Jazz, gospel and zydeco music infused downtown with rhythm Sunday, while works of art and plants of every color sprinkled the Community Green Space in the Iron Triangle. Matthew Kenya George, almost two years old, clapped his hands and tottered around the dance floor while audience members raised their arms and sang along with the gospel music.
The second annual Spirit and Soul Festival offered music, raffles, wine tasting, and food prepared by Contra Costa College culinary students. The festival is a fundraiser for the Richmond Main Street Initiative, a non-profit corporation devoted to invigorating the downtown area along Macdonald Avenue from 8th Street to 19th.
Festival organizers chose the downtown venue this year so people attending could see the progress of revitalization efforts. In the past two years the Richmond Redevelopment Agency has completed a Streetscape project on eight blocks of Macdonald Avenue, installing new street lamps, crosswalks, benches, and median strips.
Streetscape was one of several projects intended to improve pedestrian safety and visual appeal downtown. Another project called “Site-Seeing: Art in Windows & Workspaces,” features public art in vacant storefronts and empty spaces along MacDonald Avenue.
The Richmond Main Street Initiative also runs a four-week job-training program for youth. The Youth Entrepreneur Program placed ten Richmond adolescents into businesses along Macdonald Avenue this past summer. Amanda Elliott, Executive Director for Richmond Main Street said that with the money from Sunday’s festival, she hopes to expand the program to run all year.
Plans for the Richmond Main Street Initiative began a decade ago, said program coordinator Anyka Barber, as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Movement. The national program’s goal is to restore historically significant sites in order to re-connect citizens with the vibrant history of their communities.
Richmond’s once-flourishing downtown began to lose business in the early 1970s when stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney’s—popular stores that were major employers in Richmond—moved their businesses from downtown to Hilltop Mall. Many small businesses followed the larger stores to Hilltop, leaving residents with fewer reasons to shop downtown and often a longer trip to retailers. After they moved, a number of the small businesses closed as a result of the new competition and high rent.
“We had the Hilltop Mall created on the outskirts of town and that’s what caused some of the merchants to go under. You know, that’s going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, and so downtown never resurged,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.
Singer Paul Foster, Jr. attended the festival Sunday with his gospel quartet, Consonance. Foster, 64, remembers being a student at Richmond High School, when he and his friends would hang out at what they called “the main.” They would show off their suped-up cars and walk with their girlfriends at night under glowing streetlights.
“This is where everything was together: the black, the white, the Spanish. It was really unity then,” Foster said. “If I could say ‘abracadabra’ and go back to that it would be beautiful.”
Many residents Sunday voiced optimism about the changes and the possibilities for more. “When it’s a new beginning you can do what you like and make it grow.” said festival volunteer Deborah Walker. “This is a new beginning.”
The afternoon carried on and the sun began to peek through the clouds, inviting people to rise to their feet and sway to the music. Finally the caterers put away the food, musicians packed up, and attendees trickled out of the festival.