Field of Dreams 

Commentary: What happened the night before these VIP Richmonders went to Durham to learn about baseball?

click to enlarge Main Street Station, above, the Poe Museum and Richmond’s oldest building, and Masons’ Hall from 1785 are among Shockoe Bottom’s historic jewels.

Scott Elmquist

Main Street Station, above, the Poe Museum and Richmond’s oldest building, and Masons’ Hall from 1785 are among Shockoe Bottom’s historic jewels.

Last Tuesday night, each of 50 Richmonders traveling to Durham, N.C., the next day to see the transformative wonders of its baseball park, falls into deep slumber. Something amazing happens. They all experience the same dream.

First comes the jarring, jangling noise of chains. This can't be Marley's ghost for the holidays are past. But another male figure slowly emerges.

Whoah. … It's the ghost of Gabriel, often known as Gabriel Prosser — the slave who'd led a thwarted rebellion in 1800. When caught, he'd been paraded through Richmond streets before a swift trial and hanging in Shockoe Bottom.

"Go to the Bottom," Prosser's ghost implores the slumbering ones. "To the Bottom, to the Bot. … to the. …" the voice trails off.

Prosser's eerie visage disappears, happily, and up wafts the reassuring aroma of coffee. It's Wednesday morning and the junket goers clutch to-go coffee cups as they await their charter bus. But the dream turns bizarre again.

Zombie-like, the group files past the motor coach and drifts single file over to Broad Street. Here, they board a GRTC bus for Church Hill (a first-time experience for some). As the purple bus lurches past the VCU Medical Center and down the steep slope into the Shockoe Bottom, the zombies sense something wrong and ring the bell.

Disembarking in Shockoe Bottom, the disoriented zombies stand at the intersection of Broad and North 18th streets. Most are frightened. The coffee was delicious, but this isn't what they'd signed up for. And they can't shake Gabriel's invisible guiding spirit.

Suddenly the situation brightens. Mirage-like, at Broad and 18th, they spot an Exxon and a McDonald's. They sigh in relief: Slave chains have miraculously given way to national chains. Surely a sign of how this area will look with ballpark development. There'll be a chain grocer, a chain hotel, chain restaurants and maybe a chain managing the proposed parking deck.

With new hope, the strange ones turn to make their way back to their still-waiting motor coach across town. This isn't to be. The ghost Gabriel hinders them.

They stumble along 19th Street, passing a former synagogue-turned apartment building (a Star of David is imbedded in the pediment). On the next corner is the Adam Craig house, harkening to 200 years ago when it was probably a farmhouse. Next, they pass Masons' Hall, a glorious frame building in the Palladian style, a marker says Lafayette was entertained here after the American Revolution.

They pass block after block of former tobacco plants and cigarette factories. Most now house distinctive apartments. Some have antique shops, photography studios and nightclubs on the ground floors.

Where there had once been surface parking lots, spiffy and contemporary-looking apartment complexes now rise. A cheerful and large grocery store, containing a Starbucks, no less, is up the street.

This is clearly still a dream, but no nightmare. The zombies come to appreciate the funky mix of buildings lining the old brick sidewalks — and the unheralded, historical and contemporary vibe of the Bottom.

The images and vistas come ever faster. There is the Poe Museum and remnants of canals. In the distance is the amazing clock tower of the chateaulike train station. … with an Amtrak pulling in. But what's the future for the glorious train shed?

Then the pedestrians arrive at the 17th Street Farmers' Market. Few vendors are evident. "Pathetic," think the zombies, "Why hasn't this urban asset not been cultivated?" During the past decade folks here and elsewhere have gone gaga over the organic and local food movement. Why do architectural sketches of the ballpark redevelopment shown this all but wiped out— as a meandering and soulless pathway?

Finally, circling back, the zombies come upon the proposed ballpark site. A smattering of old brick buildings still stand in some of the threatened blocks. Suddenly it is clear to the zombies: Let's restore those tattered old relics, build infill offices and apartments — on pilings if necessary. (Flooding, of course.) All-important: Keep the Bottom grid intact; tighten up the urban fabric. Don't stick an open hole of a baseball diamond in the middle of it. Vary the textures and building materials, be consistent in scale and have respect for centuries of irreplaceable Richmond experiences embedded here.

But the group of 31 knows that Gabriel's ghost isn't finished: He has something else to show them.

"This is getting way too creepy for me," whispers one of the Lost Ones to a colleague.

"Well, yeah," is the response.

"Remember the slaves, remember the men, the women, the children," invokes Gabriel. He says this again. And again.

Looking around, the 50 zombies can see very little. Train tracks and trestles and interstate traffic lanes have obliterated most of the material fabric where hundreds of thousands of slaves were sold and sent off to distant places.

"A stadium will be only the next blow, insult, tragedy…" utters Gabriel, his visage fading.

Suddenly fully awake, the 50 Richmonders approach the waiting charter bus for North Carolina. All are exhilarated and wiser for what they dreamed.

"So we're headed to Durham to find guidance?" one of the group asks.

Answers another. "Really?" S


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