Local history seen through the eyes of RVA businesses

There was a time not long ago when traffic lights on Monument Avenue would blink yellow at night because there was so little traffic. Yeah, things have changed ’round here.

R.E. Watkinson remembers a time in The Fan when cars could park on both sides of Lombardy Street. Owner of Lombardy Market, Watkinson has seen The Fan change from a “sleepy little neighborhood” into a “vibrant” area for students and families.1

“VCU has sort of made this area and neighborhood,” Watkinson said one morning behind the counter of the 201 N. Lombardy market he’s owned since 1981. “It’s completely transformed this neighborhood.”

Take for instance the apartment building across the street. When he was younger, Watkinson remembers roughly seven families with children living in the building. Back then, Lombardy Market was more of a traditional neighborhood grocer. Now VCU students fill most of the apartments, and Lombardy Market has turned into a small sandwich and convenience store.

Watkinson knows better than most how VCU’s growth over the past decades has slowly turned the Lower Fan into a student Mecca. Watkinson was a VCU student in the early 1970s after returning from Vietnam. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to school if it hadn’t been for VCU,” he said.

One difference between 1970s VCU students and the Rams of today is money. Watkinson recalled how he and his fellow VCU students of the 70s seldom had cars and money to spend on electronics. Now, he sees VCU students driving cars and carrying iPods and touchscreen phones. They’re also patronizing Lombardy Market for craft beer. “I think 30 years ago, we were never attuned to that,” Watkinson said.

That’s not sour grapes. Watkinson enjoys the presence of students in the block surrounding his market. “It’s good. It’s good for the community and good for the city,” he said.

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Just a few blocks away, on Main Street, is Rostov’s Coffee & Tea. The store moved to The Fan in 2006, although friends of the business’ owner weren’t sure why it was moving to the new location. “There really was no landmark,” said owner Tammy Rostov, recalling the difficulty she had describing the location for her friends. “This block was always boarded up warehouses.”

Years ago, the 1600 block of W. Main Street housed a horse stable for the Richmond Police. Later, soda moved in. “This is where Pepsi-Cola used to bottle its soda in Richmond,” Rostov said. Once surrounded by vacant buildings, Rostov’s now has other businesses to keep it company: Bombolini, Home Team Grill, Trolley Market, and the recently opened Refuge For Men salon. “It’s nice to have a neighborhood…it’s good to know other businesses want to come in,” she said.

Some of Tammy Rostov’s youngest Richmond memories are of Carytown. In 1979, her father, Jay, opened Rostov’s along W. Cary Street. “My dad thought it would be fun to put me in a sandwich board and walk me up Cary Street,” Rostov said. However, she didn’t dare cross beyond Cary Court because many of the buildings that lay beyond were boarded up and “scary.”

Rostov attributes the growth of Carytown, the 1600 block of W. Main Street, and Richmond as a whole to Richmonders. “I think Richmond’s been lucky in that the people who live in the Richmond love the city,” she said. She recalled being young noticing the traffic lights along Monument street would merely blink yellow at night. “There was no reason to have traffic lights out there because there was no traffic,” Rostov said. “Richmond has really grown up and come into its own.”

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One man says Richmond’s growth has been in a certain direction.

“It’s grown westward,” said Rick Poole, General Manager of The Tobacco Company. “There’s been a substantial growth toward the West End of Richmond.” That contrasts with when Richmond’s downtown, anchored by the old Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhoades department stores, was the epicenter of city commerce.

Poole arrived in Richmond several years after The Tobacco Company opened downtown. “Our restaurant has been a staple here since 1977,” Poole said. His arrival coincided with a “substantial business boom in the 80s right around 7th to 9th streets where the James Center is,” he said. “The Tobacco Company and Sam Miller’s actually spearhead the revitalization.”

Poole thinks the westward expansion is a good thing. “I think it’s allowed all of Richmond to shine.” He’s not worried that the westerly expansion will hurt the city’s downtown, where The Tobacco Company is located. “The significance of the historical element of downtown Richmond is quite distinct and different,” he said.

