November 09, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Collision Course 

Along the turbulent Harrison Street corridor, VCU is struggling to fight crime and coexist with the inner city.

Don't ask about Taylor Marie Behl. It's off-limits. Lt. Mike O'Berry would love to set the record straight, detail everything his Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department did to locate Behl, the pretty 17-year-old freshman who disappeared Sept. 5 and sparked a national made-for-cable-TV drama. He and a few others would love a shot at Nancy Grace, the brash CNN talk-show host who repeatedly lambasted campus cops for waiting "eleven long days" to turn the investigation over to the true blue, the Richmond Police.

"They sat on it for eleven days before law enforcement came in and took it over!" Grace shrieked Sept. 19 on CNN, emasculating the 76-member campus police force.

O'Berry would like to talk, but he can't. VCU's put a moratorium on publicly discussing the case. From the roof of a parking deck on a recent Thursday night, O'Berry surveys a growing crowd at the corner of Harrison and Grace streets. Those who think the college fuzz spend their time busting up frat parties need only scan the horizon on a night like this, a night when VCU collides with the inner city.

O'Berry's domain has come under intense scrutiny during the past two months in the wake of the Behl case, which ironically has nothing to do with the growing crime problem along Harrison and Grace.

The night she disappeared, Behl had dinner at the Village CafAc on this same intersection, where skull-and-bones Goth types such as Ben Fawley — the man who admitted to accidentally killing Behl, according to a report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch — often congregate at the Nanci Raygun dance club. It sits a block away from the Thursday night gathering of hip-hoppers at Club 534.

But the Goth punksters are fairly harmless, according to VCU police. Rarely are there fights or any serious problems at their Raygun hangout.

A block to the north, however, is a different story. VCU police report having confiscated some 30 weapons since May — including AK-47s and semi-automatic pistols — some from vehicles of 534's patrons, many of whom police suspect are drug dealers and gang members.

On the Thursday before Halloween, at 10:30 p.m., the punksters and clubgoers are within a few yards of one another. So far there isn't much ruckus. The security guards at 534 are working two separate lines, men to the south side of the building and women to the north. A Richmond cop is stationed in front of the club, and VCU police will keep a keen watch over the area for the next several hours.

Generally, after the club lets out, officers say, the hip-hop set turns rowdy, often leading to violent fights and gunfire. Searching for answers, O'Berry can't pinpoint when or why the real problems started. But he speculates that it started about a year and a half ago. That's when police started to see an increase in gun activity and parking-lot shootings that usually start as disagreements inside the club.

"I really don't know [exactly when]. But we definitely had a spike in gunplay," he says, choosing his words carefully so as not to sound too alarmist, something that generally isn't viewed as particularly good for the university. "You can manage it, but I'm not so sure you're going to get rid of it."

The violence tends to take place between 1 a.m and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Mondays. For instance, earlier this summer a man's car was riddled with bullets in a crowded Ukrop's parking lot shortly after 2 a.m. with several officers standing nearby. One bullet skimmed past a man sitting in the back seat, missing his chest by inches.

In complaints filed with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in August 2004 — in an attempt to have the Club 534's liquor license revoked — VCU police detailed numerous incidents involving fights and firearms outside of the club in the early morning hours, sometimes resulting in injuries to officers and ABC agents.

In one account of Aug. 2, 2004, VCU Police Sgt. William L. Butters was injured in a fight with an alleged gunman in the 900 block of West Grace, a block away from the university's administrative offices. According to the ABC report, Butters was "encouraging the crowd to go to their cars when he heard a shot fired from about 40 to 50 feet away. … As he approached the rear of 919 W. Grace Street, he saw Andre D. Scruggs clutch his leg and fall to the ground. Mr. Scruggs had been shot."

Butters chased down three men who were fleeing on foot and apprehended one of them, an 18-year-old man who gave Butters "a deep gash" while resisting arrest.

