Capital Ideas: Richmond

Long thought of as the staid scion of the state, Richmond is awash with a new energy that is revealing its sophistication, style, and entrepreneurial spirit.

On a Saturday morning in June, hundreds of people crowd the South of the James farmers market in Richmond’s Forest Hill Park, pushing strollers and bicycles, trailing dogs on leashes, cradling bright bunches of flowers and shouldering reusable shopping bags overflowing with leafy greens, pastured eggs and grass-fed beef. There’s a line for fresh sourdough doughnuts, for barbecue, for coffee, even for a “fig and pig” pizza (fig preserves and prosciutto) hot out of a mobile wood-fired oven. There is wheatgrass juice and microgreens. Artisan goat cheeses. Duck’s egg tacos.

Could this possibly be … Richmond?

Because let’s face it, we were never a city at risk of being called trendy. Perhaps because Richmond has long been so closely identified with its rich and interesting—but complicated—history, or because it’s been forever that place where nothing much ever seemed to change. Richmond has always moved at its own stately pace through the decades.

If you live here, you know the city’s virtues. You know the best river views are found in Hollywood Cemetery, and the best Saturday-night date is (and always has been) a second-run movie at the 1928 movie palace Byrd Theatre, preceded by a live performance on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. You know Richmond has good bones—from 19th-century warehouses to elegant Fan district row houses to the Jefferson-designed state capitol building, which PBS recently named first among the “10 Buildings That Changed America.” We have three universities. We boast the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, our professional ballet and smaller dance troupes, a symphony, an opera, a homegrown music scene and a robust theater tradition—a depth and diversity of performing and visual arts unusual for a city of our size. We have the James, wild and changeable, making us the only large U.S. city with class III and IV whitewater in sight of downtown high-rises. We’ve had our own marathon since 1978. And, of course, we were lining up for hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts on Broad Street decades before those au courant New Yorkers discovered what they’d been missing.

Nevertheless, as a city we were more likely to be associated with Civil War monuments and cigarettes than with entrepreneurial energy and innovation.

But these days, there is a new mood and a new energy in the capital of the Commonwealth. There is a coalescing of creativity, a feeling that something exciting is unfolding here that people want to be a part of; a pride in calling this city home, which people are showing off in bumper stickers and Twitter hashtags and YouTube videos, all showing off our favorite new nickname: RVA.  

In short, dare we say it? Richmond has gotten … hip.

“There’s a lot happening here that is organic, interesting, creative and inventive, and we want to make sure that people outside of Richmond know it’s happening,” says Chrystal Neal, director of creativity and innovation for the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, a position that was created in 2011.

In the past decade or so, some kind of critical mass has been reached. Young entrepreneurs are choosing to locate their businesses here. The arts scene—and in particular, the visual arts, fueled by Virginia Commonwealth University’s status as the nation’s top-ranked public university graduate school of art and design—is thriving more than ever. Independently-owned restaurants, focused on locally sourced food, are packed with regulars. Two long-running and successful theater companies have merged to form the Virginia Repertory Theatre, with a home in the venerable (and newly renamed) November Theatre on Broad Street. Farmers markets have bloomed across the city. We host a months-long season of outdoor festivals and events from early spring’s Monument Avenue 10K to the Richmond Folk Festival in October. And Riverside Outfitters’ colorfully painted buses trundle up and down Forest Hill Avenue, ferrying rafters and tubers and kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders to the river.

We’ve got vegan tofu banh mi and pork-belly sliders and vinyl record stores, pour-over coffee and locally-crafted beer, and a monthly First Fridays art walk. Blogging platform Tumblr opened their first expansion office here. Global company MeadWestvaco moved their world headquarters here, and we beat out Austin and Portland as the nation’s third-most tattooed city—a fact that Neal is actively trying to promote as a major city selling point. “It’s a reflection of how artistic we are as a community, of people celebrating their individuality,” she says.

So what has changed to bring about this new era in the city? There doesn’t seem to have been a single defining event, no one turning point. Rather, it’s as though one by one, the chorus of voices has grown louder and more insistent, saying, ‘You know, we’ve really got something here—what can we do to make it even better?’

“You use the word ‘vibrant’ in terms of what’s happening,” says Richmond resident Steve Kim, 45, whose KIMKIM Korean Hot Sauce—a bottled version of the condiment staple he grew up with first in Korea and then in the U.S.—is, well, a hot item; Kim has a devoted local following of home cooks and professional chefs alike. His sauce won a gold award at the National Fancy Food Show, which is considered the top honor in the specialty food industry. It was also one of 143 Richmond-area entries competing for the $10,000 prize in the i.e.* (“ideas evolving”) start-up competition held in June, organized by the Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Tumblr.

