A quarter-century ago, the 900 block of West Grace Street in Richmond’s Fan District was known as the “battle zone ” by cops and as a party zone by just about anyone else under 40.
Perhaps no other strip in the city has been as consistently hip, underground, edgy, arty, musical, scary, fun, goofy, high and hormone-charged.
Countless folks can say “the first time I (fill in the blank) was in the 900 block of W. Grace Street.”
Its legacy is such that you would think it’s the very last place in the downtown area where you’d find a Wal-Mart.
Not the first.
“The 900 block of West Grace Street has been a cultural beacon for the VCU students for the past three decades and possibly more,” said VCU graduate and former employee Jamshid Bakhciari, who is can’t believe this is happening.
Social media is buzzing – some might say freaking - about Virginia Commonwealth University adding a mini-Walmart (about 4,000 square feet, roughly the size of a convenience store) in the ground floor of one its new high rises going up on West Grace. Its a very similar placement as the chain restaurants like Five Guys and Qdoba, among many others, on the ground floor of several other VCU properties that have sprung up in recent years.
There will be no beer or cigarettes in this one. Just clothes, school supplies, some groceries, toiletries, makeup and the rest of the stuff that students need on the cheap, explained Diane Reynolds, assistant Vice President of VCU Business Services.
“Students have indicated that they wanted to have it in a survey that was done,” she said. “Also, as we try to revitalize the area with additional retailers other than soley restaurants and food, that we want to bring in something that matches the needs of students.”
I can hear some of your eyeballs rolling. But I don’t think VCU’s role in revitalizing this city can be overstated. We are now a college town, dominated by a teaching hospital and vast campus that has grown exponentially in the wake of black and white business and residential flight following the uber violent 1990s.
VCU might be the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, but it’s a gorilla that lifted this town out of a pretty dark place.
But yes, we all have followed the cringing by many in areas where Wal-Mart settles. Opponents see it as the evil empire, personifying corporate domination that spins spells of doom for homegrown small businesses. Worse for some, it’s corporate domination with Christian leadership.
Local developer, politician and talk show host Charlies Diradour can’t believe VCU would embrace this.
“I don’t understand how a university with a history of social consciousness . . . could possibly think of putting (in) a Wal-Mart – one of the worst corporate citizens in the world,” Diradour said.
VCU public relations major Jillian Everett says she doesn’t hate Wal-Mart, she hates the way VCU’s sprawl has devastated the flavor of that stretch of Grace Street. “I want culture, not a Wal-Mart.”
Yes, that block has changed dramatically. The porny Lee Art Theater is now VCU’s Grace Street Theater. The strip joint called the Red Light Inn (or the Greca, depending on your era) is a restaurant. The Jade Elephant, a favorite club of mine, is a tattoo shop and restaurant. Newgate Prison, another favorite music venue, is now VCU police headquarters. Melissa’s, a cool divey bar, is a restaurant. The Village moved a corner away and only Strange Matter (a great music spot formerly called Nancy Rayguns, Twisters and Hububba's) holds the torch firmly.
This great cultural destination has been slowly fading for the past quarter-century.
And plenty of students, like sophomore Emily Dyke, love the idea of that little Wal-Mart as they struggle to pay soaring tuition costs.
As far as mom-and-pop stores losing out, well there aren’t really any to speak of in that area, noted graduate physics student Nilantha Abeyraphne. “Kroger is already here and I don’t think Wal-Mart will make a big impact on small business anyway.”
Yes, a little Wal-Mart in a ground-floor corner of another high-rise is blow. But it’s a symbolic one.
Grace still has a little of its special flavor. That store won’t steal that way.
Here’s a look at this zone in its heyday in a story written for the Times-Dispatch in 1990 by me and reporter Mike Allen:
HE BLOCK - 12 TENSE HOURS OF LIFE IN GRACE STREET ZONE
Richmond Times-Dispatch - Sunday, September 30, 1990
Author: Mike Allen ; and Mark Holmberg ; Times-Dispatch staff writers
Doug Sparks, a 25-year-old Henrico County gutter hanger, had two slugs fired through him in a lot in West Grace Street's 900 block after a 2:10 a.m. fight three weeks ago.
Now out of the hospital, he'd consider returning: "I would if my buddy's band was playing."
The Block, a party zone where an 18-year-old was stabbed to death outside the Jade Elephant club in June, is a haven for drug sales, racial fights and drunken mayhem.
"There's like a time bomb in this area," says Johnny Cecka, co-owner of Exile clothing in the 800 block.
Hoping for a turnaround, the Midtown West Association business group runs cleanups, put in trash cans and halogen spotlights and is asking for a police miniprecinct.
In this year's first eight months, the volatile block sent police 278 calls about disorderly conduct, 118 on intoxicated people, 77 fights, 42 armed people and 36 assaults.
