December 25, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


The Score 

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Finally, short skirts and high kicks support the arts. +4

Whereas arts boosters traditionally sip Picasso-tinis and nibble at foie gras-infused ham biscuits at tame events, the Art Cheerleaders are not afraid to get in front of an audience and clap and shriek and jump like Andy Warhol had just kicked the winning field goal.

Painter Rebecca Goldberg Oliver transplanted the idea here from her days in Boston, and if you listen carefully to the wide-eyed chants, you'll hear commentary on the poverty, pretension and possibilities for artists in the city. Sometimes it's a grim message, but it always goes down easier when presented in the diplomatic language of short skirts and the splits.

Richmond Public Schools is evicted, then it isn't. -8

Sept. 21 was the night Richmond's news media lost their spines.

Mayor Wilder's forced eviction of Richmond Public Schools from City Hall should have been the story of the year. A fleet of moving trucks arrived at dusk outside 900 E. Broad St. while an army of militarized Richmond Police recruits set up a restricted perimeter around the building. Meanwhile, high on the 17th floor, the School Board, under siege after months of Wilder's threats, caballed in a hastily called public meeting to decide on its defense.

Outside, police rebuffed the public's attempts to enter the meeting, even denying entrance to some Schools staff and elected leaders. A former mayor, state Sen. Henry Marsh, was briefly turned away by a crush of beefy, blue-clad peace officers.

Illuminated by the pale, harsh glare of mobile spotlights trained on City Hall, with rights violations unfolding before them and facing the steely stares of an RPD goon squad, the probing television cameras of Channels 6, 8 and 12, along with the hard-nosed reporters from all of Richmond's major media outlets, did what any defenders of the First Amendment would do: beat a hasty retreat across Ninth Street to the safety of shadows.

In the end, Judge Margaret Spencer put an end to the late-night revelry with an after-midnight order (thanks to Marsh) allowing Schools back in.

We lose a man who fought the good fight. -9

Heroes are in short supply these days, and Richmond lost a hero -- not a man who fought our battles physically, but one who spent his life doing what he believed was right.

Oliver Hill, from his first work with the underprivileged in Virginia's Southside through his last years when he was blind and almost deaf, endured hostility, a cross burned on his front yard and a reluctance to have his family answer the phone because of the threats they might hear. Still, he worked for equal justice, and his work included a membership on the team that took Brown v. Board to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But this case was not all. His legal team once had 75 open cases that were opposing unfair housing and unequal justice in all its forms.

Unlike many who fight the powerful, Hill lived 100 years — long enough to have most of us recognize his courage and to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and for Virginia's Gov. Tim Kaine to say of him, "No Virginian in the past hundred years has had such an impact on the life of our Commonwealth as Oliver Hill."

But, with modesty, Hill discussed the honors by talking of his fellow heroes, and acknowledging them. "I also recognize the fact that I didn't earn all of it," he said. "I earned part of it. I had a whole lot of help. … I just happened to be lucky enough to live long enough to get the benefit of it."

The Richmond Symphony turns 50 and celebrates by continuing to not have a permanent home. +5

The river offers a meringue that might save the world. +2

Patrick Ward, backyard scientist and algae bloomer, discovers that the Great James River Mystery Foam of 2006 is caused by an unidentified (read: alien) breed of algae that produces an oil-based foam byproduct. Ward says he's turned it into a kind of bio-butane that powered his Geo Metro across the Rockies. In other words, intergalactic algae poop might be the answer to the planet's energy woes, ending war and climate change. Or, of course, it could all just be crap.

The feds probe Henrico land deals with local developers. -5

Psssttt … Hey, Henrico County Board of Supervisors, word is, you have millions in cold cash ready to drop on hot property deals, and boy does Style Weekly have a squealin' steal of a deal for you: USDA Prime waterfront property in the Florida Everglades. That's hundreds of acres ready for development as a county park, playground, firehouse or school, all for the quiet enjoyment of county taxpayers, who've already rewarded your sound, prudent fiscal stewardship by re-electing you en masse in November.