Launched in 2011, i.e.*’s goal is “to transform this city from a Civil War attraction into a nationally renowned hotbed of creative talent,” says Neal. Its launch event was hosted at the contemporary furniture store La Différence, which set up shop in Richmond in 1992, and in 1999 staked pioneering ground downtown, converting a decrepit old red-brick warehouse into what is today an airy, 45,000 square-feet of space in a neighborhood now being called the Shockoe Design District. La Diff’s owners, Sarah Paxton and Andy Thornton, are among the patient visionaries who long ago saw that Richmond could be a destination not only for history buffs. “I think we are finally becoming aware of our potential and realizing that we are a very hip place,” says Thornton.

On another weekend morning, with blue sky and sunshine overhead, the line is spilling out the door at Lamplighter Roasting Company, and the tables scattered about outside play host to a cross-section of youthful hipsters, moms with preschoolers, middle-aged couples and a threesome of older retirees. Lamplighter has a comfortably rough-edged authenticity. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood nowhere near much of anything else, the coffee shop and café housed in a former mid-century gas station belies the old cliché about location, location, location. But when she first saw the property, co-owner Noelle Archibald says, “I could imagine the tables outside and people sitting there, and just got that goose-bump feeling when you know it is supposed to be.”

Archibald grew up in Richmond but fled it as a young adult because, she says, “I got the feeling there wasn’t a lot of opportunity here.” After return visits to friends, she rethought that opinion, and in 2009 opened Lamplighter with two partners. Her faith in Richmond—and in Lamplighter’s off-the-beaten-path location—proved well-founded; soon enough the neighbors found it, and then word of mouth and social media brought in an expanding circle of customers who came for the micro-roasted coffee and savory menu (and KIMKIM sauce on the condiment stand).

That’s the kind of something happening these days in RVA; people seeing possibilities and seizing opportunities. “Confidence and success breed confidence and success, and people want to be part of it, to be in on the process,” says Thornton of La Diff.

“The energy is kind of infectious,” agrees Patrick Murtaugh, 32, co-founder with Eric McKay, 31, of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, which opened in Richmond last fall and has been brewing to capacity ever since. Murtaugh and McKay’s dream to open a brewery was born on a visit to a vast Australian sheep ranch where they tasted the owner’s home-brewed beer. They then spent a decade working to make that dream come true. When it came time to choose a city for their brewery “Richmond made sense,” says Murtaugh. “It seemed obvious that this was the right-sized city, the right kind of people, and we could be right in the city, close to where people live, close to a lot of restaurants.”  

They liked the energy they found, the outdoors enthusiasm fostered by the river, and a business environment where independently-owned restaurants—the kinds of places ready to promote a locally-brewed draft beer—were thriving. Hardywood is now available in about 100 different restaurants in the Richmond-Petersburg area.

“It’s hard to manufacture something like this,” says Murtaugh of what’s happening in Richmond these days. “It has to really take hold, to develop naturally. I don’t know what created that—it started before we got here—but hopefully we are contributing to it. It sort of reaches that tipping point and starts pulling in all these new creative businesses.”

One way they are making themselves part of the community is through their India Pale Ale—called RVA IPA—that will be created with 100 percent community-grown hops. Last spring, they distributed 1,000 hop rhizomes free to the community, and they’ll host a festival this August to gather in the harvest; all the growers will be credited on the ale’s label.

“Community,” in fact, is the word almost everyone cites when asked what makes Richmond unique. For a sizable city, it can feel like a very small town in the best way; with a dense weave of connections between people across disparate groups, interests and occupations. Everybody you know seems to know someone else you know, and the result can be surprising synergies, inspired collaborations or sometimes just, ‘Hey, let me give you the number of this person I know who could help.’

“The fact that I am part of a community where I do have connections and casual relationships with many, many people, and I see them on a regular basis, I think has a lot of strength,” says Peter Fraser, who owns an interior design company, Fraser Design Associates, that’s based in a renovated auto-repair garage located on Broad Street. (One recent project was the new Stony Point Shopping Center location of ice creamery Gelati Celesti, which incorporated the work of local artists and artisans; Gelati Celesti has also featured a flavor made with Hardywood Park beer.) He’s also strongly connected to Richmond’s growing cycling community; you might see him with his kids riding the technical mountain biking trails along the river. And he’s very involved with initiatives like i.e.* that are focused on raising Richmond’s national profile. “There is a real authentic community of creatives and entrepreneurs here, and I think everyone sees Richmond as a little bit of a hidden gem,” he says.

“There are no boundaries here—we don’t care, we’ll work with anybody as long as you’re creative, and that makes for a fuller, richer community rather than a fragmented community,” says d.l. Hopkins, 44. Hopkins is a lifelong Richmonder, an actor and the artistic director for the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia, which was founded in 2002 and performs on a variety of Richmond stages. He’s also a spoken-word poet who has served on the board of the nonprofit James River Writers, and a techie whiz whose day job is heading up quality assurance in online technology for Media General.

Hopkins, Fraser and many others also see Richmond’s 400-year history as essential to the character of what makes this place different, the basis for that other word you’ll hear a lot from Richmond’s most enthusiastic promoters: authenticity.