Things got so hairy that VCU Police launched a special crime-fighting unit known as the Power Shift to sweep guns and drugs off the streets and put an end to the violence. Since early spring, the unit, which consists of five to seven officers, breaks away from regular service calls from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. on certain nights to target the area around the intersections of Harrison and Grace streets and Harrison and Broad streets.

In September, the Power Shift went on hiatus. The Behl case took precedence. Meanwhile, partly because of the unit's efforts and the summer giving in to cooler nights, O'Berry says, the shootings and fights seem to have subsided. "Things have really calmed down," he says.

Although the night shift is settling down, the Harrison and Grace area hasn't gone completely silent — not during the day, at least. On Aug. 23, on Ryland Avenue a block west of Harrison, a man, angry that a small crowd of people was harassing him to stop manhandling a woman, opened fire with an AK-47 at 4:30 in the afternoon. (He fired seven rounds; no one was hit.)

A cashier at the Jamaica House on the 1200 block of Broad Street, on the northern edge of the Ukrop's parking lot, was gunned down at lunchtime Oct. 24. The gunman walked into the restaurant and shot the cashier at point-blank range. He was last seen running down Harrison Street toward Carver, according to richmond Police.

As VCU attempts to regain its public composure after Behl, officials must deal with a growing list of concerns about campus safety. Most of the problems are situated along the Grace and Harrison corridor, which sits at the epicenter of the university's aggressive expansion along Broad, one that has involved millions of state tax dollars and millions more in private investment. VCU, the state's second-largest university with more than 29,000 students, has accommodated growth by moving into historically crime-ridden areas of the city.

Last week VCU broke ground on a new campus, which includes a massive new business school. As the university prepares to expand again, pushing east across Belvidere into Monroe Ward, Harrison and Grace offers a cautionary tale.

The history of Harrison and Grace is pockmarked with shootings, stabbings and crime. In the 1930s and '40s, on the northern outskirts of the university's academic campus, Grace Street began transforming from a residential neighborhood into a more commercial district.

As the university grew up — the former Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to create VCU in 1968 — Grace Street was overtaken with bookstores, bars, restaurants and theaters. Eventually it became a cultural potluck of retail and restaurants that was, all at once, a Bohemian and artist enclave, punkster hangout and a retreat for Interstate-bound bikers.

The main drag of Grace, loosely defined as west of the state capitol to Belvidere, had historically been a retail mecca second only to Broad Street. But as the university grew and people left the city for the Near West End, Grace turned more commercial in the five blocks from Belvidere to Harrison. Rents in the area became cheap, as did the pornography, which started in earnest in 1965 when the Grace Street Theater became the Lee Art Theater, showing X-rated movies and live burlesque shows in the 900 block, bounded by Harrison to the west and Shafer to the east. Next to hipster record shops were strip clubs such as The Greca and later the Red Light Inn, and seedier joints such as Newgate Prison and Lums.

For free-loving students of the Vietnam era, it was manna, the unexpected place where cultures collided harmoniously. It also became an international restaurant district, which still boasts Richmond institutions such as Saigon Restaurant. Stella Dikos began her ascent cooking at the Village more than 40 years ago. Mike Jones, a film history professor at VCU, remembers how plasticized sandwiches and other entrees hung from the cafAc's ceiling so customers could see exactly what they were ordering.

"Grace Street was the cool place," Jones recalls. "It was a vital little retail area. There were head shops and boutiques. There was just a lot going on there."

Jones, manager of the old Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace St. (now the Hyperlink CafAc) from 1976 to 1987, most fondly remembers the area as a haven for cinema lovers, particularly rich with independent and foreign films. After shopping downtown at Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads, it became the place where Richmonders would often stop and catch a movie.

In 1981, however, Grace Street was transformed again from a one-way to two-way street west of Belvidere to help alleviate downtown traffic. Parking along the street was limited, Jones recalls, and the dichotomy of West Grace changed considerably.

"Between 4 and 6 o'clock, you couldn't park," Jones says, and the area lost its ease of access. "It really kind of lost its identity."

