HOLMBERG: Once infamous market now anchoring reborn Church Hill neighborhood

Posted at 11:52 PM, Aug 14, 2012
and last updated 2012-08-16 06:09:09-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--Inner-city markets have long been criticized for not giving customers healthy, fresh foods. In Richmond, more than a few also serve as hangout spots where trouble can brew.

So it was with the Chimborazo Market on Chimborazo Boulevard on the northern edge of Church Hill, a grocery store that has not only transformed itself, but has played a role in revitalizing one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

The pay phones on the corner have been cut off at their metal stalks. Back in the day, they were used by drug dealers conducting their business and terrorizing the neighborhood.

 “It was rough, a lot of drug-dealing, a lot of crime,” said one longtime resident.

A year ago, on August 14th,  25-year-old John Winston was shot to death in front of the Chimborazo Market during a street robbery.

It was an unusual incident in this neighborhood that was once haunted by this kind of violence a generation ago.

Drug-related bloodshed was once so common here, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Virginia State Police were brought in to try and turn it around a decade ago.

Wai Cho, owner of the Chimbo Market, had felt the violence first hand that  was punishing the whole city back then. His wife had been murdered at the family grocery store she ran on Hull Street in  2002. That market was sold, but Cho dug in on Chimborazo Boulevard.

“It was pretty tough,” said longtime cashier Stacy Williams.

And oh-so slowly, the neighborhood came back to life.

“Now, you can see for yourself,” Williams said as she worked happily at the front of the store.

The whole block in front of the market has been redeveloped. The apartments behind were refurbished.

And the Chimborazo Market evolved into a complete inner city grocery, with fresh fruits, vegetables, freshly butchered meat and what customers say are the lowest prices in metro Richmond.

“Very slow process,” Wai Cho said. “Day by day.”

Loyal customers come from throughout the area, like Rose Fountain, who used to live in the neighborhood and can’t believe how much it, and the grocery, has changed.

“It’s much bigger, much better,” Fountain said. “I live over on Chamberlayne now and still come over to (buy) groceries over here.”

Ned Haley and his wife bought the large home next door to the market, something that would’ve been considered mighty risky just a few years ago.

 “He works like crazy,” Haley said of Cho. “He put cameras in . . . he makes sure the place is cleaned up every morning before he opens. Grafitti gets on the side of his building, it’s almost always gone before the end of that workday.”

There’s an off-duty or retired officer on the site. Panhandlers and other hangers-on know not to step foot on the parking lot.

What has happened in this once famously sketchy neighborhood is proof of what can happen when residents, business owners and police team up, said Richmond police Lt. Daniel Minton.

 “You look now at the storefront,” Minton said, “the parking lot is clean. Look around the neighborhood, the streets are clean, the sidewalks are clean. Take a look at the houses, people are taking pride in the neighborhood. And that pride doesn’t just come from the citizens, it comes from the store owners like you see here.”