Do not fear those nosy snoops from the U.S. Attorney's Office or the IRS investigator spooks who are examining your land-purchasing agreements with local developers. What do they know about a good deal? Bet they've never even taken advantage of McDonald's two-for-$1 hot apple pie deal. Now them's good eats!

Did we mention that tasty deal we're itchin' to make you on the Brooklyn Bridge?

No? Well, wanna buy a watch? Guaranteed genuine Rolecks!

We rebuilt this city on rock 'n' roll. +5

Well, we lost a hat company but gained a music venue. In June, Toad's Place opened after a thousand years of construction and delays, delays, delays from the city. But it would be two months before audiences could have a drink and get wistful about the encore — Toad's finally got its liquor license at the end of August.

The Capital Ale House, meanwhile, reversed that order, adding a music hall to its abundantly flowing taps. Where once there was a generalized wistfulness, now there's something to point the nostalgia at: the local and national bands playing in the hall next door to the downtown beer bank.

The phoenix award, though, goes to Sound of Music recording studio on Broad Street, which was burned in a fire in March and restored to its high-quality self by October. The resurrected studio had decidedly more involvement in the art scene that had grown up around it since its 1994 beginnings; it now plays host to art shows and small concerts on those First Friday nights.

It's curtains for a scam artist. +1

The past finally caught up with Michael Baker, to the gleeful buzz of the West Enders who'd trusted him with their living rooms.

The former interior designer had built a reputation here as a salesman at Libbie and Patterson's Plaid & Stripes. But he skipped town three years ago, leaving behind accusations that he'd overcharged customers or never delivered what they'd ordered.

Now he's taking different kinds of orders. He got into trouble with his employer, Charleston Gas Light in South Carolina, then got caught in Florida. He pleaded guilty to "breach of trust" Oct. 23, Charleston assistant solicitor Kim Steele says. He got 10 years suspended and three years of probation, and he must pay restitution of $15,010.

Somewhere in Richmond, the ladies who lunch had something to celebrate.

Republican love blooms. +3

Seriously, people are interested in Henry Hager. His name remains one of the top Web searches leading people to The day his engagement to Jenna Bush became public, Aug. 16, about 80,000 people visited our site. That week's online hits reached nearly 4.67 million. Geez. So we found ourselves answering questions on MSNBC, but failed to scoop anyone on the ring (thanks, Washington Post). The publicity-shy couple found it difficult to stay out of the limelight, even though Hager's buddies vowed not to talk with reporters (it's all sealed in the fraternity of St. Chris). And Jenna eventually acquiesced to an interview with Diane Sawyer.

So it's Jenna + Henry forever. Fine. What we'd really like to know about are in-law relations, especially after Hager's dad, chairman of the Virginia GOP, criticized Bush in November, just before attending a state dinner at the White House. Of Republican defeats in Congress, he said: "We had strong forces working against us, particularly in Northern Virginia, with the trends in Washington, the support ratings of the president and the war in Iraq." Awkward? Maybe. But these two families were probably meant to be together. Check back in 10 years to buy your "Vote for Henry" bumper stickers.

Vick runs down. -7

Remember when Mike Vick was still Michael and the star quarterback danced around the Seminoles in New Orleans? A work of art. Vick was an explosive, untouchable ballet dancer, making Florida State's quick-footed defense look Pop Warner in the national championship game.

We remember thinking the world was witnessing the greatest athlete since Michael Jordan. He nearly beat FSU by himself. PETA be damned, Vick was downright unbelievable at times. We watched because he had that unmistakable Jordan quality — you never knew when he might do something magical.

Now look at him. After flipping off fans in Atlanta, the weed water-bottle incident and years of being forced to work on his "pocket passing" in the NFL, he's been taken from us. Good ol' Richmond has something to be proud of, though: Vick helped the Capital of the Confederacy bolster its rap as a bad-ass town of stern-faced judges and prosecutors that Johnnie Cochran would want no part of. We locked him up for two years for the dog-fighting thing. He's 27, for gosh sakes, a kid who never learned that there were boundaries that shouldn't be crossed.

Too much money was at stake for the adults in his life — his mentors, his coaches — to pull him aside and explain you can't do anything you want just because you're Mike Vick. And that includes Virginia Tech demigod Frank Beamer. When did all that coddling begin anyway? What happened to coaches who sit star players when they get too big for their britches? How much money did Tech get for the Sugar Bowl?