Today, few of the old guard remain. Familiar haunts such as Logos Christian Bookstore and the eclectic Exile, which sells Goth jewelry, vintage clothing and housewares, remain wedged between new development and student housing.

In the mid 1990s, VCU President Eugene P. Trani decided to grow the campus northward, across Broad Street, instead of venturing south into Oregon Hill, where residents and preservationists aggressively resisted the university's expansion efforts. VCU's expansion north of Broad suddenly put Harrison and Grace in the middle of VCU.

"This used to be right on the edge of campus," says Mimi Regelson, since 1986 owner of Exile at 822 W. Grace St. "Now, I'm in the middle of campus."

Standing outside of the row house turned retail shop, Regelson points to development all around. Developers are buying up Grace, and she's not sure how much longer she'll be able to remain. She met with her landlord last week to find out what his plans were. He could probably sell and make a killing, but Regelson says he didn't tip his hand.

"I don't know if next year is going to be my 20th anniversary or my going-out-of-business sale," she says wryly.

Regelson sheds little emotion at the prospect. She gets why the area is becoming more valuable: Namely, it's because of VCU's willingness to locate student housing along Broad, which generates considerable foot traffic that's attractive to chain retailers. Trani's corporatelike management of the university has attracted plenty of developers. In large part, the university's expansion along Broad enticed Kroger Co. to build a supermarket in Carver in 2003, an impossible notion 10 years ago, and ultimately led to Ukrop's Super Markets moving into the former Safeway turned Community Pride at Harrison and Grace streets last year, another major coup.

Graduate student housing at Ramz Hall, which is a block away, has essentially sparked a strip mall on Broad Street — with a Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries, Cold Stone Creamery, Jersey Mike's Subs and EB Games, to name a few. VCU's massive bookstore and parking deck a block over stretches across the entire 1100 block — not to mention the Siegel Center, the School of the Arts and a new student residential hall on the opposite, northern side of Broad Street.

The result: Grace and Harrison is no longer a cultural potpourri on the fringe — it's at the center of an entirely new economy.

VCU's decision to venture across Broad came with plenty of risk, acknowledges Paul Timmreck, VCU's senior vice president for finance and administration. But Trani vowed not to cross the next block north of Broad, Marshall Street, into the heart of Carver's low-income, single-family housing community.

The university didn't want to be accused of pushing out poorer families. And moving across Marshall was problematic for other reasons too — primarily, the area was well-known for its drug activity, crime and guns.

"The way you strengthen your environment is you strengthen your core and create critical mass," says Timmreck, recalling a conversation between Trani and a local architect shortly after residents and preservations blocked VCU's planned expansion into Oregon Hill in the early 1990s. "[The architect] said, 'Trani, if you had any guts you'd throw a couple of hand grenades onto Broad Street and do it over.'"

It wasn't long before VCU found itself in a bidding war with Walgreen Co. for property at 1100 W. Broad St., a block east of the Siegel Center. By late 1990s, VCU had won, but had no immediate plans for the area.

Timmreck, however, knew the land was critical. "Now that we've got this overpriced land, what do we do with it?" Timmreck recalls thinking. "I advanced the notion that we should do housing on that block."

Putting students on the north side of Broad Street would have been unthinkable in the early 1990s. The Carver area is notorious for drugs and gang activity, and much of the neighborhood is in considerable decay. Timmreck says the strategy was simple. "You are going to encounter problems all over the place," he says of inner-city challenges. "What you do is you don't run from it … you combat it."

That's exactly what VCU cops did. Once the university made its intentions to expand across Broad Street, the cops hit Carver hard. In probably the best example, led by Sgt. Chris Preuss, VCU worked closely with federal authorities and Richmond Police in 2002 to attack the drug trade in Carver. Dubbed Operation Crackdown, the effort led to 21 indictments of drug dealers stemming from a murder in February 2001. The operation helped clean up the area, says Lester Bell, owner of Bell's Market on Harrison Street in Carver, but the drug dealing has hardly dissipated. Rather, Lester says, in the past couple of months the drug dealing seems to be heating up again.

