After 35 years spent battling an identity crisis, Historic West of the Boulevard residents now hook a new name to bolster the district's image — thanks to the cachet of a few big neighbors. 

Neighborhood Watch

After catching a movie at the Byrd Theatre in Carytown, a praline ice cream cone at Sundaze or a glass of Riesling at Zeus Gallery Café awaits just a few blocks away. The skip north down Belmont Avenue means following the road into another city-snug neighborhood, another realm, that seems to begin and end as imperceptibly as some of its 1920s-built row houses. But the people who live here need no ruby shoes to remind them that there's no place like home. It only needs the right name to carry the message: You're not in Carytown anymore.

It's not the Fan District, either, or the West End.

If you're confused, you're not alone. Even the neighbors here haven't always been clear. Now, thanks to the seemingly tireless West of the Boulevard Civic Association, word is getting around that it's not the same old area troubled by spates of crime and neighborhood indifference. Historic West of the Boulevard, once the city's first streetcar suburb, clangs with the desire to stand out as a leader in community revitalization.

Despite its century-old past, the Historic West of the Boulevard often gets swept up as part of the Fan, a more profiled neighboring district. This is an oversight that's made the neighborhood dig all the more assiduously to ferret out a new name and mission.

This spring, the area bound to the north by Broad Street, Cary Street to the south, the west side of the Boulevard to the east, and the expressway to the west, proclaims itself the Museum District.

The name-launching converges with a cavalcade of events ranging from a members' reception at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Center for Education and Outreach to a City Council candidates' forum at Temple Beth-El, to an alley clean up, to a house-and-garden tour. The group also boasts a new Web site: www.themuseumdistrict.org.

It's the long-awaited distinction that more than 500 member households of the West of the Boulevard Civic Association hope sticks with residents, suburbanites, real-estate agents and the local media.

Projects, including Developer Robin Miller's long-awaited conversion of the once ill-fated Kensington Gardens into 118 upscale apartments, are helping to solidify the district's newly polished image. It's this seeming graduation from a low-profile neighborhood, defined by troubled spots like the former Devil's Triangle at Sheppard and Park avenues, to a neighborhood linked in name and appearance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that has people like 1st District City Councilman John Conrad taking notice.

"The name change seems superficial, but it's not," says John Conrad, the 1st District City Council representative who has helped the WOBCA exercise its political muscle since his first term began 1994. Conrad's highly sought-after seat — for which Museum District voters are key — will be filled May 2. "It's smart marketing, and it'll take off like a rocket," he says.

In addition, it's indicative of the hopes neighbors have to swell their property values like those in the Fan. According to WOBCA member Bertie Selvey, the property value of her house has nearly tripled since 1982.

Historic West of the Boulevard arguably is as diverse a neighborhood as any in the city. Five schools, three monuments, five restaurants, eight rental agencies, three churches, a synagogue and a Confederate chapel all call it home. But it's the four museums — the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Historical Society, the Virginia Holocaust Museum and even the Virginia Telephone Museum — that the neighborhood is clinging to for identification, and with good reason. People know where the museums (especially the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) are.

"There are people who move in who think they are moving into the Fan," says Zoe Anne Green, a 14-year WOBCA member and the group's community liaison. "It's easy to take the museums for granted. But they're right here, and they're such a treasure."

A treasure that — with blockbusters like Faberge, Splendors of Ancient Egypt, and the September opening of its Impressionism exhibit — flood the neighborhood with visitors and much welcome attention.

"There's a lot of synergy between us," explains Suzanne Hall, marketing and public affairs manager for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "We keep the radio equipment for their security patrol and they keep our security informed. We make our facility available, and we always look for ways we can support each others' goals."

Still, it's a relationship that can be strained when one neighbor is bigger and more powerful than the other. "The reality is we're a huge neighbor," says Hall. "We do have some serious parking issues. It's a high-density area. Heaven forbid Benedictine [High School] has something scheduled for the same night we do." And with parking testing the patience of some residents, the museum has responded by offering alternatives like shuttle service from the Diamond. The neighborhood's new name, says Hall, makes it "all the more important to have healthy dialogue between the museum and the neighborhood to maintain an equilibrium."

When Liz Forman and her husband, Greg, moved their family to Richmond from Charlotte, N.C., in 1995, she knew the first time they drove down the Boulevard and onto Monument Avenue, that it was where she wanted to live. "I had never lived in an urban neighborhood like this, and I did have some safety concerns," says Forman, "but it seemed so alive. There was nothing like it in Charlotte to compare it to."

"When a neighborhood association gets to their level of commitment, they're very demanding," says Conrad. Clearly, even with beautification projects like Roses on Roseneath, sidewalk improvement projects, 100 planted trees and 43 new street lights — a price tag for the city of more than $300,000 — the Museum District is making more than a name for itself. "All these things are more related than you think," says Conrad.

All related to the neighborhood's attempt to take charge of its own destiny. "People are moving back into the city as a conscious choice," says the association's president, Poarch.

"We go through the listings in the paper to see who's moved in," says WOBCA member Green. "We're kind of the Welcome Wagon that people can reach out to." But more than that, the Museum District has grown into what its members describe as a proactive group of fighters. "I'm down at City Council [meetings] more than I'd like to be," confesses Green, who represents the Museum District before Council and the General Assembly. "Whether we're involved or not, we always have an opinion."


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