We become obsessed with pee-pees and potties. -1

While other cultural outlets have been cowed into lavishing undue focus on the concerns of women and minorities, Style Weekly kept its unflinching gaze trained on the pernicious hazards threatening the contents of men's pants.

In May, Richmonders learned that infant circumcision really amounts to sexual mutilation when anti-circumcision activist William G. Stowell took out advertisements on GRTC buses for his nonprofit NoCirc!

And August taught us that even safe places can prove dangerous. James Steve Coleman filed suit in Henrico County Circuit Court, charging that a toilet seat he used in the Brook Road Lowe's crushed one of his testicles.

But there was less gut-wrenching news, too. November greeted the Thanksgiving-related arrival of President Bush at the Berkeley Plantation with colorful foliage and luxury portable toilets. More than just a stinky plastic poo-box, these facilities came with cut-glass mirrors and hardwood floors. But don't be fooled, they're just another way to keep men from their true call of nature: peeing in the woods.

Sheila is the new Black. +2

Can we just pause a minute to talk about what a snappy dresser Harry Black is? Classic lines, contemporary flair, a truly sharp personal presentation. Sadly, his management style doesn't run quite so suave.

He debuted as "Baby Wilder," the mayor's tough-knuckled finance director, but has since shed his rubber onesie for the rebellious leather jacket of unconfirmed power. He acted as Chief Administrative Officer, then Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, all the while clashing like plaid on polka dots with a City Council that successfully sued him for acting beyond his legal authority.

Turns out the leather was pleather. Black as CAO (or DCAO) is so last season. Enter Sheila Hill-Christian, who's dusted the glitz and confetti from the state Lotto office off her pinstripes and pencil skirts to model moderation, authority and reconciliation. Let's see if her Rule of Law collection lasts into next season.

Umesh Dalal settles the score. +3

If the pen is mightier than the sword, Umesh Dalal has proved that his accounting calculator's precision nuclear strike is at least the equal of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's razor-sharp political savvy. Dalal has weathered Wilder's fuzzy math that purported millions of dollars in potential savings from a plan to move Richmond Public Schools from City Hall and struggled under the handicap of an office staff depleted by City Hall's sinking-ship atmosphere. All the while Dalal has proceeded with Spock-like single-mindedness with audits of Schools spending, city administration spending and even government spending fraud.

Chesterfield Supervisors take a whuppin'.

Alas, Chesterfield's changing demographics caught up with the county's Board of Supervisors. In addition to sending the message that unchecked residential growth needed to be reined in, the November election brought in three independents and one Republican and shook loose the Chesterfield GOP's firm grip on county politics.

We'll miss two good ol' boys in particular: caterer/pilot/bachelor-husband Dickie King, who didn't seek a second term, and outgoing chairman Kelly Miller, who proudly declared English as the official county language and promoted racial healing with such philosophical ruminations as the government "should always be the servant and never the master of our citizens."

Yes, indeed, Kelly. Now back to your quarters! Massa got a new whip.

God save the Queen … from Virginia's 400th celebration. +7

The royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Virginia may have been the gala event of the year. Faced with real royalty, our governors got giddy: Tim Kaine looked like a goofy-grinned prom date with his thumbs-up mug, and Doug Wilder nearly caused an international incident when he grabbed the Queen's hand for a hearty handshake.

But the real royal faux pas may have been the inadvertent assassination attempt by a ham-handed airport employee.

"I was so fearful we were going to launch the queen over the airplane the way the stairs were operating — or the operator was operating them," says one high-level state official who watched, gob-stopped, from a cordoned VIP area at Richmond International Airport.

"It looked like they had a student driver," recounts the official. "The plane landed — it was a drizzly day — it taxies in and … then the guy with the truck backs up. Then he drives away and backs up again at a 45 degree angle. Then he backs up again" and extends the stairway.

"At one time the truck lurched forward — I thought it was going to drive into the plane.

"The driver finally got the thing lined up and the doors opened — and the stairs dropped down about three feet. I just thought, 'Good God, thank the Lord she wasn't stepping off at the time.'