Across the street, a group of older men are playing cards on the sidewalk, a block up from Leigh Street and three blocks from the Siegel Center, in front of a row of rundown houses. They're sitting in plastic lawn chairs and drinking malt liquor on an unseasonably warm November afternoon. They are just minding their own business, they say. Two of the older men say they've been here, hanging out along this decayed section of Harrison Street, for 50 to 60 years, long before VCU moved in. They have no kind words for the campus cops.

"They harass us and we have nothing to do with VCU campus," one of the men says, adding that he hasn't seen any drug dealing. Another curses the university: "VCU don't mean shit to me," he says. "I've been around here all my life."

The owner of Club 534, Nat Dance, echoes a similar refrain, albeit more subdued. He says VCU started to harass him only when it wanted to purchase his building nearly two years ago. He says he makes sure there are no guns coming into his club. What's more, Dance says he was even encouraged to stop running license checks on his patrons two years ago. An official with the ABC contacted him, Dance says, and told him customers were complaining about the background checks. So he stopped.

Now he feels his club's patrons are being targeted largely because they are black and enjoy hip-hop music. He says the university's surveillance and harassment has affected his business. "Actually, what it did was hurt the positive part of the club," Dance says, adding that all the bad press his club has received has perpetuated the negative perception.

He says he's even been the victim of attempted robberies twice in the past eight months. People think he's rolling in cash, Dance speculates, because of newspaper articles. (It's well-known in the club business that hip-hop shows are extremely profitable.) Both incidents involved gunfire. After the first time, he started carrying a gun to protect himself. "The second time," he says, "I shot back."

Down the street, at the Hyperlink CafAc, it's Thursday before Halloween. A team of security guards is checking down customers outside the club — the girls scantily clad in cheerleader and prostitute costumes, a couple of guys dressed as pimps. They are white and black, some from VCU, others as far away as Virginia State University.

David Lambert, the club's owner, says he has a good relationship with VCU. But he admits the temptation to put on hip-hop shows is strongest "when the bank calls and says, 'Where's my money?'" He had a couple of rowdy shows earlier this year, but quickly figured out he could manage the customers he draws by promoting the shows in-house instead of contracting them out. "What we did was cut out the promoters," he says.

VCU has learned its lessons the hard way too. At the Siegel Center, a couple of hip-hop shows have drawn their fair share of rowdiness, particularly one that involved raunchy rap artist Juvenile in 1999. This one turned violent, at one point spilling out onto Broad Street.

"The decision was made and some things got of hand," VCU Police Chief Willie Fuller says of the Juvenile show. "But we have not had any similar problems since."

Timmreck concurs. "We didn't have appropriate coordination between the administration and student affairs," he says matter-of-factly.

As for the problem areas at Harrison and Grace, VCU will continue plugging away. Fuller says the guns are still out there, but the Power Shift is having an impact. "We have a constant struggle with that element of non-students," he says.

Meanwhile, VCU is tackling parents' concerns about the Behl case head-on. Recruiters aren't waiting for parents to ask, but rather are initiating the conversation. "We're candid about it," says Timmreck, who shifts into spin mode. The Behl case was an isolated incident, he says, that is not symptomatic of larger campus problems.

As for the guns? "Not a single faculty member or student has been injured by this gunplay," Timmreck says.

Down at Exile, at the small clothing store on Grace, shop owner Regelson says that crime has always been a part of the Grace Street scene. It comes in waves, she says, but it's also part of the students' education. Dealing with the reality of life in the inner city can be an eye-opening experience.

In Taylor Behl's case, she simply made some bad choices, says Regelson. Fawley, a Goth enthusiast, frequented her shop, she says, remembering him as older and seemingly in need of attention, always trying to impress her and her customers.

"He was obviously insecure and a little bit edgy, in a way that wasn't right," Regelson says. "That had to do with a na‹� girl and an unfortunate circumstance. ... Part of going to college is learning how to deal with real life." S

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