December 15, 2020 News & Features » Cover Story

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So Long, 2020 

Between a reckoning with racism that brought down the city’s Confederate monuments and a deadly global pandemic that changed everything, it was a doozy of a year that will live in infamy – as well as hope for the future.

click to enlarge A rainbow appears behind the Robert E. Lee monument on June 10.

Scott Elmquist

A rainbow appears behind the Robert E. Lee monument on June 10.

January

Jan. 20

While the rest of the country celebrated Martin Luther King Day, the traditional lobbying day at the Capitol brought around 22,000 gun rights activists to Richmond for a Second Amendment rally. Some city residents were fearful of demonstrators dressed in body armor and carrying semi-automatic rifles downtown, but the day passed without any violence.

The whole event was largely a pushback, and some would say, show of force, against new gun control measures from Virginia Democrats, with many attendees coming from out of town. The only arrest police made that day involved a woman wearing a mask in public, though plenty of others wore masks without incident. That’s right, strangely 2020 started with a high-profile arrest of a person for wearing a mask. Pretty soon, we’d all be wearing them, everywhere.

click to enlarge A gun rally held during this year’s Lobby Day. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A gun rally held during this year’s Lobby Day.

February

Feb. 10

An elaborate and complex $1.5 billion plan to gussy up 10 square blocks in the Coliseum vicinity, packaged as Navy Hill by developer NH District Corp., had been percolating since 2017. Private investments of $900 million, augmented by $300 million in public bonds, would deliver a new 17,500-seat arena, a 525-room convention hotel, 400 housing units, 250,000 square feet of commercial space, restoration of the Blues Armory and a GRTC bus plaza. But advocates, including proponent-in-chief Mayor Levar Stoney, couldn’t convince the public it needed a new coliseum that was robustly promoted by Dominion Energy and its chief executive, Thomas Farrell, who stepped down in October. Finally on Feb. 10 citing financial risks and lack of transparency, City Council voted 5-4 to ditch the project.

click to enlarge On Monday, Feb. 10, opponents and proponents of the Navy Hill proposal showed up early to City Council chambers for an informal meeting. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • On Monday, Feb. 10, opponents and proponents of the Navy Hill proposal showed up early to City Council chambers for an informal meeting.

On Dec. 2 as if the first miracle of Christmas, Henrico County officials announced that the once site-specific Navy Hill plan might be reconfigured as GreenCity, a $2.3 billion mixed-use project to transform the Henrico crossroads of Interstate 95 and Parham Road. The centerpiece? A 17,000-seat arena. Developer GreenCity LLC is a joint venture that includes Concord Eastridge Inc. and Future Cities LLC and much of the former Navy Hill team minus Farrell. Despite 40 acres of envisioned park with the indoor stadium, two 300-room hotels, 280,00 square feet of retail space, and 230,000 square feet devoted to residences, perhaps an intensely-developed 204 acres of currently mostly open land, should be renamed #Not GreenCity. 


March

A month that will go down in infamy: The COVID-19 epidemic fully hits Virginia, forcing Gov. Ralph Northam to issue a lockdown order that closed schools, shuttered nonessential businesses, and banned gatherings of more than 10 people. The governor would spend the rest of the year trying to manage the pandemic, as greater Richmond adjusted to life under quarantine with varying degrees of success.

click to enlarge Gov. Ralph Northam addresses the media outside of Sentara’s COVID-19 Command Center in Virginia Beach on March 14. - KRISTEN ZEIS/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
  • Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot
  • Gov. Ralph Northam addresses the media outside of Sentara’s COVID-19 Command Center in Virginia Beach on March 14.

March 17 

Nearly two weeks before Northam issued a statewide stay-at-home order, local restaurants took it upon themselves to form Richmond Restaurants United. The grassroots organization came together to provide resources for friends in the food and beverage industry, and to ask for support from Stoney and the city during the lockdown. This early show of a unified front in the industry has continued through to this day, as establishments face the daily challenge of keeping their lights on. 

March 19

City workers dismantled Camp Cathy, an encampment of around 100 homeless Richmonders behind a city-owned building on Oliver Hill Way. While officials cited COVID-19 as the impetus for tearing down the camp, the move came following months of back-and-forth with Blessing Warriors RVA (See the interview with camp co-founder Rhonda Sneed).


