Change Agents 

On the occasion of our 40th anniversary, we asked community leaders how Richmond has changed over four decades.

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Rev. Ben Campbell | Author and civil rights activist

"The last 40 years have witnessed the change from a more traditional Richmond to a modern RVA. That’s two generations worth of change. Digital communications are the norm, the energy of generations. Race is still a major issue – and the economic purgatory of the city that a racially punitive General Assembly wrought when Black leadership took over continues to cripple our development. But we are a more racially mixed metro community. The economy has opened up to new firms and new leadership. And the counties, not the center city, are the economic center.

Style Weekly heralded, and chronicled, the arrival of the new Richmond: less traditional, more inclusive, full of art and creativity, and accessible regardless of family heritage. There was a spirit there of inclusiveness and possibility, a sense that we were in fact a part of the modern world. The format itself had depth and strength – and warmth. Media describe to us the world we live and act in. Style gave a more modern, and more accurate picture of RVA. At best, it told the truths that were not otherwise being told. And partially as a result of Style’s civic portrait, two generations were able to bring modern RVA into being.

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Jim Ukrop | Co-founder and managing director of NRV. Former CEO and chairman of Ukrop’s Supermarkets and former chairman of First Market Bank

Style Weekly: How has Richmond changed over the past 40 years?

Jim Ukrop: We’ve gone from a traditional Southern city to a city that’s much more inclusive now. I think this all has to do with how the separation from the African American community and the white community [used to be]. One of the biggest differences was – 40, 50 years ago – it was a community run by the white community, and now it’s obviously become a much more inclusive city, where people are valued more by their actions and their words than by the color of their skin.

Where would you like to see the city move forward?

Richmond came out with the “Richmond Real” [branding campaign], spent a lot of money on a name. We’re Greater Richmond. We’re not Richmond Real, or anything like that, and we need to be promoting ourselves more as Greater Richmond, not as three [localities].

I think we need to go back to a city manager form of government.

We’ve tried the mayoral form of government, but we need experts running our city, not politicians. I think that we need to have our city council members pick the school board members so that they don’t have so much political stuff going on with the school board. It’s about policy, not about politics.

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Tim Kaine | United States Senator from Virginia since 2013

"Style Weekly and The Richmond Free Press have both been the chroniclers of the major shift in who and what Richmond is.

Richmond was a city in decline 40 years ago with a population in free fall like other, older cities. Today it is growing and thriving with a youthful energy, dynamic arts and culture scene and a long overdue embrace of the outdoor assets, especially the James River, that make us special.

Richmond needed to open leadership opportunities to a much broader group of people than those allowed in decision-making rooms in the past. It has done so with success, though much work still remains."

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Michael Paul Williams | Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Style Weekly: How has the city changed in the past 40 years?

MPW: Richmond city politics, going back to that time and into the ’70s was very, very cantankerous, to say the least, and divided by race. Richmond was only five years into its first majority Black city council and its first Black mayor. 1982 was actually the year that Roy West and four white council members voted out Henry Marsh [both West and Marsh were Black]. It was a time in which the racial divide, racial divisions very much defined Richmond city politics much more than seems the case today.

Dovetailing off that, we have a different form of city government than we had then. In 1982, we had a council-manager form of city government. The city manager had a lot of power. They mayor’s position was largely ceremonial, although Henry Marsh did imbue it with more power than typical mayors, just by dint of the historical nature of his election and the cohesiveness of the “team” of Black city councilmembers working as a block. Now, of course, we have a strong mayor form of government, which has changed the nature of city politics a lot.

Richmond in the ’80s and into ’90s was still a city reeling from the way race and white flight was shaping Richmond. Richmond, in 1970, annexed a piece of Chesterfield County [that now makes up the majority of south Richmond]. You know the history there: racially motivated annexation to try to retain white power in city government. This resulted in a lawsuit and a suspension of city elections for seven years, and the aforementioned Mayor Marsh and the Black majority council.

But all of that, coupled with bussing to achieve the long-delayed integration of Richmond Public Schools, resulted in an exodus, a large white exodus of white residents into the suburbs. Really, that was part of a national trend. There were obviously the history factors that I mentioned, but urban areas nationwide were experiencing that sort of exodus to the suburbs. Richmond … got a population bump after that annexation, but it began losing residents. Then, as we go into the late 1980s and into the 1990s, crack and violent crime become very pronounced in the city, along with issues with Richmond Public Schools that led people to believe, when they reached a certain age with their children, that they must leave the city. The city started losing a lot of population. …

One of the most significant changes that I witnessed over the 40 years is the repopulation of Richmond by young, energetic creative people and the resulting boost in civic morale. Now, mind you, Richmond has a lot of problems, and there are some folks in the suburbs that view Richmond in not the most positive light, but the civic morale has increased tremendously since the nadir I spoke of.

You can see the development all around. Now, there are some negatives to that in the form of gentrification and the fact that Richmond’s becoming unaffordable to a lot of people, but that speaks to a certain demand that didn’t necessarily exist before.