"It really was a comedy of errors. It was funny at the time, but it was also a potential for tragedy."

The earth opens for the State Capitol. +6

Only time will tell how future generations judge the results of Richmond's own "Big Dig" — restoring the statehouse and building an underground extension to the south — a project completed in April. Will the 27,000-square-foot addition be seen as a paranoid boondoggle reflecting a post 9/11, security-obsessed era of hysteria? Or will the stone-surfaced spaces evolve as civilized and welcoming areas for tourists, lobbyists and lawmakers?

The early reviews have been good: Most agree that the Philadelphia studio of Hillier Architecture designed a strikingly handsome new space and associate architect BCWH of Richmond assisted ably in restoring the Capitol. We eagerly await a still-to-come permanent exhibition in a gallery in the extension that will trace the history and evolution of Thomas Jefferson's classical architectural masterpiece on the then-still American frontier.

We master our domain — and extend our vocabulary. +4

This summer, Community Development Director Rachel Flynn and crew brought in a gang of urban designers from Florida with tucked-in shirts and straight ties. And free cookies.

Anyway, Richmonders — by which we mean the Church Hill Association and those on Venture Richmond's mailing list — were invited to brainstorm ideas then take crayons and redraw downtown and its surroundings. It was called a charrette (shuh-ret). Then they had more meetings with more people and then another meeting and rolled out mats for nap time.

Questions linger. Will the exercise yield arbors of decorative trees lining two-way streets? Will the planning commission approve the plan, and if so, will anyone pay attention? Will anyone be able to call the river our "Great Wet Central Park" and keep a straight face? Stay tuned. …

CenterStage lurches forward. +1

It's alive! After Mayor L. Douglas Wilder came in and knocked heads around over the proposed plans for the Performing Arts Center, the gang regrouped, found some fresh faces and revenue streams, then rushed approval through City Council in late summer so no one would have to bother with it. Almost feels like there was never a controversy! And hey, so what if we still haven't seen any economic impact studies to justify the benefit to taxpayers? Now it's time for citizens to get involved. Just $5,000 makes you a member of the Patron's Star donor group. To acknowledge the collective donation of Richmond citizens via the meals tax increase, foil stars will go out with next month's utility bills.

D'Angelo finally faces the music. +1

With the threat of imprisonment hanging over his head for months, a comeback for troubled R&B singer Michael "D'Angelo" Archer seemed problematic at best. In August, the 33-year-old Chesterfield County resident finally faced charges stemming from a 2005 car accident in Powhatan. After an opportune no-show of a key witness, his lawyers worked out a deal while the singer and his bodyguards listened to the boom-bap of the 1990 hip-hop song "Call Me D-Nice" in an SUV. He eventually pleaded guilty, receiving $1,250 in fines, a nine-month suspended jail sentence and a revoked driver's license. Four months later, he appears to be no closer to releasing a new album, which he hasn't done since Bill Clinton was president and Walter Matthau was still alive.

Crime becomes a talking point — in a good way. +8

City Hall may soon be Armageddon, but the bloodshed in the streets appears to be subsiding, in a big way. Through Dec. 16, murders had dropped a whopping 37.5 percent: to 50 this year from 80 at this point in 2006. The city is on pace to have the fewest homicides since way back in 1983, when Richmond recorded 62 slayings.

Crime is down across the board. Through the same period, rape and aggravated assaults are down 12 percent each. And despite a recent uptick, armed robberies are still down 3.4 percent for the year.

It might be premature to give all the credit to Police Chief Rodney Monroe and his focus on community policing — he is getting more cooperation from everyday citizens than at any other point in recent memory. But it's difficult to ignore that murders have dropped in each of Monroe's three years at the helm. You can bet Mayor Wilder, if he runs for a second term, will spend a lot of time reminding voters how he plucked the former chief of Macon, Ga., from relative obscurity.

Crupi states the obvious, expensively. 0

Ah, Crupi. In his second coming, Texas leadership consultant Jim Crupi hit Richmond with a lengthy, expensive follow-up to his original 1992 diatribe on the region, "Back to the Future: Richmond at a Crossroads," by telling us what we already knew.

