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On first glance, the crossroads of East Main and 15th streets in Shockoe Bottom is a loud and unlovely spot for a public park dedicated to contemplating the horrors of the slave trade.
High overhead, traffic of a different nature roars along Interstate 95. Nearby, railcars screech mercilessly throughout the day on raised, weathered tracks. To the west, a sprawling parking deck absorbs the weekday flow of commuters. On the south side of Main Street, the outside walls of the strip club Velvet are adorned with neon lights as well as a mural portrait of Princess Diana. From the north, a steady stream of traffic is funneled onto 15th Street from an interstate ramp.
It is a busy, mobile and urban place.
But appearances are deceptive. The modest-sized, triangle-shaped parcel at 15th and Main is also a highly symbolic place, and so it makes sense that the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue was dedicated here March 30. Although any related structures are long gone from the Bottom, this was once the district where slave sales were conducted. In 1830 only Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans had more volume in human chattel.
The slave trade was complex and it involved parties on three continents. In 1807 England outlawed the practice. More than half a century and a Civil War later, the American South followed suit. To mark the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery in England, a group of citizens from Liverpool, once an epicenter of the trade, initiated an ambitious, three-nation reconciliation project to serve as a catharsis of sorts. A centerpiece of the project was the installation of identical statues in Liverpool, the Republic of Benin and, finally, Richmond.
The site of the city's newest monument is a triangular sliver of leftover land that was once occupied by the state's forensic laboratory. A few years ago this complex was demolished for a new state parking deck. With the lab gone, the exit ramp from I-95 was aligned with Main Street to form this awkward piece of land. While not an attractive environment, the messy vitality of surrounding city life is somehow appropriate to the subject of slavery, a messy and ugly endeavor in any form.
Working with the Richmond Slave Trail Commission (a city-sponsored group) and the commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond's BAM Architects created an extremely simple, hard-edged, modernistic public space. BAM has placed upon the grassy triangular site a three-sided terrace paved in brick and concrete. The terrace is approached from three walkways, including a nine-step approach from the south. The outer edge of the triangle is defined by three concrete-slab benches.
At the center of the plaza is a 14-foot-high bronze monument, designed by English artist Stephen Broadbent, a vaguely art deco-style depiction of two figures embracing. It is elongated and anatomically awkward: Think Giacometti sculpture meets Oscar statuette.
Around the four-sided base, low-relief imagery includes sailing ships symbolizing Liverpool's shipbuilding industry and a map of eastern Virginia showing Richmond's location on the James River and the Atlantic beyond.
Aligned with the statue is a fountain of water that flows over a slanted rectangular tablet to empty into a small rectangular pool. The sound of the rippling water creates some respite from the continuous roar of nearby vehicular traffic. Inscribed on the face of the tablet, and visible under the wall of water, is a well-articulated admonition: "Acknowledge and forgive the past, embrace the present, shape a future of reconciliation and justice."
Reading these words, you feel engaged in a way that the too-high and slender sculpture fails to accomplish. We are invited to join the continuing struggle for interracial understanding, harmony and community.
For now, with the landscaping incomplete and trees just budding, those who visit the plaza will feel a little exposed. The plaza is raised on a slight hill, and traffic from two directions comes to a stop at the intersection's traffic lights. A retaining wall along the sidewalk might have been considered on both 15th and Main streets. But perhaps as oak saplings grow and future plantings mature, the site can achieve a needed sense of enclosure.
But this space is not stand-alone; it's one of a number of venues on the Slave Trail now being developed to follow the banks of the James River into Shockoe Bottom.
And so the City of Monuments adds yet another historical punctuation mark on its landscape. It also adds another triangle-shaped park as a public amenity. The development of a number of the city's distinctive triangle parks marks a timeline of how Richmond is escaping its Confederate past.
In the triangular park near Virginia Commonwealth University, at the Fan District intersection of Park Avenue, Grove Avenue and Harrison Street, there stands a Confederate monument dedicated in the early 20th century. In Jackson Ward, in a triangular park at the intersection of West Leigh Street, Chamberlayne Avenue and North Adams Street, a statue of a tap-dancing Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was dedicated in the late 20th century. And now, in a newly configured triangular park in the 21st century, there's a monument quietly calling for reconciliation and justice.
It's one of the ironies of living in Richmond: The grand and heroic statues honoring an ill-fated effort to maintain the Southern status quo line our town's most sophisticated boulevard, while an awkwardly shaped statue in a hard-edged, modernistic plaza on a piece of no-man's land celebrates the possibilities of expanding the human heart and spirit.
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