Overall, Richmond is seen as a more livable and desirable place. A place that has transitioned over the 40 years perception-wise from a sleepy, hidebound, “Former Capital of the Confederacy,” stuck in its ways, resistant to change, really kind of boring, to a place with some sizzle, a place that’s viewed as a nurturer of the creatives, a place with a fascinating history – as troubling as much of it is – a place that’s easy on the eyes, a place with a lot of assets that have attracted the attention of people beyond Richmond.

Style: What’s around the corner for Richmond?

MPW: A lot of that is up to us. Richmond, demographically, is following the trend of a lot cities in which it is becoming a place that the impoverished – and who are largely people of color – can no longer afford to live. It’s gone from a majority Black city, a city with a clear Black majority, to a city where Black people are no longer the plurality. I’d say, very soon, the white population will overtake the Black population, if it hasn’t already happened. The city’s gotten wealthier, but again, that leads to the question of displacement and what will happen to the people who get displaced.

There are economic runaway factors that we’ve got to get under control, lest we become another hip, but unaffordable, city in America.

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Pamela Reynolds | Community arts leader

Of course, there have been changes [over the past 40 years]. Some we should be proud of and some we should not be proud of, as a city. I will let others decide, but I think we can agree COVID has affected all our lives.

I am hopeful that I have, with the help of people more talented than I, helped to make Richmond and the commonwealth a better place. We need to look back and say thank you, as we look forward, to those who are no longer with us that helped to make a difference. Of course, without Style Weekly and other [publications] nothing would be possible, for ideas only stay ideas without them.

I especially enjoyed Ed Slipek and his coverage of the arts and architectural and I think the Power List always created lots of attention and conversation.

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

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Stoner Winslett | Artistic director of Richmond Ballet

Style Weekly: How do you think Richmond has most changed over the past 40 years and where do you see it going?

Stoner Winslett: It’s a completely different town. When we moved to 407 East Canal in 2000, there was literally no one living downtown. At our first location on Lombardy and Broad, we could find apartments for visiting artists to rent or for our dancers to live but when we moved, there was literally nowhere for them.

Look at it now! There are all sorts of people living downtown and I like to think we had something to do with that. We took an abandoned research and development building and filled it with staff and students. Our educational programs brought 800-1,000 students downtown a week. And some parents or dancers started to look around and think maybe they could live down here. All of the restaurants that popped up along Grace Street, I think that’s largely a byproduct of the arts district. All honor should go to the board of trustees at places like the Richmond Ballet and the Carpenter Center for being forward looking.

I recruit internationally and I tell people, and mean it sincerely, that Richmond is so uniquely located. We’re less than two hours from the beach, less than two hours from the mountains, and less than two hours from Washington, DC. You can live in Richmond and easily get anywhere you would want to go. How many cities can say that? If we can keep working together, particularly continuing to partner with our surrounding counties to better the entire Richmond region, the possibilities are limitless.

Style: On the occasion of our 40th anniversary, any thoughts on Style Weekly and its place in Richmond culture?

You know, that’s so interesting to think about because I was here when Style started. I had started out as an assistant artistic director. Even back then, it was clear that Lorna was such a visionary to see that Richmond needed some kind of alternative to the daily paper. And she had a good strategy to highlight the people in the community. Back in the day, being on a Style Weekly cover was a big thing. I remember when my picture was on the cover.

From the beginning, Style’s support of the arts community and its coverage of performances and events has been invaluable. I’m very glad that you all are keeping it going. What you’re doing has been a gift to the arts community and we thank you.

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Jean Boone | Publisher of the Richmond Free Press

Style Weekly: How has Richmond changed in the past 40 years?

Jean Boone: My husband [Ray Boone], who was the editor and the lead player in this saga called “Let’s start the Richmond Free Press,” he would often observe that Richmond had the train on the tracks, but it just couldn’t get it moving. That was his metaphor, and I think that finally Richmond is moving the train on the track. Not without a lot of stops and bumps along the way, but there is obviously a generation of activists, Black and white, who are seeing the opportunities and seizing the opportunities that are here, and that’s a good thing.

When we moved [back to Richmond from Baltimore] in the end of ’91, Broad Street was a disaster. It was not very attractive, the landscaping was not there, on and on. Scott’s Addition was … here, but it was not as vibrant as it is now.

There’s energy in Richmond now, and that’s a good thing. Some of the more advanced ideas have been dissected and some rejected, some accepted, but there’s more thoughtful civic participation now than there was in the past.

Style: Where will the city go in the future?