To recap: We need more regional cooperation, a focus on Richmond's natural assets and, um, a vision. Oh, and let's develop parts of Richmond that are already under development and streamline the city government. Improve our schools, too.

Thanks, Crupi, but this is nothing new. The real problem you pointed out — there is no way in hell Chesterfield and Henrico counties are going to give up sovereignty for a regional government — can't be overcome with leadership meetings and PowerPoints.

No, it's going to have to come the hard way. When crime and poverty truly become ingrained in their communities, next door to the soccer moms, or some other mass-scale tragedy forces us to reshuffle our priorities, perhaps they'll see the virtue in banding together with the city. What do you think happens when the city doesn't rebuild its public housing? Eventually, those residents will be living in one of those pressboard houses in the swamps of Chesterfield. Oh, yeah, it's already started.

See you in another 15, Crupi.

Megawatt TV and screen star Carl Gordon joins local theater company onstage. +2

He's worked with James Earl Jones and Whoopi Goldberg and starred on the beloved TV series "Roc," but in February, Carl Gordon appeared in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," put on by the Living Word Stage Company — now African American Repertory Theatre.

Virginia politicians demolish a treasure. -5

If better angels were at work sincerely devising a plan to enlarge and glorify the State Capitol, the devil was certainly at play a block to the west. The state's Eighth Street Office Building, the former Murphy Hotel, was being demolished: No money is on hand to replace this lost, glorious, classically inspired 1911 high-rise.

It had been designed by John Kevan Peebles, architect of the legislative wings of the State Capitol as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The glory of his 12-story building was the crowning entablature that Peebles based studiously on Michelangelo's Farnese Palace in Rome. Suffice to say, we're not going to see the likes of that sort of jaw-dropping architectural grandeur in these parts again.

The governor's office and legislature have blood on their hands on the loss of this building. They gave the citizenry a "Sophie's Choice": They would not demolish the nearby Ninth Street Office Building (formerly the Hotel Richmond) if the preservationists would shut up about the Eighth Street Office Building.

So in the end the Commonwealth of Virginia has further trashed Broad Street, our once and future main drag, which is desperately seeking resuscitation.

An irony of the whole, sad affair is that the new federal courthouse is nearing completion across the street. There, New York architect Robert A. M. Stern, a contextualist with great respect for architectural history, used the former Murphy Hotel for his clues. It's tempting to speculate what Stern might have designed on his site if he'd known he was working with a clean slate: Now his courthouse sits in glorious isolation between two vacant lots, relating to — well, very little.

Memo to legislators arriving for the General Assembly in January: Enjoy your parking places on the newly flattened lot.

We build a monument to reconciliation. +7

An estimated 12 million Africans were hauled across the Atlantic and thrust into slavery from the 17th to 19th centuries. Many of those unfortunate individuals worked in Virginia, while others were shipped to other locales. Slavery is a long and unfathomable subject that continues to weigh heavily on the conscience of this community.

But one small, symbolic yet important and poignant step toward healing took place March 30 with the unveiling of the Slavery Reconciliation Monument, designed by English sculptor Stephen Broadbent, at the intersection of East Main and North 15th streets. Here, on an unremarkable-looking spit of land near an interstate ramp and a parking garage, a vertical block of metal captures two figures embracing. Similar statues were unveiled in Liverpool, England, and Benin to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade between Liverpool, Benin and the Americas.

If the location of Richmond's newest statue appears unremarkable, the history of the place is special. It sits along the pathway slaves took after being unloaded on the riverbanks: They were herded through the lower parts of the city to holding prisons in upper Shockoe Bottom.

Note to city officials: Plant shade trees in the empty tree boxes along Main Street. The statue is not a year old — it's too soon for the environment to appear neglected.

A tragedy raises the most difficult questions. -10

Thirty-two people died and 47 were injured in April when Seung-Hui Cho, a mentally disturbed student at Virginia Tech, opened fire in several classrooms on campus before turning the gun on himself. In Richmond, parents of Tech students were frantic when the news trickled in. We were stunned. So was the country, the world.

It was the kind of heart-sinking tragedy that raises a string of questions. But they all boiled down to one: What do we do now?

