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Natasha Vinakor (center) sambas her way down MacDonald Avenue at the Spirit and Soul Festival. (Photo by Brittany Kirstin)

Spirit and Soul festival aims to revive downtown

on September 23, 2015

There was dancing in the streets in Richmond on Saturday.

The seventh annual Spirit and Soul Festival filled downtown with the rhythmic beats of jazz musicians and the enticing smells of fried chicken and barbecue.  Put on by the Richmond Main Street Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to reinvigorate the downtown, the festival drew about 800 people this year–and there would have been more, organizers insisted, were it not for the sizzling heat.

Organizers said the event is one way Richmond is trying to end unfair preconceptions about the city and its culture, particularly the urban core.

“Our mission is to revitalize historic downtown Richmond,” said Alicia Gallo, community outreach coordinator for the initiative.

The festival has become an end-of-summer staple in downtown. It includes the final performance in the Music on the Main summer concert series. The street fair also included sales of works by local artists, a raffle and silent auction, food trucks and wine tasting.

Backers hope to drive new commercial life into what has long been perceived as an abandoned region with virtually no retail activity. On Saturday, local artisans played the role of business pioneer, selling their wares to a bustling crowd.

As the music played, Jean Graham, a Richmond jewelry maker, sold her latest creations, holding a mirror while passersby tried out different pieces. She sold a pair of hand-made earrings for $8, and then stopped to make a point about the value of community solidarity.

“Everyone comes as one–that’s what I like,” Graham said.

While bands were setting up in between acts, Amanda Elliott, the executive director of the Main Street nonprofit, gave “Downtown Champions Awards” to City Manager Bill Lindsay; Andrea Bailey, a community outreach employee for Chevron Corp.; veteran Richmond volunteer Andromeda Brooks; and Najari Smith, executive director of Rich City Rides, a nonprofit group which operates a bike shop.

Diane Foster and her husband, Peter Hannigan, came from Alameda, attracted by the wine and music. They went home with a dramatically changed view of the city and said they might come back next year.

“It was just fun to come and explore the culture and work of the revitalization of Richmond,” Foster said.

Musicians took the stage throughout the afternoon. The Kenya Baker Trio played blues-tinged jazz, Nicole “Buttah” Pearson and the Buttaluv Band followed with R&B, and Samba Funk ended with a big dance number.

Dancers bedecked in sparkling purple and gold came marching down MacDonald Avenue. As the band kicked it up a notch, it wasn’t long before much of the audience joined in.

Janet Johnson, a volunteer at the event for 15 years who also works for the City of Richmond, said people are feeling much better these days coming downtown, and recent surveys are beginning to back her up.

“What Main Street is doing is actually highlighting what downtown is,” Johnson said.  “We’re still working on bringing businesses downtown, and that’s coming as well.”

“For people to start to come back before the businesses come back is really big, so when the businesses get here they’ll already be familiar with the area,” she said.

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