G. Leo Godsey, acting chief of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, thinks the block generates more calls than any in the city.
Campaigning for the anti-loitering ordinance that the City Council is to discuss Oct. 8, residents of the 1800 block of Grace say the problem has spread beyond The Block.
Says renter Lucy T. Nelson: "That's what I pay my telephone bill for -- so I can call 911."
* * *
It's late Thursday on The Block on West Grace Street and everyone -- from police to nightclub managers to the drag queen who calls himself Dirt Woman -- expects a fight.
Here it comes. . . .
Just after midnight, Reimond Pryor -- who calls himself a zebra (half white, half black) -- has words with some whites standing in the entrance to the VaPark lot across from the Lee Art Theatre.
The 900 block of West Grace Street in Richmond, next to Virginia Commonwealth University and just north of the Fan District, is often called The Block. This morning, it's earning its reputation as a combat zone.
About 25 whites whip into position on the entrance's west side. About 10 blacks and a few whites take the east side. Ten feet of pavement separate them.
"(Deleted) niggers! Go back to (deleted) Africa!" scream voices in the back of the west side.
"They called us niggers, man," says a burly black youth across the lot. "C'mon!"
"You're falling for the trap, Cuz," warns Orenthal Nicholas, a Virginia State University student built like a tank. "See what they're trying to do?"
"Niggers! Go back to Africa!"
For five minutes, the tension builds.
Like a shot, Pryor tears into the opposing crowd. A few wild punches later, Nicholas wades in to mediate. A voice of reason, but getting angry.
Here come police, lots of them, cutting a swath between the groups.
"Niggers!" a thin, blue-eyed redneck shouts out of the side of his mouth. He's laughing. "Looks like the blacks and whites are getting ready to roll," he says, elbowing a friend.
"White supremacy!" yells a muscular youth whose face is flushed with alcohol or anger or both. "I personally called the Ku Klux Klan. They're on the way up from Mississippi."
It's another 10 minutes before police calm things down.
The next night, that altercation was forgotten, but The Block's rituals continued. Twelve hours on Grace Street show why business owners in the 900 block are calling for more aggressive policing. And they show what residents of the 1800 block meant when they went to the City Council last week to complain that The Block's riffraff is drifting west.
Here's how Friday night turned to yesterday morning on Grace Street: 7 P.M.
A hazy, two-thirds moon rises as Jim, Tony, Red and another homeless man pass a paper-bagged bottle of Cobra Premium Malt Liquor in the Lee Art's alley. Their regular "office."
They call themselves street soldiers. They're fighting a losing battle.
"I was walking down Grace Street four weeks ago and a (man) asked me for 30 cents," says Jim, whose face, arms -- even his eyeballs -- are scarred. "I said: `No, man.' Then, wham! Got knocked down.
"Then he tried to cut off my ear."
Jim staggers under the load of Cobra mixed with the phenobarbitals he's taking for his clawlike right hand, which got caught in a mill saw.
"Show him!" orders ruddy-haired Red, who has a badly broken nose. He's the "sergeant" of this "Irish army."
Jim, 35, pulls his long, tangled hair away from his right ear, uncovering a nasty, scabbed wound.
"Also got a cut on the leg, 20 stitches. But I didn't tell nobody. I ain't no snitch."
A half-hour later, Jim and Red get in an argument and Jim pulls his pocketknife. But he's so wasted he can barely totter 10 steps to urinate next to a trash bin. 8 P.M.
Shooting dice for dimes and sharing a 40-ounce bottle of Cobra still in its paper bag, the sweat-suit-clad youths hustle passers-by for change, then hustle each other when it's time to make the next beer run to the Minit Mart across the street.
Derek wants to pick up some LSD he's been promised and heads two blocks west to an apartment where a bunch of students live. He hops their first-floor porch's wrought-iron rail, where Zonker -- obviously stoned -- is leaning back, smoking a cigarette.
Zonker says they have 100 hits and he's taken five or six that night. Derek asks about the price.
Wearing a Rip Curl surfer T-shirt, Zonker hits his head on the door as he stumbles inside, where a half-other students are spacing out in the front room. In the first bedroom on the left, he walks to a dresser with the drawers hanging open. He pulls a paper towel wad from the top drawer and fumbles till he gets it open.
"You're so (messed) up, you don't even know where you keep it!" Derek says.
The room has a poster of the heavy-metal band Anthrax, a bed on a frame and a mattress on the floor. Next to it is a can of lacquer thinner. Zonker pulls a clear-plastic film canister from the other end of the drawer. Inside are white flakes that look like cake decorations.
They're a kind of acid Zonker calls white blotter.
Derek hands him a 10-spot. Zonker reaches into his Velcro canvas wallet, jammed with 20s and 50s. He only has three ones for change.