April

This month brought resistance to the lockdown from none other than President Donald Trump, who asked his Twitter followers to “liberate Virginia.” Despite scattered protests from reopen advocates, state and local officials continued to argue for masks and restrictions, offering the leadership lacking from the nation’s capital.

April 7

The Richmond Symphony, one of the region’s most venerable and largest performing arts organizations, named its sixth and first female music director. With an international conducting résumé and following two years as a fellow at the English National Opera, Valentina Peleggi struck up her new orchestra for the first time at a glorious Big Tent open air and socially distanced performance at Maymont on Sept. 12. A few days earlier, the symphony’s longtime and terrific executive director, David Fisk, announced that the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra had lured him south. On Dec. 1 his successor, Lacey Huszcza, formerly with the Las Vegas Philharmonic, reported for duty here.

click to enlarge Richmond Symphony Musical Director Valentina Peleggi - BO LUTOSLAWSKI
  • Bo Lutoslawski
  • Richmond Symphony Musical Director Valentina Peleggi

April 10

An early silver lining of the lockdown was the announcement that restaurants were legally allowed to sell cocktails to go. This was not a total free-for-all, of course. Rules attached to the cocktail to-go program included no more than four cocktails sold per order, no sippy cups or straws and all containers must be sealed with lids. The hard liquor was the last of the libations to join the legal list: in March, Northam announced that restaurants could sell beer and wine to go. The exact expiration date, if there is one, on to-go booze is still to be announced, though it is legal throughout the duration of the pandemic.  

Virginia state liquor stores, which saw a $120 million increase in sales this year, announced delivery service in November.


May

Protests became the chief form of political expression for much of 2020, as the nationwide response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police re-energized the Black Lives Matter movement. In Richmond, the end of May saw nightly confrontations with police, culminating in the use of tear gas on a large, peaceful gathering on Monument Avenue. Two new police chiefs, a mayoral task force and a City Council commission later, protesters’ calls for reform have yet to be fully realized.

click to enlarge Protesters scatter after police threw tear gas into the crowd near City Hall on May 31. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Protesters scatter after police threw tear gas into the crowd near City Hall on May 31.

June

The protests spilled over into electoral politics, as Alexsis Rodgers entered the mayor’s race in June. The young progressive’s campaign reset what had been a mostly two-person race between incumbent Stoney and the City Council’s Kim Gray. Rodgers’ eventual second-place finish showed just how strong the city’s progressive youth wave has grown, but also how far it has to go before it can claim significant political power.

click to enlarge Alexsis Rodgers, state director of Care in Action, emerged as the progressive candidate in the mayoral race. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Alexsis Rodgers, state director of Care in Action, emerged as the progressive candidate in the mayoral race.

June 1

On the fourth night of protests, Richmond police fire tear gas just before the 8 p.m. curfew at kneeling protesters at Robert E. Lee statue, who were peacefully protesting the killing of George Floyd. Police claimed they were “cut off by violent protestors” and had to deploy the tear gas. City officials later said it shouldn’t have happened. Five protesters would file a class action lawsuit against the officers. Tear gas was used again on protesters in front of police headquarters in downtown Richmond on June 15.

June 2

In a highly unusual news conference, Mayor Levar Stoney is blasted by a large crowd in front of City Hall who were angered by the use of tear gas on protesters. Stoney promises disciplinary action and agrees to walk with protesters that evening from the Capitol to the Lee statue on Monument Avenue.

click to enlarge Stoney and then-Police Chief Will Smith address protesters the morning of June 2 outside City Hall. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Stoney and then-Police Chief Will Smith address protesters the morning of June 2 outside City Hall.

June 18

As Richmond entered Phase 2 of Forward Virginia, Venture RVA and the city authorities launched the Picnic in a Parklet program. The idea was to offer small businesses – primarily restaurants – an opportunity to expand their seating to meet social-distance requirements. These parklets took shape in public spaces adjacent to businesses, like on-street parking lanes and parking lots.

Like all art forms, theater has been driven to innovate more than usual during the pandemic. The Firehouse Theatre company raised the curtain on a live, one-actor production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Collaborators Shirley Kagan, the director, and Billy Christoher Maupin, who played the title character (as well as many others in the adaption of an Oscar Wilde novel) rehearsed for weeks virtually. For each performance through Aug. 7 at the 90-seat theater on West Broad Street, between two and six patrons were seated. According to Broadway World.com: “It is one of the few live theatre productions happening now in the world.” 

click to enlarge Actor Billy Christopher Maupin portrayed 16 characters over two and a half hours in a one-man version of the Oscar Wilde classic “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at Firehouse Theatre. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Actor Billy Christopher Maupin portrayed 16 characters over two and a half hours in a one-man version of the Oscar Wilde classic “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at Firehouse Theatre.

