not all businesses will return.
“Goodbye, Richmond, I will never, ever open a business in Richmond ever again,” Greg Milefsky, owner of Balance Bicycle Shop on West Broad Street, told the RTD last Sunday after looters stole nearly 50 bikes.
We look forward to soon being able to once again browse the storefronts and enjoy the restaurants along Broad, Grace and other streets downtown. This district is an important part of Richmond’s economy, and we hope city officials provide whatever help local businesses need during this uncertain time.
— Pamela Stallsmith