After wadding up the 10, Derek flips it in Zonker's hand while he's making change and winds up with a 10 and two ones instead of the three ones Zonker thinks he's giving him. Zonker lurches into the next room to get the rest of the change.
"Owe me!" Derek shouts, storming out.
He says Zonker's buddies aren't going to be too happy about his acid intake: "They're supposed to be selling it, but he's eating it!" 9 P.M.
Back on The Block at the Jade Elephant, where an 18-year-old was stabbed to death in June, Ace and Bryan slap shoulders at the bar.
Ace wears long hair and drinks Bud draft. Bryan likes his blond hair shorter, his Bud bottled and his 9mm Smith & Wesson semiautomatic loaded.
"Seven rounds in the clip," he says. "One in the chamber.
"About two years ago, I was walking down the (Grace Street) sidewalk and this guy pulls a .357 Python (revolver) and tells me to get out of the way. Man, I got out of the way.
"The next day I went out and bought me a 9-millimeter."
Down The Block, Mary Erdman and Jody Morrissey are in the Village Cafe doing what they call the Idiot Walk: You walk through, craning your neck for people you know. You spot some friends but no spaces are left so you just say, "Hey, how are you?" and leave.
The two 25-year-old teachers can't afford the $8 cover to see Scraping Foetus off the Wheel, the "industrial" rock band (it sounds like a factory) at Twisters, so they do what they usually do when they come down to Grace Street: Hang out and watch.
The VCU graduates say you don't have to spend any money to have fun on Grace Street: Lots of people on the sidewalk are too young to drink, anyway.
Darren, who tried to go out with Mary, starts locking his bike to a sign across from Newgate Prison.
"Nice bike chain," Jody says flirtaciously.
"It works," Darren says brusquely, heading to Newgate. 10 P.M.
Newgate co-owner Buddy Waymack is one of Grace Street's survivors: He opened Scotland Yard next door a dozen years ago, but the $450 cherry booths were thrashed by youngsters carving and snuffing cigarettes. So seven years ago he shuttered it and opened the warehouselike Newgate, which has picnic tables, a concrete floor and brick walls.
As Darren goes in, Stressed -- a speed-metal band of Richmond suburbanites -- is the warm-up group.
Frustrated is playing tomorrow.
During Stressed's final number, "Abolish Greed," black-T-shirted 18-to- 23-year-old males slam-dance down front.
Homeless women lying on the street, their arms open wide.
Patrons of the shops, they see them. Then they run and hide.
They start moshing, a stepping-skipping motion, then link arms for the circular Toxic Waltz.
Catty-corner from The Block, a man in a Harley-Davidson tank top collects the $3 cover from the mostly blue-collar crowd at the Greca, where women gyrate on stage in thong bathing suits and less. The sign outside says: "Now- Open: T&A-Grill. Daily Sandwich Specials."
The one in the lime bikini bottom has a rose tattoo on the front of her thigh. The one in red has a Playboy bunny on her left bun.
Down the street, Delmer Christman -- face scarred and eyes red -- is high on Cobra malt. Timothy Dirr is high on Jesus. They face off on the concrete wall in front of Bohannon's Records & Tapes.
"I love you!" shouts Dirr.
"I love you!" Christman slurs. "Hey, how do you know you love me?"
"Because Jesus Christ loves everyone!" Dirr answers.
About 25 born-again Christians from New Hope for Richmond, Bethany Place Baptist and other churches dance, sing and speak in tongues on the sidewalk across the street from the Jade Elephant.
The Jade's patio is crowded with rock `n' rollers checking out the high- stepping Christians. "Yell at them mother-(deleted)," urges one long- haired man.
"I got set free from cocaine!" evangelist Gwen Scherrer practically yells.
"I got set free from alcohol," says another.
"I was perfect and got set free from it," chimes in another voice. They burst out laughing.
"It's Jesus night!" Don Riggins proclaims. "You're going to see more and more of God's people down here, now."
Now they're smack in front of the marquee for the Lee Art's XXX-rated movies ($6 admission; popcorn and videotapes available).
Drew Heiss, a 28-year-old who says he quit his job as a bank computer programmer to "live for Jesus and save babies," blows a ram horn: "OOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
An angry young man wearing a T-shirt that says "I am a hard volume experience" shouts over at the Christians: "(Deleted) Jesus!" 1 A.M.
' ' Yo, Slim! I got the (marijuana) buds," says a blue-jacketed man in his 30s with gold-capped teeth. "$40 a quarter." With a quarter-ounce of marijuana in his left hand, he walks east on Grace.
Up at Grace and Allen -- across from the notorious 1800 block -- Michelle asks passers-by who slow down: "You dating?"
About eight prostitutes -- some of them males gussied up as queens -- strut outside the Martin Agency, Virginia's largest advertising firm. Men who watch over them sound the "blue-and-white" alarm when a police cruiser's nearby.