June 20 

The first Richmond Bakers Against Racism bake sale took place this summer. Like its counterparts popping up around the world – all part of the international Bakers Against Racism movement – the Richmond branch dedicated the proceeds of the first sale to grassroots, local organizations of its choosing. Thirty-six bakers participated in the sold-out inaugural event and raised more than $1,700 for five Richmond nonprofits. 

click to enlarge Some of the  bite-sized desserts in your baker’s dozen box from the first Richmond Bakers Against Racism bake sale.
  • Some of the bite-sized desserts in your baker’s dozen box from the first Richmond Bakers Against Racism bake sale.

July

The world watched as workers used cranes to remove the Stonewall Jackson statue from Monument Avenue. Mayor Levar Stoney’s bold action brought cheers from residents as the Confederate symbol was pulled down in a direct response to the city’s protests. In all, Richmond removed 18 Confederate symbols by the end of the summer, more than any other U.S. city, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. (See the Year in Monuments)

click to enlarge A young man raises his fist in the pouring rain just after the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue July 1. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A young man raises his fist in the pouring rain just after the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue July 1.

July 1

As workers removed the Stonewall Jackson statue, a demonstration against the ending of an eviction moratorium at the John Marshall Courthouse downtown turned violent when two protesters were arrested. Longtime Richmond housing advocate Omari Al-Qadaffi was charged with felony assault on law enforcement. 

Also, Stacy Shaw starts her job as the first executive director of the Byrd Theatre in Carytown. With a background in theater management and arts administration, Shaw told Style her focus would be on current renovations and finishing the seats, as well as raising money for additional systems work, and that she wants to keep the Byrd affordable for patrons. Whenever we can all enjoy movies together again, Shaw told us “the community can count on the Byrd still being the Byrd.” Hopefully, it won’t be the last local movie theater left running.

July 5

Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would’ve carried natural gas across the Appalachian Trail, “due to ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty which threaten the economic viability of the project,” according to their news release. It’s a major victory for environmentalists, whose lawsuits aimed at blocking the project had reportedly increased costs by billions of dollars. They rejoice in the decision while calling for a more balanced energy portfolio, noting that coal was the big winner.


August

The Virginia General Assembly came back to Richmond for what turned out to be a marathon special session. Despite protests from Republicans, the House of Delegates met mostly virtually, while the Senate held its odd pandemic proceedings at the Science Museum of Virginia. The session focused on pandemic relief and criminal justice reforms – and possibly moved the state closer towards a full-time legislature.

Aug 15

Richmond’s first Black Farmers Market launched at 1700 Blair St. Founder Navi Johnson said she felt compelled to bring together local makers and farmers after witnessing the effects of both the pandemic and the summer’s riots on her community. “In our community we can take care of each other, and none of us will go hungry,” she said at the time. There have been markets each month since – with a growing vendor list including people as varied as holistic health purveyors and children’s book authors.

click to enlarge Black Farmers Market founder Navi Johnson. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Black Farmers Market founder Navi Johnson.

September

The area’s elementary and secondary students went back to school in unprecedented fashion, as most public systems adopted fully virtual classes. Parents, teachers and even some students debated the needs of health and safety versus the significant costs to families, particularly those without resources. The debate rages on, as do the difficult choices facing local school districts. Chesterfield County would be forced to abandon face-to-face classes in November after COVID cases in the region spiked.

Sept. 14

America loves its NFL football. So if you’re a band and you get your music associated with America’s number one corporate sports behemoth, that’s good for your numbers. That’s what happened to Richmond jazz and funk fusion outfit Butcher Brown, whose music is now featured on the pre-kickoff hype song for “Monday Night Football.” The band helped modernize the classic Little Richard tune, “Rip It Up,” adding instrumental and background vocals and the tune debuted on this day before the Pittsburg Steelers vs. New York Giants game. Of course, the Steelers won. But the renamed Washington Football Team would later beat the Steelers and spoil their undefeated season.