Boone: There has to be racial equity, there has to be inclusion, and there has to be a recognition that all of Richmond needs to rise. It cannot be a section or a segment of the population that rises and the other doesn’t, because it will surely pull the city back to where it doesn’t want to be. Racial injustice is alive and well in Richmond, and one evidence of that is the Richmond Free Press. It is a mirror of who supports the Free Press, who supports the readership of the Free Press, because if you don’t see advertising in the Free Press, it means that these businesses for the most part don’t want Black dollars to be spent with them. I know that’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s true. I remember having a white salesperson who was calling on car dealerships, and the car dealership manager said, “Why should I advertise with the Free Press? Black people are going to come anyway,” and I think that’s a point of view that still persists.

Style: Any thoughts on Style on the occasion of its 40th?

The Free Press and Style forged a friendly competitive relationship, and I knew and know Lorna Wyckoff, who started Style, and I’ve known the editors through the years, the publishers. Ray has been on the cover of Style, I was as well, so I think that speaks to the friendly relationship.

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Phil Whiteway | Managing director and co-founder of Virginia Repertory Theatre

"Forty years ago, I was 30 and the company Bruce Miller and I started was in its infancy. We were finding our way and building relationships. I didn’t grow up in Richmond but when I came here, I feel like Richmond saw itself as a quaint Southern city.

Over time that shifted and now I think it thinks of itself as a mid-Atlantic city. It is so much richer culturally; that includes the arts, the restaurant industry, the breweries. And even with the growth, I think it’s a very livable place. Just like it was for me, I see Richmond as a magnet drawing people to migrate south.

Where our theater is, on the cusp of Jackson Ward, it has come so far. People live down here, the neighborhood is walkable and there are so many restaurants. Many cities have not been successful in drawing people downtown, but we have. I think that’s going to continue, investment is still occurring. There is cool development all around us and when these new places get built, they fill up."

Style: What thoughts or perspectives do you have on Style Weekly and its place in Richmond history or culture?

"That’s a tricky question. I miss the fact that you can pick it up when you’re at the grocery store or getting coffee. It was easy. But in general, arts coverage, and for us, theater critics, they play a vital role. It’s where people get their information. Some people will say they’re great. Others will say, ‘I can’t believe they said that. I can’t believe they printed that.’ But that’s the nature of reporting and media. I believe all coverage is good. It gets people talking and thinking. Style clearly has had its role and its place. I wish there were more of them, more critics and publications."

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Ana Edwards | Public historian and chair of the Virginia Defenders’ Sacred Ground Project

"Forty years ago, nobody in Richmond, beyond a few historians, knew anything about an African burial ground in New York City, much less that there was one in Shockoe Bottom. I was about to graduate from college and move to New York. Six years later I was living in Chesterfield County, perplexed at Black-white segregation that looked and felt like it was embedded in a way that was different from that of my hometown, Los Angeles. But that might only have been because there were woods around it, not concrete.

Thirty years ago, my grandmother came to Richmond to meet her first grandson, and we sat together watching the televised reporting on the L.A. rebellion play out in her neighborhood. From Richmond she could see the rooftops of her apartment complex as smoke billowed from the stores she’d shopped at just the week before.

That same month, an older white businessman from Chester told me that Virginia had never experienced violence over civil rights. I thought, well that simply can’t be true, and I would later learn about Virginia’s systemic “violence” as implemented through Walter Plecker, the Racial Integrity Act and the state’s political agenda to ensure contained Black and brown aspirations.

Sometime in between those years, Lee-Jackson-King Day happened. I had moved to Virginia in 1988, and shortly after I recall someone bringing home a copy of Style Weekly. There on the cover was a cartoon of Martin Luther King Jr.’s face atop Robert E. Lee’s body seated on Stonewall Jackson’s horse. The image of that cover splashed all over the country and made my California-New York relatives call me to make sure I hadn’t lost my 28-year-old mind: what was I thinking by moving “us” back below the Mason Dixon line?! Did I know what it had taken for them to get out?

Somewhere between the Southern Gothic literature class I’d taken in college and the Southern historical reality of my father’s family’s experiences, I was discovering that I was a part of something vast. Style Weekly was one of the publications that kept its aesthetic and journalistic pulse on Richmond’s zeitgeist, the boiling down and bubbling up of what was happening each week that made Richmond “Richmond.” That cover was a strangely appropriate marker for the journey that Richmond has been on over the last 40 years, marked most recently by the removal of the Lost Cause relics from Monument Avenue.

Now, as the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality looks back on 20 years of social justice activism, community voice amplification and the recovery of key Black American histories, we must prioritize the systemic challenges ahead of us.

Reclaimed Black history has become a movement in Richmond and the country. The community proposal for a Memorial Park is now part of the city’s plan for creating a Heritage Campus in Shockoe Bottom. The next goals are to ensure transparency of decision-making processes, the primacy of Black and descendant community voices in its governance and stewardship structures, and that the economic benefits derived from Black and African American cultural resources are first experienced by Black and African American communities. And in this way, the creation of the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park will become another positive path through struggle toward the victories contained in a thriving Richmond with truly affordable, high-quality housing, healthcare, education, jobs and no war (on our streets or anywhere else) for all.

Editor's note: Lean more at sacredgroundproject.net


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