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.