Sept. 15

The Richmond Ballet opened its season, live as well as virtually, with its Studio Series. The ballet couldn’t do a live version of its acclaimed “Nutcracker” production, so instead offered an earlier version to be streamed online. As they say: The show must go on. 

click to enlarge Dancers Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis perform in Richmond Ballet’s “Alone, Beside Me” by Ma Cong. - SARAH FERGUSON
  • Sarah Ferguson
  • Dancers Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis perform in Richmond Ballet’s “Alone, Beside Me” by Ma Cong.

October

The 2020 protests also featured an unexpected reconfiguration of public space. Almost from the beginning of the civil unrest, the city’s protesters claimed the land around the Lee statue as their own, renaming it Marcus-David Peters Circle after a local teacher slain by police in 2018 during a mental health episode.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Oct. 10

Gwar, the city’s legendary metal band of decrepit space aliens with monstrous appendages, played two sold-out shows as part of an outdoor, drive-in concert experience at the Diamond. Special drive-in shows were one of the only ways concerts happened in 2020, with crowd members safely in their cars or sitting outside them. Promoters of these events, Broadberry Entertainment Group, also did yeoman’s work helping independent concert promoters around the country as part of the Independent Promoter Alliance.

Oct. 15

The New York Times Style Magazine recognizes the re-contextualized Lee statue at Marcus David Peters Circle as “the most influential work of American protest art” since World War II. (See interview with projectionist Dustin Klein)

Oct. 20

Richmond musician Sid Kingsley wows judges of the popular NBC prime-time television show “The Voice” with his soulful audition take on Bob Dylan’s classic “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” Last we checked, Kingsley had moved to something called Team Blake and was “super stoked to head into the next round.” 

click to enlarge Sid Kingsley performs on “The Voice.” - NBC/TYLER GOLDEN
  • NBC/Tyler Golden
  • Sid Kingsley performs on “The Voice.”

November

After a special legislative session that lasted nearly three months, Virginia lawmakers passed a wide number of criminal justice reform bills, many in response to the ongoing protests after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These included empowering civilian review boards with subpoena and disciplinary authority, creating a code of conduct for police officers, banning no-knock search warrants, creating mental health response teams, and prohibiting searches based on smell of marijuana.

The results of hard-fought local elections brought some new faces to the Richmond City Council and School Board – as well as complaints about how the city’s registrar handled reporting the results. Still, the biggest news to come out of the election was no change at all at the top. Despite an incredibly challenging year, Levar Stoney was re-elected mayor for another four-year term.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Nov. 19 

In November, the city announced that restaurateur Jason Alley would serve as provisional policy advisor for innovative small business support. Although he’s best known for his work in the hospitality industry, Alley’s position is meant to serve the entire small business community. “The mayor and the city as a whole really care a lot about the restaurant and the small business community,” Alley says. “I know it doesn’t always feel that way. … I want to remedy that.” (See interview with Alley)

Nov. 30

The Richmond Spiders men’s basketball team moves into the Associated Press top 20 poll with its highest national ranking at No. 19 since the 1980s. The Spiders have one of their deepest and most exciting teams in history – this only a couple seasons after coach Chris Mooney had been publicly criticized in a local billboard ad. He recently won his 500th game with the team.


December

This month featured a return to development proposals. Henrico County resurrected the idea of a new arena with the announcement of a massive GreenCity development at the former Best Products site on Parham Road. Meanwhile, Richmond launched a survey about a possible resort casino that will be the subject of a referendum next year. As always, land development remains at the center of local politics and will drive much of the political agenda in greater Richmond in 2021.

Dec. 8

Ukrop’s Market Hall opens at 7250 Patterson Ave. and old-school fans of the legendary Richmond grocery institution wait in long lines for hours – during a pandemic, mind you – to get that Ukrop’s fried chicken, potato wedges and other beloved items of yesteryear.

Yep. Get that fried chicken, y’all. Death be damned.

Dec. 10

Due to a predicted surge in coronavirus cases post Thanksgiving, Gov. Ralph Northam announces a modified stay-at-home order and new nightly curfew from midnight to 5 a.m., unless driving to and from work, with limits on social gatherings to 10 people.

Remember the mask arrest at the beginning of the year? Now masks are required to be worn by all Virginians 5 and older whether indoors or outdoors when sharing space with anyone within 6 feet, including private residences. Online comment sections explode in fury from people who still don’t believe any of this is really happening.

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