Michelle, who works in a sewing factory during the day, charges $20 for oral sex; $50 gets you "the works," but the price drops $10 if she dates you regularly. She tells johns to drive her to her Fan District apartment, where she feels safer than if they picked the destination.
The chunky, soft-spoken Michelle says customers try to make sure she has a good time, too: "They do things to try to motivate me, but for me it's just the money."
She doesn't mind the older ones: "They have the most money -- and they're the easiest." 2 A.M.
Angry words from inside Melissa's Inn spill onto the sidewalk at Grace and Harrison. There's bad blood between a leather-wearing man and a denim-clad, long-haired man. A woman sparked the feud.
Leather pulls a knife, holds it behind his back. Ready.
The police zip in, break it up. The knife disappears like a shadow and Leather wisely shuts up.
Not Denim. "He kept mouthing off," says police Sgt. William B. Stewart, who charges Robert F. Smith of Henrico County with being drunk in public.
A man who saw Leather pull the knife protests that the wrong man is being arrested, but Stewart has made his decision.
"We've got to put an end to this mess somehow," he says.
Two young hippies, one wearing tie-dye and the other sporting a Volkswagen bus T-shirt, buy a bag of marijuana from the blue-jacketed man in the alley behind the VaPark lot. They're not sure if they've been ripped off.
"Let's unroll the bag under the light," one says as they walk under the light by the College Station coin laundry.
"Sheez," the other says as he rubs his finger through the contents. "Looks like some hay a horse would eat. I told him straight up -- if it's no good, I'm coming back with a Smith & Wesson."
They drift into the alley to test their purchase.
Two blocks away on Broad Street, Darrick and Darrell Etienne win the open- mike rap showdown at the Tropicana, a no-alcohol club that caters to young blacks. The 16-year-old twins rock the house with a rap about starting out low and making it to the top.
Outside the Tropicana, a white man walks past the blacks milling around.
"Hey, man, you don't belong here," one says with a scowl.
A smile crosses his face.
Just teasing -- maybe.
3 A.M., 4 A.M.
At 3:15, another Darren walks up The Block clutching a plastic Super Fresh bag.
"Need a stereo for your car?" he asks, unwrapping a knobless radio- cassette player. "Twenty bucks. It's a Sony! Auto-reverse, programmable . . ."
You got anything in CD?
"Not right now," the 24-year-old says.
Grace is so littered that Ace Daniels, owner of the nearby Way Cool tattoo parlor, has a special command when his 100-pound Tibetan mastiff, Louie, starts snarfing up the debris: "Spit!"
Dirt Woman sits on his front porch, wearing a dress shirt with somebody else's monogram and the middle button open.
"Get a job!" he shouts at vagrants.
Drunk youths get in each others' faces, holler, act tough, then separate, usually one calling over his shoulder about the other's attitude problem.
A black guy walks up to two white guys outside the Minit Mart, then follows them across the street and a way down the block to their pickup. He's promised to either sell them drugs or act as a courier. He takes their money, apparently telling them he has to go across to the market's parking lot to get the stuff.
He takes off down the alley, the two buyers huffing behind him. He leaves them in the dust and they screech away. They cruise by later in their fruitless quest for the crook.
The self-proclaimed Richmond Queens are holding court outside the Martin Agency, sporting pads, purses and wigs to make customers believe -- or fantasize -- that they're females.
Stephanie -- a man dolled up in bronze-glow makeup, violet minidress, and earrings with busts of an Egyptian queen and dollar signs dangling -- spends half her trick money on clothes and makeup.
Shinobi isn't working tonight, so he's "butch" -- T-shirt, sneakers and striped shorts. Popular drag queen names come from characters in "Dynasty" and soap operas. Alexis, Fallon . . .
The transvestites, who carefully practice their prissy gait, say many customers never find out they're with a guy. Most others have figured it out or don't care. The queens say there's no sure way to tell by looking: They demonstrated that the old wives' tale about an Adam's apple giving away a male isn't foolproof.
The girls' rates start at $20 for oral sex. They snicker at the queens in other parts of town who'll satisfy customers for $5.
"God knows, foundations cost $14 at Thalhimers!" Shasha says with an exaggerated drawl-lisp. "Five dollars isn't going to do anything for me!" 6 A.M.
At 6:35, Robert Smith, who had the knife pulled on him outside Melissa's, is released from the Richmond lockup with the night's other accused drunks.
As he trudges across downtown to his car on Grace, all he can think about is a cigarette.
Smith, a 27-year-old truck driver for a glass company, says the fight started because the dude with the knife stole his car a few weeks ago, claiming Smith's girlfriend said it was OK.
"If I'd known I was going to jail, I would've hit the boy."