A man wearing sunglasses and an apron splattered and smeared with multicolored paint, set up a nearly 8-foot-tall wall, then laid out a vivid spectrum of acrylic paints. Soon, everyone from kids to middle-aged folks converged on this “mobile art wall,” to doodle things like flowers and smiley faces. The diversity of aspiring artists at the wall was representative of the annual Spirit & Soul Festival, where all ages and races came together in the downtown Richmond sunshine.
Alicia Gallo of Richmond Main Street Initiative (RMSI), a nonprofit with the mission to create a “robust and thriving community,” according to it’s website, organized the festival, which took place on the September 16th. With some 200 people turning out, it was one of Richmond’s larger events, comparable to the Juneteenth Parade and Festival.
Gallo said the group is working with Richmond’s residents to upend negative stereotypes that can dissuade businesses from planting roots in the city. “The perception of Richmond is that it’s a dangerous place, that it’s not a safe place, that it’s a dirty place, that it’s a very poor place,” She said while scanning the crowd. “There’s a lot of beauty down here.”
Apparently, her group’s efforts are working. During the festival, an excited Cheryl Catera handed out flyers with a smile while promoting her forthcoming coffee shop, set to open by the end of the year, on 10th Street and Macdonald Avenue.
“I honestly just wanted to pick some place new, that was up-and-coming,” said Catera of why she plans to open in downtown Richmond. She added that the city’s reputation had little bearing on her decision.
“It just seemed like a really great place, and the community is awesome, and accepting of it, so I kind of said, ‘Why not?’” she said.
A growing number of longtime residents, however, are concerned that downtown revitalization and new development efforts are setting the table for gentrification and displacement.
For instance, music and arts events in Richmond often seem like family reunions. People run into friends that they’ve known since elementary school, and reconnect with people with whom they’ve grown up alongside.
But Spirit & Soul, while diverse, also stood out as a kind of upscale event. There was a VIP section, with tickets costing upward of $25 a person, and it featured newer local businesses such as Armistice Brewing.
Some attendees said Spirit & Soul spoke to Richmond’s uncertain future. Folks certainly enjoyed the craft beer, barbecue, and kettle corn, and the inclusion of Richmond’s many nonprofits which helped make social justice a focal point of the afternoon.
Spirit & Soul served the older generation, but also featured lots of performers in their teens and early-twenties. There was a “Youth Zone,” or “The Love and Happiness Stage,” as the emcee affectionately nick-named it. Organized by community mentors and artists, the stage was a platform for young people to showcase their unique talents, including everything from group performances to a solo Hula-Hoop act.
“It’s important to have events like this to give young people something to do,” said TJ Sykes, who mentors at Richmond’s RYSE Center.
But residents remain concerned about downtown development, in addition to the newly branded Hilltop Mall (now called The Shops at Hilltop) and retail spaces near the BART station. They ask: How can Richmond’s revitalization be more inclusive?
Donnell Jones, coordinator of the Richmond Ceasefire program, which speaks out against gun violence, said the community can begin by developing “more jobs instead of housing, and develop more opportunities for our boys and girls, and men and women of color.”
When it comes to gentrification, he said there is one solution that will ensure revitalization doesn’t come to the detriment of longtime residents:
“We need to think alike, and we need to come together as a community, and address some of the issues and policies that have caused inequality in our communities,” Jones said.