The Blog Squad

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Yearning for Richmond's vibrant, revitalized downtown

Good to go visiting, but great to be home. I don't know about you but for me trips out of town always spur those pointless comparisons to Richmond -- pointless because comparing Philadelphia to Richmond is like comparing red wine to red shoes. OK, so they are both cities but so different in their size, composition, culture, politics as to render any comparison almost meaningless. Yet, I find myself doing it anyway. But there is at least one comparison between the two that has some value and that is to take a look at what Philadelphia has accomplished with its downtown, what they call Center City.

Center City Philadelphia has always been busy and bustling but it sure did lose its shine for a lot of years. I remember my mother telling me about how she'd put on gloves to go "in town" as we say and about the heyday of the big department stores, John Wanamaker, Lit Brothers and Strawbridge & Clothier. This week in Philly came the news that Strawbridge's, which opened in the 1800's, is closing for good. Richmond can certainly relate to that. There were a lot of years when Center City Philadelphia was dirty, depressing and felt unsafe.

But driving around Center City Philadelphia this weekend on a balmy Saturday night was inspiring. Restaurant after restaurant was packed with diners, shops were -- imagine this -- open! Theaters were doing shows but by the looks of things it didn't seem like the folks I saw packing the streets and restaurants were necessarily in town for one big evening. They looked like people who just wanted to be downtown because it was the place to be.

How does Richmond accomplish this? That's the 64 million dollar question no one has an answer for. It's frustrating to me because it seems like efforts to revitalize downtown Richmond always hinge upon The Grand Plan -- the arts center or 6th Street Market Place or even the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium. All of these things are dead in the water of course. Maybe we can't fix downtown with one giant project that is superimposed over it. Perhaps what it takes is an organic effort -- the true courage of small entrepreneurs with iron wills who are willing to transform downtown one store front at a time. Anyway, a city as big and lumbering and slow to act as Philadelphia has seen a enormous turnaround in its downtown. So what's stopping us?


At Thu Mar 16, 12:53:00 AM EST, Anonymous Dave W said...

Great post! I think Richmond is coming back slowly. One key thing that is happenning that hasn't happenned before: significant numbers of both large and small downtown residitial development projects. A stable consumer base will give retailers and restaurantuers the faith that business can be viable. Once something is there that is somehat self-sustainable, it will be appealing to outsiders as well. Hopefully that will lead to the sort positive economic spiral that has made downtown Philly such a success.

At Thu Mar 16, 07:14:00 PM EST, Blogger Joanie said...

Jan, I agree with Dave W. If you remember, one of the first things that started the turn around in Center City Philadelphia (specifically, Old City), was that abandoned factories were converted into apartment buildings. A lot of them were very large lofts which attracted yuppies, students and especially artists. This turned Old City around. First the galleries came, with First Friday being a big draw and, eventually, loads of restaurants and shops moved into the area. I'd say it was a good 10-15 years before it really clicked, but the results were worth the wait. Don't you agree?

At Sun Mar 19, 10:30:00 AM EST, Blogger Janet Giampietro said...

most certainly. all good things come in time and with hard work. they don't happen overnight. richmond is going to be something in 10-15 years. it might as well be something exciting and vibrant. the work needs to start now.

At Mon Mar 20, 05:26:00 PM EST, Blogger Scott said...

Hopefully the white elephant march has slowed- the arts center and the Shockoe stadium deal come to mind. Not to mention the preceeding beasts...
But I urge Richmonders to make sure that downtown is inclusive and sustainable. The quality of life for the new residents as well as the surrounding, older neighborhoods depends on it. What will it take to get the Carpenter Center open again ...and remain open? What about mass transit? What about affordable downtown living? Anyone up for city-wide wifi or are we still under Verizon and Comcast's thumbs?


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