“We have 400 years of real history and grit that has made us complicated and interesting,” says Neal, “and there is really something about this mix of the modern and the exciting set against the cobblestones and the history.”

“That’s credibility you can’t buy, you can’t build,” agrees Fraser.

That mix was essential to attracting Paul Watson and Paul Trible to Richmond. Native Southerners, Trible (from Newport News) and Watson (from New Orleans) founded Ledbury in 2009, a Richmond-based, but mostly online, business that makes well-fitted, quality classic shirts with an updated style. Ledbury has customers around the world and operates out of a spacious, open, high-ceilinged storefront next door to La Différence in the Shockoe Design District.

Trible and Watson became inspired by the idea of Ledbury while living in England. They met at Oxford University while earning their MBAs, but on the day they were moving to London to begin careers in finance, the worldwide market plunged into collapse, bringing about an abrupt rethinking of their futures. So instead of high-rises and high finance, Paul Trible found himself focusing on collars and cuffs, apprenticed to a Jermyn Street shirt maker.

Trible, 31, and Watson, 33, have the casually stylish, youthful, clean-cut look of the kind of guys who would wear their shirts, and they seem exactly at home in their space on South 14th Street in Richmond, just a block from the James River. The floors are wide, whitewashed, rough-hewn planks that bespeak the space’s former life as a warehouse. Light pours in through tall, arched windows facing the street, and the shirts are piled on open shelves.

But their business was born in the back of a London pub, located on Notting Hill’s fashionable Ledbury Road, and they could ultimately have located anywhere. So why Richmond?

They wanted to relocate to the Southeast, “to replicate the lifestyle we grew up in,” says Trible. Richmond had a strong—and growing—tradition of small businesses. It had the appeal of an urban setting, a place where you could walk to a wide choice of independent restaurants and bars within a few blocks of each other. And most important?

“People are attracted to the community and the authenticity of Richmond,” says Trible. “There are hundreds of years of history here, and people who want to create businesses here want to be involved with that community and to build on top of that tradition. We saw this great opportunity to start a business and not only become part of a community but actively play a role in building something bigger.”

One way they like to do that is by featuring and promoting local businesses, including a third-generation Richmond cobbler’s shop and the recently opened Steady Sounds vinyl records, in the photo shoots for their limited edition “short run shirting,” and in their Ledbury blog. Helping to create the Shockoe Design District is another way they hope to build something bigger.

Over at Steady Sounds, the door is open and browsers are drifting in on a Sunday afternoon on Broad Street, where blocks in Richmond’s newly designated arts and cultural district have been closed off to host the 5th Annual Broad Appétit—restaurateurs from around the city are serving up a sampling of their dishes, at $3 a plate, to a large crowd, who are washing it all down with Virginia wines or locally-produced craft beers on tap. Traditional meets contemporary in dishes like oyster mushroom bread pudding or pimento cheese fritters, and a patron walks past balancing several plates and enthusing, “I love this festival!”

Local chef Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt in Church Hill believes that Richmond’s many independent restaurants are also playing a key role in building Richmond’s future. “When your customers get behind you here, they really get behind you,” he says, which has made it possible for restaurateurs to venture into neighborhoods that are just beginning to revitalize, where prices are affordable: “You can root yourself in a neighborhood and gain some steam.” The Roosevelt, he says, is “five or six blocks past where people used to go” in Church Hill, “and it’s really cool to be part of seeing the neighborhood come back.” Although good press is bringing in customers from far beyond Church Hill, Gregory says, “We’ve gotten great support in the community—the neighborhood really drives our restaurant, and that’s what we set out to do, to be a neighborhood restaurant.”

With all this energy building locally, there are two very different and exciting things on the horizon that will likely catapult Richmond into a new visibility and status nationwide. The first of these is the World Cycling Championships, coming to Richmond in 2015. It’s expected to bring as many as half a million visitors to the city and to showcase Richmond to millions more through worldwide television broadcast. Landing this event was a huge coup, attributable in part to the remarkable growth in Richmond’s cycling community, as well as to a record we’ve established for hosting great outdoor events in general, and outdoor sports events in particular. In recent years, Richmond has welcomed the USA Triathlon Duathlon National Championship, the Xterra East Championship, the North American Cycle Courier Championship and our own homegrown multisport Riverrock festival.

If the World Cycling Championship will capitalize on Richmond’s growing status as a destination for lovers of the outdoors, Virginia Commonwealth University’s new Institute for Contemporary Art, scheduled to open in 2015 as well, will further enhance the city’s standing as a center of art and creativity, building on the national attention captured by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ recent major renovation and events like the 2010 Picasso exhibit. The three-story, 38,000-square-foot ICA, designed by architect Steven Holl, will showcase the work of emerging and established performing and visual artists from around the world.

Will there be a synergy between these two 2015 milestones? A lot of people are certainly hoping that together they’ll help earn Richmond the recognition it has long deserved.

“There is a tremendous amount of creativity and talent in Richmond,” says Thornton of La Différence. “If you really step back and look at what we’ve got, it’s a very, very cool place.”

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