HOLMBERG: Creative class in Richmond getting priced out of the city

Posted at 1:04 AM, Mar 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-07 01:04:39-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- For generations, the creative class – artists, musicians and artisans – have played a vital role in Richmond’s revitalization and retention of many of its historic properties.

You’ve probably heard the stories about the artists and musicians (like GWAR) who filled up derelict warehouses, factories and other buildings like the Richmond Dairy in Jackson Ward, or countless others like it in Shockoe Bottom, the Fan, Carver, Scott’s Addition, Midtown and, more recently, Manchester in South Richmond.

It goes like this: A business district like Shockoe Bottom fails (in that case because of floods, shifts in the tobacco business and because the port moved downriver to deeper water for the new, larger freighters.)

The big industrial buildings become vacant. Maintenance stops. Owners, desperate to keep them from completely falling down, allow the creative class to move in cheap (or squat even), knowing that the artists, musicians, carpenters, welders, sheetrockers and fabricators will keep most of the rats away (four-and two-legged), keep the lights and heat on (pretty much) and kind of hold down the fort until conditions change and there’s hope for new usage.

Which is why, 20 years ago, we could go into a huge building on West Broad (now the Coliseum Lofts) and listen to 20 different bands practice in their individual studios. Or, visit a whole giant den of artists on East Grace Street in Shockoe Bottom. Or, see bands from around the world play in a 100-year-old alley garage on East Marshall Street.

But once that economic shift happens and property values go up again, the creative class gets the boot and moves onto the next ghostly neighborhood.

But Richmond’s revitalization is so complete, we’re running out of them.

One of the last run-down artists’ paradise has been South Richmond’s Manchester district and points south. A whole art scene has been built up there.

“About as cheap as it’s going to get in the city right here,” said “Skillet” from his metal fabrication shop on Semmes Avenue, right beside the big corporate complex that has grown to include SunTrust and FedEx high rises.

His place is one of a handful in that rapidly developing little corner of the city. Big blocks of condos are going up like window shades, metaphorically blocking the sunshine in this oasis of creative warmth.

And Skillet should know. He’s been in all kinds of garages and warehouses all over this city during the past 30 years. He was the anarchist auto mechanic would could land a big building and fill it with creative friends.

Friday evening, he and a friend walked across Semmes to visit a young couple occupying an old building that looks like it’s stuck in a time warp. It’s old and homey, with wood sides. There’s an old bus and a boat parked in the yard, and lots of the stuff that signals creative-class occupancy.

It’s Small Axe Forge, the dream of metalsmiths Byron and Kalita Pennington. (Watch the video. It’s cool.)

They have been watching the rapid development of their neighborhood with a sense of dread.

“I guess we’re one of the last holdouts,” Kalita said.

Their rent remains cheap enough for them to be able to stay there and chase their dream of custom fabrication and organic living. “There’s freedom with running things on a shoestring for sure,” Byron said.

But a developer has bought the property, which is now worth millions. “We’re worried we’ll be priced out of Manchester,” Byron said.

“Any of the places we look at that are available now are just crazy” as far as rent, Kalita added.

Skillet has seen it before. “These apartment complexes are sprouting like weeds,” he said. “There’s a developer that’s bought this entire neighborhood here. I’m sure he has grand plans.”

We talk about the next frontiers. A lot of their friends are moving to Petersburg. The Penningtons are considering maybe Goochland.

Maybe (and ironically), they said, some of the older strip malls in the early suburbs of Richmond might eventually become cheap landing places for creative urban pioneers.

“It’s been a fun spot to be in,” Byron said of their artistically crowded digs on Manchester. “It’ll be an adventure to see where we go next.’