A rainy, weekday afternoon on the 1100 block of North 25th Street brings an air of desolation. There are vacant storefronts, a barbed-wire fence hanging in threads and young men on the sidewalk drinking beer near a thrift store devoid of customers. Down an alley, several men drink beer next to a tent. One hacks away at a stick with a machete.
It's not a block you'd look at and say, "Hey, I think I'll linger here over a coffee and doughnut." But that's Michael Wynn's plan. A Richmond resident who manages musicians for a living, Wynn calls his soon-to-open shop Miracles, which is what it might take. The 50-year-old is counting on the gentrification sweeping Church Hill to come a little farther north to his front door. With it comes the more well-to-do, the young urban pioneers — "white people," as Wynn puts it.
"Everybody knows they're coming," he says. "If this building is done, it will be a game changer."
He's going to get a test run June 13-14, when he turns his under-construction space into a pop-up coffee shop. The temporary here-today, gone-tomorrow operation is part of Richmond Better Block's plan to draw investors to the area. The Dallas-based nonprofit temporarily transforms blighted areas into more vibrant neighborhoods.
It isn't by accident that this block was chosen, says local Better Block organizer Max Hepp-Buchanan, who also is director of Bike Walk RVA. The campaign's lead sponsor is Bon Secours Richmond Health Center, which plans to build a medical campus down the street.
"You get the full experience of walking down the block of improved pedestrian crossings, pop-up shops and facade improvements," Hepp-Buchanan says. "We're basically showcasing these great buildings and business start-ups in a way that hopefully attracts renewed investment to the area."
Hepp-Buchanan calls the coffee shop with its large back patio "an urban oasis." While workers are still patching holes and remodeling a bathroom, Wynn says he isn't worried about preparing for the event or the planned August opening. What isn't changing fast enough, he says, is everything surrounding the coffee shop.
Showing off his new space, Wynn ventures outside where he watches a police car drive up. Four officers approach the drinkers outside the thrift store, making them pour out their beers and asking for IDs.
"That's my first time seeing that," says Wynn, who earlier complained the police don't care about loitering and public drinking in the neighborhood.
After the men have gone, the owner of the thrift store, Umar Alamin, comes out and stands next to a for-sale sign he's posted in front of the building, which he owns. Business has been slow since he opened five years ago, Alamin says. But Capital One gave him a grant through Better Block for a new door and he sees that as a good sign.
"We need more diversity," Alamin says. "We see that coming, and are encouraged by it."
Wynn hopes to hire as many as 10 people part time.
Both Alamin and Wynn say they aren't concerned gentrification will push out longtime residents. They say the homeless, especially, need to go somewhere else.
"And that's for the administration to figure out," Alamin says.