Answers and reactions came in different ways. Friends and family of the victims grappled with memories especially raw during the holidays. Some Tech students wondered whether Cho should be considered a victim, too. People showed up to a media-drenched campus with varying agendas. Congress offered tax relief to families and students who received money from the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund. Gov. Tim Kaine, who responded with care and finesse in the tragedy's wake, made Virginia's mental-health system a key budget issue, while state lawmakers began to analyze related laws.

Two Penn State students inspired disgust when they dressed as Tech victims at a small Halloween party, saying "shock" was a goal and questioning why other deaths got less public attention. Colleges and universities analyzed their own security: Are lockdowns useful? Should campus guards be armed? What's the best way to communicate during a disaster — alarms, sirens, cell-phone text notification? And Tech supporters sought ways to honor the victims, volunteering through the year as a show of strength.

There's no way to measure the ripples of April 16. But there seemed to be a feeling of hope in the midst of it all and how people came together. "People can save the lives of others," said Maura Sinnenberg, a Tech student from Richmond. "I think it's more like a story of love than a story of hate."

We fear the end of Hollywood as Virginia knows it. -4

After six grueling (and profitable) months shooting the HBO mini-series "John Adams" in Powhatan County, the network packs up and flees the state. Because of the lack of financial incentives the commonwealth offers, it's the last production in Virginia this year, while companies go elsewhere to film their movies and commercials and such. After that, all the production folk in the state stand around awkwardly with their cameras and lighting equipment and fake gunshot wounds, trying to decide whether to stick around or leave this dying party.

Friday becomes the busiest day on not one, but two streets. +6

First Fridays extended its reach with the bloom of new galleries on Main Street — Page Bond, Red Door, the Glavé Kocen — joining urban explorers such as Reynolds and Artemis. And with the opening of the newly renovated Visual Arts Center of Richmond, it's sort of like the arts scene has set up a new colony, soon to be followed by its own religion and savage, though aesthetically sound, system of law.

We get all road-ragey about driver fees. -7

Here's a driving tip: Want to avoid paying $1,000 or more on a traffic ticket?

Don't speed. Or move to North Carolina.

In the annals of legislative low moments, HB 3202 — the now-infamous "Abusive Driver Fees" law — may prove among the lowest of the low. The law, aimed at fixing the state's dire forecast for transportation funding needs, is predicted to raise more than $65 million for the cause, assuming the General Assembly doesn't swerve during the upcoming session by applying the brakes to the new fees.

Seems that the mere threat of paying a ticket that costs three times the monthly payment on a new Lexus sent at least 174,000 Virginians into enough of a lather to sign an online petition calling for the law's repeal. Could their ire be partly caused by an exemption for out-of-state drivers? That's something to chew on when those Maryland plates blow past you like you're standing still.

Newly minted Delegate Manoli Loupassi said the law "reveals the folly of mixing criminal law and fundraising."

Despite the bellyaching from drivers, the law so far has held its own against state constitutional muster. Appeals of the fines all over the state have failed to result in any lasting court decision that would overthrow them.

Richmond gets the key to the folkie. +6

It's like when the circus leaves town, packing into its wagons all the exotic inventions from distant lands, and the bearded lady blows you a kiss before taking the arm of the Man With Three Giant Things on His Head and climbing aboard a donkey, and you and the townspeople watch them kick up dust over the sunset, and you offhandedly wonder where Timmy's gotten off to. It was like that when the National Folk Festival left town after its three-year stint here. The festival's headed for Butte, Mont., next year, leaving not even a Web page to remember it by.

The years of the festival have been marked by klezmer orgies, great swarms of bluegrass, the frivolity of mariachi and workshops on building boats and break-dancing. And lo the people came! We broke the record this year, gathering 175,000 people to Brown's Island Oct. 12-14. So take that, Bangor, Maine — 155,000 people, really.

But now it falls upon us to create our own circus, unpack our wagons for the Richmond Folk Festival next year. Will we replicate the National? Will it fade away like those carnivals on the interstate? Or will it build on what's come before, adding the cultural equivalent of the Lizard Man to the great musical sideshow?

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