Downtown Richmond is a land mine — literally. It isn't undetonated bombs to avoid; submerged weapons awaiting the Union Navy were removed from the James River long ago. It's that every acre of our town holds significant history and memories are stirred up with each new road excavation or foundation dig. Embedded material culture comes with the territory where Europeans and Africans have lived for 400 years — and Native Americans before them.
A proposed downtown amphitheater, the latest in a continuing parade of developments to kick the anthill of history, is one that — on the surface — portends a soft footprint. A grassy hill below Second Street and in the shadow of the Virginia War Memorial merely would be tweaked to create a natural performance venue for the Richmond Folk Festival and other events at a riverfront site that's proven phenomenally successful.
Even the venue's proposed name, Tredegar Green, has the innocuous ring of a sylvan subdivision, certainly nothing threatening enough to rattle the preservationist furies and other naysayers.
But the point of contention involves one of Richmond's sacred dinosaurs. The antebellum James River and Kanawha Canal, and its parallel towpath turned railroad bed, slices through the middle of the amphitheater site. Venture Richmond, the festival's sponsor, seeks to lop off a few feet of the path's brow to enhance sightlines of a moveable stage that would sit at the foot of the hill.
Concerned folks ask a necessary question: Would this tampering irreparably negate future navigability of the canal, if restored?
A grand gesture toward a navigable canal was made recently when the Second Street connector bridge was built over the canal with enough clearance for canal boats. This savvy engineering was a welcome sign that someone is contemplating the future of the canal, a mostly maligned amenity. Consider, in the 1970s, after tumultuous protests and extended lawsuits, most of the downtown stretch of the canal bed was destroyed for the Downtown Expressway. Only later did Richmond's leaders say "oops" and write an expensive guilt check in the form of the disconnected linear water feature masquerading as a canal, which runs along the north side of Brown's Island and below Shockoe Slip toward the foot of Church Hill.
Fortunately, the stretch of canal immediately to the west of what was destroyed still snakes its way below Gambles Hill with the impressive New Market corporate office building lording above. But if the mostly forgotten canal was hiding in plain sight beneath a thicket of vegetation, some people still were keeping an eye on the all-but- buried treasure. When a sizable brick wall adjacent to the canal was demolished and preservationists howled, no party took blame. This suggests that if not collusion, there was tacit approval from a combination of parties — both public and private — of this urban vandalism.
So folks are justified in being sensitive about the Venture Richmond proposal.
And there's something else. Richmonders are fickle. Just because the folk festival is a premiere event now, nothing lasts forever. Whoever dreamed that the State Fair of Virginia would move to Caroline County, or the 6th Street Marketplace would be demolished? Why threaten the fragile remnants of one of the nation's oldest canals for something even more transitory?
So who's right? Venture Richmond or those advocates who say, "Hands off?"
The general quality and sensitivity of capital improvements made on Brown's Island and adjacent hillsides and islands is nothing short of miraculous. And Venture Richmond's consistently excellent programming has kept Richmonders asking for more. Brown's Island and vicinity are a showplace and a showcase. And despite the iron train trestles, it is one of the few unforested places downtown where you can connect with the James River. This amphitheater can improve on a good thing.
But those who decry the loss of historical fabric also are right. Preservation best practices hardly would endorse 5,000 people crawling atop canal ruins with drinks and lawn chairs to the accompaniment of blaring speakers. Not cool.
But assuming Venture Richmond has exhausted everything in its power to raise the proposed stage or upper lawn so as to impose the least impact on the old canal, let the amphitheater plan proceed. The prospect of the canal surviving for another decade or 25 years is greater than the folk festival lasting that long.
And this whole episode may be the catalyst that gets the canal cleaned and filled with both water and boats.
Less than a decade ago, the stepped hill of Capitol Square, the holiest of holies when it comes to sacred ground here, was excavated. Tons of soil were removed to accommodate the Capitol's Bank Street extension. Passing the construction site and gazing into the huge hole one day, I asked the construction foreman where the soil had been taken and would it — that same soil — be coming back? He replied almost reverentially, and in a tone of great post-9/11 sensitivity: "The historic dirt has been moved to a secure location and it will be returned." And it was.
And so, all bricks, stones or historic canal dirt removed for the amphitheater should be placed in a secure location. At some future date, they can be returned to play their part in the canal's restoration. S
Edwin Slipek, Style Weekly senior contributing editor, writes regularly on architecture and history.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.