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Not far from Richmond’s downtown is The Jefferson Hotel, which opened in 1895. It’s definitely seen a lot of Richmond history pass by.

“Economic conditions, social norms, business climates, and technology have changed dramatically over the course of the nearly 12 decades of the hotel’s history, but one thing has never changed–the community’s support of The Jefferson Hotel,” said Joseph Longo, the hotel’s managing director.

“From the very beginning, The Jefferson was the place to host the most important business meetings, social gatherings, weddings, and life’s milestone events,” he said. “In the 30s and 40s, Richmonders would bring baby alligators to live in the pools in the Palm Court. In the 70s, as the hotel fell into decline, Richmonders came to live as permanent residents in many of the hotel’s vacant rooms and small businesses moved into the spaces off the Rotunda lobby. And then in the 80s, it was members of the community that banded together to save the hotel and helped facilitate its renovation and reopening.”

VCU expansion hasn’t gone unnoticed at the hotel. “In the 15 years since I have been at The Jefferson, our neighborhood has changed significantly with the expansion of the VCU campus across Belvidere,” Longo said.

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Maynee Cayton isn’t particularly fond of VCU’s expansion. The owner of Bygone’s in Carytown, Cayton came to Richmond in the late 1960s to attend VCU. Part of what drew her were the old buildings and brick and cobblestone walkways. One negative change she’s noticed is how VCU has razed many relics of Richmond’s architectural history. “They’re not very good at integrating what made VCU unique,” Cayton said. “It’s starting to look like Everywhere, USA.”

But she believes that some VCU teachers and students sill embrace the counter-culture mindset that she loved in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Instead of long hair and bell bottoms, it’s tattoos and piercings,” she said.

When asked what changes in Richmond she’s most noticed over the years, she first mentioned improved race relations, then said “restaurants and food availability.”

Cayton opened Bygone’s in Carytown in 1979, the same year that Jay Rostov’s opened his coffee shop. “When I moved into Carytown, the restaurant that stayed open the latest closed at 8:30 PM.”

Carytown in the late 1970s wasn’t anything like it is now. “There was a lot of empty space,” Cayton said. “It was a good time to get in.” She said that Carytown has since become a “real destination,” an important mile-long stretch of singularity when “everything else in the country is so homogenized,” she said.

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Long before the era of long hair and bell bottoms during which Cayton attended VCU, the Byrd Theatre was already a Richmond fixture. The theater was built in 1928, about the time sound was revolutionizing motion pictures.

“The beginning of the sound age was the beginning…of the popularity of motion pictures nationwide,” said Todd Schall-Vess, general manager of the theater. With television to come decades later, many of the Byrd’s first theatergoers bought tickets to see both movies and rare news reel footage. Back then, the theater was “more of an all-encompassing media,” Schall-Vess said.

Although not around when the Byrd opened, Schall-Vess has nonetheless seen the neighborhood evolve over the years. “The character of Carytown has certainly changed,” he said. It was more “mixed residential” than the business-centric stretch it now is.

Schall-Vess thinks Richmond has sometimes been hesitant to embrace the present and future when it’s perceived to be at odds with preserving its history. “We’re reluctant to let go of the past,” he said. “Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes you need to move forward.”

He said the Byrd Theatre remains vital despite the existence of cineplexes, Netflix, and Redbox. “The Byrd has continued to be a really active part of the community,” Schall-Vess said. It’s done so by hosting fundraisers and film festivals, and remaining an inexpensive option for filmgoers of all ages. “It’s not a museum relic…it still is a functioning movie theater today,” Schall-Vess said. “We still have the Wurlitzer Organ. We still have 35mm projectors…sitting side-by-side with our digital projector and server,” he said.

He believes the Byrd is emblematic of how Richmond should continue embracing the future without losing its historical appreciation. “It has a sound sense of its own history. It knows where it’s been, but it also knows that it needs to remain vital.”

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  1. Watkinson believes the reputability of Fox Elementary has gone a long way in keeping many families in The Fan. 

photo by Madison Price

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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