The Grace Era 

Opinion: VCU has facilitated much of Richmond’s cultural boom. Yet the growth of the university, especially in the last 20 years, hasn’t always been seen in a good light.

click to enlarge back43_grace_street_vcu.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Is today's live music and associated art scene in Richmond the coolest it's been for a while? Given the musicians, artists, nightlife venues and galleries, you might think so. And judging from local media, including Facebook posts, it's easy to gather the impression that a lot of people think the answer should be yes.

Maybe it's true. In 20 years we'll be better equipped to say for sure. But if the premise is accurate, then I wonder about timing: Today's in-crowd, music-and-art-driven milieu has been the coolest since when?

If we're to believe much of what was said during the RVA Music History Tour, put on Sept. 27 by WRIR-FM 97.3, the answer is the late-'70s to mid-'80s, centered on the Fan District's nightlife scene. That was when the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street were the epicenter of what was shaking.

The era got under way when undergrad punks began annoying their older siblings — grad students and adjunct faculty, who were still hippies. During that transition, from hippies to punks, a cutting-edge scene emerged. That little section of Grace Street mattered, pop-culture-wise, more so than any other time. It fizzled out in the late-'80s, when the neighborhood fell on hard times. It became scary after dark. Venues closed.

The history tour was led by Gregg Kimball, Don Harrison, Ray Bonis and Bob Gorman and put together by the nonprofit radio station and the special collections and archives department of Virginia Commonwealth University's James Branch Cabell Library. The tour meandered its way from the library, in the heart of the university's Monroe Campus, to the Empire at the corner of Laurel and Broad streets.

About 30 people stopped at various places along the way to hear tall tales recounted about legendary shows and colorful characters: Bo Diddley at Rockitz ... the truncated 1972 Jerry Lee Lewis show in Monroe Park … the Handbill War of 1982 ... early House of Freaks shows at the Jade Elephant ... the Puppy Burn (a war protest rally with a scam for a hook) ... the Ramones at the Franklin Street Gym for Halloween (Single Bullet Theory opened) ... "Rocky Horror" at the Biograph ... the Grove Avenue Republic's secessionists ... Springsteen at the Back Door ... clothing-optional classes at the Free University ... Taj Mahal at the Pass ... Chuck Wrenn busted for selling the Sunflower (a hippie periodical) ... Color Radio getting untamed ... Iggy Pop at the Mosque ... beatniks at the Village Restaurant.

Upon dredging up all that nostalgia, what became obvious was that VCU had facilitated so much of what we discussed. Yet the growth of the university, especially in the last 20 years, hasn't always been seen in a good light. While the university's expansion has done much to rejuvenate downtown Richmond, it's also turned some Richmonders against it. To be fair, it must be acknowledged that the university has critics who have come to see it as a juggernaut, trampling and destroying.

Like plenty of people, I've been unhappy with some things VCU has done during the four and a half decades of its existence. There's nothing wrong with questioning what it's doing and will do. Still, to answer the juggernaut charge, the university has delivered so much that's been a boon to Richmond that harping on the harm it's done along the way can sound petty, sometimes.

While some may decry the startling transformation on Grace Street, which has seen high-rises sprouting from the same lots where townhouses once were situated, I won't jump on that rickety old bandwagon. When I measure VCU's impact, I look more at the talented people in our midst who are associated with the university, and less at the buildings.

Instead of complaining about all the national chains that have shouldered their way onto Grace Street, I'd rather tout the emergence of the stretch on West Broad Street, between Belvidere and Second streets, which seems to be at the heart of a cultural blossoming. Yes, there are other parts of town — including Scott's Addition and Manchester — that also are becoming hubs for galleries, theaters and clubs, but the Arts and Cultural District downtown clearly is the most happening part of this city in 2014.

Walk the area on a First Friday and you'll get the picture. Such a concentration of energy and entrepreneurial spirit is bound to shake things up in the future.

Now the university seems slowly to be moving toward connecting its two campuses. The effect that the university's most significant work in progress, the Institute for Contemporary Art, is going to have on both the Fan and Arts districts will be huge. When the ICA opens, as designed by Steven Holl Architects, it's going to draw international attention.

But it's important to remember the good old days. Because of the university's attention to documenting that era in its archives, my two grandchildren will be able to get a picture of what it was like when I managed the Biograph Theatre from 1972 to 1983 at 814 W. Grace St.

What WRIR's tour of that once-bohemian neighborhood made clear to me is that since that wonderful era for live music faded into the mists, the university clearly has been the best thing my hometown has had going for it. S

F.T. Rea is an artist and writer who lives in the Fan District.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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